A ancient Zen story ripe for 2020.

    Jul 25, 2020


“The Royal Tiger” by Eugène Delacroix. Pen and brown ink, and watercolor, over graphite. The Morgan Library & Museum. (photo: public domain)

The Tiger and the Strawberry


The following ancient story- known as a “Koan”- from the Zen Buddhist faith tradition offers a useful insight into 2020.

Once upon a time, as a man was walking through a forest, he saw a tiger peering out at him from the underbrush. As the man turned to run, he heard the tiger spring after him to give chase.

Barely ahead of the tiger, running for his life, our hero came to the edge of a steep cliff. Clinging onto a strong vine, the man climbed over the cliff edge just as the tiger was about to pounce.

Hanging over the side of the cliff, with the hungry tiger pacing above him, the man looked down and was dismayed to see another tiger, stalking the ravine far below. Just then, a tiny mouse darted out from a crack in the cliff face above him and began to gnaw at the vine.

At that precise moment, the man noticed a patch of wild strawberries growing from a clump of earth near where he dangled. Reaching out, he plucked one. It was plump, and perfectly ripe; warmed by the sunshine.

He popped the strawberry into his mouth. It was perfectly delicious. The End.

Now, most of us don’t like this story. Indeed, even devout students of Zen Buddhism struggle with this teaching and its meaning.

Most particularly in societies heavily influenced by Hollywood, modern tastes generally run more toward the happy ending. We want the mouse to speak, perhaps offer to save the man in some magical bargain. We want the strawberry to transform the man into a bird who flies away to safety.

Of course, that’s all nonsense. Fairy tales that can’t help us in 2020.

But most of all, we just can’t stand the ending of, “The Tiger and the Strawberry.” The most burning question is left unanswered, dangling: What happens to the man?

Except, we already know what happens to the man. Of course we do.

He dies.

That he dies relishing his last moments on earth is one of the possible morals of the story, if indeed Zen Buddhist Koans can be said to have anything as straightforward or unambiguous.

The man’s situation, with tigers menacing him from all sides, hanging on for dear life from one moment to the next, is our reality.

In reality, in 2020, we control nothing. We are currently clinging to a massive ball of molten iron and shifting tectonic plates. Any “stillness” you might feel is a helpful hallucination provided by your human brain.

In reality, all of us are hurtling through space on a giant mass held together by poorly understood physics. The very fact that we exist at all is as close to a statistical impossibility as anything you can imagine. Add natural disasters, war, and the impending heat death of the universe and a sense of what a miracle we are begins to emerge.

We really shouldn’t be here at all.

Considering that we are here, and considering that we really won’t be around all that long, even if we die of extreme old age, should instill a profound sense of appreciation for the present moment.

There is no staying off that cliff; there is no avoiding those tigers forever. The mouse of inexorable time is chewing away at our lifeline moment by moment. The only choice is whether or not we will notice, eat and enjoy the strawberry. Because whether we enjoy or ignore it, we’re still getting eaten by that tiger.

The surety of this knowledge gets away from us. We get too busy anticipating the uncertainties of tomorrow and lamenting the shortcomings of yesterday. In the present moment, the knowledge that such moments are not infinite, and that no additional moments are promised, is with us.

Getting too caught up in celebration, or despair, can cause us to lose sight of the fleeting nature of our lives, and the importance of savoring each present moment to the fullest.

“Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.” — Pema Chodron

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)