Tuesday, May 12, 2015


There’s a story about the human condition that is quite well-known that goes like this:

A woman is running from some tigers that are chasing her. They are gaining on her when she comes to a cliff. She looks and sees a vine growing out from the cliff, so she climbs out onto the vine and holds on tightly. The tigers are now just above her head, pawing at the ground and sniffing the air. Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers down there as well. Just then she notices the mouse that had been there gnawing away at the vine above her head, just out of reach. She also sees a few ripe, red strawberries growing from a nearly clump of grass just within her reach. She looks up at the tigers, she looks down at the tigers, she looks at the mouse. Then, she picks the largest of the strawberries, pops it in her mouth and chews. It is lusciously delicious and she enjoys it thoroughly.

The first time I heard this story was at a yoga ashram back in the 70s, and the metaphor was made even more obvious by having two mice, one white and one black, gnawing away at the vine. Yes, day and night is eating away at our lifeline. We were born and we will die and each moment is just what it is. At the ashram, I was told that this is the human predicament, and that we commonly and foolishly ignore the reality of life and death and distract ourselves with “strawberries.” The swami said that, rather then indulge in the sensual pleasures of life, we yoga students should dedicate all our energies to getting out of this predicament. After all, for much of yoga philosophy, moksha, or “liberation,” is understood as the ceasing of reincarnation, the constant ‘wandering forth’ from life through death to life, again and again and again. 

Early buddhism, too, teaches that the point of practice is to end the cycle of rebirth. In this way, early buddhism is a world-weary, world renouncing path. This is what is behind the perennial criticism of buddhism as ‘pessimistic’ and ‘life-denying.’ Now, to be clear, the fact that early buddhism also teaches that there is indeed a transcendent state beyond the suffering of the world, and that this state can be realized should be enough to see that it is not pessimistic. But it is life and world-denying. Its "optimism" is based upon this transcendent experience outside this world.

Now, the second time I heard this story was in a zen monastery and the teacher mimed the act of reaching for the strawberry, popping it into his mouth and chewing with obvious delight. Only this time, the message conveyed to us zen students was that given our life situation, with each moment our life hanging by a thread, being caught in anxiety, resentment, bitterness, and anger prevents us from fully experiencing our life; Such reactivity keeps us from fully seeing, hearing, tasting and delighting in "just this." This might be the only moment of our life; this may be the only strawberry. Do we really want to miss it because we are anxiously focused on our existential state? Given our life situation, we can be depressed about this, or we could appreciate our life, as Maezumi Roshi would encourage.

I can see how this plays out in my own life. When I find myself caught in anger or anxiety – usually about how things are going in my life or the fears about what may happen in the future – I completely lose the reality of this moment. Please don't misunderstand; this moment may be painful, indeed. It’s not all sweetness. Some strawberries are sour. But, as difficult as it may be, when push comes to shove, I’d much rather taste that sourness completely then be swept away by mental fabrications.

All this isn’t to say we should be all polly-annish about life and the circumstances we must face. There’s a lot of oppression in this world, with lots of injustice that we must resist, fight and change. And practice can challenge us to do this while engaging in each moment with as much integrity as we can muster. And that includes tasting all the tastes life has to offer. 

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