stories of Zen: a parable

Number 18 of the 101 Zen stories that form the first part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, is a parable reputably due to the Buddha himself.

A monk running from a tiger climbs part way down a cliff. Below him, at the base of the cliff, is another tiger, looking up at him with hunger. Two mice start chewing the vine. The monk sees a wild strawberry growing nearby; he plucks it and eats it, savouring its sweetness.

People talk of mindfulness, of living in the moment, and this parable for me is very much a parable about the moment. The monk cannot climb up the cliff, because one tiger; cannot climb down, because of the other tiger; and cannot remain where he is, because of the mice. I’m ignoring for the moment whether tigers and mice would or wouldn’t behave this way, though this does fall into my wheelhouse of overthinking.

So. Watching the news, it’s easy to put names and faces to the tigers that are stalking me and the mice that are chewing my vine. But it’s harder, some days, to clearly identify my wild strawberry (or perhaps strawberries).

Reading is a strawberry; I love immersing myself in a book or a collection of stories, a biography or some popular science, exploring worlds existing and only imagined. But – and here comes the overthinking again – is exploring other worlds a sufficiently mindful activity? I think yes – replacing the tang of the strawberry with the sight of a sunset composed of streaks of red and orange.

Aikido is a strawberry. At present, we are only able to hold classes via Zoom, working on movement but not throwing each other or being thrown. But this regular focus on movement is an important part of my week.

But I also wonder. What are other readings of this parable, beyond this obvious one. I ask this, because I like to look for the non-obvious meanings, though looking for them is far far easier than finding them. Perhaps I need a map. Perhaps I need to learn how to take a left turn into an additional dimension. Or perhaps I’m looking for something that might not be there.

But as things stand, I have some strawberries. I see the green shoots and nascent beads of strawberries just sprouting. And as much as I can, I will try to give the tigers and mice no more attention than they deserve.

~ by Jim Anderson on 6 February 2021.

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