Encountering a little Zen Story

…and it’s permutations.

I remember, years ago, my first teacher told it like this:

“A man is walking along, and suddenly a tiger appears. It chases him till he reaches the edge of a cliff, and he ducks over the edge, clinging to a little branch. But down below wait hungry alligators. He looks up. On the branch is a single raspberry. He eats the berry. It’s sweet. That’s life.”

In Buddhism class (accompanied by a magnificent Chinese painting of the scene) our Shifu explained it like this:

“A man is walking along, and suddenly a tiger appears. (Impermanence) The man launches himself over the edge of the cliff on a vine, trying to escape. Down below in the water are three Dragons (Greed, Anger & Ignorance) waiting to eat him up: When he falls into their mouths he will surely be reborn into the world again! At the top of the vine are a black and white mouse (days & nights) that nibble away the vine! A beehive drips a bit of honey down, and the man catches it in his mouth. It’s sweet! For a moment the man is distracted from his plight…that’s life!”

Strangely enough, I recently encountered a reference to the story again…in Jeffrey Eugenides latest novel, The Marriage Plot. Eugenides mentioned that Leo Tolstoy quoted a version of it in Chapter IV of his “Confession.” Tolstoy refers to it as an “Eastern fable.”

Now, what does this story teach us? See the truth now, while we are alive. Time flies! But time and attachment are in the mind. Impermanence can be transmuted into wisdom. Greed, anger and ignorance can be transmuted into non-attachment, compassion and awareness. (That’s what I get out of it anyhow.)

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