The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”
Stories such as these, which are intricately woven with metaphor, contain many layers of understanding, which present themselves at whatever level the reader is ready to understand. Which is why many students of Zen have attained satori (become enlightened) after reflecting on parables like the one you have just read. “Instruction by metaphor does not depend primarily on rationally determined logical thinking nor on empirically objective checking of perceptual data. Instead, knowing metaphorically implies grasping a situation intuitively, in its many interplays of multiple meanings, from the concrete to the symbolic” – Sheldon B, Kopp. Interpretations are as many in number as there are readers who interpret, and can range anywhere from ‘strawberries are delicious’ to ‘the tiger represents repressed sexual desires’, or even ‘live life in the present’ – no interpretation is better than the other; they are all equally valid in the sense that that is what the story said to the reader when they read it, and there lies the beauty of the teaching power of a metaphor. With this in mind, I will share my interpretation.
Death is imminent for the Zen Master, just as death is imminent for every human being born into this world; it doesn’t matter whether it is death by tiger, death by rocks, or death by natural causes, it is all the same death, all paths eventually lead to destruction of the body, and release of the spirit. The white and black mouse gnawing at the vine, seems to suggest this also, as they are inserted into the story to conjure the image of yin/yang, or non duality. The Zen Master understands this, and is therefore not concerned about the choice he is presented with how to end his life. He is so present, that even in his dying moment he is not thinking about the future (how he will die), nor is he thinking about the past (regrets such as taking x instead of y path on his walk), instead he remains fully in the now and enjoys a sweet strawberry before he inevitably perishes. In doing this he allows himself a chance to die without attachment to the process of dying; he zigzags and evades the root of human suffering, and is rewarded by dying in a state of contentment.
We are born to prepare for death, and so it is useful to reflect on how one would handle the situation of the tiger and the cliff. The Zen Master becomes the perfect example of how to live the middle way prescribed by The Buddha: if we allow ourselves to drop the burden of the past and the future, which have suffering built into their impermanent and illusory nature, and instead learn to embrace the present… then we may live happily and taste the sweet fruits that are presented to us in every single moment. Even in highly charged situation such as the situation the Zen Master found himself in, the present moment offers it’s nectar to those who open their awareness to it – how many of us would notice a (metaphoric or real) strawberry in our dying moments, hanging off a cliff ? The only thing we would notice is our fear of death and our desire to survive. If you are angry, then you embody anger, you become anger, same with sadness, and happiness, and every emotion under the sun. If you die with suffering in your heart, then that is it, game over – you die suffering. This is how most of us live our daily lives, in suffering. In fear and desire of both the past and the future. We either regret the past, or we long for our return to better times, or we fear the future, or long for it’s arrival. Sweetness can be found in every situation, if you bring yourself into the present, you will find your life’s strawberry, and it will be delicious.