This a re-telling of an ancient Zen Buddhist tale
A man was walking across a field when he heard a rustling in the tall grass beside him, and turned to see the hungry eyes of a large tiger staring at him. The man began to run, fear giving him greater speed and stamina than he knew he possessed. But always, just behind him, he could hear the easy breathing of the hungry tiger. Finally, the man stopped, not because his strength had failed but because he had come to the edge of a high cliff and could go no further. "I can let the tiger eat me, or take my life in my own hands and jump." The man turned and saw the tiger slowly walking toward him, licking its mouth in anticipation.
Resolved to take his own life, the man stepped to the edge of the cliff and bent his legs to jump, when he suddenly noticed a thick vine growing out of the side of the cliff, several feet from the top. Carefully, he let himself drop down the cliff face, catching hold of the vine as he slid past, and thanked God when it was strong enough to support his weight. Hanging now, the man looked up and saw the tiger's eyes peering over the edge of the cliff. It roared down at him, then began to pace back and forth along the top of the cliff. For the first time, the man looked at the vine that had saved his life. It was thick enough for him to wrap his legs around, resting his arms, and long enough that he might be able to let himself far enough down to jump safely to the ground below. And the moment he had this thought was the same moment that he saw the second tiger, pacing back and forth at the foot of the cliff, licking its mouth, and looking hungrily up at him. Well, thought the man, if my strength and the strength of the vine are great enough, perhaps I can outwit the tigers. Surely, they'll go some place else to eat when they're hungry enough. And the man prepared to settle in for a long wait. His preparations halted quickly, however, when he heard a scurrying, scratching sound close to his own face. Glancing upwards, he saw two mice, one white and one black, emerge from a small hole in the cliff. They made their way swiftly to the base of the vine, and began to gnaw through it with their small sharp teeth. There was nothing else he could do, a tiger above, a tiger below, and the vine that kept him from their jaws about to break. The man was closing his eyes to begin his prayers, when he noticed, a little to his right, a tiny patch of red colour on the face of the cliff. He reached toward it precariously, pulled, and brought his hand back beneath his eyes. There, in his palm, was a luscious, red strawberry. The man swiftly pressed the strawberry between his lips, onto his tongue, and hanging between those still visible tigers, he enjoyed the finest , juiciest, sweetest meal of his life.
The idea that the gift of life is found through experiencing the joy of the present moment is not a new concept. The faith traditions have been teaching it since the early days of human history, it is one of the great universal principles. There really is nothing new in the “New Age”
While there is something rather beautiful about this ancient Buddhist tale of the man the tigers and the strawberry, there is also something sad. In many ways it is a powerful metaphor for life. How we often only really stop and appreciate the gifts that are there when there’s nothing else to do nowhere else to turn. The tiger chasing the man could be our past, which often we are on the run from; the tiger at the bottom of cliff could be our futures which we are in fear of, the unknown, the unpredictable. The vine could be our minds which we often believe can sustain us through all that life throws at us and the mice could be that corroding thread that eats away at our rationality, our fear and anxiety...seen this way the story does indeed seem a little scary.
And yet there is the strawberry, the beautiful juicy strawberry that can be enjoyed regardless of all that is going on all around us. The problem is of course that we don’t see the fruit until the point of death or at least this man didn’t. It wasn’t until he had surrendered to his fate that he could see the strawberry and then enjoy it.
Is this what happens in life? Do we fail to enjoy its fruit because we try to overcome fear by thinking we can either out run or outwit it? Should we instead simply surrender to the reality of the life we are currently experiencing so as to fully enjoy whatever fruits are available?
Jesus (Luke 12 vv 22-31) reminds us not to worry or be anxious about life, to be like the ravens or the lilies of the field. He suggests that what we need is to have faith and to concentrate on building the Kingdom of God. But what is the kingdom of God? Where can it be found? Well it seems that it can be found by surrendering to the present moment, to the reality of the life in which we find ourselves rather than fleeing it or trying to overcome our anxiety of it with our minds. Perhaps we simply need to accept nature, life, the kingdom of God as it truly is and to trust.
Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this in the nineteenth century, he said.
“...man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Eckhart Tolle, in “The Power of Now” describes an experience he had which led him to transcend his anxiety riddled life. For him the change happened one day while listening to himself think. He realized in that moment that there was more than a single unified and separate him. There is who we are in our daily actions and then there is the part of us that witnesses what we are doing, thinking and feeling. The part of us that watches is our true self. That bears witness to what we are doing without getting trapped in it. It is not wrapped up in the past and is connected to the greater whole. Or put more simply, we are not always what we think we are.
Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” According to Tolle this is the most fundamental error of our time. It is what has set us apart from each other and the rest of creation. We “think” we are somehow separate and therefore unique; unique in our suffering, unique in our troubles, unique in our feelings, and thus utterly alone. The moment we start watching our thinking is the moment we realize there is more to existence than us and what we think. We are not all there is of beauty, love, grace, creativity, joy and peace. Well thank goodness, thank God for that.
How many of us can say that they truly give their full attention to what they are doing? Tolle claims that this is the key to happiness and peace, giving our full attention to what we are doing. When we are truly present in what we are doing we are totally at peace and we are happy, we are not in fear and we are not in anxiety. Being present is life’s gift. That’s why it is called the present. I occasionally get glimpses of this; I occasionally get a taste of this in my life. It happens when I am in the company of some people, in my personal life and also in ministry. One of the great joys of ministry are the conversations I have with people. I become totally absorbed in them at times, especially when people speak from the heart. I also experience it while singing, especially during singing meditation. Here I feel I am floating above time, here I feel I am transcending self. I can experience it in worship too. We all experience it in the activities we love, when we totally abandon ourselves to whatever it is we are doing. Tolle says we can experience it in all that we do. We can give ourselves wholeheartedly and be present in everything that we do; whether that is washing the pots or cutting the grass, or reading a book or watching children play or watching birds flying above our heads, or considering the lilies of the field.
These are the moments that we can truly experience the Divine, in the moment in the NOW. Not in the past which no longer exists; nor in the future, which is yet to come. Fear and anxiety only exist when our minds are not with our bodies in the gift of the eternal now. This is what Tolle is suggesting in our present age; this is what Jesus was teaching when he talked about building God’s Kingdom in our time and not just the time to come; this is what Emerson was teaching and this is what the Buddhist story is teaching too. There is nothing new in the “New Age”, it is an eternal truth.