May 24, 2023

The Tiger and the Strawberry Revisited: The Rapture of Being Alive

It seems hard to believe, but one of the best selling Zen books for all time, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, was published over 50 years ago.  

There is a chapter on Excitement, where Suzuki Roshi admonishes that Zen is not some kind of excitement but concentration on our everyday routines:

“If we become interested in some excitement…we will become completely involved in our busy life and we will be lost.  But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world, even though you are in the midst of it.  In the midst of noise and change, your mind will be quiet and stable.”  ~Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.

During the pandemic, I described how the Zen story about The Tiger and the Strawberry spoke to the role of beauty in our lives and how beauty might be more than a nice-to-have and absolutely essential for our survival.

As my meditation practice continues to evolve, deeper meanings of these Zen stories reveal themselves.  

Here is the story again:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above.Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!   —Translated by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

I now see a connection between this story and a quote by Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth that has has stayed with me for the 35 years since it first aired.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”   ~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.

One of the most interesting things about the story of the Tiger and the Strawberry is that we don’t actually know what the next moment was...what actually happened. We...and the man...are left hanging!

Maybe the mice kept gnawing, as mice are wont to do, and he fell.  And then, maybe the tigers did what tigers do, and they ate him. Or maybe the mice or the tigers got spooked by something and ran away and the guy lived out his days with a great story to tell.

Whether it was his last moment on this Earth or the first moment after a near-death experience, what we do know is that he experienced the rapture...How sweet it tasted!...that Campbell says is what we really are all looking for.

What we do know is that he felt the rapture of being alive...How sweet it tasted!...that Campbell says is what we really are all looking for.

In that same chapter about Excitement, Suzuki Roshi goes onto say, "Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual, every day routine...Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves.  It is just very plain. ...because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment."

In other words, the rapture is all around us...in the everyday:

In the routine of your life, can you see the miraculous?

Can you feel the primordial peace in the unmoving center of Life's swirl? 

Can you hear the pings of delight that come through during the strain of your brain and sinews?

Can you experience the wave-like movement of your e-motions...like a ride?

Because right there, in those everyday stolen moments, is the chance to feel the rapture...the rapture in just being alive.

 

 

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