The strawberry story

There’s a famous zen story that you may have heard before. It’s a very old story. I’ll put a woman in it instead of a man, just because.

A woman is running from a tiger that’s chasing her. She runs through the woods until she gets to the edge of a cliff. The tiger is still behind her, so she climbs down a vine. The tiger reaches the top of the cliff and paces back and forth, licking its chops. Midway down the cliff, hanging onto the vine, she sees another tiger below her, pacing back and forth, licking its chops. As she’s hanging there, two mice come out and start gnawing on the vine. She tries to shoo them away, but they won’t go. 

Just then she sees, growing out of the face of the cliff in front of her, a wild strawberry. She picks it and eats it. It’s delicious.

Some interpretations of the story are simply that, when your life is in danger, life never tastes sweeter. While that’s true, I think that reading entirely misses the point. This story, of course, being a Buddhist story, is about being in the moment.

The tiger at the top may represent the pain of the past, the tiger at the bottom the worries of the future; the precarious vine may symbolize the stresses of the now, and the mice signify the passage of time. In the midst of life, be present enough to notice the strawberry and enjoy its sweetness. I read one interpretation that said the answer lies in hanging on and reaching out, as the woman on the cliff hangs onto the vine and reaches out to the strawberry. I like that. But I don’t know that this story – or any zen story – is supposed to be taken as advice. It’s just an observation of the way things are.

So many of these stories, or the interpretations of them, seem to be about seeking pleasure, though. It’s a part of modern Buddhism that bugs me. So many people apparently interpret the teachings as encouragement to seek the pleasurable, strawberry-enjoying moments, as if that were the goal. It’s not a bad goal, and it’s certainly a better one than religions that teach hatred and intolerance. But one of the things that rings truest for me about Buddhism is that pleasure and pain are both illusions. Sometimes I get the feeling, from reading contemporary Buddhist articles, that people think you’re not really in the moment unless you’re feeling pleasure. I don’t get that.

As a person whose body doesn’t necessarily produce enough chemicals for feelings of happiness even when they’re warranted, I would much prefer if the story were told like this:

A woman is caught on the face of a cliff between two hungry tigers. As she’s hanging there, on the mouse-chewed vine, she notices a fossil embedded in the rock in front of her. She rubs it with her finger and examines it more closely. Hm, interesting, she thinks.

I don’t know if it matters what the thing-in-the-moment is. It would be a different story, though, if the thing noticed were something painful, say a splinter under her fingernail. Or if it were a dead pigeon, or a winning lottery ticket. I think, in order to convey what I believe the story is trying to convey, the object noticed has to be more or less emotionally neutral.

But here’s what makes me love this story: According to Thomas Cleary, D.T. Suzuki changed the ending of the story because he thought it wouldn’t appeal to westerners. In the original version, every element is there, except for one difference – the berry turns out to be deadly poison.

I love that.

What does it mean? Well, grasshopper. Maybe it means that life sucks, and then you eat a poison strawberry and you die. Or that life will kill you, whether you live it or not. Or that, when you’re stressed out, eating for comfort is a bad idea.

Or maybe it means that taking refuge in sensual experience is an illusion.

Or even more simply: don’t get distracted.

It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I don’t mean the American “keep your eye on the ball” thing. Maybe “don’t be seduced by illusion” comes closer. That’s how it is with a koan, and all these zen stories are koans, stories or questions meant to provoke an awakening. There is no correct response, apart from that.

15 Responses to “The strawberry story”

  1. bea lilly Says:

    oh stop w the puritanical american anti pleasure or too much pleasure thing. its about being in the moment and if u r about to die what better way to face death than w the taste of a sweet wild strawberry on your lips

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Nothing to do with being puritanical, or American for that matter (it’s a Japanese story, maybe even older than that). As poetic as your thought is, and however true it may be, it’s not all about pleasure. Or is it?

    And what do you make of the original ending? That moment of pleasure costs you your life. What is the storyteller trying to say here?

  3. Kim J Says:

    Or, maybe the strawberry is a magic strawberry and gives her the power to fly. Or maybe plucking the strawberry and eating it opens a hidden door in the cliff that leads to a beautiful land of peace and love.

    For me, the point of the story is that there are always tigers all around us, there is always disaster pending on the horizon. The strawberry is the gift of the present moment and it is up to us to focus on that, and not on the past or future disaster. By enjoying the strawberry we honor the gift of this life we have been given.

  4. soundofrain Says:

    Beautifully said.

  5. Linda Says:

    Such a spacious story – able to contain myriad individual interpretations, every one of the above sounds very plausible to me!
    Reading Bea and Soundofrain and Kim J’s reflections, I hear something quite personal, and it seems that is the point of the story, however it ends – to make it’s wisdom ones own. It speaks to me of equanimity: to stay fully present in the moment without preference for pleasure or pain.

  6. Joseph Says:

    Oh for goodness sake just enjoy the story as it is! Stop being a KILLJOY!

  7. Ricki Roma Says:

    thank you to opening my mind to something new this morning, i admit i first heard the story in a cartoon but, it always interested me, my curiousity allowed me to look it up to see if it was a legit story with true meaning, and sure enough it is..

  8. Reshma Says:

    It might be like, to get some more energy or to relax for a moment, she had that strawberry and then jumps and starts running again to escape from the second tiger and at last reached a safe place! She fought with all the problems in her life and won over them.

  9. Reshma Says:

    MIght be like strawberry was an energy booster…

  10. A WRINKLE IN THE EIGHTFOLD PATH | Irmagarde Crabby's Parlor Says:

    […] Meanwhile, we should just eat the strawberry. […]

  11. Ellis Says:

    I’m a fan of the original koan…..just sayin’

    there is always a strawberry treat to be found if you take that moment…

  12. illyb Says:

    The strawberry in the story is pleasure, but the point is that there is pleasure in everything: pain, suffering, heartache, misery, love, joy, taste, smell, breathing… The focus is in the moment. There are no past worries or thoughts, it is pointless because it has already happen. There are no future thoughts or worries, they are a waste of energy; no matter how hard we plan things out they will never work out exactly as as we thought. Past and future thinking causes stress and it prevents your mind from seeing what is right in front of you–everything. Everything that is, there is beauty and wonderment in every blade of grass, there is beauty that your physical body can produce tears..That you can “feel” pain. Every sensation, every sight, everything that can be heard is beauty and wonderment. Why? because you have the ability to experience it. Is it easy to recognize every second for its true value? No, but that is part of the beauty as well. One second we can let stressful thoughts and worries in and in the very next second we can remember how amazing it is to be experiencing this thing called life.

  13. Chrissy Says:

    Maybe the point is that we can always choose where we put our attention despite our distress. This is a powerful and radical realization for most of us. Most of us are at the mercy of the distress running in our heads about the past or the future and are too busy to notice that our distress is running our lives, that we are not present and doing the choosing. In this story, whether a strawberry or a fossil or poison, the point seems to be that despite other things that could contend for attention like the tigers and the mice, we can chose our response, even if that is how we die (poison).

  14. Anand Says:

    YES!!! You might be one of the FEW ppl that are able to look deeply at this story. I just wrote about a version of it too –

  15. Joni Pollina Says:

    The strawberry story | The Sound of Rain

    […]At the same time, you’re not superman (or girl).[…]

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