"This is an allegory in which three literati realize by accident that spiritual purity cannot be measured by artificial boundaries. One day the poet Tao Yuanming and the Taoist Lu Xiujing traveled to the Donglin temple on Mt. Lu to visit the Buddhist theologian Huiyuan who lived there as a recluse, vowing never to cross the stone bridge over the Tiger Ravine that marked the boundary of the sanctuary.
After an evening together, Huiyuan accompanied his friends as they left the temple. Deeply absorbed in conversation, Huiyuan inadvertently walked with them across the Tiger Ravine bridge. When the men realized what had happened they broke out in spontaneous laughter-- hence the title of the anecdote 'The Three Laughers of the Tiger Ravine.'"
Ray Grigg, in his “The Tao of Zen,” tells the story somewhat differently in a chapter on “Playfulness.” And he’s describing a drawing of the scene by Bunsei. But the meaning is the same.
[The drawing] shows a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist circled together in uproarious laughter. Apparently the Buddhist had taken a vow never to leave the monastery but, in the enthusiasm of visiting with his two friends, he inadvertently wanders over the bridge of the ravine that defines the monastery’s grounds.
The distant roar of a tiger breaks the spell of their visit and they realize the vow of confinement has been broken. They clasp each other’s hands and laugh. This is the playful spirit that supersedes vows and teachings and ideologies.
These guys aren’t out to cause trouble. The Buddhist’s friends didn’t visit him with the intention of making him break his vow. They just ended up walking over the bridge naturally. And when the vow was broken, they laughed about it. Naturally.
In 1971, when I was initiated into the mystico-spiritual Radha Soami Satsang Beas path, I made some supposedly lifetime vows myself. I’ve broken a few of them. Not inadvertently, but naturally. And while I’m not laughing (at the moment), I’m certainly not crying either.
What is there to cry about? I vowed not to have sex outside of marriage. Well, after I got divorced and met the woman who would become my second wife, that vow bit the dust. With pleasure. In a few weeks we’ll have been married sixteen years. I don’t think I could be called a womanizer.
I also vowed not to use alcohol or illicit drugs. Now, most nights I drink a single glass of red wine. It’s supposed to be good for your heart. I once believed that it was bad for your soul, but I haven’t detected any spiritual harm yet from my imbibing. If I end up in hell for this at least I’ll have the company of Jesus and countless Catholics.
And lastly I vowed to meditate two and a half hours a day, every day. I actually did this for several decades. Most RSSB initiates don’t. Now I meditate about an hour. My meditation currently is just as shitty or as wonderful (I really can’t tell the difference any more) as it was in my lengthy meditation days.
Here’s the thing about lifetime vows: the intention behind them is great. Like “for better or for worse, till death do us part.” I truly wanted my first marriage to be a lifetime commitment. Life happened otherwise, and both my wife and I were fine with that.
The general notion that we are in charge of our lives, rather than the Way—the Tao, strikes me as the height of egotism. So also is the related notion that we could, or should, keep up a vow to do X for a lifetime. Who are we say what life has in store in us, what twists and turns we are to follow that aren’t visible from our current vantage point?
I admire people who keep promises. And I also admire other people who don’t keep promises. Just as I don’t admire still other people in either camp: promise keepers and promise breakers. It all depends on the situation.
Staying the course is admirable when the course demands to be stayed. It is deplorable when a change of direction is called for. Ray Grigg tells this Zen/Ch’an story:
“What is the solution that accounts for every situation?” asked the Ch’an abbot.
When no one could answer the question, he replied, “As the situation arises.”