The older I get -- I'm 69 -- the more I resonate with the Zen story of a man who had a bad day when he was chased by a tiger. Which turned into a much worse day when another tiger and a couple of mice showed up.
A man was walking across a field when he saw a tiger. Fearing for his life, the man fled, but the tiger gave chase. The man reached the edge of a cliff, and just as he thought the tiger would get him, he spotted a vine growing over the edge of the cliff. Grabbing on to it, he swung himself over the edge to safety.
The tiger came to the edge and snarled at him from above. While precariously perched like this, the man saw another tiger growling at him from below. Trembling, he held on to the thin vine that was keeping him from being dinner for the tigers. What could be worse than this, he wondered.
Just then, two mice scampered out and began gnawing at the vine. As they chewed and the man pondered over his fate, he saw a juicy, red strawberry on a ledge next to him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. Ah, how sweet it tasted!
Now, some Googling revealed to me that there are different views of what this story is intended to teach us. Live in the moment is a common interpretation. A contrary perspective is don't be distracted by pleasure.
I'm much more in favor of live in the moment than don't be distracted by pleasure.
Whoever thought the man paid undue attention to the strawberry obviously hasn't spent much time clinging to a vine that's being chewed by mice while tigers await above and below.
You might be thinking, who has experienced this? To which I reply to that thought: Everyone. Without exception.
Because my view of what the story is all about is that the tigers represent the fear of death, and the mice represent death itself. After all, virtually everybody does their best to run from death when the specter of it appears before us. We cling to whatever life-giving alternative is available.
But in the end, the mice of human mortality are going to nibble through the vine of living, 100% guaranteed. The only question is how long it will take them.
The strawberry represents... a strawberry. (I have strawberries on my oatmeal almost every morning, and I live in Oregon, which has some of the best-tasting strawberries in the world.)
Not only a strawberry, of course. The strawberry is everything in existence.
Or at least, that portion of everything that we humans can be aware of. So long as death hasn't completely nibbled through the vine of our life, we should taste every bite of existence with gusto.
What gives the strawberry an extra dose of sweetness is precisely the fact that our ability to taste it is limited. Nobody lives forever. In fact, nobody even lives very long, by cosmic standards. The universe is about 14 billion years old. We're lucky if we can live to 80, and very lucky to live to 100.
This being a Church of the Churchless blog, I'm going to conclude my interpretation of this Zen story with some jabs at religion.
There's zero demonstrable evidence, nada, zilch, that anyone has ever cheated death. Those damn mice can't be stopped. Death is an unavoidable eater of life. Death can be postponed, but only for a while.
Given the inevitability of death, and the near-certainty that when we die, we're dead forever (being scientifically-minded, I realize that nothing is 100% certain, including what I just said), it makes sense to get as much sweetness from life as possible while we're still able to cling to its vine.
So here's a Big Problem with religion: every major religion, and most minor ones, claim that another life awaits after we die. Meaning, no mice! Death is a fiction. Thus tigers are optional, since fear of death is justified only if death exists.
This makes strawberries, and the rest of life, less sweet.
In fact, religions are notorious for urging people to shun many of life's pleasures, such as sex, alcohol, recreational drugs, sensual indulgences, partying-on. They claim -- again, with zero evidence -- that a gigantic heavenly strawberry awaits those who obey whatever restrictions a particular religion enjoins.
Thus the way I see it, the Zen story only has meaning for those who reject religiosity.