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Koan: The Strawberry

Buddha once told a parable in sutra:

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 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!




26 comments to Koan: The Strawberry

  • Golda

    the vine must be his attachment, him letting go to taste the strawberry is accepting his fate .

  • OK, good. That’s a way to look at it that I hadn’t seen before. He certainly did let go of his attachments.

    I looked at it more for a story about someone being in the present. That strawberry was really good because it was the only thing in his mind, not worrying about the future.

    Either way works, and there are probably other viewpoints too.

  • Jerry Brady

    More importantly about the vine is that he holds the vine with one hand while grabbing for the strawberry with the other. It’s the middle way. You must be aware of your attachments but you can’t cast them all away haphazardly to go after the strawberry. He is simultaneously reaching out AND letting go.

    The strawberry is the present moment.

    The tiger above is his birth.

    The tiger below is his death.

    The mice, black and white, represent the passage of the days for when they gnaw through the vine, he will meet his death.

  • Ric

    The strawberry represents the good things all around us. The vine is the timeline of life. I choose to celebrate the strawberry as the good things before me, always.

    I can climb a vine. I can choose to confront the tiger above. Therefore, it may not represent my birth, only an adversity. The tiger below seems inevitable. Still, I have a choice as to which direction to move.

    The mice are small, and therefore likely represent the range of myriad different details that life throws at us. I can deal with mice.

    As I see it, this teaching shows us that we need only look for something very special, in any situation. Good things are all around us. We need only see them. They are there. They are everywhere around us. We need only see…

    I look for strawberries. I’ve found many. I even keep chocolate to dip them in. Should I not be able to reach the chocolate…well, it is a luscious strawberry.

  • Perhaps most importantly, the man’s fate is sealed – in this hypothetical koan, there is only one end for the man (dead by tiger). All of us must face death some day as well. What we can learn from this koan is to not fret over the inevitable, but to accept it as such; otherwise, worry and doubt will poison the present. The man knows this, and can remove fear of death from his mind, enabling him to enjoy the strawberry.

  • Malaclypse

    It amazes me how often I’ve seen the word “is” throughtout this site. Nothing “is”. Things resemble, apeear, or have some qualities of other things, but no thing “IS” another thing. Most grown adults know what “is” means, so most grown adults lie incessantly everyday. “The sky IS blue. The air IS cold. That man IS ugly.” Lies.

    Not mistakes, not semantic differences, but mere lies.

  • Matt

    No, there are two senses of the word “is”. One is the “is” of equality or identity. The other is the “is” of predication. When we say that the air is cold, we are predicating coldness of the air. We are not saying the air is identical to coldness. So we are not saying something false (which would furthermore be a lie only if asserted by a speaker who knew it to be false). If the air is cold (e.g. it’s cold enough to snow), then the English sentence “The air is cold” is true.

    Word can (and typically do) have more than one meaning.
    A tree’s bark is brown.
    A dog’s bark doesn’t have a color.
    Context and use determine meaning. Meaning is not simply a matter of “these letters ‘bark’ have this meaning.” Likewise for “is.”

  • Anglo Saxon

    Pfft. Mysticism, zen, bullshit. Put yourself in that situation. ‘Looks like I’m gonna die soon. Hey, a strawberry. Fuck it, I’m gonna die eating.”
    Don’t think I’m kidding or trolling, you’re just making it too complicated.

  • John

    The both tigers to me represent suffering which the man was attempting to avoid by grasping the vine. The man clearly thought he was avoiding the tiger by swinging himself over the cliff. The vine may represent the mans life which he grasped with one hand while reaching out for the strawberry which to me represents pleasure because it was sweet. It is our desire for pleasure or our attachment that leads to death or suffering which are two sides of the same coin. The mice must represent something subtle because the man did not notice them. Although the man enjoyed the sweetness of the strawberry it was temporary. He inevitably met finally with a tiger again.

  • David Sanchez

    These are all interesting comments, I like them a lot.

    To me, the man has a choice, he chooses to either waste his time, be a glutton, and pick the dazzling strawberry, or he can be efficient by grabbing the small mice and use them as bate for either the tiger on top or the one at the bottom.

    Though, I can’t really explain the colors of the mice, but if I tried to put it into context, I’d say that, in dire situations, there’s a logical way to approach things, and there’s also a rash and inefficient way to perform, which can be sparked by emotions. All in all, the mice might represent the wrong or the right way to go about a dire situation.

  • Patrick

    My understanding of koans was that they are meant to break your reliance on language, because the concepts they confer cannot be communicated with language. Sort of fighting fire with fire. So there really shouldn’t be written interpretations…

  • Poo

    Two tigers, our beginning and end; The Vine is Time; The mice are labels of actions, Virtue & Vice; Strawberry is Dharma; The Taste is Enlightenment.

  • stop overthinking this. it is exactly what it is. and that’s pretty cool.

  • gruff

    Does anyone have a genuine source for this story? It’s all over the web but no one has a citation for it.

  • Mike

    My interpretation is that: the tigers, the mice, him hanging. His situation seems so hopeless. Everything is going wrong, what else could possibly go wrong, so much suffering. But he is still able to find happiness in the midst of the most hopeless situation. If he would have been so worried about all the negative things it could have restricted his ability to notice that there was still beauty. There could still be peace. Even where he was. He ate that strawberry and for that moment the tigers dident matter. Wow, to notice that strawberry. But you can’t always depend on there being a strawberry. If there was no strawberry it could have very well been the grass that captivated him. The beautifully shades of green so easy and peacefully to the eyes, what beauty in this world. He would have never been able to appreciate it if he wasn’t about to die I don’t think. And even if there was no grass, and the man was blind. What a beautifull feeling, of the wind on his face. Or so peacefull the sound of the birds in the distance that get to play today and not worry about theese tiger. But who knows they might not be able to find any worms to eat, but wow how beautifull it is to be a bird and to feel the win under your wings, your hungry starving wings.

  • Mike

    Maybe the colors of the mice, being black and white are opposites, shows that conceptualizing, and thinking there is black and white, instead of just everything all one together connected grey etc. just leads to more suffering. I think a lot of the ways you guys looked at it and interpreted it are correct tho. Since this is a moment of life, and one moment of life contains everything. Just why sometimes people refer to anything in the world or anything as the dharma. My bed sheet I’m laying on right now is the dharma, and contains everything. The workers that created it, the food those workers needed to eat to be alive to make it etc. I could ask you what my bed sheet represents and you could say the worker, or the food, or my demand for it which gave them the reason to make it. And all of theese answers are correct. My bed sheet is this story.

  • jeff

    alternatively, our fellow, even when confronted with the extreme challenges of suffering and death cannot seem to avoid grasping for that one more little sweet fruit…

  • budoon

    The mice: yin-yang, or Yin and Yang

  • Domingo

    In our passage through life we face adversity, mostly inevitable. We are born, we die. There are many events in our lives that distract us from focusing on our path. We must keep centered on the things that give our life meaning.

  • Wayne

    Life is bittersweet. A short moment between the inevitable . Enjoy the moment, because that’s all life is.

  • Bee

    The mice represent the passing of day and night, which can also be a metaphor for dualism. The Tiger is birth (your past), and the man’s plummet into the precipice where the tiger again waits, is death (your future).

    The second you are born, birth swallows you up from behind, and death is waiting for you. Day and night gnaw at your existence. Everything is transient, and the man, in fear of death, clings to delusion. The only real decision that someone can make in this situation, is to eat and experience the strawberries. You only exist in the present !

    The parable is an explanation of meditation. The mind constantly clings to the past, and dreams of the future. The strawberries, which are enlightenment, exist only in the present moment, and grow out of the very vine that the man is clinging to. Enlightenment is always available here within this moment. But if we are busy clinging, we will miss it.

  • Before that question is answered we’ve met new friends whom we will never forget and heard love blooming in song. Freeing them depends on the destruction of a massive ice shelf. It is love that drives these strange creatures and makes them so endearing, and it is their willingness to sacrifice that makes them so admirable.

  • Anonymous

    The entire situation the man is in is his poor life circumstances that require immediate attention, and his grabbing the strawberry is his distraction leading to downfall.

  • Anonymous

    The older ending of this tale was not that the berry tasted sweet, but that it was deadly poisonous. In which case this is a tale of a series of mistakes, each worse than the last. First, he fears death and flees, then he clings to the vine in the vain hope that it will sustain him. At last, realizing the hopelessness of his predicament, he tries to be happy in the moment, and his reaching for that happiness is his final undoing. Enlightenment is not about happiness any more than it is about clinging to survival, and so long as we think that the two are related, we will be swallowing poison.

  • Star

    This parable is a question on a test I have to take for college and it has been haunting me! More than one question is right, it just seems to be the viewpoint.

  • No matter what you fear, especially in life, along the way there is going to be things to ease your fear. Like the luscious strawberry. So carry on and keep calm in life no matter what.

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