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!
For some reason, almost everybody thinks this story is about enjoying the present moment. I have even heard Monks (albeit not Indian ones ;) ) tell their students that the lesson to be learned is that suffering is unavoidable, and ignoring what you feel is negative (aka the Tiger and the cliff/vine) while focusing on present enjoyment/gratitude (the sweet strawberry) is the meaning of the story.
Guess what? That is the OPPOSITE of what this story is attempting to teach!! I have even seen ridiculous essays where people have broken down each element of the story and attributed some mystical allegorical symbolism to them. All totally unfounded, and totally out of context. THIS IS NOT A FEEL-GOOD STORY ABOUT ENJOYING THE PRESENT MOMENT. IT IS AN IMPORTANT LESSON about NOT GETTING DISTRACTED BY PLEASURE.
To understand this story in context with the lesson, let's look at another quick one:
Focusing on sense enjoyments is like a rabbit that is being chased by wolves, who sticks its head in a hole thinking that because it is dark the wolves cannot see it - not realizing that its backside is still very visible. In fact, because it stopped running its demise is inevitable.
Now back to the Tiger, the Cliff, and the Strawberry.
THE POINT of this story is that this dangling man represents THE FOOLISH side of our nature, in that above him is a tiger trying to eat him, he is hanging on a vine about to fall to his death - but instead of saving himself he is distracted by a strawberry. Eating the strawberry is not commendable as many people misunderstand it to be, it makes him an idiot. The purpose of the parable is to remind you to NOT fall for the strawberry.
You see, the primary lesson of buddhism/vedanta is that your demise is NOT inevitable. The point of this story is to remind you to stop being distracted by the "fruits" of life and free yourself from a perilous situation.
The fact that the strawberry is sweet and not sour is what cements the character's idiocy/complacency even further. There's a line from the Matrix movie that implies: Not only do people not want to by unplugged from the Matrix, but they will defend it, "Most people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured and so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."
However, once enlighted (once you realize that you are neither the doer of action/nor the enjoyer nor victim of 'fruits' of action) you're free. THIS addiction to samsara and maya, is what the foolish man and his strawberry eating represents. Many people attribute this story to the Buddha, and some even to Tolstoy. It is also a play on a honey story from The Mahabharat (Book 11, sections 5-6). In any case, prior to Tolstoy, it is important to understand that Indians used versions of this story to talk about Maya, Samsara, and Liberation; or more appropriately it is about Avoiding Maya - not the benefits of indulging in it as many misunderstand it to be about.
It all might make more sense from this story:
Upon the same tree there are two birds, one on the top, the other below. The one on the top is calm, silent, and majestic, immersed in his own glory; the one on the lower branches, eating sweet and bitter fruits one after another, hopping from branch to branch, is becoming happy and miserable based on whether the fruit it eats is sweet or bitter.
After a time, the lower bird eats an exceptionally bitter fruit, and feeling miserable, he looks up and sees the other bird, that wondrous one of golden plumage who eats neither sweet nor bitter fruit, who is neither happy nor miserable, but calm and centered. The lower bird longs for this condition, but soon forgets it, and again begins to eat the fruit, which eventually makes him once again feel miserable, and he again looks up, and he tries to get nearer to the upper bird. Once more he forgets, and after a time he looks up again, and so on he goes again and again, until he comes very near to the beautiful bird and sees the reflection of light from its plumage playing around his own body. He feels a change, and as he comes nearer, he seems to melt away, and everything about him melts away until at last he understands this wonderful change.
The lower bird was, as it were, only the shadow, the reflection of the higher; he himself was in essence the upper bird all the time! This eating of the fruits, sweet and bitter, this lower little bird, weeping and happy by turns, was merely a vain dream: all along there was only the real bird above, calm, and silent, glorious and majestic, beyond grief, beyond sorrow.
We think we are that lower bird, performing actions that yield results: life is sometimes good, sometimes bad. But it turns out, the entire situation is nothing to be worried about because in Reality we are the Upper bird; the one who has no need to eat fruits because it's above all of that nonsense. Now, in our story about the Tiger and the Strawberry - perhaps if that strawberry were bitter, the man may have been motivated to improve his situation (even if temporarily until his next ADHD encounter with strawberries). But unfortunately it was sweet. He got distracted. He will now die. What an idiot.
How someone teaches this story is a great litmus test of validity. If you have anyone tell you that the meaning of this story has anything to do with "enoying the present moment." - you now know to politely smile, and find a better teacher.
Instead of being distracted by the fruits of life, RISE UP and claim your sovereignty! So, DON'T eat that strawberry! Climb up that vine before the mice chew through it and kill that fucking tiger!
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