Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Seize the moment! How often we hear those words, yet how rarely do we heed them.

Here’s a Zen kōan that’s all about the importance of seizing the moment. It’s said to be a parable told by the Buddha:

A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, the man 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!

This is a very powerful story. Here’s this man, facing imminent and certain death---and death in a most unpleasant manner---and what does he do? He plucks and eats a strawberry. And how sweet that strawberry tasted!

Now, this is a parable. It has an ‘inner’ meaning, so to speak. The strawberry represents the present moment which before we know it becomes the past. The tiger above the man is birth, and the tiger below is the man’s imminent death—and our death as well. And what of the mice some of which are black and the others white? As I see it, they represent our days on this planet. Some days are good (‘white’) while others are, well, terrible (‘black’). Remember the words of Omar Khayyám [pictured below]? ‘Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days.' Black or white, the mice symbolise the passage of our days while we are here on earth. Sooner or later the mice will gnaw through the vine of our life's breath and then ... death. Yes, life is damn short, even if many of us are living longer than in years past. Here are some more lines from Omar Khayyám:

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain — This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Mindfulness is living with awareness, and being fully and consciously present, from one moment to the next. Life is all the more precious by reason of the fact that we will ultimately lose it. ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it every, every minute?’, asks the dead Emily in Thornton Wilder’s wonderful play Our Town. Sadly, most of us don’t. Most of us live mindlessly. We don’t really live. We don’t even exist---we subsist. In the words of Thoreau, we ‘lead lives of quiet desperation,’ and go the grave not having ever known the joy of living with choiceless awareness of the present moment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating hedonism. Not at all. I am simply asserting that living mindfully is better than the alternative. Facing certain and imminent death our hero in the parable continues to live mindfully. He looks. He observes. He tastes. In similar circumstances I suspect that most of us would not even see the strawberry, and if we did few of us would have any interest in eating it. ‘How can I think of eating at a time like this?’, I hear myself saying.

Seize the moment ... before it’s too late.


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