A Zen Tickler

By | January 14, 2011

Here is one of the most perplexing of the traditional Zen teaching stories I’m collecting for my next book. What do you make of it?

A man who is being chased by Tiger comes to the edge of a precipice. He sees only one option—to grab a vine and jump over the edge.

Hanging in midair, he looks up into the terrible face of that Tiger, reaching down as far as he can to swipe at him. He starts slithering down to safety, only to see another Tiger, waiting below to latch onto him as soon as he comes within reach.

He looks up again and right above him two Mice, a white one and a black one, are gnawing quickly through his lifeline.

Clinging as though frozen to the vine, he ventures a glance at the cliff face and there hangs a bunch of luscious-looking grapes. Holding on precariously with one hand, he reaches out as far as he can to pluck one of the fruit.


Drew Jacob on January 17, 2011 at 12:58 am.

I get what the story is going for, but it feels incomplete.

Personally, I would climb upward. The mice can probably be scared off easily and, if not, I would try to fight/drive off the top tiger in an effort to save my life. But then, I’m no Buddhist 🙂


Tamarack on March 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm.

Hi Drew,

Your approach might work. However, if I were an oddsmaker, I’d give the tilt to the Tiger. One beauty of the Zen approach is that it frees us from the strictures of past experience and future projecting. We can then open to new possibilities, which in this story are represented by the fruit. It might not amount to any more than a desperate diversion or a quick and sweet last meal. But then again, it could be a doorway—and a pretty inviting one after looking into my other options’ gaping jaws.


Drew Jacob on March 6, 2011 at 11:39 pm.

Yeah, the tiger is likely to win and all, but I still gotta go for my best chance.

I’ve had many grapes in my life, and I won’t miss having a final one. I however have never defeated (or fought) a tiger and if the best I can hope for is “one last moment of joy” then let’s try a daring new adventure.


Tamarack on March 12, 2011 at 1:58 am.

Hey, no complaints—you go down in a blaze of glory and I win my bet. I wonder if there may be a gender factor at play here, with males tending to make your choice and females going for the grape. And I wonder why you consider a face-off with the tiger as the best you can hope for when you don’t know what the grape could bring you. Yes, the grape is not as sure a bet as the last moment of joy the tiger would be more than happy to give you, but then the tiger will be there anyway if all you get is sour grapes.


Jennine on November 3, 2012 at 11:53 am.

I read something like this while my son and I were learning about ancient India. It is an epic poem from the Mahabarata composed in the third century BC, much later in history this poem was revised into a Buddhist fable called the Monk and the Tiger.The story is almost similar except it is a yogini who takes the low road and runs into a woods, finds danger all around and in a panic falls into a well where he holds onto a vine while honey drips down beside him. The forest is samara, existence in the world, the beasts of prey are diseases, the hideous giantess is old age, the well is the body of beings(he falls into a well and is holding onto a vine), the vine which he is holding onto is the hope of life, the six-mouthed and twelve-footed animal is the year with 6 seasons and 12 months, and the mice chewing at the vine are day and night, next to him as he hangs from the vine in the bottomless well are drops of honey which symbolizes sensual enjoyment. The yogini hanging in the well decide to stay there and be happy with the honey. The yogi was surrounded on 3 sides with danger and instead of turning back and taking the fourth road, the high road, he allowed himself to be drawn toward the center of the forest’s entanglements and there he fell into the well. Similar stories and it highlights the main idea of ancient hindu teachings. I would assume that the above story is very similar with a zen twist where the Tiger that is chasing is the past, the Tiger that is waiting is the future and the mice eating at the vine is time, the grapes/berries are the present. Remember Buddha had a fat belly. 😉


Maggie Scheffer on January 16, 2011 at 7:12 pm.

When peril is coming at you from all sides, pluck the fruit that presents itself.

Be present in the moment.


Tamarack on March 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm.

Greetings Maggie,

You’re suggesting a nonlinear approach—it’s un-American! What about showing courage, fighting your foes, and believing in miracles? I’m afraid the oddsmaker wouldn’t know what to do with someone like you who doesn’t play by the rules. And isn’t willing to die by the rules. When the going gets tough, I want you around.


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