The tiger and the strawberry is a Zen story about a man who was walking through the wilderness when he noticed a tiger lurking in the bushes. He began to run and was pursued by the hungry tiger. Reaching a cliff top the man grabbed a near by vine and jumped over the edge. Once there, hanging on for dear life, the man noticed that there was another tiger prowling beneath him. Above, where the first tiger was watching, two mice, one black and one white emerged from the cliff face and began gnawing at the vine he clung too. In this moment, with death looming above and below, the man noticed a perfect strawberry growing on the cliff just within reach. He held the vine with one hand and with the other he picked the strawberry and tasted the most delicious fruit.
Like many Zen stories this tale has been interpreted in multiple ways, some have suggested that it’s a warning against being distracted by pleasure. To me this doesn’t appear to be the message.
I think the vine that the man clings to represents time. Above us lies the abyss prior to our birth and below lies the promise of death. We are all clinging to a vine that is slowly being gnawed at. Yet even when faced with our inevitable end we have the capacity to find joy and pleasure in the present moment. The man’s proximity to death allowed him to truly experience the strawberry, to become absolutely present in the knowledge that it would be his last. We aren’t often able to think like that but if we were able to live as if each experience could be our last, we would no doubt live a more present and joyful existence.
It seems that the black and white mice probably refers to yin and yang, the duality of seemingly opposite forces working as one. This is a fundamental belief in Taoism that all seemingly opposing forces: love and hate, good and bad, joy and suffering, life and death etc are really two deeply intertwined elements, two sides of the same coin. This can sometimes be hard to visualise but somehow we all know deep down that we can only truly understand an emotion like joy when we are also able to experience it’s absence, when we know hardship only then can we truly know peace. Perhaps the symbolism of the mice is that it’s only through the existence of death that we can truly appreciate life. If there were no time limit on existence there would never be any incentive to truly live now.
That’s my interpretation. The whole point of these stories though, is not to be right but to allow us to think deeply and from different perspectives.