This episode is about the most misunderstood buddhist story. It’s often called “Cliffhanger” and there are tigers, rats, strawberries and – in this version – ‚Indiana Jane‘ in it. (Loosely related to Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr.) And – of course – it’s about life itself!
The story today is called a “Zen story”, too. This time it’s not a taoist story that was adapted by Zen monks like the Google Car or the uncommunicative farmer. It’s a very Buddhist story, sometimes attributed to the boss himself. You know, like in “Buddha once told …”.
The story makes its first appearance in the West through D.T. Suzuki, who changed the ending. Which makes no difference in the Buddhist interpretation, but lead to a complete misunderstood reception here.
In the original version there is another farmer as our protagonist. This one is very enlightened in the West and very stupid in the East. The farmer is only a substitute for the common man, I understand. It’s a farmer again, because these stories are older as modern jobs like pooper scooper, train pusher or crime scene cleaner.
My heart is full of empathy for farmers, because I am really fond of … food. And farmers produce my food. So, let’s not use another farmer in our spiritual test lab today.
Instead we use a female version of Indiana Jones. Let’s call her Indiana Jane. A cousin of the Joneses, maybe. She looks exactly like Dr. Henry Walton Jones Junior. Leather jacket, whip, wide-brimmed fedora and a revolver in a flap holster.
In the original version we have two tigers. I thought about replacing them with two Nazis, but I prefer to keep both tigers. We tend to belittle wild animals, but tigers are seriously dangerous. The authors of the book “Tigers of the world: The science, politics, and conservation of Panthera tigris” estimate that tigers killed over 350.000 human beings in the 200 years between 1800 and 2000. That’s 4,8 humans per day.
I know, Nazis killed much more, but I still think the tiger is the better symbol of imminent death. Nazis are more like … symbols for incorrigible idiots.
Okay. The stage is set. With thewild strawberries and the rats we can begin our story!
We see a wide gras plain, somewhere in Asia. It’s peaceful. Crickets. Birds. Wind.
Then we hear someone panting and suddenly there’s Indiana Jane, running for her life! And – whoosh – she’s gone again. It’s getting quiet again as her panting fades in the distance.
But there! Right in front of our eyes! Orange and black! A huge mass of muscles moving smoothly like a machine of death! A tiger is chasing Indiana Jane without even making a sound.
It knows quite well: „There’s no escape for her! We tigers can run as fast as 40 miles per hours. Whereas the average archaelogist maxes out at 5 mph.“
Thinks the striped monster and takes its time.
Our view zooms out and now we can detect the running scientist and the predator from up above. And even more: we can see that Indy is directly running to the edge of a high cliff!
Now she sees for herself! She stops and almost topples over into the void before her.
What can she do? A tiger is out to eat her for lunch and witty remarks will not save her this time!
So she decides to try her luck again!
She slides down the cliff, down to the ground. Maybe that will break her some bones, but that’s preferable to ending on the menu of a tiger, isn’t it?
She gets faster and faster and suddenly: there’s another tiger! Waiting down at the bottom of the cliff stands another hungry cat! And it already licks its lips!
Indy tries to grab something to stop her descension, but still she’s getting faster and faster, the walls of the cliff are almost vertical now! But there! A grip! She gets a grip! She holds on for her dear life with all of her power. And – yes – her fall is stopped!
She is hanging right in the middle of the steep cliff walls, dangling on the root of a tree, her feet finding no ground to stand upon.
Above her is a hungry tiger and below her is a hungry tiger. If she’s climbing up again she will end as tiger food and if she let’s herself fall to the ground she will end as tiger food.
BTW: That’s like the classical definition of a cliffhanger situation. If this podcast would be playing in a drive-in movie theater back in the thirties this would be the end of today’s episode.
There she is, between death and … well death. “At least it couldn’t get worse now!”, she thinks. She looks around for something that could help her in her calamity, but there’s nothing. Instead she sees two rats.
A black rat and a white rat. And those rodents look at her and then they look at each other and then at this delicious root that’s moving right in front of their noses.
Crack! A lightning! And – boom – thunder! A tropical rain storm starts to poor down.
It rains like very big predatory cats and dogs. No, rats. Yes, Indy, things can always get worse!
The rats are not disturbed and begin to nibble at the root. It will only take minutes and then the weight of Indiana Jane will tear the root apart and our heroine will fall right in the jaws of the waiting tiger down there!
She reflects on her life: Her film career will be over before it even started!
In that instant she sees something round and red through the pooring rain.
Are these … strawberries? Wild strawberries?
She swings a little to the left, a little to the right and then she grabs for the strawberries with one hand. And she manages to pick one! It looks perfect and it smells so sweet.She closes her eyes and she pushes the strawberry in her mouth.
Wow! This must be the best berry she ever had. Though the strawberry is not, from a botanical point of view, a berry.
But we don’t have to discuss this here, because now: we see a still photograph of Indiana Jane enjoying this aggregate accessory fruit, we hear the yet-to-be-composed Indiana Jane theme and an invisible hand writes “The end” over that picture.
Because this is the whole story.
Maybe I should have picked Nazis instead of tigers, I’m not sure anymore.
This is the whole story. It’s very popular on spiritual websites. You can find countless versions of it, if you’d google “zen story cliffhanger”. But it maybe the most misunderstood zen parable of all time.
It has changed its meaning completely in the West.
So, let’s try an interpretation, too. What could this story mean?
It could be an advisory tale what not to do if you’re attacked by a tiger. Though this will not happen to me, living in Bavaria, I looked up some advice from “Survival Sullivan”. Because this man is a well known prepper I thought he has something to say about tigers, too.
And he does. But his advice is mainly: Avoid meeting tigers. If you’re attacked, you’re doomed. Not only is a tiger made out of 200 pounds pure muscle mass, he is equipped with three inch claws and seven inch teeth. Which, together with its impressing pattern of orange and black stripes, makes a tiger a better symbol of impending doom than the average nazi. Nazis tend to be old, white males with a not impressing pattern of hair growth on their bald heads.
Running away from a tiger seems to be a strategy that is just as good as any other one.
So, that’s clearly not what the story is about.
The most popular interpretation of this story is another one.
It’s a feelgood kind of interpretation.
The tigers stand for the past and the future. And Indiana Jane, like us, is caught in the middle of this concepts. The root is a symbol for earth, for our existence as lifeforms on this planet. For being grounded in creation, for Mother Nature – pick one symbol that suits you.
And those rats are the distractions from life. The black rat maybe Facebook and the white one Twitter. Or it’s your boring work and your duties as a parent. Again, pick what distracts you most in life! Could be alcohol and cigarettes or chocolate chip cookies and dental plaque.
The great buddhist wisdom in the story, that’s the common interpretation, is:
Enjoy the moment! Live in the present! Have a strawberry and don’t get distracted by the rats at all! Someday we have to die, but right now, in this moment we are alive.
There is a tiger behind us and another before us, but right now, there is the best berry of your life!
Taste it! Enjoy the moment! Even if it’s just another aggregate accessory fruit!
This is what you will find if you google “zen story” and “cliffhanger”.
It’s a feelgood interpretation. It’s a YOLO story. About enjoying life right now! In this interpretation Indiana Jane is an enlightened Zen master. She accepts that she is about to die, but takes her time to enjoy this wild strawberry. Because the strawberry is the symbol of living live to the fullest!
Nice. Really nice! But that’s a very drastic storyline for explaining this banality, isn’t it?
To be honest: If that’s the best interpretation, then we could use the whole story as a script for a TV commercial for strawberries!
Don’t mind the tigers or the rats, just keep on consuming! Because that’s all you have! Even famous Zen masters like confirm: Our strawberries taste just breathtakingly good! You will forget all troubles!
So, don’t wait! Treat yourself to something!
And, by the way: People who have bought wild strawberries also bought spiritual guidebooks and Xanax and Disney movies.
But what would you do with this interpretation when I told you that D.T. Suzuki changed it for us Westerners. When the original version of that story is completely different? When the strawberries were not strawberries but deadly poisonous fruits? And that this fact doesn’t change the meaning of the story at all?
What if Indiana Jane wasn’t an enlightened Zen master in this version, but a fool? Because this is exactly what the story is about in Asia where it was first invented.
In the Buddhist interpretation the symbols have different meanings.
We see Indy dangling at the wall of the cliff. The rats are currently working on her funeral.
Above her stands tiger number one. He is a symbol of birth. Because in a tradition which believes in reincarnation, birth is not good news. It’s just an unavoidable fact of life. Without birth there would be no death and no suffering.Death, btw, is the name of tiger number two, waiting for archaelogist meat down there. Death is unavoidable, too.
Between birth and death there are the rats. One is black and one is white.
They are a symbol for samsara. That’s a sanskrit expression from the Upanishads. It means ‚wandering‘ and ‚world‘ at the same time. Its sound paints a picture of the repeating pattern of steps while wandering.
Nowadays it tends to be translated with “the wheel of life” or “karmic cycle”. Samsara is like the rule behind reincarnation. The core of what ties up us human beings to be born again and again.
It cannot be repeated often enough: Reincarnation in Hinduism or Buddhism is not a good thing! It’s not comforting at all to be born again. Because, especially in Buddhism, life is suffering!
The goal of this kind of spiritual achievement is to avoid samsara. The final liberation from samsara is nirvana. And I don’t talk about the grunge band, but about a state of perfect quietude and freedom.
But why is Indiana Jane a fool in the eyes of Buddhists?
Well, because she uses her free arm to eat something. This will be her death. She will end up as tiger food and will be born again and will find herself in exact the same position in her next life. And in the life after that one.
She does not care about the rats at all. She is not trying to do anything against samsara. She is not trying to reach nirvana because of one single tasty strawberry! Imagine how stupid that is! She has to live another whole life because she tries to ignore the rats!
The reason why I picked Indiana Jane as protagonist for my modern version is obvious: I mean, she is a Jones! She has got a whip! She even got a revolver! She really had choices before she decided to go for the YOLO-approach!
Does she use her gear to kill the rats? Or to climb the tree? Because, where there are roots there maybe a tree, too. She could shoot the rats, climb on the tree using her whip and wait for the tiger to lose its patience in the streaming rain.
Happy end! Nirvana! Indiana Jane melody! Popcorn! Spielberg and Lucas write a sequel with aliens in it!
No, this Indy goes for the strawberries! Because she had seen to many commercials in her childhood, I presume. She enjoys the fruit – then the root ruptures and she falls down and gets eaten.
That’s what advertising does to our society, ladies and gentleman. And the sequel to that version of the YOLO-story is exactly the same movie, minute for minute! Sure buddhists think she’s a fool.
Okay. You heard the most misunderstood buddhist story in modern blogdom. And you heard the original meaning. Now you are free to choose which version you like better. YOLO or Nirvana?
Most of my life I would have picked YOLO anytime over nirvana. Anytime. Because I do not believe in reincarnation and never have. I think early buddhism didn’t either. It’s not an important thing in Buddhist practice, even now, centuries after reincarnation was adapted. Buddhism is more about the human perception of life – but that’s another topic.
As I grow older, I tend to prefer the original over the Western version. Because YOLO is just too superficial. That’s just not enough. That’s reserved for teenies and twens. Or maybe adults with a peter pan syndrome.
But in real life shit happens. At least a fair amount of shit happened to me.
It could even happen that you dangle on a root with a tiger above you and one waiting for you all the way down and there simply is no strawberry around!
That’s why I think the story makes much more sense with poisonous berries. Sorry, Mr. Suzuki.
Being in the present moment, being in the here and now is fine. In fact, sometimes it’s all that’s important! But being in the present moment may be really a shitty experience, because the present moment is just the moment when shit happens in your life.
Then there is no room left to enjoy strawberries. If shit happens you don’t give a damn about the taste of strawberries. You begin to struggle. You begin your fight of staying sane. Of surviving.
That’s why the original interpretation is better in my eyes. Strawberries are fine, but don’t care for strawberries too much. Rather have a look at what exactly your problem is right now. And if you can name that problem, deal with it. Face it. Survive! Stay sane! Fight!
That’s the way good psychotherapy works, that’s a simple wisdom in many religions or philosophies. In Christianity you have to carry the cross voluntarily. In existentialism Sisyphos is a man with a mission right there in the shit that happens to him – right there in his samsara. He’s a hero.
That’s at least what I think about the story of “Indiana Jane and the Strawberry of Doom”.
Another story about life itself!