Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Tasting the Bittersweet
Exercises in Mindfulness
‘Between a rock and a hard place’ is probably the last situation we would want to find ourselves in. In Buddhist practice however, this may be exactly where we need be.
There is a story that the Buddha tells of a man being pursued by a tiger. He runs over the edge of a precipice and falling manages to grab a vine that hangs over the edge.
Looking below he sees another tiger licking its lips waiting for him to fall and the other above him waiting for him to try to climb up.
Two mice suddenly appear, one white, one black and they start gnawing through that vine.
At that moment a bee flies above him and a drop of honey-dew falls from the bee onto the man’s lips.
“Ah… how sweet it tastes!”
There is something in this story that captures the bittersweet taste of life. In this simple parable from the Buddha we feel the desperation of being chased by that which I fear. All those things that keep me awake in the middle of the night, which pre-occupy my mind because of life’s inevitabilities.
We have our own phrases for this predicament: Caught between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, it is known universally and therefore must be assumed to be a universal human experience.
The two mice are the opposites: gain & loss; coming-to-be & ceasing-to-be. The wheel takes us up and then swoops down once more.
We can complain about it, try to manipulate it, seek power over it… but in the end life & death is simply… inevitable!
Here the bee appears, that messenger of the gods and delivers the moment of sweetness straight onto our lips. The man does not have to practice meditation for years or listen to endless classes on mindfulness. It is right here in this moment.
The Buddha points to it.
There is one who compares one thing with another and judges it. Here is past and future, regret, a clinging to nostalgia and fear for the future.
There is another who is not interested in any of these things but who only wishes to participate as fully as possible in that Life.
As Master Rinzai puts it: “In this lump of red flesh, there is a man of no status who goes in and out of the sense gates one thousand times a day. Do you know him?”
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