Being Awake, by John Snelling

Genko-an's (源光庵) 'Window of Enlightenment' (悟りの窓 'Satori-no-Mado') © @KyotoDailyPhoto

‘Buddha’ means ‘The Awakened One’, he who sees things as they really are, undistorted by delusion or fantasy. It’s the name we give to Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of ancient India who founded the religion of Buddhism. The following parable is attributed to him.

A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a 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 began to gnaw away at the vine root. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Clinging on to the vine with one hand, he reached out and plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. (Penguin).

This reminds me of Dr Johnson’s grim pronouncement: ‘Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’

The truth is we live our lives in a kind of waking dream, not really understanding our­selves, or where we’re going, or what it all means — just blown this way and that, like leaves in the wind, by every chance meeting or event, by every vagrant emotion, mood, impulse that comes along. It needs some vital shock, like a stark confrontation with death, to jerk us awake for a moment. Then we really see the world with unjaded eyes. And how beautiful it looks — as fresh and new as on the first morning of creation! A true miracle. And the real issues of life at the same time jump up into hard-edged focus: ‘Who are we?’; ‘What is the proper way to live?’

People who have been woken up in this way often report that they suddenly see the futility of merely living for oneself. To do something for the general good seems far more important. And the great issue of what lies beyond death also has to be addressed squarely . . .

Katsura Rikyu (桂離宮)-The barest glimpse of Shokin-tei (松琴亭 'Pine Zither Tea-house') beyond the Sumiyoshi-no-Matsu (住吉の松) © @KyotoDailyPhoto

The Buddha was a man who discovered practical methods that enabled him to become permanently awake — hence his name. We too can follow the trail that he blazed. One method is to cultivate the practice of awareness, of just observing ourselves and the world as they are, without judgement, without trying to change anything.

REFLECTION: Perhaps we can try to remember to wake up at least once sometime today. To wake up means to be aware of our­selves, of the simple but often overlooked fact that we are here, now. We can then go on to take a dispassionate two-way look: firstly, at ourselves, and, secondly, at the world. As they say in the Vodka ads: ‘The effect may be start­ling.’

[Originally broadcast on Prayer for the Day on BBC Radio 4.]

Click here to read more by John Snelling.

First published in the June 1989 Buddhism Now.

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, John Snelling

Tags: , , , ,

9 replies

  1. “I recommend almost dying to everybody. It’s character building. You get a much clearer perspective of what’s important and what isn’t, the preciousness and beauty of life.”

    Carl Sagan, Astronomer, Philosopher

  2. I had to have 18 inches of bowel removed. I could not eat for 9 days. For several days after that I was sending compliments to the hospital cook. The food tasted so good.

  3. The story as it was explained to us when we were little, has an Elephant chasing the man,a Cobra at the bottom of the pit & the two mice are compared to day and night, gnawing away at the root with all these impending dangers,the man is happy to taste drops of honey from a honeycomb on an overhanging branch of a tree.

  4. “Buddha” actually refers to the state of awakened and non-conditioned conscious that is within all of us. Mindfulness provides the method through which we discover this state of being.

    • The two separate sentences conjoined so that they could appear belonging to the same ‘stream’. Yet, the Bauddha Dharma is for those who aren’t conditioned by the need of any ‘therapy’. ‘Mindfulness’ today is just a latest fad for the ‘seekers’ looking to buy them a status of exclusiveness. There isn’t any ‘Buddha’ in it. Keep on fishing, though. Good look with that.

  5. This story is bit different from the story we, Theravadians use. Well, same concept. This shows the sheer ignorance as he enjoyed the taste, but not realizing the danger, and what life is. If it is me, I would have spread metta to the tigers, but due to fear close my eyes through out allowing, the best to happened. Who knows whether tiger feels the energy of my metta and turn away.
    ha-ha-ha. Thank you for explaining so beautifully.

  6. Of Fire or Ice, God or Man, either would suffice- such is one interpretation of the tigers to which the man will undoubtedly become the lunch of, as they reach out in their last breaths, to make something else their lunch.

    Adam’s Apples (a Danish movie about a priest and a convict) is another example of this parable in action- for even when life should throw at us calamities, we should utterly enjoy the little we might be given- and what little we are given, is all the more enjoyable because of such.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: