This week, under the theme of Wiki -What I Know (or don’t know) Is – Karen Richards recounts an ancient tale about a Buddhist monk and a strawberry and what the story means to her.
A friend once told me a story about a Buddhist monk who, in ancient times, was chased to the edge of a cliff, by bandits. At the very moment that the monk fell, he spotted a wild strawberry, growing from the cliff face. He reached out, plucked it, and smiling to himself, ate it. “Ah, what a delicious strawberry,” he said. Then fell to his death.
When I first heard this story, my initial response was one of awe at a strawberry growing out of a rock face. Arguably though, this is not the meaning that either the author or indeed the teller of the story was pointing to!
Indeed, it is an interesting tale and, unpicking it a little, one which has layers of possible meaning. Perhaps, if a snapshot of the falling monk, picking the ripe strawberry, were to be circulated on social media today, for instance, it might have the caption, ” Eat the strawberry while you can, life is short!”, in the style of many such parables attributed to different celebrities and commentators from Keanu Reeves to the Buddha, himself. To relax and enjoy all that life has to offer is not bad advice but I’m fairly sure that that isn’t what is being pointed to, either.
Then, there is the possibility that the story is about ‘being in the moment’. For although, when the monk fell from the cliff there was the potential for his physical death, as he saw, plucked, and then ate the strawberry, he was still very much alive. These were the moments before his death; the death moment was yet to come. Expanding a little further, even as we approach the end of our lives, when death seems all-consuming and inevitable, each moment is a moment unique to itself, and is as bright as the strawberry, a jewel shining in the outwardly barren and desolate rock face.
To quote Eckhart Tolle, in his book “Oneness with All Life”,
“Time is seen as the endless succession of moments, some ‘good’, some ‘bad’ – yet, if you look more closely, that is to say, through your own immediate experience, you find that there are not many moments at all. You discover that there is only ever this moment. Life (and death) is always now”
Yet, even this profound explanation is not quite ‘it’ for me. Initial responses, though sometimes seeming superficial, often hold what is true for us at the time that we hear a teaching, a line of scripture, see a piece of art, read a poem, or get some friendly advice. So, going back to my more visceral reaction to the complete awesomeness of a strawberry growing on a mountainside, it feels to me that the strawberry, with its bright burgeoning potentiality, encapsulates that which lies both within and beyond all concept of now, then or maybes. It is the eternal nature of all things, the universe itself; ripe and shining. I like to think that this is what the monk saw in that strawberry and that is why he took the time to appreciate and consume* it.
It had been “a bit of a day”. My husband, recently discharged home from hospital, was “all at sea”. Impatient with himself for not being able to do the things he wanted to do, hot and bothered by the June heatwave, frustrated by failing eyesight and gradual hearing loss, his mood was low. For my part, my usual patience was wearing thin. Moment by moment, trying to fix things that could not be fixed – our voices, flowing back from one to another, sounded tetchy. Each time we spoke, we missed each other’s meaning by a mile.
And then, as the day was closing and I had helped him back into his bed, I stepped out into my backyard in the fading light of evening, and there I saw it. That, which only a few hours ago had still been green in parts, was now a fat red strawberry, in the shape of a heart. I instantly remembered the story of the monk on the clifftop.
It was a beautiful fruit, full of brightness; complete of itself. I took my phone and photographed it before gently plucking it from its stem. I took it indoors and, collecting a small knife from the kitchen en route, I went into my husband’s room. He was still awake. I held up the strawberry and he smiled. Then, taking the knife, I split it down the middle and gave him half.
He took it from me. “You shared it with me!” he said, before eating it.
“Yes”, I said “Good night!”
* Consume, in this sense, is to hear the Dharma.