D.T. Suzuki (Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, October 18, 1870 – July 12, 1966) was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West.
There is a Zen story he tells that captures the attitude of mindfulness with respect to living in the present and living in a state of gratitude.
There are several versions of this story. Here’s my version, edited in the way I like to tell it:
An honor student, frustrated with his life and with school, worried about what tomorrow may bring, approached his teacher asking for some guidance.
“The story goes,” says the teacher in response to his students request for help, “That a Buddhist Monk was walking through the mountains one day. Then, out of nowhere, a tiger appears, chasing the monk towards the edge of a cliff. The monk, in his quest to escape the tiger, runs to the edge of the cliff and climbs over the side, where he sees five other tigers 15 feet below him, waiting to eat him.
So the monk is just hanging there, holding on to a vine on the side of the cliff, waiting there for the little chance he has to escape or for his imminent demise. Then, as the monk hangs there, exploring his options, he turns to the left and sees a strawberry.
He smiles, “Wow what a magnificent strawberry!” he says to himself. So, he picks it and he eats it.
The student waited for his teacher to continue but it was clear that the teacher was done with the story. “That’s it? That is it the story? The monk is about to be eaten by tigers so he reaches out to pick and eat a strawberry?” the student exclaimed.
“What’s the point?” he added.
The teacher replied, “The lesson is to know and embrace the experience of being alive. You must be alive every second you are alive.”
The student responded, “But teacher, everyone is alive when they are alive.”
“No,” said the teacher. “It’s the experience of being alive in each moment, in each experience, good and bad. We must be alive every second we are alive and not simply exist and live out our days.”
The student, confused, questioned his teacher, asking, “But everyone alive is alive, aren’t they?” he insisted.
“No. Look at you now,” explained the teacher. “You are running around being chased by tigers, consumed with your thoughts of how it could be better, how you could be better if only things were different. Yet, you have shared with me over the past year several difficult situations, in addition to the circumstances that I have observed, how you were about to be eaten by tigers and how you have been saved in each situation. You can’t be alive if you are living in fear and if you’re living in fear you can’t see and experience life; the magnificence of your life that is right in front of you in each moment.”