Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Activity 1: Story - The Man and the Tiger

Activity time: 15 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Read "The Man and the Tiger" so you will be comfortable presenting it. Prepare to read it expressively, conveying the drama of the situation, but without attempting to interpret the ending-simply read it as it is written.

Description of Activity

Participants hear a classic Zen koan and discuss its meaning.

Tell the story or read it aloud.

Wait a few moments before inviting discussion; allow the group to think and process the story. Take note of participants' puzzlement, but do not feel you need to do anything about it. Being puzzled is part of the point.

Ask for initial responses. What do the youth think the story means?

Encourage them to explore the story further using questions such as:

  • Did you like the ending? Why or why not?
  • Do you know what happens next? Are you sure? Why do you suppose the writer left the ending that way?
  • Ambiguity-having several possible meanings or an uncertain meaning-is often used in Zen teaching stories. Why do you think that is? What purpose does ambiguity serve?
  • Buddhists might say it is important not to cling too hard to life because life is impermanent. Buddhists might also say we should strive to be mindful and truly experience every moment of our life. Are these two ideas in conflict?
  • What in the world is the point of that strawberry?!
  • Why would the story specify one white mouse and one black mouse?

Tell the group humor and surprise often appear in Zen literature. They serve a spiritual purpose-a relatively painless way to jolt the reader or listener out of their usual perspective so they can see things a different way, which is central in the Zen pathway to enlightenment. Zen masters, or teachers, are famously eccentric, bizarre, and sometimes seemingly cruel, but their goal is always to knock people a little closer to the truth. The combination of energetic humor-as in koans and the eccentric, even bizarre behavior of Zen masters-and serenity-as in exceedingly calm meditation, simple surroundings, and austere gardens-is unique to Zen practice.

If participants say they cannot figure out the point of the story, ask if not having a point could be the point. Essential to Zen, and to all Buddhist practice, is the discipline to recognize when something is incomprehensible and to then just let it be. Say:

Be at peace with not understanding it; accept it exactly as it is. Whatever is, is perfect.