“WHAT WOULD YOU DO if you were surrounded by five tigers?” a six-year old boy asked. Then he answered his own question: “I’d stop pretending.” This question and its answer have served me as a koan for years now, popping into my mind like a worn-in prayer. Do I have to wait for five tigers to stop pretending? Sometimes I think yes. And even then, I sense that I could still hold on tight and keep it all together when deep down, all my soul ever wanted for me was to fall apart. What’s so bad about falling apart? Finally, the realities I constructed out of fear would collapse, and my truth would be revealed. Finally, my soul could stand up with shaky knees, wide open and unable to predict the future.
In Buddhist circles, the word “soul” is not popular, but for me there is a yawning gap if I leave it out. The soul, as I think of it, is the point where a particular humanness meets the vastness of truth. Universal in its impulse and particular in its expression, the soul is the part of us that through its yearning for the real can bring spirit and earth together to create something genuinely new that works for this time and place.
Seems it takes five or more tigers for us to drop our masks, stop pretending and let the soul speak. Most of us can do it only partially under controlled, specific conditions. And many of us go through a five tigers experience, find our souls, and then slowly hide them away again as conditions stabilize.
I suspect those who enter the realm of sainthood are beings who have by grace–and some very big tigers–lost their masks entirely and now see through the eyes of the soul. Many of the more famous stories point to their ultimately compassionate tigers, both outer and inner. St John of the Cross had big outer tigers: he was tortured by his fellow priests. The Buddha had big inner tigers: in a stubborn bid to reach enlightenment, he nearly starved himself before dropping his concepts about spiritual practice and listening to his human need for milk.
Sometimes we need to be forced to drop the things that don’t really work for us and step out of our predictable world into the place where we don’t know what happens next. I’ve noticed that as circumstances push me to shed my comforting illusions of security, I often feel the tigers now, stealthy and silent, circling. I’m sure others do as well. It’s a pretty shaky moment. But at some point, we’ll thank those tigers for putting us in touch with our buried souls and with the truth of what really matters to us, both individually and collectively.