The Tiger’s Kindness: A Korean Zen Koan

by Ray Grigg

The Rinzai branch of the Zen tradition is famous for its koans, those seemingly unanswerable questions or statements that are intended to create the clarity and vibrancy of direct experience by bringing the cluttered and scattered mind to a crashing collapse. These koans are not usually explained because words never represent the richness and lucidity of the unfolding awakening. But in Susan Murphy’s fascinating book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis, she offers some useful comments for approaching the so-called Korean Zen koan.

Like all koans, this one is extremely simple and equally puzzling. “The tiger fears the human heart. The human fears the tiger’s kindness.”

The first part of the koan seems to be fairly easy. Humans hunt tigers. While tigers may occasionally hunt humans, humans are undoubtedly the winners in the contest for being the most effective killer. Tigers are now on the verge of extinction, and we are slaughtering almost all other species in various wholesale ways. Whether tigers actually know enough of this to justify their fear is questionable. As an alpha predator — presumably without the conceptual capabilities to accurately gauge the “human heart” — we do not know whether such warranted “fears” are actually possessed by tigers.

Or, perhaps the tiger experiences a less obvious and more comprehensive kind of fear, one that keeps it on the fine edge of perfection as a hunting machine. This may be the same fear that is continually shaping the silent flying of the owl and the reflexive scampering of the mouse — indeed, the same fear that keeps honing all nature to its sophisticated and unmatched refinement. So even the simplest part of this Korean koan has its way of opening into irresolvable complexity.

The second part of the koan, “The human fears the tiger’s kindness,” is immediately bewildering. What “kindness” is this that “the human fears”? We don’t usually think of “kindness” as being an attribute of tigers. Doesn’t the tiger live by killing?

But don’t we humans also live by killing? Isn’t the entire living world a continual process of eating and being eaten? Isn’t this amazing interchange of energy a summation of life’s bountiful and exhilarating generosity? Isn’t participation in this elemental dance the essential condition for being alive, vital and aware? And so, as Murphy reminds us, this dance must “include the ‘kindness’ of the great food web, the gift cycle that will in time see every body that has eaten others to stay alive in turn become food for bacteria, worms and moulds.” And this “kindness”, she adds, must surely “include the eventual mortality that initiates and continually ignites all the possibility, joy and splendour of being alive.”

Thus the shadow of mortality falls upon the wonder of consciousness. Birth becomes the promise of death. Both living and dying are equally critical components in the incessant vibration of change that busily hums billions of times per second to maintain the excitement, vitality and creativity of this most miraculous Earth. We are part of this magnificent activity, participants in the perpetual rhythm of “kindness” that we all embrace, celebrate and treasure as reality. “For what is realization or enlightenment,” Murphy writes, “but [Earth] speaking to us directly, with our own noise no longer overwhelming the signal?”

“As with any koan,” Murphy notes, “you meet the tiger in your own heart and mind.” But this meeting can only be accommodated if the importance of self is diminished by placing it within the wholeness of the planet’s entire lifestream. The secret to meeting “the tiger” is not to empower the self to do victorious combat with the dynamics of nature, but to deflate the self so it is properly located in the great scheme of nature. For a big and growing self, the power and acuity of nature offers much to fear; for a small and shrinking self, a fearsome and threatening nature is powerless. Without a self of any importance, the elation of an open awareness is able to overflow with the full wonder of being entirely alive. The “tiger’s kindness” is this wonder, the blessing of entering a trusting, serene and alert consciousness. Nothing else is quite like it.

The “tiger’s kindness” is the living vitality of being born and being conscious, of breathing and laughing, of eating and loving. But the ‘tiger’s kindness” also comes with the dichotomies that our selfish little thinking calls good and bad, pleasure and pain, happy and sad. Since life and death are inextricably connected, the “tiger’s kindness” must also include grief and dying.

This is the point at which the focus of the koan shifts. If tigers thought and behaved like the “human heart”, they would not be tigers. Tigers are only tigers when they are being themselves, when their qualities arise spontaneously from the same “tiger’s kindness” that elicits fear in humans. Because tigers don’t think and behave like humans, they live comfortably with their “kindness”; because humans don’t think and behave like tigers, they live uncomfortably with this “kindness”. We find it extremely difficult to be ourselves in the same way that tigers are themselves, to enter the natural condition where our being arises like the tiger’s, and we experience with the same uncluttered and acute clarity.

Every koan is a conundrum, an endless puzzle leading toward a reality that is not a fabrication of comfortable deceptions but a communion of brave receptivity. The constructs of thoughts, ideas and beliefs are stripped away so experience can occur directly through an unfiltered and open consciousness. Without censure, exclusion or judgment, the dissolving self enters the wonder of being alive, becoming itself just as the tiger is itself. Reality is revealed without the distortion of illusions or the barrier of distinctions. In the indivisible wholeness of life on planet Earth, we discover that we and the tiger are just different facets of a single unity. And not even by killing the tiger can we avoid its “kindness”.