Responding to the many dire situations in the world reminds me of a Buddhist parable. While in the form of a Bodhisattva, the Buddha encounters a starving tiger with two cubs to feed and willingly sacrifices himself. He first offers his leg to the beast, and then his other leg. The starving tiger needs to feed her cubs, so over time it takes the Bodhisattva’s hands, arms, heart, and finally the rest of his body, including his head.
Taken literally, the story is a morbid, crazy-sounding tale of self-mutilation and self-sacrifice. In more metaphorical terms, the tale is about generosity, loss, and the nature of suffering. As I see it, the tiger is the world, an insatiable beast always demanding more from each of us, and finally consuming everything we have to give. The body parts represent what we give to the world, and how loss can be transformed into Bodhisattva activity, the selfless sacrifice of who we are for the benefit of others. Giving our hands to the tiger means giving our physical labor and ingenuity. Giving our legs means making the physical effort to show up and do what needs to be done. Giving our heart means giving our all – our love, compassion, and sorrow. And giving our head is the devotion of our thoughts and mind to others, offering our best intentions to reduce the suffering of sentient beings.
Like all Buddhist parables, this one is about truth, what Buddhists call Dharma. Here it is: we are all always feeding the tiger with our body, speech, and mind, but we are also the tiger. The tiger is an insatiable beast, and in one way or another each of us sacrifice and lose ourselves until there’s literally nothing left. The human realm is the realm of desire; to satisfy it, some of us “work ourselves to the bone,” others “put their heart” into art, while still others think about “giving an arm or a leg” to get the material things they crave. We consume ourselves. What distinguishes Bodhisattva activity, however, is feeding the tiger with correct intention, giving one’s all for the benefit of others while knowing that the tiger will never be satisfied.
The parable has its parallel in Greek mythology. Prometheus, if you recall, was a Titan who broke the law by stealing the technology of fire from the gods and gifting it to humankind. For this crime, he was punished by Zeus to continuous suffering; chained to a boulder, each day an eagle would descend to Prometheus’ side and eat his liver. Each night his liver would grow back. (Interestingly, the human liver is the one organ that can regenerate). In this myth, Prometheus represents Bodhisattva activity, suffering after giving his all for the benefit of others. Setting aside its supernatural aspects, the tale of Jesus Christ follows a similar trajectory.
The archetype of those who willingly suffer in order to benefit others is deeply ingrained in human culture and affirms the value of virtuous action in an insatiable, predatory world. The tiger consumes us no matter what. Realizing this may make us fearful, angry, greedy, and resentful or generous, compassionate, sorrowful, or a combination of all such feelings. Placing the needs of others before one’s own is a choice that each of us can make. With that intention, we can perform the continuity of altruistic behavior that makes us fully human and as powerful as the tiger.