An Eyebrow Hair
Here’s one of my favorite stories about Korea, which also involves a tiger.
Long ago, a young man was traveling through the mountains, when he ran across an old monk struggling to repair a tiny shrine. At a glance he saw what needed to be done, and after asking the monk to take a rest, he set about fixing the shrine. For him it would only take a couple of hours, whereas it would have taken days for the monk, who seemed quite clumsy with his hands. While the man was working, the monk was silent, and seemed to be watching him closely. But then, mountain monks always did tend to be a bit strange, so he didn’t think much about it.
At last, he finished and, sweating, sat down next to the monk, who continued to stare at him. Finally, the monk spoke, “It must have been tough growing up without parents or family. I too, lost my mother at a young age. Looking at you, I think a wife and family of your own is what you want more than anything else in the world. Am I right?” The young man shivered despite the heat, for it was as if the monk had seen into the very depths of his heart. How had he known those things?
The monk spoke again, “Well, if marriage and a family are what you have your heart set on, it won’t do to marry just any woman. You have to see clearly. Here.” With that, the monk plucked out one of his long, white eyebrow hairs, and handed it to the young man. “Now,” said the monk, “hold it in front of your eye and look at me.” The young man did this, and almost died of fright! For where he had been talking to an old man, he now saw a huge mountain tiger!
The young man quickly lowered the eyebrow hair, and there was the old monk again. He raised the hair to his eye again, and the monk had become a tiger again. The man thought he was either crazy or about to die, or both! The monk smirked at him, and then said, “Don’t worry, I don’t eat humans.” Well, this seemed like a lie, for the tigers in those mountains were notorious man-eaters. The monk seemed to read the man’s thoughts, and said again, “We’re actually quite spiritual, so we don’t eat humans. Only pigs and dogs, and maybe a donkey or fox, once in a while.”
The old monk sighed in response to the dubious stare he was getting, “Take that hair with you and use it to look at the people you meet. You’ll see what I mean.” With this they parted, and the man made his way back down to his village. It was still hard to believe what had happened, but he was dying to try out the hair on other people.
So early the next morning, he found a nice spot near the main road into the village and sat there waiting. Before long, the proud village mayor came by. Everyone treated him with much respect, but when the young man looked at him, he saw a great slobbering pig wearing clothes! Well, this was a shock! He next saw a line of woodcutters returning from the mountains, so he held up the hair, and to his amazement, most of them were dogs or pigs! Only two were actually human beings. This went on for a while, until he saw a beautiful young woman and her mother approaching. Just sight of the woman made his heart race, but when he held up the hair, he saw that she was really a fox-spirit!
This went on all day, and he was amazed at how few human beings he was seeing. Neither fine silk, Confucian hats, or monks robes were any guarantee of finding a human being. Finally, he looked through the hair at a plain-looking woman who was walking by, and discovered that she was a radiant human being. They were eventually married, and became the joyful family the young man had always wanted.
Well, the moral of this story isn’t about finding a spouse! (Though that is a topic that does tend to get young people to pay attention.) The heart of this story is the importance of seeing beyond appearances and learning to become a true human being.
In this story, the eyebrow hair of the tiger can become compared to our true nature, our foundation and Buddha-essence. When we can get in touch with this, and learn to see through it, then we’ll be able to truly see what is going on, and we’ll be able to respond in ways that go right to the heart of the situation.
It’s one thing to be born as a human being, but we still have to become true human beings. For while many are born with human bodies, many are still controled by the habits developed during animal incarnations. So a lot of spiritual practice is simply working on letting go of animal habits, and learning the ways of a true human being. Let’s all become great beings who can see clearly and respond appropriately with infinite power of our Buddha-nature.