Leo Tolstoy’s Christian Buddhist Mashup

Leo Tolstoy died that day, November 20, 1910. He is one of those complicated, difficult, yet brilliant figures of one that could be called the harsh light of the divine.

In his Confessions and other religious writings, he offers something that I have found to be an absolute delight. It’s sort of a mixture of Christian and Buddhist wisdom. At least as I read it …

“There is an old oriental fable about a traveler caught off guard in the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast, the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour it.

“The poor boy doesn’t dare go out because he’s afraid of being eaten by the predatory beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he grabs a branch of a bush that grows in the crevices of the well and clings to it. His arms are weakening and he knows he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on both sides. Yet he still clings, and as he clings to the branch, he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily circling around the bush he’s hanging on, gnawing at it.

“Sooner or later they will eat him and the branch will break, and he will fall into the dragon’s mouth. The traveler sees it and knows that it will inevitably perish. But while he’s still hanging there, he sees drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, puts out his tongue and licks them. Likewise I cling to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death is inevitably waiting for me, ready to tear me apart, and I do not understand how I fell into this torment. And I try to lick the honey that once consoled me, but that doesn’t make me happy anymore.

“The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – eat away at the branch from which I am hanging. I can clearly see the dragon and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I only see one thing; the inevitable dragon and the mice, and I can’t take my eyes off them. And it is not a fable but the truth, the irrefutable truth and intelligible to all.

“The illusion of the joys of life that once stifled my fear of the dragon no longer fooled me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think about it but live, I cannot do it because I have already done it for too long. Now I can’t help but see day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. That’s all I can see because it’s the only truth. Everything else is a lie.

“These two drops of honey which, more than anything, had diverted my gaze from the cruel truth, my love for my family and for my writing, which I called art, I found them no longer sweet.

Perhaps you know this story at least in outline as a traditional Buddhist parable. Tolstoy’s source was the Story of Barlaam and Jehoshaphat, an ancient and highly regarded hagiography with many versions, accounts, and adaptations in various languages.

What Tolstoy does not say, and perhaps did not know, is that the whole legend of Barlaam and Jehoshaphat is a delicious blend of Buddhist and Christian teachings attached to a strongly Christianized version of the life of Buddha.

I don’t know exactly why, but all of this makes me happy …

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