Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Parable of the Lute

One of the most important impacts Buddhism has had on my life is fully introducing me to the concept of the Middle way.

A beautiful way this core Buddhist principle is explained is through the Parable of the Lute. Although there is one major lesson to be learned from this Buddhist parable, there are several widely known versions of this story. 

The first focuses on the experiences of Sona, who was a monk meditating alone in the forest during the time of the Buddha. Although he meditated diligently, he was frustrated by his lack of spiritual progress. He went to the Buddha to ask him why he was not being successful in his practice.

The Buddha answered, "Tell me Sona, in earlier days, were you not skilled in playing the stringed music of the lute?"

"Yes Lord" replied Sona.

"And, tell me, Sona, when the strings on the lute were too taut, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"

"Certainly not, O Lord."

"And when the strings on the lute were too loose, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?"

"Certainly not, O Lord."

"But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, and adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound, and then was it easily playable?"

"Certainly, O Lord."

"Similarly Sona, if energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax, it will lead to lassitude. Therefore Sona, keep your energy in balance and balance the Spiritual Faculties and in this way focus your attention."

The previous discourse is from the Anguttara Nikaya, which literally means "increased by one collection". It is the fourth of the five nikayas (collections) in the Sutta Pitaka, which is part of the Pali Tipitaka of Theravada Buddhism. I found this version of the Parable of the Lute on a personal website citing Jack Kornfield's The Teachings of the Buddha, and from a Google Book, Buddhist Wisdom, The Path to Enlightenment. The terms and context pertaining to the Anguttara Nikaya can be found on Wikipedia.

Finally, here is a neat cartoon video clip depicting the exchange between Sona and the Buddha. I believe that it is done quite well, and would be perfect to show to teens and pre-teens. The video ends with commentary about following the Middle Way from the young people narrating the animation.

In other versions of this parable, realization of The Middle Way through the proper tuning of a lute was made by Siddhartha Gautama (who later became the Buddha) himself. 

From what I have read so far, the following version has two variations: 

One day Siddhartha was meditating near a river bank. He was near starvation, his face sunken, his hair matted. He heard a fisherman teaching a young boy the proper way to tune a lute, a kind of stringed instrument. The fisherman said, "Listen, when the strings of the lute are too loose, the lute does not produce any sound, but when you tune it too tight, the strings snap. Only when the strings are tuned just right the lute can make music." (a similar variation describes the conversation between young girls learning to play the lute). 

Siddhartha, who had at that point spent several years depriving his body in his quest for enlightenment, had a revelation; One can achieve wisdom neither by a life of merriment nor of mortification, but only by a life lived in moderation- The Middle Way. This realization had very important implications for Siddhartha; his change in course would eventually lead him to enlightenment and to develop the foundations of Buddhism- the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Indeed, Siddhartha's realization, and his teaching of this revelation to others, has had a huge impact on the history of the world. Providing a major guiding principle for millions of practicing Buddhists (and perhaps many others), his teaching helps us strive to guard ourselves against extremes that lead to ignorance, anger, and attachment.

Does this parable resonate with you? What is your favorite version? Do you know of another version that you would like to share? How did learning about the Middle Way change your life?

May all beings be happy!  

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