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The Parable of the Zither

Hasht Behesht Palace santur

Shakyamuni, who is known as the Buddha of compassion, seems to have been an exceptionally gifted man of dialogue. Always engaged in conversation with people, he was very quick at grasping another's suffering and very skillful at leading him toward the life-condition of enlightenment, sometimes by using easily understandable metaphors and at other times by the sheer rhythmical delivery of his speech. On occasion, he would even persuade people through his appearance alone, without uttering a word. Even those who held Shakyamuni in contempt are said to have risen to their feet at the sight of him, though they had decided beforehand that even if Shakyamuni came to them, they would not stand up to greet him. A Japanese proverb says, "The eyes speak as eloquently as words," but in Shakyamuni's case, his appearance spoke just as eloquently. This is traditionally called "preaching by appearance." It seems to me that the wisdom which sprang from the profound personality of Shakyamuni must have shown itself irrepressibly in his speech and behavior.

According to the Anguttara-nikaya, a Buddhist text, Shakyamuni Buddha had a young disciple named Sona. Sona came from an affluent family and was cheerful and clever. Since renouncing secular life, he had been more assiduous in his Buddhist practice than anyone else. Nonetheless, he found himself no closer to enlightenment. As days went by, melancholy gave way to bewilderment, which in turn developed into agony. Before long, he became so emaciated that his appearance had totally changed. It was then that the Buddha visited him. Knowing that Sona was very good at playing the zither, the Buddha skillfully used it as a metaphor:

"Sona, you cannot produce a good sound on the zither if you tighten the strings too much, can you?"

"That is correct, man of great virtue."

"And at the other extreme, you cannot produce a good sound either if you loosen the strings too much, can you?"

"What you said is precisely right, man of great virtue."

"Then, what would you do?"

"Man of great virtue, it is vital to tune the strings properly and neither tighten nor loosen them too much."

"Sona, you should realize that the practice of the Way which I preach is exactly the same. If you are too assiduous in your practice, you will strain your mind and become too tense. However, if you relax your mind too much, then you will be overwhelmed by laziness. You must strike a balance in your practice of the Way as well."

This is known as "The Parable of the Zither." Here Shakyamuni advocated chudo or the "Middle Way" so that people would not lean either toward hedonism on the one hand, or toward asceticism on the other. He was in no way referring to a principle of lame compromise in which one experiences only a certain amount of sorrow and suffering. Shakyamuni intended, first of all, to help people establish, at a far deeper level, a mind as stable as the earth, incapable of being swayed by either joys or sorrows. With this understanding you may realize that this subject is far closer to us than one might suspect. Many people may think it sounds very philosophical when they hear the word chudo, but Shakyamuni taught it as wisdom for daily life . . .

Chudo means to be "in accordance with the Way." What "the Way" signifies is difficult to explain, but it by no means refers to something fixed. You may think of it as the course which you yourself must positively choose amidst the realities of life as they change from day to day. I hope you will neither tighten nor loosen the zither strings of your heart too much, but tune them so as to play a harmonious melody of life.

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