Tag Archives: parable

The Lute Strings

Another parable. See The Ship and An Acre of Forest for earlier ones.

Gaynor had now given up her early obsession with music and decided to focus on her career. In fact, it had been several years now since she had even thought about music. Instead, her focus was on the completion of this project, the approval of her boss, the likelihood of more responsibility in the next project, the need to overcome obstructive colleagues and placate demanding customers, the determination to make an impression for her ability and commitment. She had barely noticed as her relationship unravelled and her boyfriend moved on. She lived alone now, and worked.

But suddenly, like a swimmer stricken by weakness in mid-channel, she began to find herself undermined by weakness. One morning she woke up at 3am overwhelmed by despair – knowing suddenly that she was not good enough and there was no point. She could not go to work and she could not go on. She took time off, and at first her boss was sympathetic. “You’ve been overdoing it, Gaynor” she said on the telephone, “But you’re a valuable asset to the company, so you need to look after yourself. You take some time off and get better.” The doctor advised a new treatment: mindfulness based stress reduction. Really good for depression, he had said, much better than giving her drugs. So one afternoon, Gaynor found herself in a class learning how to meditate.

At first it was really annoying. The mindfulness teacher led them in a body scan and then told them to focus on the breath. For Gaynor, the body scan had just made her feel insecure about her body: it wasn’t good enough, it was full of tension. Then when asked to focus on the breath she just found it boring. She tried doing it for a few seconds, but then immediately started thinking about the office again.

In the discussion afterwards, Gaynor asked the mindfulness teacher how she could focus on her body or on the breath without getting stressed about it. To her they just seemed like new sources of stress. Why go to a meditation class and fail at doing something else, having just failed at going to work? If she tried to stop doing these things, she would float around and then just land right back on her stress points.

“Well,” the Mindfulness Teacher seemed to be searching for the right response, “have you ever played any music – an instrument of some kind?”Winged man playing the lute Durer

A sudden stab of memory at the word “music”: Gaynor and her lute, at the age of 14. That lute given to her by her aunt, and the local guitar teacher keen on the baroque, who had taught her and encouraged her. At one time she hadn’t just played music, it had seemed that music had also been playing her.

“Yes,” responded Gaynor after a pause, “I used to play the lute, but I gave it up to concentrate on my career.”

“Ah! Well, there’s a story told by the Buddha about a lute. Once there was a monk who came to him whose name was Sona. Sona had been trying too hard in meditation. Like you he was just finding it another challenge, another source of stress. But Sona also used to play the lute. So the Buddha asked him, ‘What happens if the lute-strings are too tight?’ What would you say, Gaynor?”

“You don’t get a good tone. You get distortions, and it’s bad for the instrument.”

“And what happens if the lute-strings are too slack?”

“Similarly, you don’t get a good tone. It’s out of tune.”

“So you need the lute-strings to be neither too taut nor too slack, but somewhere in between, the Middle Way. Meditation is just like that. You have to find a point in yourself where you start getting the right tone, the one that just hits the note and is in tune. You won’t do that by forcing your effort or having too rigid an idea of what you want to achieve. You have to be a bit exploratory and provisional. On the other hand you do need to have a sense of purpose in meditation, and to maintain that sense of purpose, otherwise you will just drift off.”

When she got home, Gaynor went impulsively to her wardrobe, where, under a pile of clothes and other detritus, she found her lute in its case. In excitement, she took it up and tried to tune it, but straight away one of the strings snapped. She had to make a trip to a music shop before she could go any further. But then at last she was there, with a lute once more in her hands, and with the strings neither too taut nor too slack. After a few minutes of initial clumsiness, she was amazed at how quickly her musical agility returned: the technique, the expression, the memory of the pieces, all were still there.

She played solidly for two hours, and then realised that her depression had apparently lifted. But she felt no urge to go back to work.

The next week she returned to the meditation class. In the practice, this time, she tried to tune her breath like a lute-string: neither too taut, nor too slack. For a while she seemed to find that point, then she got distracted by congratulating herself and thinking about her lute. At least she wasn’t thinking about work, she thought.


 The Middle Way and psychological states

This story uses an analogy directly used by the Buddha to illustrate the Middle Way in relation to psychological states. The Middle Way appears not just in relation to sets of explicit views – what we might typically think of as ‘extreme’ views – but also in the assumptions we make in everyday life. If you are not an extremist, unfortunately you can’t congratulate yourself that you are necessarily already practising the Middle Way, as the kinds of states encountered by Gaynor are, more or less, the ones we all encounter, to a greater or lesser degree, on a regular basis. We are not quite hitting the Middle Way at every point where we are not optimally ‘tuned’.

However, it’s important to understand how beliefs relate to psychological states here. It is not the psychological states that are extreme, but the beliefs that accompany them. For example, Gaynor was not in an ‘extreme’ state just because she was depressed – depression may have a variety of causes, after all. Rather her depression was being perpetuated by a rigid view: in this case the view that fulfilling the goals of work and career would meet all her needs. This view was inadequate to the conditions, not because the work was bad, but because her needs were more complex than that. If she were to flip to the opposite negating view, that work was bad and she should give up work entirely, it might have equally negative effects. These views are only ‘extreme’ because they are rigid and fail to notice the possibility of a balanced and flexible judgement in between, not because they would necessarily be conventionally understood as ‘extreme’.

As a good lute-player will know, it is no good just tuning your lute once. You have to keep re-tuning it, because otherwise it will go out of tune, and similarly the Middle Way consists of a series of flexible judgements constantly re-made, all of which hit a middle point between the affirmation and denial of fixed beliefs. The Middle Way is thus a process of judgement, not a fixed belief in itself. If you had a sense of it in the past, and then forgot it, rediscovering the Middle Way can indeed be a bit like rediscovering your lute at the bottom of your wardrobe.

Meditation is an excellent context for directly experiencing the Middle Way. If you approach it with a fixed belief of the kind Gaynor had (that it was just another source of stress requiring too much of her), it will not yield any satisfaction, any more than a badly-tuned lute will provide satisfactory music. Someone approaching it with the opposite belief (that meditation was just about relaxing and having no purpose at all) would probably have an equally bad time. However, as soon as you hit on the right tuning for the lute, meditation can become much more rewarding. For a short while you may create beautiful music, but then it is very likely that you will get stuck in some other way, hanging onto a rigid belief of some other kind rather than finding the balance. Every time you manage to loosen that belief (every time you re-tune the lute), you begin to live a little more provisionally, and build up more adequate habits in relation to the world.


An Acre of Forest

I am currently working on a book of 29 ‘Parables of the Middle Way’, each accompanied by commentary. I will be posting some example parables here from time to time, and any comments will help me refine them. I already posted ‘The Ship’ a while ago, and here is another one, ‘An Acre of Forest’

“In addition to the property we have discussed, your grandfather left you something you might not have expected in his will” said Mr Jenkins, looking over his documents.

“Oh, what’s that?” replied Petra, intrigued.

“An acre of forest.”Mixed-forest Oliver Herold

“An acre of forest? I didn’t even know he had an acre of forest to leave! Where is it?”

“In the Elwyn Valley, I believe, about five miles from here. It’s an odd little bit of land, and I’ve no idea how he acquired it or why. He doesn’t seem to have exploited it for timber, or anything of that kind.”

“He did love forests” said Petra. “Perhaps he just wanted to preserve it.”

“Perhaps that’s the best explanation” replied the solicitor. “Still, Mrs Dawkins, what do you want to do with it? If you’d like me to put it on sale on your behalf, I could set that in motion.”

“What sort of forest is it? Is it ranks of conifers, or are they broadleaved? Are the trees mature?”

“I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. I’ve never viewed it. We could go and look if you think that’s important.”

“Well, I don’t need to take up your time with that, Mr Jenkins. Just show me on the map where it is, and I’ll go and look by myself. Once I’ve seen it, perhaps I’ll be able to make a sensible decision.”

“Well, don’t expect too much. A single acre is not a very large area. And it may not have been well-managed so as to look its best. Here, you can see where it is marked on the map.”

Despite this premonitory warning, when Petra parked her car in what she was sure was the right place, and looked at her acre of forest, her heart immediately fell. All she could see were ranks of pines: Norway spruce of a kind that is grown all over the British uplands simply to make as fast a profit from timber as possible, of the kind that shades out all undergrowth and forms a thick mass of impenetrable dead branches under the trees. She found it difficult to believe that her romantically-minded grandfather would have bought a timber plantation just to make money, and her opinion of him began to take a plunge as a consequence.

She was about to drive off in a rage against her grandfather, when she thought perhaps she should look beyond the initial rank of pines, in case there was a clearing there or something. Also, if she was going to sell it, she’d better check what condition the trees were in and how mature they were. So, she barged her way through an initial row of dead pine branches. To her surprise, there were no pines behind the first row. Instead there was a stand of ash trees. Oh, and over there were some beeches, and there were some oaks too. A clearer way opened out between the trees, with undergrowth around her, and she found herself in a charming clearing, with wild flowers, birds singing and a squirrel scuttering off through the branches. Quite a variety of trees surrounded the clearing: sycamores, rowans, London plane… She couldn’t even identify all the types of tree.

No wonder her grandfather had bought it! Now she understood. Grandad had had an eye for the hidden and unappreciated. Her grandmother had been rather like that: an initial austere, utilitarian exterior, but when you got to know her she could be the warmest, kindest person in the world. This acre of forest was exactly the same: not just one type of tree but many. Not just ugliness but beauty too. Not just commercial timber, but beautiful mature broadleaved trees as well.

It was clear what she needed to do. She would preserve it too, and pass it on to her grandchildren as well. Her grandfather had left no particular instructions for his ashes, but now she also knew where to scatter them.


Variation of beliefs in an individual

The acre of forest is a parable about the multiplicity of human individuals – and indeed the same point, more obviously, applies to human groups. Most of us have at least some awareness of the dangers of stereotyping a group of people, whether they are grouped by race, gender, age group, profession or whatever other criteria. However, we are far more likely to assume that if someone expresses (or implicitly shows) a particular belief, then this is essential and definitive of them. Far from it – the beliefs of a particular human individual are like the trees growing in an acre of forest. Some may resemble each other and be of the same species, but others may not.

We cannot know whether or not there is any kind of essential unity (a ‘self’) in an individual – this would be a metaphysical claim. However, we can judge from experience that multiplicity is quite likely, and that we are rarely single selves. This is perhaps most obvious in people who have conditions such as multiple personality or bipolar disorder, when we tend to regard extremes of differing belief in the same person as indicative of a mental disorder. However, it applies to a lesser degree to all of us. Nearly all of us, if we are human, make resolutions that we fail to keep, forget to answer emails, have more positive or more negative moods, and change our language to suit the company. This is not a question of pretence, masking who we really are (as if we could know who we really are), but rather of simply being innocently various.

We are perhaps most likely to take people’s beliefs as definitive when they themselves take them very seriously and believe that they are living their whole lives by those beliefs – as is the case, say, with strong religious or political beliefs. However, it is very unlikely that they are. Even a saint, deeply committed to certain religious beliefs, does not make all their everyday judgements with reference to those beliefs, but rather consults everyday practical beliefs. If St Francis needed to wash his robe, he would have made the same judgement that it needed washing whether he was a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist. A social belief like the correct way to greet someone is also usually the product of a particular cultural context, regardless of the religious or political beliefs in it.

When a person seems to consist only in a rank of pines, then, perhaps we should bear in mind that there may be lovely rowans behind them – or, of course, the reverse.


Photo by Oliver Herold (Wikimedia Commons – CC)

A Middle Way Fable

I’ve been intending for some time to write a book of parables or fables about the Middle Way, and today I made a start by writing the first fable, which I thought I’d share with you. Comments, whether critical or supportive, might help me on my way to writing some more!

The Ship

Ship in straitThe lovely ship ‘Progress’, laden with passengers and cargo, was just entering the dangerous strait between Scyllia and Charybdisland when the weather began to look more threatening. Captain Jack Everyman scowled at the gathering cloud and the rising wind.

“It’s not looking good”, he said to his first mate, Mr Scyllius, “We could be driven straight onto those rocks if we call in at Scyllatown.”

“But we have to call in there!” protested Mr Scyllius, “My mother will be waiting for me, and she has a legacy to give me from my lately deceased uncle! Then the Prince of Scyllia wishes to join us on the voyage. We will displease him!”

“That won’t do any of us any good if the ship is turned to matchwood on the way” growled Everyman, “You and the Prince and your money will all alike go to feed the sharks.”

“Yes,” chimed in Mr Charyb, the Second Mate, who came from the rival state on the other side of the strait, “Scyllia is too dangerous at the best of times. The docks are thronged with cut-throats! I don’t know why the ship has to include it on the itinerary at all. Come to Charybdisland instead: it’s a great deal safer and friendlier. The people there are actually rational and behave like proper human beings!”

“Not likely,” Replied Everyman gruffly, “The passage into Charybport is just as dangerous. Not rocks but sandbanks! It may look smoother, but the threat lies just beneath the surface. Not in this weather!”

“But the Oracle of Charybport is due to give a final revelation!” cried Charyb, “I need to hear it! And the Chief Priest wants to join us on the voyage. He will be most displeased!”

“That seals it,” replied Everyman ironically, “If we’re lucky enough not be eaten by sharks, The Prince of Scyllia and the Chief Priest of Charybdis will probably kill each other in any case, and trash the ship in the process!”

“What do you expect if you let hypocritical scum from Charybdisland on board?” cried Scyllius.

“It’s the immoral rabble from Scyllia that cause the trouble!” protested Charyb. “Just look at the statistics on crime in sea-going vessels. They bear me out!”

“That’s enough!” said Everyman sharply. Both men knew that he had no sympathy with their partisan bickering, and the tone of command was enough to silence them. “Either I please you both or I please neither. There’s no way I’m going to visit one port but not the other.”

At that moment, a sudden shaft of sunlight burst through the gathering black clouds, and the wind seemed to drop.

“That’s an interesting meteorological indication, sir” said Scyllius carefully, “Do you think it might mean we could risk it?”

“It’s a sign!” cried Charyb in half-ironic triumph, “God wants you to go to Charybport! He could never allow you to leave his Chief Priest standing on the quay.”

“Maybe it’s a sign, and maybe it isn’t,” said Everyman, “But if we take the risk, we go to both ports. Agreed?”

Reluctantly, both men agreed. Everyman turned the ship towards Scyllatown.

As they neared Scyllatown, however, the weather deteroriated again. The clouds massed, the rain lashed down, and the winds blew up to storm force. Having made up his mind, though, the Captain set his jaw, held course and ordered the sails down.

“Look at those rocks!” cried Charyb, “We’ll be wrecked! Let’s get out of here, Jack!”

“Just hold your course!” urged Scyllius, “We’ll be OK. Many ships have still managed to dock safely in weather like this.”

They were driven closer and closer to the rocks, to the terror of all on board, but Jack Everyman held his nerve. At last the wind began to abate a little, and the quay of Scyllatown loomed before them through the film of rain.

As soon as they docked they sent messengers into the town to find Scyllius’s mother and the Prince. Both were surprised but happy to find that the ship had dared the weather to dock there. Captain Jack Everyman urged the Prince to board without delay, and made sure that all cargoes were loaded and unloaded immediately.

“Are you not going to wait for better weather, Captain?” asked the Prince’s Aide-de-Camp, “Why do we go so soon?”

The Captain shook his head, “We’re leaving immediately,” he said, “and sailing to Charybport”. The Aide-de-Camp looked at him incredulously, as if he had said they were sailing for the City of Dis. The Captain did not tell him why he feared lingering in Scyllatown even more than the storm. Charyb had been right about the throngs of cut-throats.

With the Prince and further precious cargo on board, the ship set off again in weather that was not much better than the conditions they had arrived in. This time the journey lay straight across the strait, for Scyllatown and Charybport, each the capital of a diametrically opposed kingdom, lay right opposite each other. Each could even see the other in clear weather. Many had been the ships sunk and men’s lives wasted in endless warring over that strait. In public all was enmity, with all visitors from the opposite realm requiring special clearance from the authorities. Any stray sailor from the opposing realm who wandered incautiously in Scyllatown would first be spat upon, then quietly dispatched in a dark alley. Yet behind the scenes, the authorities in fact maintained quite a cordial relationship with each other.

It was a battered-looking Progress, with a snapped foremast but otherwise intact, that limped into the harbour of Charybport a few hours later. The Prince of Scyllia had barricaded himself into a stateroom below decks and refused to stir, the misery of seasickness only slightly alleviated by the news that they had landed in Charybdisland. The quay in Charybport was much better maintained than that in Scyllatown, but the sailor who jumped onto the quay was immediately upbraided by the harbourmaster for wearing what he took to be leather shoes. “This is an insult to Charybdis!” he roared, “Take away your unclean footwear this instant!” The terrified sailor soon leapt back on board to comply.

After an inspection by the harbourmaster for both leather footwear and signs of disease, a few sailors were judged pure enough to be able to land temporarily. However, they were only able to proceed into the town to glimpse the wonders of the Great Temple after paying hefty additional bribes to the harbourmaster. Only Mr Charyb, as a native, was able to avoid these strictures. Captain Everyman was again desirous to be off as soon as possible, and instructed the sailors to be back in an hour at the most. He was relieved to see that the Chief Priest’s sumptuous carriage soon rolled up. The extremely obese Chief Priest was then brought on board in a litter borne by four slaves.

He was greeted, somewhat to his surprise, by the Prince of Scyllia, who had unbarricaded his state room as soon as he glimpsed the Chief Priest’s arrival through a porthole. “Hello, old fellow!” He proferred a hand, “Terrible weather, what!”.

“Fancy meeting you here!” the Priest responded, “Don’t think I’ve seen you since the Ball after Finals! Time goes by, what!”

But then the Prince glimpsed the Captain coming towards them along the passage. “Quick, the Captain’s coming,” he said in an undertone, “It might be prudent to be more statesmanlike.”

“That’s an insult to Charybdis!” shouted the Priest suddenly, putting on a convincing, but rather wobbly, shake of anger. “I will hear no more of this blasphemy!” He then turned and heaved himself along the passage towards the Captain.

“Your holiness is quartered in the front state-room, as his highness from Scyllia occupies the rear one.” said the Captain politely, “I hope it will be to your liking.”

The priest waddled on to inspect the front state room, “It will do,” He said eventually. “Just don’t let that sacrilegious scumbag anywhere near me!”

Once more, then, the ship set sail in some haste, as soon as passengers and cargo had been loaded and unloaded, and the foremast rapidly replaced. One sailor who had lingered too long, captivated by wonder in the Great Temple, had to be left behind. As they set out the storm had already abated to a gale, and before long it sank to a pleasant breeze. Within hours the clouds had drifted away, and the sun shone, as the ship beat down the strait to further its journey.

The captain and mates gathered again on the bridge. “That was a hard passage, captain,” remarked Scyllius, and Charyb for once nodded his agreement.

“Ay, ‘twas hard,” remarked the Captain. “It would have been hard enough just to sail down the strait in such weather, let alone pick up passengers. Yet I’m glad I allowed you both to persuade me. What would be the point of a voyage without passengers?”

“As long as the Prince and Chief Priest don’t kill each other.” added Charyb.

“They haven’t yet.” said the Captain, “Who knows, a pleasant voyage in the sunlight may help ease their enmity!”