Parables of the Middle Way – Sample

1. The Ship

The lovely ship ‘Progress’, laden with important passengers and precious 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! Also 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” said 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 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 the 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 Charybdisport! 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 Charybdisport”. The Aide-de-Camp looked at him incredulously, as if he had said they were sailing for Hell. 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 more 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 Charybdisport, 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 either city 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 Charybdisport 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 Charybdisport 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 precede into the town to view the wonders of the Great Temple and listen to the Great Oracle 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 waddled back 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 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!”

2.  The Lute Strings

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 turbulence around her that she only started to recognise because she had ceased to make progress forward. 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?”

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.

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