Like an Instrument
There's a well-known sutta that documents the doubts and eventual enlightenment of the monk Soṇa, commonly called the 'Soṇa Sutta.' It's a fun sutta as it packs in everything, including teleportation, hints on how to become enlightened and some solid guidance on how to meditate when practice is hard.
It's this latter guidance that is usually brought out. In a nutshell, Soṇa is practicing hard but not really feeling like he is getting anywhere. Sounds familiar? This is how we initially find our hapless hero:
As Ven. Soṇa was meditating in seclusion [after doing walking meditation until the skin of his soles was split & bleeding], this train of thought arose in his awareness: “Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents through lack of clinging/sustenance. Now, my family has enough wealth that it would be possible to enjoy wealth & make merit. What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?”You can probably relate. There are times when we all feel like we are making the effort but not making any 'progress,' whatever that might mean. And realizing that this is where Soṇa is the Buddha comes to him and says this:
“Just now, as you were meditating in seclusion, didn’t this train of thought appear to your awareness: ‘Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents.… What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?’”
“Now what do you think, Soṇa? Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vīṇā?”
“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too taut, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too loose, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”
“In the same way, Soṇa, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there pick up your theme.”
This simple instruction is incredibly profound and can have a powerful effect on our practice. Just like Soṇa and his vīṇā (or lute) we can approach our practice as, well, practice (as an aside here - in England we differentiate between practice the noun and practise the verb, so I could have said we can approach our practice as practise).
I like this shift in focus. Rather than seeing our practice as a chore to be completed, we can see it as an opportunity to explore, to experiment and to grow. I believe that reclaiming this sense of exploration is essential if we are to stay motivated on the path.
And so, having received this encouragement our hero Soṇa returned to his practice in this way:
So after that, Ven. Soṇa determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there picked up his theme.
I find this expression 'there picked up his theme' fascinating. Having received the instruction he was able to find the right balance in his practice and 'pick up his theme.' It's a wonderful metaphor for how we wish our practice to be.
So for all of us I hope we can find that true balance in our practice and each of us 'find our theme.' Especially when it seems hard to stay with it.
I have linked below a fully-guided audio meditation on approaching our practice 'like an instrument.' You can of course listen at any time you wish, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 18th October. You are welcome to join us if you wish.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Soṇa Sutta translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN6_55.html
Photo by Vince Russell on Unsplash
Photo by Vince Russell on Unsplash