Listen Skillfully

Once upon a time, long, long ago in China, there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully. When the one played about a mountain, the other would say, “I can see the mountain before me.” When the instrument called forth a storm and the calm that followed, the one who listened would say, “Yes, I am battered and then released and breathed easily upon.” When the notes rippled water, the one who listened would cry out, “Yes, I hear and see the stream, the waterfall, the wave.” They grew so together. They were one mind, heart, flesh and hope. Inseparable.

Then the listener died. After a long period of mourning, the musician went back to playing. But the music was flat, dead and lifeless. The form and the skill remained, but the spirit had fled. He could not play no matter how much he practiced, no matter how often other listeners begged him to perform and suggested that he go on with his life.

The musician went back to his home and took down all his musical instruments –harps, violins, guitars, mandolins — and cut their strings. He never played again. Since that time the cutting of harp strings has always been a sign of intimate friendship.

— a story from “Zen Bones Zen Flesh” by Paul Reps adapted by Megan McKenna in “Rites of Justice”

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