From time to time there are Fake Buddha Quotes that just make me shake my head in disbelief. This is one of them:
"Tune as the Sitar neither low nor high. And we will dance away the hearts of men"- The Buddha
— Caitlin Wachs (@realCaitWachs) May 3, 2013
It’s not just on Twitter, but on Goodreads, and in a fair number of books.
The idea of the Buddha talking about “dancing away the hearts of men” is stunningly out-of-character with the Buddha. It’s the equivalent of Moses saying “Party people, are you ready to dance?” or Jesus saying “Get on down, like a sex machine.”
In a fuller version the original quote is:
Fair goes the dancing when the sitar’s tuned;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.
The string o’erstretched breaks, and the music flies;
The string o’erslack is dumb, and music dies;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high.
The fake quote has substituted “as” for “us.” Presumably this is taken to mean “tune yourself as the sitar.”
This isn’t, as you probably already worked out, from the Buddhist scriptures. It’s from Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem, “The Light of Asia,” which is a Victorian biography of the Buddha. To be fair, the Light of Asia is loosely based on the Lalitavistara, which is a Mahayana Sutra. But the speaker here isn’t even the Buddha, but a temple dancer. (Arnold calls her a “Nautch Girl,” although those were more along the lines of erotic dancers.)
With the mention of the sitar there’s an obvious reference to a sutta in which the Buddha gives advice to the Bhikkhu Sona, who is having problems living a monastic life, despite putting great effort into his practice. The Buddha compares Sona’s erratic striving as being like a lute (vina) which is sometimes too tight and sometimes too slack.
“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“In the same way, Sona, 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 faculties, and there take up the object [of meditation].”