The Buddha’s Middle Way of Knowing

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In the West, the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ of knowing has become something of a meaningless tautology (often used to justify any and all conventional behaviour , many modes of which were obviously and clearly criticised by the Buddha as being ‘unprofitable’ from a psycho-physical developmental point of view). Much of this narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour stems from Buddhist schools that have historically ‘dis-associated’ their practice from the Vinaya Discipline (in both its ‘lay’ and ‘monastic’ interpretations). This distorted approach to Buddhist practice, seeks to justify the very ‘ordinary’ and ‘deluded’ behaviour that the Buddha defined as ‘unsatisfactory’ ad producing of ‘suffering’. This is the continuation of modes of existence in the material world that are forever ‘changing’ and lack any inherent ‘substantiality’. Attachment to this impermanence is defined by the Buddha as the essence of all human suffering experienced in mind and body. The Buddha does not deny the existence of a material world, but defines this physical world as ‘impermanent’ and ‘changeable’. Although recognising the reality of the material world, the Buddha certainly does not advocate that ‘attachment’ to this material world is conducive to personal happiness – on the contrary – he teaches the exact opposite. Although the material world exists (and is the basis of the human body and all its senses – including the mind), its impermanent and changeable nature (from its tiniest to its largest aspects), means that human freedom from suffering does not exist within its structures. Therefore, although the Buddha fully recognises the existence of a material world – and includes ‘rupa’ (or ‘matter’) as the first of the five aggregates (stated within the Four Noble Truths) – his philosophical method cannot be termed ‘materialistic’. This is why the Buddha rejected the notion of an ‘eternal’ and ‘non-changing’ material universe (whilst still acknowledging the existence of a material realm). On the other hand, the Buddha rejects any notion of a disembodied consciousness that pre-exists physical conception in the womb, and post-exists the death of the physical body (such as in a theistic soul-concept). This means that although the Buddha fully recognises (and explains with considerable sophistication) the existence and functioning of the mind and its various processes, he does not advocate attachment to thought as the basis of achieving human freedom from suffering. On the contrary, the Buddha clearly advocates non-identification with thought, and its eventual ‘stilling’ in the mind, before a new understanding of reality manifests for the individual practitioner. This explains why the Buddha’s system of self-development cannot be termed ‘idealistic’. The human mind – just like the physical matter it is a part of – is transitory and subject to dissolution at the point of physical death (as the five aggregates fall apart due to the dissipation of the karmic-habit energy that previously sustained their temporary combination). Therefore, the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ does not deny the existence of an outer physical world, or the existence of an inner psychological world. Neither does the Buddha deny that the psychological processes are dependent upon physical matter (as in a functioning human body and brain), or that physical matter and human perception are inherently entwined – but he does refuse to accept the idea of am ethereal ‘soul’ (or ‘mind’ concept) that exists ‘outside’ or ‘independent’ of the world of physical matter – and which (through an act of ‘will’ – creates or generates the material realm – as found in the ‘creationist’ mythology associated with theistic religions). This does not deny, however, that the human mind (through ‘will-power’) can create physical patterns of behaviour that mould, shape and transform the material environment, but simply that conscious awareness in and of itself, cannot affect physical matter without a physical body acting as an intermediary. Moreover, the Buddha clearly states that conscious awareness cannot exist without the conditions associated with a physical body and its functioning biological processes. Within the Buddha’s interpretation of reality, there does not exist any notion of a ‘dis-embodied’ conscious awareness. Although the mind is a product of a number of functioning biological processes (all of which have ‘matter’ as their base), once conscious awareness is established in the material realm, the mind itself is able to generate and perceive what the Buddha describes as ‘non-material’ (arupa) states of awareness. These ‘non-material’ states of psychological awareness are not separate from the material basis of existence, and are dependent upon a functioning physical body to be experienced. In this regard, the states of psychological  generated ‘arupa’ (immateriality) may be interpreted as an extension of ‘rupa’ (matter), with the proviso that ALL conditioned states are impermanent and not the final realisation of emancipation (nirvana). Nirvana, as according to the Buddha, is that realisation that is ‘non-conditioned’, or ‘beyond’ the realm of matter and non-matter. This is further defined in many ways as being beyond ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception’ to ever rarefied degrees of bare awareness (which manifests as ‘prajna’ or profound understanding in a post-enlightened mind). An individual existence in a dualistic world, is transformed into a non-personal collectivity. Within this context, nirvana (enlightenment) and samsara (ordinary, conditioned, cyclic existence), are said to be exactly the same state viewed from two different perspectives. When the ‘absolute’ (nirvana) is perceived through deluded thought forms – it is experienced as the ‘ordinary realm’ of conditioned existence (samsara), but when the deluded thought forms are nolonger present and functioning – the ordinary conditioned world is clearly perceived as the ‘absolute’. The Buddha’s method then, has been correctly described as a form of ‘radical pluralism’ which recognises (and does not deny) the existence of the material or psychological realms (with the latter being established on the existence of the former), but which is not one-sidedly dependent on either realm.

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