Two Interpretations of the Buddha’s Middle Way (Majjhima Patipada)

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Many people encounter Buddhism through a book, leaflet, documentary or group, and are therefore introduced to the subject through the particular interpretation implicit in those modes of knowledge transference. In the age of the internet, it can be argued that a greater degree of detail is available for the study of Buddhism, but the fact remains that as Buddhist philosophy is a complex subject, generally speaking a new student requires some sort of developmental guidance – or ‘narrowing’ of approach – to make sense of it all. This returns to the issue of entering Buddhism through a single gate of interpretation, and remaining unaware of the broader history and divergent philosophical development of Buddhist thought, or the various and distinct cultures that have become associated with the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia and the world. This insularity is compounded if the Buddhism encountered is being used for nefarious or illegitimate reasons. On the other hand, a misunderstanding of Buddhism can lead to the development of ‘quietism’, whereby an individual uses the excuse of being a ‘Buddhist’ not to get involved in important issues involving the well-being, development or safety of humanity. Even the Buddha interceded in the political milieu of his day, if he thought his personal presence could influence kings toward more humane policies, save human or animal life, or even prevent wars. He used the mediating device of cultivated wisdom as a means to ascertain when to act in the world, and when not to act in the world. This was not an interfering function that he took likely, and he advised many of his followers to sit and meditate for a considerable time so as to generate the wisdom required. Simply following personal prejudices, or current popularist trends was not the Buddha’s ‘middle way’. In essence, the Buddha inwardly followed the path of realising non-self, and of uprooting greed, hatred and delusion. On the outer the plane, the Buddha pursued policies that defused aggressive situations that were not dependent upon the belief of ‘self’ (religious or otherwise), and which advocated non-greed over greed, non-hatred over hatred, and non-delusion over delusion. His approach was that people would not treat one another in a selfish or barbaric manner if they understood the insubstantial and ever changing nature of reality. This approach included the deconstruction of the theistic religious belief system prevalent in his time.

The Buddha’s direction of inner and outer movement was defined as pursuing the ‘middle way’ (majjhima patipada), but within Early and Later Buddhist thought, this term has two distinct (and on the surface, very different) interpretations. The first statement must make it clear that all forms of Buddhism adhere to the teachings contained within the Four Noble Truths, and that within this schematic, the concept of the ‘middle way’, or ‘middle path’ is the directly philosophical consequence of the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the ‘Fourth Noble Truth’. The full title of this teaching is the ‘Path of the Fourth Noble Truth which Leads to the Cessation of Profound Dissatisfaction’, or in Pali ‘Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipade – Ariya Sacca). Herein, the Buddha presents eight guidelines which all Buddhists (both lay and monastic) should follow as a means to create a better life free of suffering. This eight guidelines are:

  1. Right Understanding (Samma Ditthi)
  2. Right Thought (Samma sankappa)
  3. Right Speech (Samma vaca)
  4. Right Action (Samma kammanta)
  5. Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
  6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
  7. Right Mindfulness (Samma sati)
  8. Right Concentration (Samma samadhi)

Together with various other instructions pertaining to thought and action in everyday life, the Buddha prescribed an ethical path of meditation (i.e. mind operation modification), and behaviour modification, primarily through adherence to the numerous rules designed to regulate moral behaviour (i.e. ‘sila’). For a Buddhist monastic, these guidelines were strictly (and literally) followed so that every thought, feeling, emotion and action was fully cognised and experienced in a ‘detached’ (or ‘impersonal’) manner. For the lay-Buddhist, the guidelines were followed in a more flexible manner, but with the emphasis being placed on the maintenance of virtuous thought and action in every situation. All Buddhists, for instance, regardless of status, are expected by the Buddha never to kill, or create the conditions for killing to occur. The same is expected with regards to stealing, inappropriate sexual thoughts and actions, speech motivated by greed, hatred and delusion, and food and drink termed ‘intoxicants’ that cloud the good judgement of the mind. Obviously, the Buddhist monastic follow hundreds of vows, but these five are essential to the entirety of the Buddha’s path, and are indicative of the psycho-physical nature of his moral teaching. For the Buddha, the greater the discipline applied to meditation and moral discipline, the quicker (in theory) a practitioner will escape the wheel of suffering and dissatisfaction. However, despite certain trends of thought found in various lineages of the more conservative extant schools of Buddhism, the Buddha did acknowledge (in the Pali Suttas) that committed lay-people (both male and female) could realise ‘nibbana’ through meditation or moral discipline, or on rare occasions, simply by being in the Buddha’s psychological and physical presence. The main point to take from this is that Buddhist monastic have an advantage in as much as their living situation is geared entirely away from worldly affairs, and completely toward the cessation of profound dissatisfaction and suffering. Although lay-people are at a disadvantage, this does not mean that they should not try, or that they are inherently unable to realise enlightenment. In many ways it is this tolerant attitude of the Buddha (found within Early Buddhism) that permeates Mahayana thinking.

The Mahayana School becomes historically observable around the 1st century CE, and is assumed to be a later development of the Buddha’s thought away from the definitional confines of what is termed ‘Early Buddhism’. Although the suttas of the Pali Canon are later developments out of Early Buddhism, it is logical to assume that much of the former is recorded in the latter. The Mahayana ‘sutras’ – by way of comparison – are written in Sanskrit, but also retain virtually everything that exists within the Pali Canon, despite the fact that various philosophical concepts have been developed beyond the foundational premise as originally laid-down by the Buddha. Having established this fact, it is also true that the ‘original’ premise of the Buddha’s teachings is still recorded in the Mahayana sutras, and have not been ‘expunged’ in an act of eradication. This means that the Buddha is presented as teaching two different but inherently ‘related’ versions of his Dharma – one for beginners, and another for the advanced (this is how the Mahayanists explain the dual nature of their own sutras). Some lineages of the Theravada School (which must never be conflated with the ‘Hinayana’ or ‘Small Vehicle’ movement), hold the viewpoint that the Mahayana School is a distortion of the Buddha’s pristine message, whilst others (such as Ven. Walpola Rahula), are of the opinion that definite philosophical parallels exists between the Pali and Sanskrit texts. This situation is fluid and need not delay us when examining the concept of the ‘middle way’ as conceived within the Pali and the Sanskrit texts. The Theravada School follows the Pali Canon and perceives the ‘middle way’ as an individual, through an act of will, steering his or her mind and body on a psychological and physical course, conducive to reducing and eradicating negative karma-producing habits in the real world. This means maintaining a trajectory that treads a path ‘exactly between the two extremes of everything that exists (i.e. the material universe), and everything that does not exist in an obvious material sense (such as states of mind, emotionality and rarefied levels of conscious development). This may also be interpreted as understanding the world of physical matter as a) existing, but b) being ’empty’ of any permanency or substantiality. To understand this reality requires the development of the mind and its awareness capacity. This includes directly perceiving the fact that within the five aggregates that define an individual, there is no ‘atma’ or ‘soul’, and consequently no link to a theistic entity controlling the world from afar. This means that the Pali term ‘sunna’ means that the existing world (according to the Buddha) is ’empty’ of certain things, and that as a consequence, everything exists in a ‘relative’ or ‘interdependent’ state.

The Mahayana School views the ‘middle way’ primarily through the philosophy of the Madhyamika School (founded by Nagarjuna), which states that the physical world is non-existant and therefore ’empty’ of ALL reality. The world of physical matter is insubstantial, impermanent and ‘non-existing’. This means that the ordinary human assumption of an existing subject-object ‘duality’ is an illusion that must be transcended through a developed mind. In Sanskrit ‘sunya’ (i.e. ’emptiness’) refers to two distinct aspects or realisations. The first is that of experiencing a personal mind free of greed, hared, and delusion, and known not to possess a ‘soul’ or any other ‘permanent’ aspect. This is the enlightenment that the Mahayana School associates with the Hinayana School – as it signifies a ‘personal’ nirvana. The full Mahayana enlightenment requires that a mind empty of personal delusion (i.e. ‘relative enlightenment’) must experience a radical expansion so that its fundamental awareness appears to ‘expand’ and become all-embracing of its environment (or the entirety of existence). Within the Mahayana School, a practitioner must adopt a path that is neither attached to the void, nor hindered by the world of phenomena. This includes the realisation that the material world is ’empty’ of any substantiality, but that ’emptiness’ itself is also ’empty’. In Early Buddhism the Buddha appears to be saying that the world is ‘real’ but ‘insubstantial’, whilst in Later Buddhism the Buddha appears to be saying that although the physical world appears to be ‘real’, in reality it is not. This divergence has happened due to the inclusion in the Mahayana (Sanskrit) Canon of a number of ‘new’ texts which convey this ‘modified’ interpretation, whilst still claiming to be utterances of the historical Buddha. Early Buddhism steers a ‘middle way’ between the existing world and its insubstantiality, whilst Later Buddhism adopts a non-dual position that perceives the physical world as being ’empty’, and that emptiness’ being ’empty’ of any substantiality. The Mahayana School, although containing all the teachings found in the Pali texts, nevertheless seems to be suggesting that whereas Early Buddhists were required to adopt a lifestyle of physical discipline – Later Buddhists could realise enlightenment by assuming a certain philosophical point of view, whilst meditating on the realisation of that view. Chinese Ch’an Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), whilst being an adherent of the Mahayana School, rejected this notion and stated categorically that enlightenment could only be realised if the Vinaya Discipline was strictly followed. This was because he was well-read, and had studied virtually all the Buddha’s teachings over his long-life. As a consequence, he had a developed and mature over-view of the entirety of the Buddha’s path – both Early and Later. Although he acknowledged that enlightenment could happen in an instant, he never negated the importance of behaviour modification as a means for ordinary people to reform their lives and realise enlightenment. From 1931 to 1945, Master Xu Yun witnessed the barbaric behaviour of invading Japanese troops in China, and he associated this barbarism with Japan’s abandonment of the Vinaya Discipline.

The middle path for early Buddhists more specifically meant that an adherent had to maintain a perfect psychological and physical balance between the world of matter, and ethereal world of eternal spirit – recognising the conditioned reality of the former – whilst rejecting the entire notion of the latter (eternal spirit is demolished and replaced with the realisation of ever rarefied and subtle levels of conscious awareness). There is the cultivated development of non-attachment to physical objects (and the physical world in general), with a simultaneous cultivation of non-identification with thoughts and feelings in the mind and body. The central concept for early Buddhism is that of the essential reality of ‘dharmas’ or material (rupa) and immaterial (arupa) objects and states. The world of matter is ‘real’ irrespective of its unstable nature – and ‘mind’ (manas), and its functioning (citta), as well as its ability to generate bare conscious awareness (vijnana), are all considered rarefied extensions of matter, to the extent where they may be interpreted as ‘immaterial’ states emanating from a material base. The Buddha states that there are suffering-inducing conditioned states of being, and there are suffering-transcending states of non-conditionality, the latter of which are achieved by following the ‘middle path’. The Mahayana progression disagrees with the idea that all ‘dharmas’ (i.e. the world of matter in its many forms) are intrinsically ‘real’, but instead asserts that the world of matter is ultimately ’empty’ (sunya) of any intrinsic reality. This is despite the fact that the Buddha clearly states that ‘matter’ is the basis of his analysis of reality and the foundation through which his self-cultivation method operates. Whereas Early Buddhists might ‘retire’ from the world to seek a secluded practice, the Mahayana practitioner might suggest that all that needs to be changed is the inner mind and its perception of the outer world. It is the human mind that is ‘defiled; (klesa), and which needs to be ‘cleaned’ through meditation in the Mahayana School. The realisation of the ‘non-reality’ of existence leads to a ‘pure’ mind free of suffering-inducing tendencies (i.e. negative psychological states), and unwise physical actions. The Mahayana demands a radical subjective transformation, and not a shift in ontological understanding. Whereas, within Early Buddhism there is a shift from the state of ‘samsara’ to that of ‘nirvana’, (as if the former is left behind and the latter is entered), within the Mahayana, ‘nirvana’ is found in the midst of ‘samsara’ through clearing the mind of the obscuring ignorance that ‘hides’ this reality from direct perception. This can happen because both states are considered equally ’empty’ of any intrinsic reality, and as this ‘sunya’ is considered the only reality, its realisation cuts through all apparent dualities. As ’emptiness’ is ’empty’ of any inherent relativity, the ultimate position for the Mahayanist remains ultimately ‘beyond words’. As it is ‘beyond words’, this allows the re-entry of the Buddha’s original teaching (found within Early Buddhism) into the equation, as the exact definition of reality defies any exact conceptual explanation. The Buddha’s method only points a ‘middle path’ toward its realisation. This is why the state of nirvana is understood to be non-conditioned.

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