Middle Way

The Middle Way as understood by the Society is a principle that can help us make better judgements. It is not a truth about the universe, and it is not the property of the Buddhist tradition. Rather the Middle Way is an effective way of facing up to conditions, that could be discovered to varying degrees by anyone in any context. The man known as the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), who lived in India about 2500 years ago, provides what is probably the clearest articulation of it, but it can also be found articulated to varying extents by many other people.

Middle Way symbol

The central idea of the Middle Way is that we understand conditions in the world or in ourselves better by relying on experience, but our learning from experience is often blocked by fixed beliefs. These fixed beliefs are known as metaphysical beliefs, which the Middle Way suggests that we should avoid. An image that might help one see how this works is that of a ship sailing through a narrow passage between dangerous rocks. The ship needs to get through the strait whilst avoiding the rocks on either side, and we don’t have to know where the ship is ultimately going to be clear about that . Here the rocks represent the metaphysical beliefs. If you make it through the strait you might get a slightly clearer view of where to go next, but if you strike the rocks you will be stuck, and not even get that far.

Metaphysical beliefs have the following features:

  • absolute justification (e.g. appeals to God, ultimate reality, ‘nature’, or their denial)
  • must be accepted as true or false rather than incrementally judged by experience
  • provide an illusory sense of infallibility
  • assume a representational meaning rather than an embodied meaning
  • dualistically opposed to their opposites
  • gain their authority from association with a group

Religious beliefs that appeal to some source of revelation (e.g. God’s word, the Buddha’s enlightened experience) are obvious examples of metaphysics, but there are many other less obvious ones in our everyday lives: for example, a fixed idea about one’s self and its identity, a belief in absolute freewill, a belief in determinism, or a belief that science has discovered ‘laws of nature’ that tell us how the universe ultimately is. Errors in personal and political judgement, and even criminal actions, can all be traced to the effect of such beliefs. ‘Natural’ beliefs are no better than ‘supernatural’ ones – if you really think that the ‘natural’ is how things ultimately are -, because it is the fixedness and apparent unassailability of a belief that makes it metaphysical, rather than its content.

The Middle Way provides a way forward in all kinds of judgements, whether scientific, moral or aesthetic. Its key insight is one that joins psychology to philosophy: that there are certain types of views that can only be held in a state that involves psychological rigidity, and thus are not well justified in a wider philosophical perspective. This insight can be supported using a variety of recent academic advances:

  • the work on embodied meaning of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which shows that the very assumptions about meaning on which metaphysical thinking is built are mistaken
  • the understanding of the specialised functions of the two halves of the brain developed by Iain McGilchrist, which shows how the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for metaphysical thinking
  • much recent work on cognitive biases, for example by Daniel Kahnemann, which shows that many of the mistakes we make in judgement can be understood as applications of metaphysical thinking
  • the development of complexity theory, which shows ways of adapting to complex and unpredictable conditions in a system which take into account the limitations of our model of that system rather than assuming we have a complete (i.e. metaphysical) model

The ways in which these insights come together needs much further exploration and discussion.

However, even if you are not particularly interested in this academic exploration, the Middle Way provides a practical way forward beyond the limitations of religious and secular styles of thinking. It offers a profound challenge to  modern relativism, because it gives us a way of seeing how one judgement can be better than another, not by making claims that go beyond experience but, on the contrary, by avoiding them. There are many practices we may see some value in already, such as meditation, psychotherapy, the arts, or critical thinking, that the Middle Way can give a clear context of justification to beyond either medical ‘cures’ or religious transcendence. If we do these practices motivated by the Middle Way, we may also find that we do them differently, because we recognise that balancing our perspectives is at the heart of what makes them effective in addressing conditions.

Links to further pages on the Middle Way:

Video introduction to Middle Way Philosophy

The Buddha and the Middle Way

Madhyamika Buddhism (Middle Way in Mahayana Buddhism)

Middle Way for Christians

Middle Way for atheists

Middle Way for scientific naturalists

Scepticism and the Middle Way


14 thoughts on “Middle Way

  1. Hi.I’m new to the site,so apologies if this topic has been covered.It relates to how matters of principle interface with incrementality and compromise.For example,during a discussion about the monarchy,it was suggested to me that the monarchy was “evolving” by allowing “commoners” into its ranks.I replied by suggesting that the monarchy was predicated on bloodline,so doesen’t that undermine the whole concept?(I’m not a monarchist,but that’s not the point here,obviously)
    Similarly,a proposed solution to the fox-hunting dilemma was to allow fox-hunting under licence.That’s still fox-hunting isn’t it-or am I missing something?

  2. Hi Howard,
    Welcome to the site, would you agree that we try to reach a compromise on many topics in our every day decisions, it is a way of avoiding conflict?
    The royal family has a strong motive to survive, so compromise for them is accepted as necessary, if they had faithfully followed the blood line route it is quite possible that we would have different members in the royal family. Hunting with dogs divides public opinion, if they need to be culled shooting would be less cruel, usually the availability of food regulates breeding. Some see hunting as a valid country pursuit, I think the philosopher Roger Scruton would argue in favour of it, unless he has changed his mind. Drag hunting is a compromise, but still foxes are killed.

    1. Thanks to Norma and Robert for their replies.I think compromise is great if it reaches peaceful solutions.For example,I understand that the Basque region of Spain has enough autonomy for most people to put arms aside and live with it,whatever their ideals might be.I certainly wouldn’t poke a stick at it if violence is avoided.However,I do feel that sometimes principles are important.Would we allow an employer to pay some women less than men for the same job,on condition that he “compromised” by agreeing not to do it to all female employees?

  3. Hi Howard,
    It looks like the underlying issue here is that of essentialism – whether you assume that a particular term has a fixed or essential meaning. Plato believed in essentialism, and it is a popular assumption, but I think that fixing the meanings of words is just one of the unhelpful ways our egoistic left hemisphere tries (unsuccessfully) to fix the world around us. There’s no reason why the meanings of terms like ‘fox-hunting’ and ‘monarchy’ can’t change, because the only thing that determines what these terms mean is their usefulness to us as symbols. Given that we are changing embodied beings, those uses keep changing.

    A look at linguistics or etymology can also underline this point. None of the words we use now are the same as they were in the past. For example ‘nice’ used to mean precise only 200 years ago. So arguments about how a word is used need to be pragmatic arguments, based on anticipation on the effects of using it one way or another, rather than assuming a fixed meaning and objecting to all changes. There are some words that I have consciously tried to move on myself (e.g. objectivity), and others where I think it would be better to avoid changes that are otherwise fashionable (e.g. the relativisation of ‘truth’). It all depends on what other terms are available to express the same idea, and what role the current use plays in tending to make us think in a certain way. With a political institution like the monarchy, I’d suggest that there are probably strong arguments for supporting changes in meaning along with changes in society, because political institutions need to constantly change to be adequate to new situations. If you reflect that parliament in the 13th century was a meeting of King John’s barons, it is obvious that there is no essential meaning of ‘parliament’, but rather one that has evolved with political change.

  4. Hi Howard,
    I agree with you that sometimes principles are important. They can stretch us to be more objective by being more consistent, so I think they have a role in ethics. For example, dropping one piece of litter has little effect by itself, but it’s making an exception of yourself if you would dislike everyone else doing it. On the other hand principles can also get rigid and be a way of avoiding objectivity. It all depends whether the use of a principle would impart more objectivity to a situation.

  5. Hi Howard
    Welcome to the site! A suggestion of Robert´s that I really like is to think of the three most common ethical strategies as useful tools in your ethical toolbox and you choose the appropriate tool for what the situation most objectively requires. For example, a consequentialist or utilitarian approach to a situation is often useful as it helps you to consider the consequences of any action or set of of actions. Its weakness of course is that it relies on your finite ability in assessing those consequences. Just think Iraq. As Robert said rule based ethics aid consistancy and encourage one not to make an exception of oneself in a “what if everyone else did that” kind of way. However, as the classic example goes, if you were harbouring a Jewish family in Nazi Germany and the Gestapo came questioning about their whereabouts at your door, to “tell the truth” here, would arguably be too rigid a stance to take. Virtue ethics, ie the cultivation of good habits and practices such as honesty, patience, courage etc is a very useful long-term strategy, but might not be so appropriate in a heat of the moment situation where one of the other approaches might address conditions better. Robert puts these ideas across a lot more effectively than me in the following podcast: Practical Ethics using the Middle Way

    1. Hi,
      Listening to the weather news on television I’ve heard the description ‘Nature’ being used by some who accept it as the cause of the flooding. We may have a fixed idea of what we think is Nature, but the flooding may have other causes, global warming, very active sun spots, poor management of land drainage or houses built on flood plains. As Robert says, meanings do change.

      1. The problem with ascribing the flooding to ‘Nature’ is that it places it beyond our control. But there’s a complex interaction of forces that are more and less under our control, that are oversimplified and underestimated by the use of the term. It’s also interesting how we polarise in views of ‘Nature’ as charming one moment and ‘red in tooth and claw’ or consisting of frightening forces the next.

  6. I like what you all are trying to get at- what you are trying to uncover. I offer this from The Bab ( Siyyid ‘Ali- Muhammad Shiriazi, 1819-1850) The Herald Prophet of the Baha’i Faith. There is a book out now called Gate of the Heart by Nadier Saiedi which delves into the Bab’s Writings, many of which deal with The Middle Way. here is the quote:

    “For intellect conceives not save limited things. Verily, bound by the realm of limitations, men are unable to gaze upon things simultaneously in their manifold aspects. Thus it is perplexing for them to comprehend that lofty station. No one can recognize the truth of the Middle Way, between the two extreme poles except after attaining unto the gate of the heart and beholding the realities of the worlds, visable and unseen.”

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your interesting comment. I know little about Baha’i, so if you think it has useful things to tell us about the Middle Way I’d be interested to know more. My issue with the wording of what you’ve quoted would be that I don’t think there is (for our purposes) a ‘truth’ of the Middle Way. If there is it’s not something we can attain as finite beings. Rather I see the Middle Way as a method.

  7. Could you also bring some women thinkers into this article?

    At least five men are mentioned (George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Iain McGilchrist, Daniel Kahnemann…). Not a single woman gets a mention.

    So it seems unbalanced to me.

    1. Hi Andrea,
      I disagree with a basic assumption you seem to be making in your comment, which is that the balanced nature of a view should be judged according to who holds it. This is one of the ways that I want to depart from Buddhist tradition, which often seems to be tied to the Buddha as a personal arbiter of what the Middle Way means. If the main thinkers that have influenced me in thinking about the Middle Way happen to be male, that is not particularly relevant to the important content of what they are saying, which would be equally balanced in the ways that matter whether they are male or female. Although the meaning of the Middle Way for each of us is understood in varying embodied ways that will vary between gender or other types of difference between people, it is that understanding in us that is crucial to the balance of the Middle Way, rather than where it comes from.

      I would make a similar point here if you pointed out other limitations in the people referred to: their age, nationality, education level, class or ethnicity might also be bunched one way or another. But the Middle Way is universal. That they might have something to say about the Middle Way and that this might be helpful to us does not depend on any of these specific categories of person. I make no apologies for merely referring to those thinkers that I have encountered in my own experience rather than attempting to make them representative of variations in the population. They are not representatives, but thinkers, and it is the thoughts of thinkers that matter rather than who they are.

  8. Hi Andrea

    The page was written by the chair of the society Robert Ellis who is away on holiday until the 13th August, so he won’t be able to respond to you until he comes back.
    For my part, there are several women in public life who appear to hold somewhat of a Middle Way perspective on things. Kathryn Schulz springs to mind and her book ‘Being Wrong’ about which Robert wrote this review. There’s Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability and shame. The philosopher Mary Midgley also appears to have a very balanced, holistic outlook on things. Here’s her review of McGilchrist’s book ‘The Master and his Emissary’.

    Fellow member Nina Davies also recommends the work of Judith Butler and Donna Harraway in this regard. Here’s a podcast interview a had with her a few weeks ago in which she talks in more detail about them.

    I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at Robert’s work in depth and I can’t speak for him personally, however Lakoff, Johnson, McGilchrist and Kahneman do seem to have been able to offer a different perspective or departure point for the Middle Way in terms of the theories of embodied meaning, brain lateralization and cognitive biases that they have put forward. Do you (or anybody else) have any particular women in mind that could contribute in this way to our understanding of the Middle Way? I’d certainly be interested and I’m sure Robert would too.

    1. Hi Andrea,
      I agree, more female philosophers would be desirable generally, especially those who also have a middle way approach to how we live our lives. I would also be happy to see more women taking part in politics, education and running large companies, sadly women artists, even today are in a minority.
      There have been several podcasts by women on the Middle Way you may find interesting such as Vidyamala Burch on Kindly Awareness, the more women the better I think who contribute to the Middle Way Society by sharing their views and recommending further reading.

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