Isn’t the Middle Way just another dogma?

The assumption that the Middle Way is just another dogma is a common reason for dismissing it or ceasing to think about it any further. The intellectual history of the world is littered with doctrines that mistakenly thought they had broken the mould, so there is some justification for cynicism. However, there are two basic, underappreciated points that make the Middle Way not just another dogma. These can be summarised as “The Middle Way is not a negation” and “The Middle Way is an ongoing practice”.

The Middle Way is not a negation

If the Middle Way simply involved criticising metaphysical positions (e.g. belief in God, freewill, absolute substance, absolute value) then it would just be negative metaphysics. Very often negative metaphysics in one area gets associated with positive metaphysics in others – so for example, those who reject belief in God may believe instead in laws of nature. There are many religions and philosophies of the past that have started off seeing themselves as liberations from previous dogmas, but in doing so set up new ones, because whilst denying one set of dogmatic assumptions they have assumed other, opposing ones: for example, in Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Utilitarianism, Nietzscheanism, Postmodernism. The problem in the official doctrines of all these religions and philosophies has been a failure of even-handedness. We need to be quite rigorous in avoiding both positive and negative dogmas.themiddlewaysocietylogo

So, the Middle Way is not a dogma as long as it remains in the uncertain, provisional, messy space between opposed metaphysical beliefs and their negations. Of course, there is no guarantee that anything labelled ‘Middle Way’ will be even trying to do this, let alone succeeding to any extent. You need to look critically at anything that claims to be the Middle Way, whether in Buddhism or any other context, to judge for yourself. However, in the Middle Way Society we’re devoted to trying. Even-handedness is a basic practice that helps to avoid negative dogma.

The Middle Way is an ongoing practice

Another mistake that people often make is to see the Middle Way simply as a philosophical or doctrinal position. If you do this, without any appreciation of its relationship to psychological states and practices that work with those states, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s just another dogma. In order to avoid dogma, we need to cultivate provisionality, and ‘provisionality’ is not just a blandly assertive label that you stick onto a belief to make it acceptable to others. In order for a belief to be genuinely provisional you have to hold it provisionally: which depends on the mental state in which you are holding that belief, not just on the content of the belief.

Provisionality is something you need to work at: a practice. There are various interdependent ways you can cultivate it, such as meditation, the arts, and critical thinking (see the ‘practice‘ section for more details). These practices involve developing more habitual awareness, appreciating the embodied and metaphorical nature of the words and other symbols we use, and recognising the assumptions made when we use reasoning to support our beliefs. Such practice will help you work towards greater provisionality from wherever you start, whether you start from a position of profound bigotry or relative open-mindedness. It’s not about gaining knowledge, but about getting into the habit of making more adequate judgements about your experience.

Provisionality is also an incremental quality. That means that you can have more or less of it, and there is no absolute presence or absence of it. We all have some degree of provisionality, and our levels may also vary according to the physical and mental state we’re in. That means that anyone aiming to practice the Middle Way will still have some dogmas left, and is likely to be deceiving themselves if they think they are entirely free of dogma. Thinking in terms of incremental progress is an important part of avoiding dogmatic assumptions.

6 thoughts on “Isn’t the Middle Way just another dogma?

  1. Another issue people seem to have which is related to this is writing ‘The Middle Way’ in capital letters. If the Middle Way is about avoiding certainly, how then can there be only one middle way? Isn’t that being dogmatic?

    However, as I understand it, if this was just one of many middle ways, wouldn’t that be taking a relativist view, which is also an absolute position? Of course, there are many different interpretations of the Middle Way but arguably the practice of avoiding fixed beliefs in order to make better judgements is a universal one. As long as it’s seen as a general method rather than a truth about the universe it’s arguably a way of describing what different successful approaches may have in common.

  2. Yes, I think the reason for using capital letters is to distinguish a single justifiable Middle Way from other possible claimed middle ways. The implications of that single justifiable Middle Way will be different in every circumstance, so it doesn’t represent an absolute claim of any kind: only a way of labelling the best available judgement in any given circumstance. To me, the use of ‘middle way’ without those capitals suggests the denial that there is any such best response, or the denial that there is any way we can judge one response to be better than others – in other words, relativism.

    I’m aware that this goes against the zeitgeist at present. I’ve even spotted some Buddhists using the term without the capital letters recently, presumably to signal avoidance of what they assume to be metaphysical claims in the capitalised ‘Middle Way’. But to me that just signals that they don’t get what the Middle Way has to offer, because they’re probably interpreting it in terms of the assumptions of postmodernism or scientific naturalism. Recently I’ve been reading a book I hope to review shortly (recommended to me by Martin Blundell) called ‘Emptiness and Joyful Freedom’ which does just that. It lacks even-handedness and interprets ‘the middle way’ largely in terms of deconstructing positive metaphysical claims (through emptiness practices) and accepting convention instead. That’s a ‘middle way’ that appears to have given up on the possibility of justifying an ethical judgement, which in my view is the most valuable thing that the Buddha’s Middle Way has to offer.

  3. Hi,

    I think that the society should obviously have capitals, as it’s a name, but I’m not sure and the middle way as an idea and practice. I have used it with capitals before but other big ideas do not always require capitals.

    Perhaps it is not the way it is written that is important, but rather the meaning behind it and the way that this is expressed.

    Rich

  4. Hi Rich,
    I’d agree that it’s not an issue of overwhelming importance, on which views could differ in the Society without too many practical implications. But do you disagree with the reasons I offer above for using capitals?

  5. “That means that anyone aiming to practice the Middle Way will still have some dogmas left, and is likely to be deceiving themselves if they think they are entirely free of dogma.”

    I think this is an important sentence. I have heard quite a lot of times people stating to be free of beliefs is the goal. They usually advocate direct experience instead.

    To distinguish between direct experience and beliefs appears to be a belief as well. In general, it appears to be deceiving to claim to be free of beliefs.
    To avoid such absolutist statements is to use provisional statements

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