The Buddha and the Middle Way

The Buddha is an important source of our historical understanding of the Middle Way, which is reflected both in his life story and many of the parables and teachings he is recorded as giving in the Pali Canon (early Buddhist scriptures). However, in the society we want to emphasise the universality of the Middle Way, which is accessible in everyone’s experience, and thus can be found to a degree in other religions, in science, philosophy and the arts as well as  in Buddhism. The Buddha is by no means the only source of information about the Middle Way, nor does our understanding of it depend on the Buddha’s claimed enlightenment. The Buddha is thus a side-issue. For a more general account of the Middle Way, please go to the Middle Way page.

Buddhist tradition often in theory recognises the universality of the Middle Way, but in practice all the emphasis lies on the particular accounts of the Middle Way given by the Buddha and his followers in the Buddhist tradition. If you start talking about the Middle Way in general, they may say “Ah, but is that the Buddha’s Middle Way?”, as though it was the Buddha that made the Middle Way helpful, rather than the other way round.

If you believe that the Buddha’s enlightenment gave him special insight into reality and thus special authority, this produces a metaphysical belief that is in conflict with the Middle Way.  This is because the claims around the Buddha’s enlightenment are in practice beyond our experience, and only in remote theory accessible to us if we gain enlightenment ourselves. A decisive choice needs to be made here: for if you accept metaphysical authority of this kind, the effect is likely to constantly undermine the practise of the Middle Way, leading to confusion at best.

It is for this reason that the Society wants to make a clear break with any authority from the Buddhist tradition, and thus we do not give prominence to the Buddha in introducing the Middle Way. This break with the Buddha’s authority needs to be followed through by justifying the Middle Way only in terms of its practical usefulness, not by reference to Buddhist scriptures. To theoretically break with the Buddha’s authority (or accept only a supposedly weakened version of it) and then make copious references to the Pali Canon (and often enter into passionate arguments about its interpretation), as many Western Buddhists do, is to implicitly undermine that break by going back to Buddhist tradition to justify one’s position. A theoretical claim to autonomous judgement based on experience is likely to be unconvincing unless it is habitually exercised.

Nevertheless, the Buddha should still be credited with offering the most important early source of the Middle Way. The stories and reported teachings of the Buddha can also still be an important (though entirely optional) source of inspiration in following the Middle Way. There is a grey area in which it is often unclear where inspiration ends and justification begins, but that need not stop us being inspired by the Buddha, as we might also be inspired by other figures from other traditions.

Here then follow some elements in the Buddha’s life and teachings that may offer much inspiration for the Middle Way. Let there be no complaints that they are cherry-picked from the scriptures and interpreted in one way rather than another, since it is the Middle Way that makes the Buddhist scriptures worth reading in the first place, so that we can find something  valuable and helpful in them.

The Buddha’s Life Story

The story of the Buddha’s life leading up to his enlightenment illustrates the Middle Way directly. Most importantly it illustrates the Middle Way as an enacted method, rather than (as it often became in later Buddhist hands) another metaphysical belief.

The Buddha was said to have been brought up as a prince, living a very sheltered life in a palace. His parents were said to have protected him from all recognition of suffering, in an isolated sphere of pleasure. However, as a young man he grew restless, and went out for a chariot ride in which he escaped his minders. Out in the wider world he is said to have seen the ‘Four Sights’ – Old Age, Sickness, Death, and a Religious Mendicant. The first three overthrew his repressed awareness of suffering, whilst the fourth made him aware of the possibility of an alternative way of life. Under the impact of this, the Buddha became determined to find a solution to the suffering he had experienced, and left the palace to become a religious mendicant himself, wandering in the forest.

In the forest, the Buddha then spent periods learning from two different teachers, but ultimately surpassed what either of them could teach him, and could no longer stay contented with their limitations. He then took up with five ascetics, who believed that practising austerities (such as extreme fasting or subjecting oneself to bodily pain) would lead to rewards in a future life. After excelling at these austerities, though, he is said to have recognised their limitations, given up fasting, and recognised that to make further progress he needed the Middle Way.

This film version from Little Buddha dramatizes the traditional account of this recognition.

The crucial elements of the Middle Way are present in the methods by which the Buddha gradually discovered it. His home context in the palace was dominated both by the experience of pleasure, and by the belief in conventional views that avoided any path to a more objective morality. In leaving this context, though, he sought absolute alternatives in the metaphysical beliefs of his teachers and of the five ascetics. In each case, it is the belief that a particular kind of view was absolute that restricted the practice of the people around the Buddha. To find the Middle Way, he had to move beyond loyalty to either group and be prepared to use his own experience to find a balanced perspective that addressed conditions better.

The Buddha’s ‘Silence’

The Buddha’s silence, or avyakrta, was his response when disciples asked him metaphysical questions, a story that occurs several times in the Pali Canon (e.g. Majjhima Nikaya 63). As was his custom, the Buddha remained silent when he thought it would not be useful to answer a question, but when pressed would answer it the third time round, and in this case explained that metaphysical views were “unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life”.

The specific metaphysical views on which the Buddha was asked were whether or not the world is eternal, whether or not the world is infinite, whether or not the soul is the same as the body, and whether or not an enlightened person continued to exist after death. The restrictive interpretation that Buddhist tradition often places on this episode is to see it as only being about these specific metaphysical views (which happened to be of particular concern in the Buddha’s context) rather than as examples of the views we should take of all metaphysical views. But the universal applicability of this story will only follow from the latter interpretation.

The Kalama Sutta

In this famous episode (Anguttara Nikaya 65), the Buddha is asked for advice by a group of villagers who are confused by all the different conflicting religious teachers they have heard. They do not know who to believe, or how to go about judging between them. The Buddha’s advice here is “when you yourselves know” that a particular view is the type held by a wise person, then they should accept that view. In other words, it seems, we should consult our own experience rather than relying on religious authority. The Buddhist tradition has, of course, done its best to neutralise the threat to Buddhist metaphysics that would follow from taking this seriously, by arguing, for example, that this advice applies only to enquirers and not to committed Buddhists.

The Parable of the Raft

The parable of the raft (in Majjhima Nikaya 22) compares the teachings to a raft used to cross the river Ganges. Just as when landing on the other side of the river, one would leave the raft behind rather than carrying it across land, so one should leave behind teachings that are no longer relevant or useful. This contingency of teachings is incompatible with metaphysical authority – for if a metaphysical teaching could be dropped at any stage, it would no longer be “true”.

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This is just a selection of some of the most important references to the Middle Way in the Buddha’s life and teachings. There are many other less obvious ones.

The key question for Buddhists, then, seems to be this one “Is this insight of the Middle Way the most important of the Buddha’s teachings?” If it is, then to hang onto other aspects of the teachings that contradict it is clearly incompatible with the Middle Way itself. One can participate in Buddhist tradition with this order of priority and also be a practitioner of the Middle Way. However, if one clearly decides that traditional authority is more important, one’s claim to be a practitioner of the Middle Way is hardly likely to stand up to much examination.

2 thoughts on “The Buddha and the Middle Way

  1. This statement: “If you believe that the Buddha’s enlightenment gave him special insight into reality and thus special authority, this produces a metaphysical belief that is in conflict with the Middle Way. ” is itself a statement of belief. That is, the belief that Buddha’s awakening is a metaphysical event is a metaphysical belief in conflict with the Middle Way. But maybe it comes down to having different meanings for “the Middle Way.”

    When the Buddha explained that his declaring certain views was “unbeneficial” “Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life.” he followed immediately with the reason: “They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding.” He was not saying that metaphysical truth, per se, is not important, he was saying that speculation about such views before awakening and unbinding is unproductive. In the Simsapa Sutra, (SN 56) the Buddha acknowledged that “those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous” than the things he has declared. But he only discusses what is important for people before awakening. After awakening people will have their own direct knowledge of these many things. This is just the teaching of not giving fish (the so-called metaphysical truths) and instead teaching people how to fish (to be awakened). It doesn’t mean that fish is not good to eat. Metaphysical views are like pictures of fish, not the fish themselves, The Buddha knew that if he encouraged metaphysical speculation with declaring views such as “there is” or “there is not” then people would argue over the views and not pick up the fishing pole.

    1. Hi Gregory,
      See my response to your comment on the Jung article on the question of metaphysics here. I agree with you that the statement you quote is one of belief, but that doesn’t make it a statement of metaphysical belief. Metaphysics is not inevitable, because it is avoided not by negation but rather by avoiding absolutisation and by the balanced and incremental justification of our provisional beliefs through experience. In the end, though, it is the interpreter’s mental state that distinguishes what is or is not metaphysics – whether they are absolutizing the belief at the moment of judgement. For more details on this perspective, see the other resources on Middle Way Philosophy on this site and my books.

      I disagree with your interpretation of the Buddha’s Middle Way, because it seems both contradictory and inadequate rather than because I have any foundational claim to know what the Buddha ‘really’ meant. The Buddhist tradition has tried to make the Buddha’s avoidance of metaphysics compatible with metaphysical views through all sorts of intellectual contortions, and the idea of the Buddha withholding an esoteric metaphysics (one of them) that you offer is in my view one of the least convincing of an unconvincing bunch. If the Buddha offers a practical teaching, that teaching is surely to avoid metaphysical beliefs, and if he exemplifies that teaching, he must also avoid it himself. But behind this must surely be the confused idea that metaphysics is somehow necessary, inevitable or useful when it is none of these.

      Historically, then, either the Buddha was either grossly inconsistent or he has been misrepresented. For a long while I have ceased to care which, but after reading ‘Greek Buddha’ (see my review on this site) I’m becoming more inclined, on the whole, towards the latter as the more probable explanation. The Pali Canon seems to have been largely formed to fit a later idea of metaphysical Buddhism which Christopher Beckwith shows to be at odds with an earlier Buddha who taught only the Pyrrhonian Middle Way.

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