Tag Archives: Buddha

Provisionality and the Raft

The New Year is traditionally a time for seeing things afresh, letting go of what burdens us and seeking new directions. But to be able to do that successfully we need a combination of a critical perspective on the old and the ability to imagine the new – in other words, provisionality. Provisionality is one of the key principles of the Middle Way. It is a quality that combines the critical capacity to see the limitations of a current belief with the imaginative capacity to be aware of alternative options. Alternative options, like genetic adaptations or alternative tools in a toolbox, enable us to address new and unexpected conditions with appropriate adaptation. In this article, which is adapted from the book I am working on about the Buddha’s Middle Way, I want to explore the way one of the Buddha’s most famous analogies reflects provisionality.

The simile of the raft is given by the Buddha in a discourse to some of his followers, to “show you how the Dhamma [teachings] is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”

“Suppose a man in the course of a journey saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore…. And then the man collected grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and bound them together into a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with his hands and feet, he got safely across to the far shore. Then… he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me…. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.’ …. By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“By doing what would that man be doing what should be done with that raft? … When that man got across and arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘…. Suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want’. …It is by so doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft.”  (Majjhima Nikaya 22:13-14. trans. Ñanamoli and Bodhi)

The traditional Buddhist interpretation of this simile treats ‘Dhamma’ as ‘Buddhist teaching’ and shows the practical justification of that teaching. It is seen as merely for ‘crossing over’ – that is, for reaching Awakening. However, such an interpretation relies on a discontinuous understanding of ‘Awakening’: is it so clear when we have reached ‘the other side’? It also underestimates the wide applicability of this metaphor, which makes a universal point about the need for provisionality in our beliefs. When a belief – any belief – has fulfilled its purpose in the particular conditions it was held, it is time to let go of it before it becomes a burden to us in new conditions. That this applies to the Buddhist teachings amongst other beliefs, however, is an indicator of their non-absolute nature, and that this metaphor is a Middle Way teaching.

The value of any analogy is that it obliges us to compare different situations that we might otherwise assume to be completely different. It is obvious how useful the raft is for getting across the river, and there is only a small degree of doubt that it would be an unnecessary burden after that crossing is completed. We could bring it along just in case there is another river – but for how long? However, it may be less obvious in the case of beliefs that we have become more deeply attached to: for example a religious teaching we have adhered to all our lives, a dying project or relationship, a misjudged investment, or patterns of speech and manners that cause unnecessary offence in a new country. All of these things are entered into because we have explicit or implicit beliefs about their value and benefit, but that value is also subject to uncertainty and change.

We may continue carrying the raft because of a lack of critical awareness of its ill-adaptedness for the new situation, but also perhaps because of a failure to imagine alternatives. When we arrive at the further bank, we need to be able to imagine ourselves managing without the raft. Perhaps, indeed, there are other items of equipment that would be far more valuable as replacements: a machete for the jungle we will then be entering, or a bag of food supplies. But to take these things we have to leave the raft. The anxiety we might feel about leaving it will need to be relaxed and set aside. Similarly, to be able to enter new territory in any other area of our lives we may have to gently set aside things that we have habitually regarded as indispensable up to that point: reputations, relationships, property, allegiances.

The provisionality of the raft metaphor is built on scepticism, for we would not have the critical perspective to recognise the contingency of the raft if we regarded it as necessary or absolute. As we do not know which beliefs we will need to apply this critical perspective to in advance, it is practically important to maintain a general awareness of uncertainty, of the possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’. We need this in relation to all our beliefs, however basic or embedded they seem to be, and whether they are positive or negative. When we arrive at the further bank we simply need the awareness to ask ourselves a question about whether we will need the raft any more (indicating awareness of its contingency) rather than to assume either that we will need it or that we will not. We may need to ask ourselves that question again and again in different circumstances. That same point is emphasised by a related analogy used in the Pali Canon that describes progress on the path as a sequence of relay chariots, each of which is only required to reach the starting point of the next .

In relation to our cognitive processes, provisionality requires an open feedback loop rather than a closed one. In a closed feedback loop (also known as confirmation bias), we continue to interpret our experience as confirming a belief that then provides a basis for interpreting our experience. If our belief is about the value of the raft for us, that belief continues to be reinforced for us by our experience all the time we are crossing the river. On reaching the other side, however, we may be so habituated to that closed loop that we continue to interpret our environment in terms of the value of the raft. We may then compensate for the unconscious cognitive dissonance this creates by rationalising: “Well, you never know, there could be another river soon, even though it’s not marked on the map”, or “I need to take this raft because it might be abused by criminals”. We might focus on slight possibilities and amplify them, all the time reflecting our own anxiety rather than a sufficiently aware response to the conditions. In an open feedback loop, however, we allow new information from our senses to influence and modify our thinking to adapt to the new situation. Our experience continues to determine our beliefs, but our beliefs do not entirely determine our experience.

This ability to adapt to conditions may sound familiar to anyone who has studied evolution. Of course, evolutionary adaptations take place over a longer period of time and are genetic rather than cognitive or behavioural in nature. Nevertheless, an organism that continues in its old habits and is not sufficiently open to developing new ones is the one that is likely to die out, just as the man who carries the raft may exhaust himself in the jungle and expire before he finishes his journey. The relationship to evolution also does not imply that our provisionality is only made valuable by survival or reproduction. Having provisional options could help to fulfil any of a range of goals, which may involve the fulfilment of our needs at a variety of levels. For example, we may need to cross the river for social fulfilment, for intellectual fulfilment, or through a desire for integrative development.

So, the raft is not just about Buddhism, nor is letting go an end in itself. The question is always whether we have considered with sufficient awareness why we are hanging onto our various rafts, and whether we have considered the alternatives. I hope that if you need to, you are able to leave your old year’s rafts by the shore.

For more about provisionality, please see the Introductory Video.

Picture: Log raft run ashore on the island Hallands Väderö: by M9axpe0900 CCBYSA 3.0

The Buddha’s Breakthrough

What was the Buddha’s breakthrough? He gained enlightenment, right? Well, actually I’ve no idea. Just as I stay agnostic about the existence of God or its denial, likewise with the Buddha’s enlightenment. But recently I’ve been looking again in some detail at the sources on the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon, and been thus reaffirmed in my view that the Buddha’s breakthrough was not enlightenment (or awakening, or however else you want to translate it) at all. His breakthrough consisted in the recognition of a method.

Let’s consider almost any other case of a historical figure who discovered a new method and then successfully applied it. Do we consider their method to be their most significant achievement, or what they did with it? Let’s take Picasso: was it more significant that he developed cubism, or that he painted Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Or Gandhi: was it more significant that he developed techniques of  non-violent direct action that inspired many others, or that he made such a big contribution to the struggle for Indian independence? The further away we are in time and place, the more we are likely to see the significance of the method as far more important than the achievement. Why should the Buddha be treated any differently from that?

However, I’d say the case is actually much stronger with the Buddha than it is with either Picasso or Gandhi, because the Buddha’s method is of such universal importance. The Middle Way, understood as a principle of non-absolute judgement, can be applied by anyone anywhere to make progress from whatever point they’ve reached. By identifying and avoiding absolutisations, whether negative or positive, we can avoid delusions and thus make tangible progress, right now, being aware that absolutisations are our own projections. But enlightenment? It’s clear from human experience that we can make progress with greed, hatred and delusion, but profoundly unclear whether we could ever hope to eliminate them altogether. The description of the state of enlightenment as given in the Pali Canon also depends on metaphysical beliefs in karma and rebirth, because the Buddha is depicted as becoming enlightened by breaking them. Most importantly, no other human state is completely discontinuous. We can make breakthroughs, but they are never completely discontinuous, nor final, and never result in perfect knowledge of any kind. Belief in the Buddha’s enlightenment as an absolute is in conflict with confidence in the Middle Way.

Looking at the Pali Canon account of the discovery of the Middle Way, though, makes it clear how powerfully symbolic that discovery can be, because it involves such a dramatic puncturing of delusion. The Buddha has gone forth from the Palace where he began, and gone forth again from the cults of two different spiritual teachers, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. In each case, the social context involved people insisting that they had the whole story, and the Buddha recognised that they did not. Then he began to practise asceticism, and he describes trying to stop himself breathing and then nearly starving himself. He’s obviously in a closed, rather obsessive loop whereby absolute beliefs are violently in conflict with his body. So what makes the difference? How does he get out of that state and discover the Middle Way instead?

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.’” (MN 36:20)

He gets back in touch with a memory from his earlier life in the Palace, showing that the Palace was not all bad. This memory is an experience of jhana – of an absorbed meditative state that, crucially, could only have been developed through deep acceptance and relaxation of his body. He has moved decisively from grasping after absolute, disembodied ideals that only produce conflict, to an embodied point of view. From that will follow that he must develop in ways that are possible and realistic for people with bodies, rather than sharing the delusions of those who forget that they have bodies. Not only is his need for nourishment, and the body-awareness that forms the basis of meditative practice, part of that recognition of this embodiment, but also the Middle Way itself, with its sceptical and agnostic awareness that we cannot have perfect knowledge, but instead need to work incrementally and provisionally to integrate the energies, meanings and beliefs of our interrelated mind-body.

When he gives his first address to others following his enlightenment, the Middle Way is the first teaching he then gives:

Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata [Buddha] has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (SN 56.11.421)

The version of the Middle Way that he gives here is one applicable to his audience: that is, the five ascetics, his previous comrades, who need to recognise that asceticism is not a helpful path. But it is already clear from the Buddha’s story that the path he has discovered is one that involves the capacity to question any claimed absolute, whether that consists of a belief about oneself, about ideology, about salvation, or any other matter. To show how much the Buddha uses this wider Middle Way, in his conduct, in much of his teaching, and particularly some of his similes, is a longer discussion, but it will form part of the book I am currently writing about the Buddha’s Middle Way.

It will no doubt be pointed out that whenever the Buddha refers to the Middle Way, he also describes it as the way to Nibbana (enlightenment), as he does in the quotation above. There is a positive way we can interpret this without accepting absolute beliefs about Nibbana, which is to see Nibbana as meaning the notional end-point of the Middle Way, pand thus effectively standing, archetypally and symbolically, for the Middle Way itself and the more integrated states that it can help us to develop. Just as God can be interpreted as a glimpse of our potential integration, so can enlightenment – as long as we separate these archetypal relationships clearly from beliefs about the existence of these entities, or indeed of any absolute (revelatory) information that is supposed to come from them. So, we can easily continue to be inspired by the figure of the Buddha, even if in some ways the term engrains an unhelpful emphasis on absolutes into the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha represents the potential integration of our psyches.

Though the Buddha ‘discovered’ the Middle Way in the sense of being the first person, as far as we know, to talk explicitly about it, he did not of course create it, any more that Newton’s ability to label ‘gravity’ and explain how it works magicked gravity into being. The ways in which it can be (and has been) discovered by others with varying degrees of explicitness needs just as much emphasis as the Buddha’s discovery. Nevertheless, that discovery itself, it seems to me, deserves a lot more celebration. The first thing the Buddha ate after discovering the Middle Way was rice porridge: why not eat that ceremonially in remembrance of the Middle Way (a sort of Buddhist eucharist)? His vital recollection of his experience under a rose-apple tree makes that tree perhaps just as important in our associations as the better-known bodhi tree. Here is an example. Eat a rose apple and think of the Middle Way.


Pictures: (1) Buddha by Odilon Redon, (2) Rose Apple tree (Syzygium jambos) photographed by Forest and Kim Starr, CCSA 3.0


The Middle Way: Rewriting the Buddha’s life

Once upon a time, there was a lonely and dissatisfied prince. He lived in a castle with everything he could ever wish for. Every toy he could want, servants to fulfil his every desire, musicians and storytellers to entertain him. He was educated by tutors, who never complained of his application to his studies. He would also go out in the grounds and excel in sports – particularly in archery and fencing. His parents doted on him, for he seemed to be the ideal young prince. He was fit and handsome and well-educated. He did everything that was expected of him.

Every so often, though, he would sneak away from the servants to go and sit under a tree. At that point he loved the silence, listening only to the birds in the trees. He often felt more content then than during any of his amusements. But at the same time, he sometimes became aware of a deeper dissatisfaction – a sense that his life was missing something important.

When he grew older, his parents arranged a marriage to a noble girl who was lovely, kind and thoughtful, insisting that the marriage take place in the chapel of the castle, and that the young couple continue to live in one of the wings. For a while, the prince forgot almost everything in his bride’s arms. They had a little son, and he, too, was charming. He felt the pride of a young father.

And yet, he didn’t entirely lose his habit of sneaking away to sit under a tree. The next time he did so, he began to muse about the walls of the castle grounds and what lay beyond them. It was only then that he realised he had never been beyond those walls.

He went to see his parents. “Why have I never been outside the castle?” he asked. “Other people go away, on trips and visits and tours, do they not? Why have I not been on any of those?”

His mother frowned. “We didn’t want you to be uncomfortable on long journeys, or get any of the bad habits some people have out there” she said. “If you would like more guests to divert you, we could bring them into the castle. Why do you want to go outside?”

“I want to see what it’s like outside.”

“Ah, well, I suppose you are old enough to decide for yourself” she sighed. “But do keep the castle servants with you for your own protection. You don’t know how rough it can be out there: people wanting to trick you or rob you.”

It was agreed that the prince could go outside with his old tutor, and they got into the carriage together. “Where do you wish to go, sir?” asked the coachman.Buddha_leaving_his_family,_a_mural_at_Mulagandhakuty_Vihara,_Sarnath - Ajay Tallam

“Anywhere. Outside.”

“Would his highness prefer a ride in the countryside, perhaps, or a trip to the town?”

“Take me to the town.”

So, within quite a short time they were clopping through cobbled streets. The prince looked out of the windows and gazed at everything. He saw rows of severe houses built from grey stone. He saw stray dogs and cats. He saw workmen tramping to and fro. He saw traders hawking their wares. He saw prostitutes sitting on doorsteps with too much make-up and half-unlaced bodices. He saw beggars with hollow cheeks and missing limbs. He saw a starving child who had died in the hands of her frantic, emaciated young mother. He saw ladies and gentlemen in fine clothes picking their way superciliously through this chaos.


The coach drew to a halt at his command, and the prince began to get out.

“Where are you going? Let me come with you, sir” said the old tutor, mindful of his duty to guard the young prince.

“No” said the prince. “I wish to go alone. Wait here and I will come back when I am ready.”

The prince picked his way over unfamiliar cobblestones, marvelling at everyone and everything he saw. “Good day, sir!” cooed a prostitute, “Would you like a good time with me?”

The Prince turned to her: “Why are you dressed like that? Have you no better way to earn your living?”

“None, sir. But do take kind pity on me sir, and I can make it worth your while in pleasure.”

“I do pity you” replied the Prince, “But I have pleasure enough already.” He put down his hand to find his purse, only to discover it was gone. He looked round and found some ragamuffin boys scuttling away at the end of the street. Still, he was not distressed. He had never known lack of money to be a problem.

A little further on, he again came across the emaciated young mother carrying a dead child. She sat on a doorstep, lost in depression.

“I am sorry for your loss, miss” he said, “But will you not bury your child?”

“I have no money to pay the gravedigger” she replied slowly. “Will you help me, sir? You look both rich and kind.”

“I wish I could give you some money,” said the Prince, “But my purse has been stolen. Here.” He took off his wedding ring and gave it to her. “Have this instead. Perhaps you can sell it.”

The young woman gasped. “You are very generous, sir, but I cannot accept this.”

“Why ever not?”

“Because it is your wedding ring, sir, and if I was your wife I would not be happy at that. I know what it is like to be wronged by a man, sir.”

“I am leaving her anyway. I have to look for something better – something better than a comfortable life in the castle with her. Something that addresses all this.” The Prince had not decided this until he found himself saying it. “My wife will be well looked after. She lives in a castle and is the daughter-in-law of a king.”

The young woman looked at him wide-eyed, as though she was unable to decide whether to believe him or not. The Prince forced the ring into her hand and turned away.

After that he wandered aimlessly through the filthy streets, his mind in turmoil. Did he really mean what he had just said? Why had he said it? Then he realised that finding answers was far more important to him than obeying his parents or feeling comfortable and secure. He would have to endure discomfort and insecurity and find out what that was like. He felt secure about his wife and child. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them – he did – but other things were more important for the moment. He had no duty to provide for them that would not readily be fulfilled by others. He felt sure that he could come back to his wife in future, and they would pick up their loving relationship where they had left off.

He never returned to where the coach was waiting. After several hours they returned to the castle and raised the alarm. Dozens of servants were dispatched to scour the town. But they were too late. They never found him.

Several months later, a thin-looking young man, dressed in rags, appeared at the door of the Bishop. The Bishop was a great scholar, a great theologian and a well-known churchman of his time. The young man in rags rang the front-door bell, and the butler answered. “Round the back!” snapped the butler, “How dare you ring the front door bell?”

“Sorry” replied the Prince disarmingly. “Old habits die hard. I know my place as a homeless beggar, but that’s not my background. Please could I speak to the bishop?”

The butler was taken aback. This was just not how homeless beggars spoke or behaved in his experience. After some muttering, he went to the Bishop and explained the situation. The Bishop told him to show the young man in.

They then had a long conversation. The Prince was completely frank about his background, and about why he had left home and resigned his royal status. “But I know almost nothing about religion” he said. “I need to find a deeper truth, a purpose to my life, and I am told that you are a great religious teacher. Please will you instruct me?”

The bishop, who was a discerning and sincere man, was so taken by the young man in rags and his story that he agreed immediately to take him in – and also not to unnecessarily let his presence be known to the parents, who were still hunting for him. “I do not have a great deal of time” he said, “But as my duties allow, I could supervise your studies in theology. In return, though, perhaps you could contribute to the household a little. Are there perhaps some skills you already have in which you could tutor my young children?”

The Prince searched his mind. “Erm, archery? fencing?”

The bishop looked doubtful as to whether these were suitable occupations for his children. “Well” he said at length, “We can see whether they show any interest in learning such pursuits.”

The Prince stayed with the bishop for two years after that. His life was regular and disciplined in that house, his diet sparing, and his time given largely to study, thought and prayer. By the end of this time he could read Greek, Latin and Hebrew with some fluency. He knew the Bible well and was also familiar with the commentaries, church fathers and main theological writers. His special delight, however, was the mystics. He immersed himself in Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart. He tried all their spiritual exercises, and tried to immerse himself in the love of God. But somehow he never felt that he succeeded. Love, yes, he could feel plenty of that – open, charitable love. But when he was told that the love of God was higher than that, that he must resign himself utterly, he was filled with a recognition, not just that he could not give up his human love, but that this was not the right path, not quite. He could not resign himself to God, any more than he could resign himself to the authority of his parents. Not that he could not live like that obediently for a while, but there was a more important moral urge within him.

After two years, the Prince came up to the Bishop and told him he had decided to move on. “I am very grateful indeed for your taking me in, and for your instruction” he told the Bishop, “But I have realised that the religious life is not quite what I am looking for – not quite. I need to move on. A shame, when your children’s archery is coming on so well, but I’m sure you can find them another archery instructor.”

“We will miss you” said the Bishop, “You have become a valued member of the household. Where will you go? What will you do?”

“I have no idea” replied the Prince. “Last time I left my old life without the faintest idea where I was going, and this time I expect it will be the same. Somehow I will find a way.”

So the Prince went forth once again. After leaving the house of the Bishop, he wandered up into the hills. He sat on a rock amongst the heather looking down at the town below, considering. In his first life, he reflected, he had had every desire fulfilled, yet he had been under the power of his parents at every minute. Their suffocatingly conventional beliefs about good princely behaviour had been the only value he knew, but those beliefs were built on – what? Convention, tradition, social status, family honour. In his second life, on the other hand, his desires had been well-controlled, his life disciplined by religious beliefs. But what were these beliefs based on? On God’s authority, on the Bible, on the Church. In some ways this life seemed to be opposite to the first, but in many ways it was also the same. There were many social expectations, there was authority, and there was his will, apparently opposed to that authority. Did goodness only consist in obedience? He could not understand how that could be so.

Did either of these ways of life help the young woman with the dead child in her arms, or her kind? Not really. The young woman suffered from not being free, from being exploited by the rich and by men, from not being educated or able to judge for herself, from not being able to realise her potential. Those who based their teachings on power, whether it was the power of God or of human traditions, would not address her needs. Perhaps they sincerely meant to – to fulfil Christ’s message to give to the poor, for example – but the very way they justified their messages, through authority, would undermine this sincere intention.

It was not that the Prince did not believe in God, he decided, it was that he did not feel that God was an authority that he should follow. After all, all the ideas about God’s will came from the speeches and writings of men. The right way to judge, the right way to live his life – that did not come from authorities, but from the sense of balance within his experience.

At last the Prince was clear. He did not need to look any further for a profound truth. All he needed was a direction, a method of thinking. If he knew how to judge the right direction in any situation, he would know how to act. He realised that he should learn from whoever he met, that they would all help him understand the world around him, but that he should live life on his own terms. When someone told him what to do, he should listen and weigh their views, but not accept their power over him. He would make his own decisions, not in reaction but in discourse, open but firm.

As the sun set, the Prince loped down the hill. Half an hour later, he had found a stagecoach to take him to the town by the palace. The next day, he walked into the castle, past the astonished servants, but did not first go to see his parents. He went to see his wife and son and embraced them. “I’ve been missing you so much” she said, distraught with joy. “It’s been a long time. They told me you were dead, but I didn’t believe them.”

“I’m sorry” he said, and his eyes filled with tears. “I was away of my own will. I needed to work out how to live my life, but now I am clearer. The first thing I suggest is that you must move out of this castle. I cannot come back to live here. We need a place of our own.”


Rewriting the life of the Buddha

Anyone familiar with the life of the Buddha should recognise here a somewhat transmogrified version of the earlier part of it. I take the early life of the Buddha, not as a piece of history (though it may also, at least in some respects, be that) but as an inspiring parable. I feel entirely free to alter the telling of any parable so as to bring out one aspect or another of its message, for its significance lies in the universal patterns it reveals, not in particular historical claims. In this case, the message of the parable is the nature of the Middle Way, so I felt that this message could be brought out more directly for a Western audience by transposing the story to a more Western setting (I imagine England a few centuries ago, but please do not let us get caught up on details of historical accuracy that are no more relevant to the significance of the story here than they would have been in ancient India).

The traditional Buddhist narratives of the life of the Buddha also tend to focus on the Buddha’s achievement of nirvana. I, however, am not so much interested in this supposed achievement as in the approach or method he was said to have used to achieve it – the Middle Way. Placing the discovery of the Middle Way in England also enables it to be shorn of many cultural accretions that are merely Indian, and to explore what such a discovery might have meant if it had happened in England. Whilst it is very easy (at least, for me, with a thoroughly universalised account of its meaning) to place the discovery of the Middle Way in England, it would be much more difficult to imagine the enlightenment, loaded as it is with specific cultural and religious expectations from its Indian context, taking place in England. Added to this, I do not think it is at all significant whether or not the enlightenment took place. It may have done for all I know, but this supposed achievement is very often made the basis of authority claims in the Buddhist tradition that in my view are not compatible with the Middle Way. At the very least, then, it needs to be omitted from the story here, so as to provide a clear and uncluttered account of the recognition of the Middle Way.

The most significant lines of the story, however one chooses to flesh them out, are of a confined young person in a place of highly conventional (and thus relative) values, followed by a traumatic confrontation with the full difficulties of wider conditions. In an attempt to be adequate to these wider conditions, and with an intuition of a deeper meaning, the young man leaves the scene of his confined youth and wanders the wider world. He then learns from religious teachers who offer a supernaturally-authorised, highly disciplined way of life. Although he learns much from this training, it does not fulfil what he is intuitively looking for and he moves on. After engagement with both these extremes, then, learning from each but in the end firmly moving on, the young man hits on the Middle Way: the need to avoid dogmas on either side, together with subjection to the power that uses them. Such avoidance of dogmas, positive or negative, will enable him to avoid delusions that cause limitations on both sides and engage more effectively with conditions of all kinds. Such a narrative could conceivably be told in all sorts of different ways, set in different times, places and cultures.

“Engaging effectively with conditions”, is a necessarily broad phrase if we are to understand the Middle Way in a sufficiently flexible and relevant way – not even just, it should be noted, a question of overcoming suffering, important and ambitious enough though that is. However unexciting the phrase may sound, though, “engaging effectively with conditions” is one hell of a big deal. It may mean, for example, providing adequate education for the poor and improving the status of women. It may mean personal or political action on global warming. It may mean improving your relationship with your mother. It may mean following through an artistic impulse repressed in earlier life. The fact that one cannot specify anything as concrete as any of these examples in defining the Middle Way does not mean that any of these things are not what it might mean in practice for you. It does mean, as long as we describe the Middle Way in such a broad way, that we are even-handedly engaging with whichever of them turn out to be relevant to our lives.

In the case of the Prince, then, when thinking about how to end the story, I fell to considering how he could apply the Middle Way most relevantly to his life. It seems obvious that he has, at least, unfinished business to engage with in relation to the young family he left behind, and thus that his first application of the Middle Way should be, not to go back to his previous confined life in the castle, but at least to engage with the important conditions represented by his family in a more balanced way. To move his family out, particularly in a culture where that would presumably have been at least a possibility, thus seems the best solution. Coming from where he comes from, and being at the point he was, that seems more important than going on to have profound meditation experiences or founding a monastic order – not that we should rule out either of those possibilities for his subsequent life.

The Buddha’s abandonment of his wife and child is always a difficult point in the interpretation of the original story – one where I have often found Buddhists getting rather defensive in support of their hero’s honour. This aspect of the story conveys the ideal of complete renunciation of wealth and family life found in Indian religious culture, in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but I would not accept the culturally relativist gloss of “It was OK for him in his time and place”, for much more universal issues are at stake. There may be times when renunciation of some kind is a necessary part of distancing oneself from old habits and assumptions, so as to oblige oneself to move on new and better ones, and that is the positive part of what the story conveys for me. However, there is no denying the likely long-term psychological effects of a father’s early desertion (let alone a mother’s): how negative these may be depend very much on the context, but it is very hard to see them as positive either from the child’s or the other parent’s point of view, even if (as in the Buddha’s and the Prince’s case) there are no issues of financial or practical support.

Having been myself, during the time when I was a practising Buddhist, irresponsibly encouraged to desert my young family by some senior Buddhist practitioners, who had little detailed understanding of my context, I do think the interpretation of this part of the story needs challenging. Renunciation is not a good thing to be absolutised in itself. Nor is it always bad, but a great deal of caution needs to be exercised before encouraging it, when others are affected. Renunciation is also probably best seen not as an all-or-nothing matter, as it often is. Those who need to renounce may limit the social damage by making it a temporary or partial measure, and it seemed to me that for the Prince’s absence for two years followed by a re-unification with his family was the best way of showing an application of the Middle Way in the story: it tried to do justice both to the importance of his quest, and to the importance of his family relationships.

This story portrays a Middle Way that is a principle of judgement, avoiding the extremes of either positive or negative dogma. The ways those dogmas are revealed in the Prince’s early life are primarily as absolute and relative values – moral absolutism and moral relativism. I think these are also the most relevant and important extremes that are avoided in the traditional life of the Buddha, the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ of the Buddhist tradition being largely ways of representing this moral opposition in terms of the argument going on in ancient India about the eternal self or its absence.

For moral absolutists, such as the Bishop, there needs to be some absolute source of authoritative values, and some mechanism by which these absolute demands can be fulfilled regardless of human weakness and sinfulness. For ancient Indians, this was the device of multiple lives occurring through rebirth, allowing one enough time to do the incredible amount of work on oneself that was necessary to become enlightened. Eternalism (belief in the eternal, transmigrating self) thus went hand-in-hand with moral absolutism. For European Protestants, with only a single life, though, the device is salvation by faith, whereby those who believe sufficiently in Christ’s sacrifice can gain admission to heaven, and avoid having to fulfil the exacting demands of God’s law. The ‘nihilists’ in ancient India denied the eternal self, and thus more importantly denied the absolute ethics that went with it, leading them to fall back on conventional values or individual preferences. In England, on the other hand, I imagine that all that is required to be ‘nihilist’ (in the earlier centuries when outright atheism was extremely rare) is to be rather conventional and not worry too much about salvation by faith, worrying about what the neighbours think more than what God may think. In either context, the important contrast lies between moral absolutism and moral conventionalism, and it is this opposition that the Prince encounters and eventually goes beyond.

There is thus a deep connection between the Middle Way as depicted in this story and that in the life of the Buddha, in terms of the extremes avoided. Similar stories could potentially be created, though, where the extremes were rather different – for example, freewill and determinism, or realism and idealism. All that is really required is that the opposed beliefs involved contradict each other and give rise to opposing values. The parable story of the hero (who could of course be female, or a different age) merely needs to show the same dialectical structure, in which the benefits of each extreme are recognised and incorporated into a better, more integrated view.

I could thus potentially write a whole book of variations on the life of the Buddha. Apart from a Christian version, we could have a Muslim and a Jewish one. We could have variety of cultures and locations, ages, social statuses, gender, sexual orientation, political viewpoints… The Middle Way, as I keep saying, is universal. If I have maintained a certain conservatism in some respects here (for example, keeping the hero as a young male with high social status) it is from a wish to keep some incidental thematic connections with the original. It is also not surprising, that being myself a white English middle-class male, I want to write about a Buddha that is not too far away, so that I can still feel culturally at home with him myself. But I invite others to experiment with multiple variations on this theme that convey their own experience.

Picture: Buddha leaving his family: mural from temple in Sarnath, photo by Ajay Tallam (CCSA 2.0)

Other Middle Way parables:  Achilles and the Tortoise, An Acre of Forest, The Lute StringsThe Ship, The Boredom of Heaven, Ten Variations on the Good Samaritan, The Firefighter and the Stockbroker

The Lute Strings

Another parable. See The Ship and An Acre of Forest for earlier ones.

Gaynor had now given up her early obsession with music and decided to focus on her career. In fact, it had been several years now since she had even thought about music. Instead, her focus was on the completion of this project, the approval of her boss, the likelihood of more responsibility in the next project, the need to overcome obstructive colleagues and placate demanding customers, the determination to make an impression for her ability and commitment. She had barely noticed as her relationship unravelled and her boyfriend moved on. She lived alone now, and worked.

But suddenly, like a swimmer stricken by weakness in mid-channel, she began to find herself undermined by weakness. One morning she woke up at 3am overwhelmed by despair – knowing suddenly that she was not good enough and there was no point. She could not go to work and she could not go on. She took time off, and at first her boss was sympathetic. “You’ve been overdoing it, Gaynor” she said on the telephone, “But you’re a valuable asset to the company, so you need to look after yourself. You take some time off and get better.” The doctor advised a new treatment: mindfulness based stress reduction. Really good for depression, he had said, much better than giving her drugs. So one afternoon, Gaynor found herself in a class learning how to meditate.

At first it was really annoying. The mindfulness teacher led them in a body scan and then told them to focus on the breath. For Gaynor, the body scan had just made her feel insecure about her body: it wasn’t good enough, it was full of tension. Then when asked to focus on the breath she just found it boring. She tried doing it for a few seconds, but then immediately started thinking about the office again.

In the discussion afterwards, Gaynor asked the mindfulness teacher how she could focus on her body or on the breath without getting stressed about it. To her they just seemed like new sources of stress. Why go to a meditation class and fail at doing something else, having just failed at going to work? If she tried to stop doing these things, she would float around and then just land right back on her stress points.

“Well,” the Mindfulness Teacher seemed to be searching for the right response, “have you ever played any music – an instrument of some kind?”Winged man playing the lute Durer

A sudden stab of memory at the word “music”: Gaynor and her lute, at the age of 14. That lute given to her by her aunt, and the local guitar teacher keen on the baroque, who had taught her and encouraged her. At one time she hadn’t just played music, it had seemed that music had also been playing her.

“Yes,” responded Gaynor after a pause, “I used to play the lute, but I gave it up to concentrate on my career.”

“Ah! Well, there’s a story told by the Buddha about a lute. Once there was a monk who came to him whose name was Sona. Sona had been trying too hard in meditation. Like you he was just finding it another challenge, another source of stress. But Sona also used to play the lute. So the Buddha asked him, ‘What happens if the lute-strings are too tight?’ What would you say, Gaynor?”

“You don’t get a good tone. You get distortions, and it’s bad for the instrument.”

“And what happens if the lute-strings are too slack?”

“Similarly, you don’t get a good tone. It’s out of tune.”

“So you need the lute-strings to be neither too taut nor too slack, but somewhere in between, the Middle Way. Meditation is just like that. You have to find a point in yourself where you start getting the right tone, the one that just hits the note and is in tune. You won’t do that by forcing your effort or having too rigid an idea of what you want to achieve. You have to be a bit exploratory and provisional. On the other hand you do need to have a sense of purpose in meditation, and to maintain that sense of purpose, otherwise you will just drift off.”

When she got home, Gaynor went impulsively to her wardrobe, where, under a pile of clothes and other detritus, she found her lute in its case. In excitement, she took it up and tried to tune it, but straight away one of the strings snapped. She had to make a trip to a music shop before she could go any further. But then at last she was there, with a lute once more in her hands, and with the strings neither too taut nor too slack. After a few minutes of initial clumsiness, she was amazed at how quickly her musical agility returned: the technique, the expression, the memory of the pieces, all were still there.

She played solidly for two hours, and then realised that her depression had apparently lifted. But she felt no urge to go back to work.

The next week she returned to the meditation class. In the practice, this time, she tried to tune her breath like a lute-string: neither too taut, nor too slack. For a while she seemed to find that point, then she got distracted by congratulating herself and thinking about her lute. At least she wasn’t thinking about work, she thought.


 The Middle Way and psychological states

This story uses an analogy directly used by the Buddha to illustrate the Middle Way in relation to psychological states. The Middle Way appears not just in relation to sets of explicit views – what we might typically think of as ‘extreme’ views – but also in the assumptions we make in everyday life. If you are not an extremist, unfortunately you can’t congratulate yourself that you are necessarily already practising the Middle Way, as the kinds of states encountered by Gaynor are, more or less, the ones we all encounter, to a greater or lesser degree, on a regular basis. We are not quite hitting the Middle Way at every point where we are not optimally ‘tuned’.

However, it’s important to understand how beliefs relate to psychological states here. It is not the psychological states that are extreme, but the beliefs that accompany them. For example, Gaynor was not in an ‘extreme’ state just because she was depressed – depression may have a variety of causes, after all. Rather her depression was being perpetuated by a rigid view: in this case the view that fulfilling the goals of work and career would meet all her needs. This view was inadequate to the conditions, not because the work was bad, but because her needs were more complex than that. If she were to flip to the opposite negating view, that work was bad and she should give up work entirely, it might have equally negative effects. These views are only ‘extreme’ because they are rigid and fail to notice the possibility of a balanced and flexible judgement in between, not because they would necessarily be conventionally understood as ‘extreme’.

As a good lute-player will know, it is no good just tuning your lute once. You have to keep re-tuning it, because otherwise it will go out of tune, and similarly the Middle Way consists of a series of flexible judgements constantly re-made, all of which hit a middle point between the affirmation and denial of fixed beliefs. The Middle Way is thus a process of judgement, not a fixed belief in itself. If you had a sense of it in the past, and then forgot it, rediscovering the Middle Way can indeed be a bit like rediscovering your lute at the bottom of your wardrobe.

Meditation is an excellent context for directly experiencing the Middle Way. If you approach it with a fixed belief of the kind Gaynor had (that it was just another source of stress requiring too much of her), it will not yield any satisfaction, any more than a badly-tuned lute will provide satisfactory music. Someone approaching it with the opposite belief (that meditation was just about relaxing and having no purpose at all) would probably have an equally bad time. However, as soon as you hit on the right tuning for the lute, meditation can become much more rewarding. For a short while you may create beautiful music, but then it is very likely that you will get stuck in some other way, hanging onto a rigid belief of some other kind rather than finding the balance. Every time you manage to loosen that belief (every time you re-tune the lute), you begin to live a little more provisionally, and build up more adequate habits in relation to the world.