What’s the point of Middle Way Philosophy?

It was recently pointed out to me that there has been a discussion going on about the Middle Way Society over on the US Secular Buddhism website. I’ve resisted the temptation to wade into that discussion, but I was struck by one of the responses of our detractor in it, who said he “couldn’t see the point” of the approach on this site. I don’t want to make this into a personal debate, so I won’t mention his name, but it struck me that this might well be the response of a wider range of people, perhaps for varying reasons. So I want to suggest here some major ‘points’ of Middle Way Philosophy that this person and others may possibly have missed.

A ‘point’ in this sense is perhaps a motive or a meaning, as experienced both intellectually and emotionally. In my experience there may be a number of kinds of views or attitudes that lead people not to see such a point. I’m never going to capture all the possibilities for this in a blog, but here are three particularly common ones:

  • They may assume that it duplicates things that are already done elsewhere
  • They may see it as impractical
  • They may not be able to relate it closely to their concerns

Firstly, then, does Middle Way Philosophy just duplicate things done elsewhere? Let me acknowledge the possibility that perhaps, unknown to me, Middle Way Philosophy really does duplicate things done elsewhere. Would that be a bad thing? Well, if we take those things to be good, then on the contrary it would be something to celebrate. We could simply join forces with those people.

However, most often this assumption is simply a misunderstanding, and it tends to come from people who have read or heard a little bit about the Middle Way approach and jumped to the conclusion that it is all about that – the well known problem of the blind men and the elephant. The Middle Way approach is the elephant, not the fly whisk or the waste paper basket or the hose, because it is synthetic.Blind_men_and_elephant If you think the Middle Way approach to science, for example, is already reflected in the views of various thinkers, philosophical or scientific, then that’s great. But what do these thinkers say about the other parts of the elephant – about ethics, about meaning or the arts, about meditation? If you think the Middle Way is already embodied in the secular meditation movement, then what does that movement have to say about Critical Thinking, and in what ways does it challenge our moral or political assumptions? If you think Middle Way Philosophy is just Buddhism reformatted (or even ‘plagiarised’ according to one commentator), then what are Buddhist movements – even Western or Secular ones – really doing to work out the implications of the Middle Way and apply it? In my experience, although the Buddhist tradition is the source of explicit Middle Way ideas, at least 90% of Buddhist discourse is not about the Middle Way, and neither mentions it nor applies it without reducing it to other less universal and less adequate doctrines (I cannot reference an absence, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it that in more than 20 years’ experience of studying and trying to practise Buddhism, I found that to be the case). I take no satisfaction in this point, and wish that I had not found it to be the case – it would make life a great deal easier if I could just attach myself to a tradition and rely on it to consistently apply the Middle Way.

No, in the world at large there are all sorts of partial approaches to the Middle Way, whether those are found in Buddhist practices, or social movements, or psychology, or the arts, or philosophers. These are all to be praised, but to really engage with it we need to address all the conditions we practically can, and avoid repressing any of them or making any avoidable dogmatic assumptions. My own approach is only less partial to the extent that I am trying to point out and redress that partiality.

That takes me to the second kind of problem people have, which is seeing the whole project as abstract and impractical. But that only arises from idealising it rather than seeing it in incremental terms. The Middle Way is exactly that, a way, not a unaffordable tax demand from God. It starts from wherever you are, beneath your feet, and stretches indefinitely away from you. It demands that you address whatever it is you have failed to address. In that sense – once you have grasped the implications of incrementality – it could hardly be more practical. Your engagement with the theory depends only on what you can engage with on that path – though theory is always there in our assumptions and is also not an optional aspect of our lives. Again, it’s not that nobody else practises incrementality, but no other prominent commentators I’ve come across seem to recognise it as a central (and moral) aspect of how we address the conditions around us. If only they did!

Then there’s the third reason for not seeing the point. Middle Way Philosophy is about everything – incrementally engaged with – and thus, without that understanding and practice of incrementality, it carries the danger of being taken to be about nothing. If you’re really into social justice, or visual art, or Sufism, or beekeeping, or whatever else you’re passionate about, the Middle Way may at first appear to not be about that, but to be about generalities that only include these things in theory. However, it really is about all of those things, because it is about integrating human values, taking whatever addresses conditions in them but weeding out the dogmas. So, for example, it is about social justice, plus the wider conditions that may be neglected by your limited idea (or your party’s limited idea) of social justice. The job of a Middle Way based community, as I see it, is to nurture these passions, whilst also helping to channel some of the energy that goes into them into seeing their limiting assumptions. There are fewer better ways of seeing those limitations than by really engaging with whatever opposes those objects of passion.

A genuine Middle Way community cannot be closely identified with a particular religious or political tradition, but at the same time it needs to recognise that every person has positive roots in such traditions. My own roots may be in Buddhism, Christianity and Green politics, because I am embodied, but the Middle Way cannot be reduced to the ideologies associated with any of these traditions if it is to perform a genuinely integrating role.

There is indeed a point, but only if you are prepared to think big and walk slow. If you hurry on, having made your hasty defensive judgement, then of course there will not be.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

4 thoughts on “What’s the point of Middle Way Philosophy?

  1. Hi Robert,

    This is an excellent response to what I suspect might become a common challenge to the society, and on face value I understand why people (especially in Buddhist circles) may ask the question. It took me a while to begin to understand the point and value of the society – a process that is ongoing.

    From a Buddhist perspective there appears to be a kind of elitism at work, with some people jealously guarding what they assume to be exclusive to Buddhism only. One only has to read Rabbi Susan Averbach’s recent post on the Jewish Middle Way (http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way/the-jewish-middle-way/) to understand the error of such assumptions.

    Nevertheless, the fact that the society is being discussed within the US Secular Buddhist Society can only be a positive occurrence – detractors or not. Personally, I would urge you to engage on the site. As long as you do not get drawn into aggressive and unhelpful discussions then it may prove quite fruitful, even if you do not convince everybody (or anybody)! Nevertheless, I understand your reluctance – I have often noticed that Stephen Batchelor does not get involved with on-line forum responses to his writings, often to the annoyance of the users. At the very least you could guide them to this post so that they have the opportunity to read your response.


  2. I agree with Richard, this is a very helpful and timely post that deserves to be read by all who have doubts or reservations about your ‘take’ on the Middle Way. People who take issue with you may discourage others who are drawn to Middle Way philosophy but don’t want to stick their necks out, lacking the confidence to challenge your detractors. A bit like Rich, I suspect, I am one such, but my confidence is growing slowly, as is my commitment to practice in all its modalities, although progress is not in a straight line. It’s hard in a few words what ‘progress’ means in my own case, but happy surrender to uncertainty comes to mind, and with it a movement of energy upwards and in all other directions too, and that includes gratitude to you, and to our tiny community as well.


  3. Robert,

    As one of participants in that thread on the secularbuddhism.org (US) discussion forum, I hope that I did not misrepresent Middle Way philosophy too much. After all, I admit that I haven’t followed MWS publications very closely, but I did mean to recommend this group to another commentator, whom I had gathered is based in the UK.


    1. Hi Jason, No I don’t feel you misrepresented us at all – I’m just glad you feel able to spread the word a little. I also take the point about the jargon and appreciate how easily it might put people off: though one person’s jargon is another’s helpful specialised vocabulary!

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