Excerpted from Stephen Fulder’s book:What’s Beyond Mindfulness: Waking Up to This Precious Life. Watkins Publishers (2019).
A basic objection to any kind of extremism or radicalism is a corner stone of Buddhist teachings. In fact The Middle Way has become a commonly used title for the whole path. Defining the middle way as a place of the middle, we may see it wrongly as a weak compromise, but according to the Buddha it is not a compromise but the best and wisest place to be. A story about the life of the Buddha illustrates the unique place of the middle way.
The story tells how Gautama, also during his ascetic period, felt stuck in his practice. Suddenly, he remembered that once, as a child, he was sitting under a tree on a beautiful sunny day while his father was supervising agriculture in the fields, when he spontaneously fell into deep concentration, peace and happiness. When recalling this, he said to himself: “if I felt this feeling as a child, perhaps Nirvana is already within me, and I shall find it again by ease rather than intense striving.”
We may have a bit of antipathy and resistance to middles. The Middle Way might seem something for the Middle Classes, for older people that are settled and don’t like extremes, the bourgeoisie who are scared of wildness, or those who live with moderation. We may think it is a kind of average. Pushing our limits is exciting, adrenaline is addictive when young, and going to extremes made life interesting. I remember that feeling when I was young during the crazy times of the 60’s. It felt that going to extremes, living beyond boundaries and conventional restrictions was sacred. Religious fundamentalism, which is rearing its ugly head again today draws its attraction from an intoxication with extremes, which are justified as God-given.
But the Buddhist Middle Way goes in a different direction – not limitation but liberation! It is by no means a compromise or a "Golden Mean", nor is it a neutral and rather boring mediocre grey between a strong black and white. It holds a deeper meaning. White is the opposite of black and black implies the absence of white; but grey despite the limits of the word, expresses innumerable shades and possibilities. Just as between black and white there is infinite number of greys, so a myriad of possibilities exists between two ends, poles, or opposites. And all these shades are not easily describable in language or thought which usually conceives things in terms of this opposite that. After all, we cannot really explain the shades of “grey"; it is a large and changing space. Black and white are the extremes, they are static and defined, but between them is a great river whose essence is paradoxical. A huge literature can be held by two book-ends.
The great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, who wrote the book Verses from the Centre[i]in the third century AD, was instrumental in making the term "Middle Way" into a central concept throughout the Buddhist world. Like the Buddha, Nagarjuna showed us how our life is controlled by apparent dualities such as birth and death, existence and nonexistence, self and other, come and go, here and there, past and future, appear and disappear. According to him, this is not a wise way to see the world, and brings with it much discomfort and dissatisfaction. These opposites are not the truth. Truth is neither this nor that. ‘Neti, Neti,’, means ‘Not This, Not That,’and is an ancient Vedic understanding and also spiritual and analytic practice of negation of all dualities, which brings on the realization that what is left is just the Absolute. For example, it seems to us that birth and death limit our lives, and they occupy us incessantly. But they are real and important only from the point of view of the individual's dramatic preoccupation with survival, not from the point of view of the stream of life. No concept is absolute, no duality exists in itself. They all depend on our point of view. What is 'here'? Where is it? Here is where someone says "here," but others will say "here" somewhere else. When I lived in Varanasi, I visited a poor village called Isfar, which was located on the other side of the river. I asked one of the residents what the name of the village meant. He answered "there." "But you're here!" I said. "Yes," he said, "but the people on the other side called us 'there,' and it became the name of the village."
The middle way is actually a space of presence, of here and now. Our mind tends to wander into the future or to the past and to deal with what happened or did not happen and what might happen, or what we want to happen. The middle way between past and future opens out into the great garden of the present. The vastness of possibilities in the Now. The balance between the extremes can be found only when we are here and now. When one of the monks asked the Buddha how he crossed the flood of samsara, the Buddha replied that he crossed it by not struggling and not stopping. He explained that if he struggled, he would be swept away, and if he stopped he would sink. Only by not fighting and not stopping can we reach the other shore.[ii]
This is a deeper level, of non-duality. It is a more ultimate understanding, independent of place or time, of concepts or assumptions about reality. It is a dynamic and limitless "being" where all things are interdependent and relate to each other. What is the ultimate "middle way" in Buddhist practice? There can be several answers to this question, but one lies in the term "right view", which is part of the eightfold path, and can also be translated as a right vision or right seeing. The heart of right view is recognizing that there is actually no duality in the world. We seem to recognise sound because before that there was silence, we know a thought because it arises and was not there before, we know sky because it is above and tree because it is separate from its surroundings, but all of this is a mental operation based on duality. Only thinking creates the division and differentiation. ”for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet). Right view is wisdom that knows interconnectedness rather than thinking that chops the world into discrete pieces. Thinking dualistically will tell us we ‘own’ our body which is a thing, separate from the rest of the world. Right view will reveal that the body is made of all the elements of the universe, from carbon to water to air, plus all the influences and impressions which have been received, and all is being returned to the universe in a constant two way flow. The tree is embedded in, and made from, everything else. All things are like diamonds which reflect and relate to all other things.
The most fundamental duality of all is existence versus non-existence. Obsession with existence, things are fixed and permanent, is deterministic philosophy. But this tends to put us in a jail of a mechanical unchanging world where we have no role and influence. But the obsession with non-existence is just as bad. It is nihilism, in which we are subject to purposeless chaos and there is no point in goodness or action. The perception of two opposite ends can also be expressed on the deep psychological plane – the most famous dualistic quotation of all time is probably in Hamlet again: "To be or not to be, that is the question." The urge to live, the vitality and the will to live, ‘positive psychology’ as opposed to the urge not to exist, which is a lack of will, depression, self-negation, escapism and denial. But in actual fact, things exist and then don’t exist. They arise and they cease. A car passing, a bird passing, a thought passing. Now it is there, now it is not. Now you see it now you don’t. All of this arising and passing is within a dynamic whole, an ultimate dance. Even the concepts of "existing" or "non-existing" are relevant only in the dualist world view.
Koans are Zen questions designed to break down the assumptions underlying our ordinary conceptual world and take us beyond the known and conventional. A famous example is the koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" This is a question that has no real answer. The Zen student was required to spend a long time in a constant internal search for answers to unanswerable questions, designed to dismantle his/her mental patterns. Every answer that arises collapses again faced with the same deconstructive questioning. Sudden realisation can happen when the mind is exhausted from fruitlessly churning possibilities. Surrender leads to a place of mystery, in which conceptualization breaks down in the face of absolute truth. This is enlightenment.
Consciousness without dualistic perception can shake the familiar ground on which we stand, which we are used to rely on. In this sense, the middle way is like falling between the cracks into enlightenment, into the abyss of infinity. Letting go of duality is like doing a trapeze jump. Between two ends into the space in the middle. A terrifying and yet awesome space opens underneath us when we let go of one safe trapeze and before we grasp the other one. But then we realise that there is no-where we can fall. There is actually no abyss. There is, in truth, no ground to land on so we cannot get hurt. We float in space. What there is, is Tathata, which means "suchness," in Sanskrit, just the space of Being.
[i]Acariya Nagarjuna, Mula madyamaka karika (Verses from the Center) (Tr. Stephen Batchelor). Sharpham College, 2000. Available at: http://www.stephenbatchelor.org/index.php/en/verses-from-the-center [ii]Passano, A. and Amaro, A., The Island (p. 162). Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation, Redwood, California (2009)