“Life is one, said the Buddha, and the Middle Way to the end of suffering in all its forms is that which leads to the end of the illusion of separation, which enables man to see, as a fact as clear as sunlight, that all mankind, and all other forms in manifestation, are one unit, the infinitely variable appearance of an indivisible Whole.”
~ Christmas Humphreys
To properly understand ‘The Middle Way’ we must first understand that the Buddha experienced two great extremes in his path to enlightenment. Early in life, he was a sheltered prince, pampered inside a palace with all manner of sensual delights. After leaving this life, he began the practice of asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of denying the body and mind the pleasures it desires. The buddha starved himself, owned no possessions, and had no personal connections. He lived this way for years, before finally abandoning it and attaining enlightenment.
Having experienced both extremes, the Buddha realized that neither attainment of great pleasure or denial of all pleasure could satisfy or free a human being. Thus, he introduced ‘The Middle Way’. He determined that a life of moderation, not denial or decadence, could yield freedom.
However, the Middle Way has an even deeper metaphysical meaning. It is a way of viewing existence as “neither coming nor going” and “not permanent nor discontinuous.” Essentially, The Middle Way is the way of non-duality. It is the way of seeing the world as neither evil or good, neither finite or infinite. And it means living neither a life of great sensual pleasure, nor of self-denial.
The Middle Way’s effectiveness is clear if we observe our society. We see that the happiest and most fulfilled people are rarely the richest or most powerful, or the poorest and most impoverished. It is usually those in the middle, who afford themselves the time for self-care, healthy relationships, and enjoyment of the little things, who lead truly satisfying lives.
Observation of the world around us is key in the practice of the Middle Way. Through observation, we may remind ourselves of the extremes that bring unhappiness. We see the manic person, who lives only in extreme emotions, and thus will always crash. We see the drug addict, who trades the state of his base of consciousness for euphoria in an extreme state.
To avoid the many extremes in existence, we must cultivate some sense of detachment. Yet it is important that we do not mistake dissociation with detachment. With detachment we are involved with the world, we act in it, we create in it, but we do not attach ourselves to outcomes. The following quote from the ancient text Samyuktagama illustrates this aspect of the Middle Way:
“If we can see the truth of the causes of worldly sufferings, we will not be attached to the view of nothingness. If we can see the truth of cessation in the world, we will not be attached to worldly existence. By avoiding the two extremes, the Tathagata teaches us the Middle Path, which is, what this is, that is; this arising, that arises…”
This quote is more powerful the more it is contemplated. The last line expresses the constant shifting of the Universe, and the necessity of detachment from both existence and non-existence. The cycle of life is a manifestation of this cycle of existence arising, and then disappearing.
In following the Middle Way, we may learn to embrace life, whilst losing our fear of death. This is the Middle Way.