What is the Middle Way?

What is the middle way?

Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings. – Jalal ad-Din  Rumi

In the quote above, Rumi illustrates DSC_1910a nature-based view of existence free from extremes, a kind of Taoist liberation discovered to be balanced and within us. A kind of middle way. Taoism itself is sometimes called the “middle way” and so is Buddhism. Both traditions, unlike the Judeo-Christian worlds of the Middle East, are non-theistic. They neither attempt to find a path toward God nor claim to follow commandments She might have set forth, but instead find their liberation in the inherently personal way-seeking practices of meditation or qigong, and in philosophies eminently sensible to individual study and application.

As for Buddhism, the fundamental elements of the middle way are present in the methods by which the Buddha gradually discovered it. Living the palace life of hedonistic pleasure sheltered from pain, young Siddhartha, in order to seek greater meaning, fled from his privileges and took up various practices of the ascetics of his time; fasting and other deprivations. Eventually he found that the practices of self-denial only led to greater duality – a war against the senses – and confinement. Starved and weakened from fasting, in the moment a young girl gave the Buddha milk to drink he revived into his first middle way revelation: that both hedonism and self-mortification were seductive but do not lead to liberation.

From this initial discovery, the middle way teachings evolved through the Buddha’s own sermons as well as countless discourses that followed his over the centuries. The most central (no pun intended) of all middle way teachings concerns the opposing views of eternalism, which deems everything to have a true meaning and nihilism, that nothing means anything. Both views possess compelling arguments and everyone, at times, falls subject to them. Transcending them is daunting since they form the unconscious conceptual structures of our world view. For instance, the conquistadors of Christian Spain had little qualms enslaving or murdering the inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia. Belief systems enabled them to be both theistic, holding convictions that non-Christians did not possess souls, as well as nihilistic, believing that it was of no consequence to slaughter the peoples of the New World.

Emerging from such diverse influences as the industrial revolution,Ocean stone Nietzsche’s death of God, The Holocaust, the aesthetics of post-modernism, the H bomb and environmental catastrophes, our own epoch is characterized by a pervasive and pessimistic nihilism. Heidegger’s famous quote, “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods,” proclaims how, as we’ve taken up the beliefs of scientific materialism, we’ve lost our experience in the unseen or invisible world. We have lost conviction in the magical dimensions of the world: shamanism, the angelic realms, the gods as the Greeks knew them, etc.

I once asked the late Buddhist master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche about the pervasiveness of nihilism, even among Buddhists:

Question: The two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that there is a lot of experience of nihilism in the West. This manifests as a diminished sense of this of co-participatory relationship with the world at large, and of the unseen world. What are your thoughts on this?

Traleg Rinpoche: I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism – which even people like Nagarjuna and Shantideva were very strong on – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings – if we don’t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.

Eternalism is also pervasive in modern life. This takes the form and the perennial belief that we will not die, the subtle sense that we have an unlimited future. This internalized belief causes us to put any kind of discipline into the future, that we will finally begin meditation in earnest when we retire, or when we’ve built a beautiful shrine room in our back yard. In terms of artistic discipline, Charles Bukowski nailed this in a poem written to a woman who will begin creating as soon as she moves into her new-found studio with lots of “space and light”:

baby, air and light and time and spaceFlag
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

Another highly useful aspect of the middle way are teachings that apply to meditation practice itself. Chogyam Trungpa described it as “not too tight, not too loose.” What this means is easy to understand though not always easy to recognize in one’s own practice, since, like eternalism and nihilism, each of us tends to fall into one of the extremes, making it difficult to see our own practice with fidelity. “Not too tight” means not too much effort, an excess of which brings tension rather than ease, self-consciousness rather than freedom from small self. “Not too loose” means enough exertion to stay awake, to not be constantly drifting into discursive thought, to not become simply dull.

In closing, we might turn to the words of the Buddha himself: “The middle path, O Bhikkus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by the Tathagata – a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to nirvana.”

 

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

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