According to the tradition, in his first teaching (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the Buddha advocated a middle way that avoided the two extremes of self-indulgence or self-denial. The Buddha then presented the Noble Eightfold Path as a path that follows the middle way.
In a later teaching (the Kaccayanagotta Sutta), the Buddha used the term middle way to describe a view that is free from the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
After the passing of the Buddha, Buddhist scholars debated the the subtle implications of this middle-way view, eventually forming different schools of thought based on different interpretations. In the second or third century CE, the Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna presented a very refined interpretation of the middle-way view, and his writings formed the basis of the Madhyamaka or Middle-Way school, that became highly influential in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and East Asia.
Middle way between self-indulgence and self-denial
In the life story of the Siddhartha Guatama (the future Buddha), it describes how as a child and young man, Siddhartha's father ensured that his every sensual desire was fulfilled. At this early stage of his life, Siddartha experienced the extreme of self-indulgence. He saw that this way of living could not bring him lasting happiness, and he became dissillusioned with his life as a royal prince. He then left his royal palace and sought knowledge through studying with several forest yogis. After studying meditation techniques with several different teachers, Siddhartha joined a group of five yogis who practiced a form of extreme asceticism. These yogis saw their physical bodies as an impediment to spiritual awakening, and they sought to overcome their attachment to sense pleasures by denying their bodies food and comfort. With these companions, Siddhartha practiced the extreme of self-denial.
Siddhartha practiced with these yogis for many years, until he was near the point of death from starvation. Sensing he was near death, he accepted a bowl of milk rice from a village girl Sujata, daughter of a local householder, who gave it as an offering thinking he was a tree spirit. Upon drinking the nourishing milk, he had the realization that practicing extreme austerities would not lead to a spiritual awakening. Gradually, he developed the insight that the path to awakening must be a middle way between extreme indulgence in sense-pleasures and extreme austerities. It was at this point that he entered into a state of deep meditation that led to his awakening.
Thus, in the first recording teaching that the Buddha gave after his awakening (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the first insight that he revealed was the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. This concept was the underlying principle for the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha presented as a path to awakening that followed the middle way.
Middle way between eternalism and nihilism
The middle way is also used to refer to the view that rejects the extreme views of eternalism (some things are permanently existing) and nihilism (nothing exists). This middle way view is closely related to other Buddhist concepts, such as: no-self (anatman) and dependent arising.
The two extreme views with regard to the self (atman) are:
- there is a permanently existing self or soul that persists after death
- there is no continuity of the self after death (the self ceases to exist at death)
In the Buddhist view, both of these assertions are not correct. They are said to be extreme views that should be rejected. The middle view asserts that self exists in relation to (or in dependence upon) other causes and conditions. In this view:
- one can not say that the self is permanent (because the self is constantly changing from one moment to the next, and it only exists in relation to other causes and conditions)
- one can not say that the self does not exist after death (because there is a continuum)
The term anatman, that is typically translated a no-self is a refutation of the first extreme (a permanent self). This term was used because at the time in which the Buddha taught in India, the belief in a permanent self, or atman was the dominant view.
Dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) refers to the concept that all phenomena arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions. When one of these causes or conditions changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomena will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomena. Thus, there is nothing with an eternal self or atman, only mutually dependent origination and existence.
But the absence of an eternal atman does not mean there is no-thing at all. Early Buddhism adheres to a realistic approach which does not deny existence as such, but denies the existence of eternal and independent substances. This view is the Middle Way between eternalism and annihilationism:
The understanding that sees a 'person' as subsisting in the causal connectedness of dependent arising is often presented in Buddhist thought as 'the middle' (madhyama/majjhima) between the views of 'eternalism' (śaśvata-/sassata-vāda) and 'annihilationism' (uccheda-vāda).[lower-alpha 1]
- Two aspects of the Buddha's teachings, the philosophical and the practical, which are mutually dependent, are clearly enunciated in two discourses, the Kaccaayanagotta-sutta and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, both of which are held in high esteem by almost all schools of Buddhism in spite of their sectarian rivalries. The Kaccaayanagotta-sutta, quoted by almost all the major schools of Buddhism, deals with the philosophical "middle path", placed against the backdrop of two absolutistic theories in Indian philosophy, namely, permanent existence (
- Ajahn Sucitto 2010, pp. 21-22.
- Pathamasambodhi sutta, summarized in Symbolic and imagery representation of lord Buddha in the museums of Eastern India collection and communication, by Prasopchingchana, Sarunya, see Chapter 1 Lord Buddha: his Life and Events page 63
- Gethin (1998),p. 145
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