When I first encountered Buddhism’s Middle Way, it was as a conclusion to The Buddha’s misadventures as a prince and an ascetic. The Middle Way was described as avoiding the excesses of hedonism and mortification.
I originally dismissed this as obvious. After all, didn’t I learn to avoid excesses when I was 5?
However, The Middle Way is quite insightful, but it took some probing and a willingness to look at The Buddha in a different way.
The first step was to treat hedonism and mortification not as lifestyles, but attitudes towards things:
- Hedonism = (inordinate?) desire
- Mortification = (inordinate?) aversion
With that done, an overview of Buddhism and The Middle Way emerges:
We suffer because of our desires. It’s tempting then to turn to the opposite of desire — aversion — as the solution. However, this doesn’t work either. What works is to tread a fine line between desire and aversion — a middle way. This middle way is non-attachment, also known as acceptance, indifference and letting go.
There are two problems with hatred (aversion). First, it may be caused by a desire — a desire for the opposite of the hated object. So where hatred is, so may be desire. Second, hatred fosters clinging. Clinging ensures the thing takes residence in our mind where it can continue to hurt us.
The way to be free of something is to let it go. As long as I hold on to something, it holds on to me.
Seek the Middle Way.
With this in mind, The Buddha’s life stops being about a historical figure and becomes an allegory of our lives. His life as a prince mirrors our typical lifestyle in which we live to gratify our desires. Maybe like him we even had it all — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect home, the perfect …
His dissatisfaction with the princely life mirrors our realization that our life is not fulfilling (it may even be painful). Maybe like him we also encounter illness, old age (mid-life crisis?) or death and can no longer live as if they were mere abstractions. Or maybe in a moment of insight we realize we will never be fulfilled with the way we are living — that it isn’t our specific life circumstances, but the rat race BY DESIGN that’s the problem.
His turn to asceticism mirrors a natural reaction (or dream); to get away from it all. But what then? Do we really leave it behind or do we still cling to it in the form of hatred or bitterness? Do we look upon the rat race, society, our consumer culture with disgust and still suffer from it, despite supposedly no longer being a part of it?
At this point, we may find ourselves at an impasse. The rat race didn’t work. Retiring from the rat race didn’t work. We went from hungry hedonists to bitter grumps. Was this an improvement? This is where the Middle Way comes in. It tells us that it’s the strong reactions towards things that were the problem, and not the things or even the specific reactions themselves. The solution is to abandon both extremes of reaction.
Interestingly, some older spiritual texts speak of things like “contempt” for the world. However, contempt may have meant something closer to indifference back then. If so, this advice to seek The Middle Way might have been more widespread, yet may have been lost thanks to the vagaries of etymology.