Buddhism - The Middle Path
To understand why this is so, we need to know about the other religions in India during the Buddha’s time. During the period of the Vedas to the time of Upanishad, Brahmana influence was very extensive.
The Brahmana believed that the Brahman was the origin of the universe and of mankind. Spiritually, mankind had similar characteristics to the Mahabrahmanas, that was, a permanent, free, and happy "I" or ego.
The Brahmana regarded the nature of the universe and of human life as permanent, free, and happy. In reality though, the Brahmanas knew that life in this world, be it normal activities, relationships in society, or even our own body and mind, always brings dissatisfaction.
All phenomena are impermanent and constantly rising and falling, coming and going. Why did a permanent, free and happy existence create such an impermanent and uncomfortable world? This was the great contradiction.
However, the Brahmana’s intelligence seems to have been deluded by their emotion. They ignored the contradiction, and only thought of ending their suffering in order to regain the permanently blissful state of the Brahman/god. Hence, the theory of liberation arose.
About the Buddha’s time, there was a great change in Indian thought and ideology. The culture of the Brahmana, which originated in north-west India near the Five Rivers, became most popular near the upper stream of the Ganges River, at a place called Kuru.
But the Buddha denied the Brahmana’s imaginative theistic theory, and set his own foundations upon an intelligent analysis of reality. He made a thorough change in both theory and practice from the old religions.
Although the cycle of life and death, and the attainment of liberation in Nirvana were theories that were accepted by Indian society at that time, the problems lay in the questions of why was there rebirth and how could one be liberated.
"Middle Path" may be misunderstood as equivocal. In fact Buddhism is not as such. "Middle" means neutral, upright, and centered. It means to investigate and penetrate the core of life and all things with an upright, unbiased attitude.
In order to solve a problem, we should position ourselves on neutral, upright and unbiased ground. We investigate the problem from various angles, analyze the findings, understand the truth thoroughly, and find a reasonable conclusion.
The Middle Path in Buddhism does not mean having a biased view or superficial understanding only. The "Middle Path" represents a distinct theory and way of Buddhist practice that is not common to other religions.
The Noble Eightfold Path shows the way of practice that enables one to uplift oneself.
"The Tathagatha avoids the two extremes
and talks about the Middle Path.
What this is, that is; this arises, that arises.
Through ignorance volitional actions or karmic formations are conditioned.
Through birth, decay, death, lamentation, pain etc. are conditioned.
When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.
hrough the complete cessation of ignorance, volitional activities or karmic formations cease.
Through the cessation of birth, death, decay, sorrow, etc. cease."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)
"What this is, that is; this arising, that arises" is the principle of the Law of Dependent Origination; the Conditioned Genesis that says that, "Through ignorance volitional actions or karma-formations are conditioned" is the content of the Law of Dependent Origination.
It also says that "It is not permanent nor discontinuous." In Chapter 13 it says, "It is not coming nor going." In chapter 7 it says, "It neither exists nor not exists." (This is the "Eighth Negation of the Middle Path" in the Madhyamika Sastra, an abstract from the Samyuktagama).
The basic principle of the Law of Dependent Origination is, "What this is, that is; from this arising, that arises; when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases." It explains the creation, cessation and existence of all phenomena and all things.
When causes exist, effects exist. The rising and existence of things are determined by causes and conditions. This is why the Buddha says "what this is (cause), that is (effect); this arising, that arises".
Thus, "When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases." When there is a cause there will be an effect; when there is perverted thought, there will be wrong behavior, and this will certainly result in evil consequences, i.e. sufferings.
All things arise due to causes and conditions.
As causes and conditions are impermanent and will cease one day, all things will also cease correspondingly. When there is rising, there will be falling; when there is existence, there will be extinction.
It is like a wave; it comes and goes. Thus, when one sees the truth of "what this is, that is; this arising, that arises", one should also see the truth of "when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases".
They explain the Laws of Circulation and Cessation.
This rise and fall of causes and effects is still a worldly principle, and an explanation for superficial phenomena. Although it was not the final truth, it is from this that the ultimate truth was realized.
By understanding these two processes of the Law of Dependent Origination, we may see the truth of emptiness, which is the ultimate truth. Chapter 13 of "The sutra on the Ultimate Truth of Emptiness" in the Samyuktagama says:
"When the eyes see, the scene comes from nowhere.
When they shut, it goes nowhere.
Thus the eyes see unreality.
All that arises will be destroyed....
except the truth of the Worldly Law.
The Worldly Law says that
what this is, that is; this arising, that arises."
"To contemplate the unreal nature of all things,
there is nothing real.
Various names arise due to the coincidence of
causes and conditions which are unreal.
When one sees the truth of emptiness,
one will realize that there is no Dharma
(the perverted view of existence)
(the perverted view of extinction)."
"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 Tathagatha teaches us
the Middle Path, which is,
what this is, that is; this arising, that arises…"
(Chapter 12, Samyuktagama)
By compassion the Enlightened Ones, when they see Dharma arising, know that it is not nothingness, while at the same time not becoming attached to it as something real. When they see the Dharma disappear, they do not become attached to its extinction nor at the same time do they think that the extinction is real and means nothing at all.
This is because, according to the Law of Dependent Origination, when there is a cause there will be an effect. When the cause ceases, the effect ceases. The Dharma is alive. It can exist or cease, rise or fall.
If it is nothing, then it should not rise and exist. The Dharma rises and ceases, it can exist and become extinct. If we investigate the core of all things, we will realize that everything is conditioned and has empirical names.
With continuously changing phenomena, the existence of all things is a web of interrelationships. Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, we can realize the Truth of Impermanence and Egolessness and hence the nature of the emptiness of all things.
Thus, the sutra says,
"One who thinks of impermanence
will understand the truth of ego-lessness.
The Enlightened One
lives in the state of ego-lessness,
and hence progresses towards liberation and Nirvana."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 10)
To realize the Three Universal Characteristics of impermanence, ego-lessness and Nirvana from the standpoint of Emptiness in Dependent Origination and on the Middle Path, is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Often people tend to become attached to worldly phenomena, and think that only the phenomena that change are impermanent and that the origin of things is still permanent.
They think that egolessness means that "I" has no real identity; that it is only an image formed by a co-operation of factors and that there is no "I" but that Dharma is still real and does exist nevertheless.
It is not permanent. Thus, the Dharma is ever-changing. If the Dharma has a permanent identity and is not empty, why do phenomena change all the time? It is because of the nature of emptiness in Dharma that ego is unobtainable.
From the rising and falling, existence and extinction of conditioned phenomena, one should eliminate the idea of an absolute, independent, permanent identity. Once we are able to realize the nature of emptiness, we will be liberated.
It does not explain why the deluded life can be liberated and does not talk about "What this is, that is; this is arising, therefore that arises." It tells us about the Middle Path that those who wish to be liberated should follow. It is a path that avoids both the extremes of suffering and of luxury.
Others concentrated on meaningless asceticism and tortured themselves. All these things do not help, nor do they bring us liberation. It was to counsel avoidance of these extreme behaviors that the Buddha taught us about the Middle Path.
This is also a theme that is commonly found in the Agama Sutra.
The Noble Eightfold Path teaches us to be normal and reasonable in our speech, action, emotion, determination, ways of living and so on. Everything we do should be fair and right. This is the Middle Path.
One should know that "practice" is also conditioned. In the Parable of the Seven Carts, in Chapter 2 of the Middle Agama (Madhyamagama), King Prasenajit departed from Sravasti. It was a long journey. However, the King was able to reach his destination within one day. This was because he set stops on the way.
Hence he was able to reach his destination in a very short time. The travel from one place to another was not the hard work of one cart and one horse only. It was the co-operative effort of many carts and many horses. It was the co-operation of many causes and conditions.
"We should let go of the Dharma, and the non-Dharma ".
"Dharma" refers to moral behavior. "Non-Dharma" refers to immoral behavior. In the process of practising the Middle Path one should first use moral behavior (Dharma) to correct immoral behavior (non-Dharma).
This Dharma that emphasizes moral values arises due to causes and conditions. It is empty in nature. If we cling to a perverted view, becoming attached to images and things as real, then we will not realize the nature of emptiness and we will not be liberated. The Sata Sastra says,
"We should first rely on merits
in order to get rid of sin.
Secondly, we should rely on equanimity
and let the merits go.
Then we can attain the state of
formlessness or Nirvana."
Chapter 7 in the Samyuktagama says,
"If I feel that nothing is obtainable,
then there is no sin.
If I am attached to form (and to other things),
then it is sinful.....
If one knows this,
then one will not be attached to anything
in this mundane world".
Therefore it is clear that we should not become attached to the merits of good deeds, as these are also empty in nature. The Nagarjuna Bodhisattva once said, "Merit is like a hot, burning gold coin, although it is valuable, it is untouchable".
The Middle Path that emphasizes emptiness and Dependent Origination avoids perverted views. The Noble Eightfold Path avoids the two extremes of suffering and luxury, and emphasizes non-attachment. These two main themes of the Middle Path supplement each other and lead us to perfection.
If there was only theory to explain the Law of Dependent Origination without the emphatic proof of personal practice and experience, the Path could not fulfil religious faith in helping followers disentangle themselves from suffering, thereby attaining ultimate freedom.
On the other hand, if the Path only taught us the ways of practice without theoretical or intelligent guidance, it might be defeated by our lack of wisdom, and we might become a theistic follower. The Noble Eightfold Path of the Middle Path fulfills human religious expectations by encouraging moral practice.
In addition, it has the intelligent guidance of the Law of Dependent Origination and of Emptiness. The Middle Path emphasizes the unity of wisdom and faith. This is the special characteristic of Buddha’s teaching.
(Translated by Shi Neng Rong, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (6-7-96)