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The Middle Way or Middle Path (Pali: majjhimā paṭipadā; Sanskrit: madhyamā-pratipad; ) is the descriptive term that Siddhattha Gotama used to describe the character of the path that he discovered led to liberation. It was coined in the very first teaching that he delivered after his enlightenment. In this sutta - known in English as The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma - the Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This, according to him, was the path of wisdom. The middle path does not mean a mid point in a straight line joining two extremes represented by points. The middle path represents a high middle point, like the apex of a triangle. Thus the high middle point is more value filled than a mere compromise.
In later Theravada texts as well as in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Middle Way refers to the concept, enunciated in the Canon, of direct knowledge that transcends seemingly antithetical claims about existence.
In Theravada Buddhism's Pali Canon, the phrase "middle way" is ascribed to the Buddha himself in his description of the Noble Eightfold Path as a path between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence. Later Pali literature has also used the phrase "middle way" to refer to the Buddha's teaching of dependent origination as a view between the extremes of eternalism and annihilationism.
Noble Eightfold Path
In the Pali canon, the Middle Way (majjhimā paṭipadā) was said to have been articulated by the Buddha in his first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11):
- "Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.
- "Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata...? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."
Thus, for the attainment of Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana), the Middle Way involves:
- abstaining from addictive sense-pleasures and self-mortification
- nurturing the set of "right" actions that are known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
In this discourse (Pali: sutta), the Buddha identifies the Middle Way as a path for "one who has gone forth from the household life" (Pali: pabbajitena) although lay Buddhists may center their lives on this path as well.
In regard to the Buddha's admonition against the "indulgence of sense-pleasures" (Pali: kāmesu kāma-sukha-allika), Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma has written:
- "...This kind of practice is the concern of so-called 'urban civilization,' which condones sensuous pleasures as the highest attributes of bliss; the greater the pleasures, the greater the happiness....
- "The Buddha taught that indulgence in sensuous pleasures is not the practice of enlightened, noble ones (ariyas). Noble ones who live the worldly life do not have attachment to sense objects. For example, in the first stage of an enlightened noble life, the sotāpanna, or stream winner, has not yet overcome lust and passions. Incipient perceptions of the agreeableness of carnal pleasures (sukhasaññā) still linger. Nevertheless, the stream-winner will not feel the need to indulge in worldly pleasures."
According to the scriptural account, when the Buddha delivered the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was addressing five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced severe austerities. Thus, it is this personal context as well as the broader context of Indian shramanic practices that gives particular relevancy to the caveat against the extreme (Pali: antā) of self-mortification (Pali: atta-kilamatha).
Harvey (2007) writes, "Conditioned Arising is ... a 'Middle Way' which avoids the extremes of 'eternalism' and 'annihilationism': the survival of an eternal self, or the total annihilation of a person at death." In Theravadan literature, this usage of the term "Middle Way" can be found in 5th c. CE Pali commentaries.
In the Pali Canon itself, this view is not explicitly called the "Middle Way" (majjhimā paṭipadā) but is literally referred to as "teaching by the middle" (majjhena dhamma) as in this passage from the Samyutta Nikaya's Kaccāyanagotta Sutta (in English and Pali):
"'Everything exists': That is one extreme.
'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle...."
Sabbamatthī'ti kho ..., ayameko anto.
Sabbaṃ natthī'ti ayaṃ dutiyo anto.
... [U]bho ante anupagamma
majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ deseti.
In this discourse, the Buddha next describes the conditioned origin of suffering (dukkha) — from ignorance (avijja) to aging and death (jaramarana) — and the parallel reverse-order interdependent cessation of such factors (see Dependent Origination and Twelve Nidanas). Thus, in Theravada Buddhist soteriology, there is neither a permanent self nor complete annihilation of the 'person' at death; there is only the arising and ceasing of causally related phenomena.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Madhyamaka ("Middle Way") school posits a "middle way" position between metaphysical claims that things ultimately either exist or do not exist.
In the Tendai school, the "middle way" refers to the synthesis of the thesis that all things are "empty" and the antithesis that all things have phenomenal existence.
- ^ Kohn (1991), p. 143. Also see the Pali version of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (available on-line at SLTP, n.d.-b, sutta 12.2.1) where the phrase majjhimā patipadā is repeatedly used.
- ^ Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya, 56:11 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html
- ^ David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 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 (atthitaa) propounded in the early Upanishads and nihilistic non-existence (natthitaa) suggested by the Materialists."
- ^ Piyadassi (1999).
- ^ See, for instance, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 414, entry for "pabbajita."
- ^ Dhamma (1997), p. 25.
- ^ See, for instance, the Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Longer Discourse to Saccaka," MN 36; see, e.g., Thanissaro, 1998).
- ^ Harvey (2007), p. 58. Similarly, Gethin (1998) states: "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)" (p. 145). Gethin's endnote (p. 290, n. 22) then references SN 12.17 (e.g., see Thanissaro, 2005).
- ^ For instance, Bodhi (2000), p. 739 n. 41, quotes from the Samyutta Nikaya Commentary (SN-a or Spk.) in regards to SN 12.17 (S ii.20):
More tersely, in the Visuddhimagga, the following is found (Vsm. XVII, 24): "...'dependent origination' (paticca-samuppada) represents the middle way, which rejects the doctrines, 'He who acts is he who reaps' and 'One acts while another reaps' (S.ii.20) ..." (Buddhaghosa & Ñāṇamoli, 1999, p. 531).
- The Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle without veering to either of these extremes — eternalism or annihilationism — having abandoned them without reservation. He teaches while being established in the middle way. What is that Dhamma? By the formula of dependent origination, the effect is shown to occur through the cause and to cease with the cessation of the cause, but no agent or experiencer ... is described.
- ^ Thanissaro (1997) translation of Kaccayanagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). Other Samyutta Nikaya discourses that reference majjhena dhamma include SN 12.17, SN 12.35, SN 12.48 and SN 22.90. While not explicitly using the term majjhena dhamma, the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15), the Pali Canon's longest discourse pertaining to Dependent Origination, includes an extended analysis of "the self" in light of this teaching.
- ^ Kaccānagottasuttaṃ (SLTP, n.d.-a, sutta 1.2.5). The ellipses here refer primarily to the eliding the name of the addressed monk Kaccāna so that the Pali text more closely matches the provided English translation.
- ^ In Theravada Buddhism, only nibbana is "unconditioned"; nonetheless, even the arahant or Tathagatha (who has attained nibbana) upon passing neither exists nor non-exists according to the Canon.
- ^ See, e.g., Bodhi (2005), p. 315:
- Several suttas hold up dependent origination as a 'teaching by the middle' (majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ deseti). It is a 'teaching by the middle' because it transcends two extreme views that polarize philosophical reflection on the human condition. One extreme, the metaphysical thesis of eternalism (sassatavāda), asserts that the core of human identity is an indestructible and eternal self, whether individual or universal.... The other extreme, annihilationism (ucchedavāda), holds that at death the person is utterly annihilated.... Dependent origination offers a radically different perspective that transcends the two extremes. It shows that individual existence is constituted by a current of conditioned phenomena devoid of a metaphysical self yet continuing on from birth to birth as long as the causes that sustain it remain effective....
- ^ Kohn (1991), pp. 131, 143.
- ^ Kohn (1991), pp. 143-144.
- ^ ASTM International. "ASTM D3981 - 09a". http://www.astm.org/Standards/D3981.htm. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed., trans.) (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
- Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya & Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (trans.) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
- Dhamma, Rewata (1997). The First Discourse of the Buddha: Turning the wheel of Dhamma. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-104-1.
- Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
- Harvey, Peter (2007). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
- Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-520-4.