The Buddhist origins of the Middle Way
The Middle Way is a central doctrine of Buddhism: though one whose full implications do not seem to have been explored by modern Buddhists. It originated in the teachings of the historical Buddha, who lived in India around 500 BCE. It was then more fully developed by the philosopher Nagarjuna of the Madhyamika school of philosophy about 500 years later.
These historical teachings offer inspiration and insight, but the tendency of modern Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism too often seems to be to turn back to these historical teachings and endlessly study and interpret them in their original context. This can be a helpful process up to a point, but it can also easily become an end in itself. The endless study of tradition tends to reinforce the authority of that tradition and thus to prevent it adapting to new conditions. If the Middle Way is to offer practically useful teachings for all in the modern world, only its most central insights need to be understood, and it is most important for these central, universal insights to be applied anew in the modern world, free of traditional Buddhist prejudices.
Buddhism has no particular claim on the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not Buddhist. To claim that the Middle Way was uniquely Buddhist would be like claiming that Christianity has a monopoly on love, just because Jesus stressed the value of love. The Middle Way is a universally available insight that happens to be most clearly expressed in a Buddhist context, that's all. The Middle Way simply amounts to the most effective way to address conditions and overcome illusions, whatever illusions we may have. There is no necessity for a practitioner of the Middle Way to be a Buddhist, or even to study Buddhism. However, to acknowledge the origins of the idea is only polite.
The Middle Way in the life of the Buddha
The clearest expression of the Middle Way from the Buddha lies not in the Buddha's teachings, but in the actions recorded in his biography. Whether these recorded actions are historically true or not, they can provide a rich symbolisation of the meaning of the Middle Way.
The Buddha is said to have started off as a prince in northern India, brought up by an over-protective widowed father in a secluded palace. In these circumstances, he was said to have experienced no suffering - perhaps we should interpret this as no suffering sufficient to impel him to ask awkward questions. His life was focused on pleasure, and his values were the conventional ones of the people around him. One can take this early phase of his life to represent the state of nihilism, in the sense that his values were conventional, and no higher universal requirements led him to question those values. Individual pleasures functioned to distract him from any such questioning.
However, his first moment of insight was said to have occurred when he was taken for a chariot ride outside the palace. Then he witnessed age, disease and death, and was challenged by also seeing a homeless religious mendicant (of the kind that was common and accepted in India at that time). Experience of suffering jolted him into awareness of the many conditions that his current conventional values could not address, and seeing the religious mendicant made him aware of a way of trying to address these wider conditions that prevented human life being fully satisfying. So he left home at this point and became a homeless religious wanderer on a spiritual quest.
However, this spiritual quest had its own traps. He learnt a fair amount from two different spiritual teachers, but after a while found each of them inadequate in different ways. He also spent time with five ascetics, who were trying to gain cosmic credits by imposing hardships on themselves, as though the universe was a kind of bank of pleasure and pain where a little pain now would help you have more pleasure later. The spiritual seekers had developed rigid ideas of what it was they were seeking which seemed to be based only on wish-fulfilment fantasies. The Buddha realised that, based on these kinds of illusions, their techniques were not going to help him. The period of his life can be used to symbolise eternalism, defined as the belief that there are absolute moral values we should follow, that we know about. For the eternalist of whatever type, it's only a matter of following rules, and/or having faith, to gain salvation.
The Buddha detected the illusions in this perspective, too, and then realised that he was much more likely to get closer to the truth of the matter if he avoided either extreme: the absolute belief in a known source of values, or the denial of the challenge that such beliefs pose to take refuge in purely conventional assumptions. If he could slide in between these two types of illusion, he might be able to consult his experience, finally free of encumbering prejudices, and understand the conditions both within and around him. He had discovered the Middle Way.
It's after this point, to my mind, that the story gets much less interesting. The Buddha is said to have used the Middle Way to gain enlightenment or nirvana, a state that we're not supposed to be able to fully comprehend until we get there. It's significant that the Buddha made progress by using the Middle Way, and we can be inspired by the model he offers of a quest for truth. However, it's when we arrive at him discovering some kind of final truth by this method, which is used to then give authority to Buddhist teachings, that the Middle Way is already being undermined and being replaced by eternalism. The Middle Way should not be used to provide any claim of final truth: it is a method of investigation. It implies that all beliefs are provisional, and thus beliefs that are justified by appeal to the Buddha's personal authority as a supposed enlightened being are in conflict with the Middle Way.
What follows after this point, then, is the story of the Buddha's teachings, and their transmission and interpretation by Buddhism. We should be glad that the Buddhist tradition has passed on the insights of the Middle Way, and in some respects refined it and practised it. Buddhism offers many practical teachings which can aid the practise of the Middle Way, and their presence in the tradition suggests that the Middle Way has never entirely been lost. However, the Middle Way also appears to be mixed up with a lot of other doctrines which are inimical to it, starting with the revelatory use of enlightenment and continuing onto karma and rebirth, the authority of gurus and much else.
Links to further information and argument in this area:
The Trouble with BuddhismThe Buddha (concept page) (this page gives further reference to sources of the Middle Way)
The Middle Way and Nagarjuna
The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO)
Buddhist Errors in relation to the Middle Way
Four Errors in Traditional Buddhist Thinking (a paper)
The Death of Metaphysics and the Birth of the Middle Way (talk given to FWBO Buddhists in Birmingham)
Why Buddhists should be philosophers and why philosophers should be Buddhists (a paper written in 2000, when I was still using the word "Buddhist" to mean "follower of the Middle Way". Today I would gloss this title as "Why Buddhists -traditionally defined- should be philosophers, and why philosophers should be followers of the Middle Way)
The Creation and the Enlightenment (A comparison of belief in Biblical Creation with the similarly metaphysical belief in the Buddha's enlightenment)
Links to non-mainstream Buddhist websites/blogs with a critical edge
Will Buckingham's blog 'Thinkbuddha'
Michael McGhee's blog 'Island'
Richard Hayes' blog
David Chapman's Meaningness.com
Secular Buddhism UK
Return to Middle Way Philosophy home page
Other pages related to Buddhism
Topics from 'The Trouble with Buddhism'