In general, the Middle Way
or Middle Path
; ) is the Buddhist practice of non-extremism.
More specifically, in Theravada Buddhism's Pali Canon, the Middle Way crystallizes the Buddha's Nirvana-bound path of moderation away from the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification and toward the practice of wisdom, morality and mental cultivation. 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 paipadā) 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 paipadā) but is literally referred to as "teaching by the middle" (majjhena dhamma) as in this passage from the Samyutta Nikaya's Kaccyanagotta 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. |
Sabba natthī'ti aya dutiyo anto.
... [U]bho ante anupagamma
majjhena tathāgato dhamma 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, the concept of a persistant "self" and the annihilation of such a "self" are done away with; instead, 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.
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- Advayavada Buddhism Infocenter. The Noble Eightfold Path in Advayavada Buddhism. On-line at http://www.euronet.nl/~advaya/patipada.htm
- The Two Truths of the Middle Way http://www.emptymountains.org/