Thangjam Sanjoo Singh
All religions follow a course of training in order to groom the “inner-self”.
The avoidance of extreme of self-indulgence and self-mortification are character of Buddhist training. The Middle way is the avoidance of both extremes, enternalism and annihilation.
The Buddha advised people to follow this Middle Path in every aspect of their lives. But many people have not realised that real meaning and usefulness of Noble Path goes beyond the concern with righteous behaviour, avoiding extremes and taking a moderate course in life. The deeper meaning is learning how to use our human sense faculties most effectively, without misuse or abuse.
The term “Middle Way” was used in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first teaching that the Buddha delivered after his awakening. In this sutta, 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.
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 Nirvana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata…?
It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely:
1. Right understanding, 2. Right thought, 3. Right speech, 4. Right action, 5. Right livelihood, 6. Right effort, 7. Right mindfulness and 8. Right concentration.
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: antâ) of self-mortification (Pali attakilamatha).
Among all religions, Buddhism is one that has withdrawn itself from theistic thought. 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 in the mysterious creation of the universe. Theirs was a philosophy that believed in the existence of a time of cosmic origin. A god created mankind, and it was believed to be the origin of all things. It was called the God of Birth, the God of Prayer, the Brahman, or “I”. Although the title for the creator varied over time, its implications were the same.
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. This was the nature of human life. This spiritual “I” of mankind was the same spirit as that in which adherents of the popular religions believed. The spirit had a close relationship with the god.
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. When their ideas travelled east along the Ganges River, the eastern countries such as Magadha and Vashali, which were influenced by the culture of the West, opposed the teachings of the Brahmana. The old religions in Western India were shaken, and the new religions, with various groups of ascetics in Eastern India were very extreme, and this created many doubts among the people. During this transition period where the new Western and old Eastern ideologies met, the Buddha was born. He introduced a new religion to the era.
The Buddha incorporated the theories of rebirth and of liberation into his teachings. 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. The Buddha gave wise answers to these questions. This was the teaching of the “Middle Path”. The “Middle Path” distinguished the Buddha’s Teachings from other religions.
“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 writer is a lay Buddhist & a Social Activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Thangjam Sanjoo Singh