What Really is the Middle Path?
What Really is the Middle Path?
Q : Can you define the Middle Path? Isn't a person who eats some meat, tells a few white lies, or has a few sexual partners, living a more 'balanced' life than someone who lives an 'extreme life' (ie. vegetarian, honest, committed to one/no sexual partners)? Common sense tells me that this is obviously not the case, but then can you explain the philosophical concepts behind the teaching?
A : The Middle Path is none other than the Noble Eightfold Path itself, discovered by the Buddha when He realised His prior extreme practice of self-mortification, being the polar opposite extreme of His prior life of self-indulgence in the palace as a prince, were neither conducive on the path to Enlightenment. Please see a basic article on the Middle Path at http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/ebdha085.htm
The Middle Path is about living our physical and mental lives away from any extremes - to be moderate and balanced without being too rigidly untight and too lax in our spiritual practice and worldly life. More subtly, it refers to our attitude towards people, matters and things. An example of walking the Middle Path is not entertaining the extreme beliefs that things either exist or don't exist. Please see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/zeph/message/806 for an explanation on this.
Another example of not following the Middle Path are "religious" extremists or fundamentalists, who create disharmony with actualising their extreme ideologies. Of course, they are not really from any particular religion - in the sense that in being extreme, they have betrayed the basis for peace which the orthodox followers of those religions treasure. This implies that the Middle Path is not an attitude of apathy to right and wrong. Being on the Middle Path also means being upright, speaking for the Truth when appropriate - eg. by answering the above question instead of remaining neutral or not answering, by openly denouncing the ills of extreme thought and/or action.
While the Middle Path is a path of moderation, it of course does not mean one must kill and eat some meat or tell some lies - because the breaking of precepts are seen as negative extremes away from being centred and morally upright on the Middle Path. (Incidentally, eating meat per se does not break the first precept - unless one knows or is involved in the killing. It is against the Bodhisattva precepts though.)
While practices like vegetarianism and celibacy might seem extreme, they are not if one upholds them with the right attitude and purpose - ie. as the resolution to avoid connecting directly or indrectly to the violence done to animals, and as the resolution to cut off desire entirely, with sex as an aspect. Thus, many monks are both vegetarian and celibate. For them, this is part of their "ultimate Middle Path" to Nirvana while practising perfection of Compassion.
So it seems, there is a "relative Middle Path" for lay people. For example, they are not expected to be celibate or vegetarian, unless they wish to voluntarily. But this Middle Path which permits sexual activity would include upholding the precept of not commiting adultery and of the like. The relative Middle Path practised well will eventually lead to the aspiration to walk the "ultimate Middle Path". You can think of walking on the "two" paths as walking on a single broad road that becomes more tapered, refined and focused, somewhat more challenging to walk, as one advances, at the pace one chooses. In this sense, the relative and ultimate Middle Paths are in essence one and the same in spirit, being different stages of the same Noble Eightfold Path. The final point this path reaches is of course none other than Enlightenment iself!
- Shen Shi'an