The Middle Path
The Middle Way or Middle Path is the term that Gautama Buddha used to describe the character of the Noble Eightfold Path he discovered that leads to liberation.
Theravada Buddhism and the Pali canon
In the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism, the term “Middle Way” was used in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which the Buddhist tradition regards to be the first teaching that the Buddha delivered after his awakening. In this sutta, the Buddha describes the Noble Eightfold Path as the middle way of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification:
Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. 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.
According to the scriptural account, when the Buddha delivered the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was addressing five ascetics with whom he had previously practised 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 attakilamatha).
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.
Pratītyasamutpāda, or “dependent origination”, describes the existence of objects and phenomena as the result of causes. When one of these causes changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomena will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomena. Thus, there is nothing with an eternal self or atman, only mutually dependent origination and existence. However, the absence of an eternal atman does not mean there is nothing at all. Early Buddhism adheres to a realistic approach which does not deny existence as such, but denies the existence of eternal and independent substances. This view is the Middle Way between eternalism and annihilationism:
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).
Dependent origination views human persons too as devoid of a personal essence or atman. In Theravadin literature, this usage of the term “Middle Way” can be found in 5th-century CE Pali commentaries:
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.
In the Visuddhimagga, the following is found :
“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) …”
In the Pali Canon itself, this view is not explicitly called the “Middle Way” but is literally referred to as “teaching by the middle” (majjhena dhamma).
Paticcasamuppāda “dependent origination” also gives a rationale for rebirth:
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 Theravadin soteriology, the principle of [[anatta|anattBuddhist philosophy refers to the philosophical investigations and systems of inquiry that developed among various Buddhist schools in India following the death of the Buddha and later spread throughout Asia. Buddhism’s main concern has always been freedom from dukkha (unease), and the path to that ultimate freedom consists in ethical action (karma), meditation and in direct insight (prajña) into the nature of “things as they truly are” (yathābhūtaṃ viditvā). Indian Buddhists sought this understanding not just from the revealed teachings of the Buddha, but through philosophical analysis and rational deliberation. Buddhist thinkers in India and subsequently in East Asia have covered topics as varied as phenomenology, ethics, ontology, epistemology, logic and philosophy of time in their analysis of this path. 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.}} Paticcasamuppāda also describes the Twelve Nidānas of dukkha “suffering” that lead to rebirth, from avijjā “ignorance” to jarāmaraṇa “aging and death”, and the parallel reverse-order interdependent cessation of these factors.
In Theravada Buddhism, only nibbana is unconditioned; nonetheless, even the arahant or tathāgata, upon passing, neither exists nor non-exists according to the Pāli Canon.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Middle Way refers to the insight into śūnyatā “emptiness” that transcends the extremes of existence and non-existence, the two truths doctrine. According to Kalupahana,
Two aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, the philosophical and the practical, which are mutually dependent, are clearly enunciated in two discourses, the Kaccāyanagotta-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 Kaccāyanagotta-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 (natthitā) suggested by the Materialists.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Madhyamaka (“Middle Way”) school portrays a “middle way” position between metaphysical claims that things ultimately either exist or do not exist. Nagarjuna’s influential Mūlamadhyamakakārikā deconstructs the usage of terms describing reality, leading to the insight into śūnyatā “emptiness”. It contains only one reference to a sutta, the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya:
“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.
East Asian conceptions
In the Tendai school, the Middle Way refers to the synthesis of the thesis that all things are śūnyatā and the antithesis that all things have phenomenal existence.
In Chan Buddhism, the Middle Way describes the realization of being free of the one-sidedness of perspective that takes the extremes of any polarity as objective reality. In chapter ten of the Platform Sutra, Huineng gives instructions for the teaching of the Dharma. Huineng enumerates 36 basic oppositions of consciousness and explains how the Way is free from both extremes:
If one asks about the worldly, use the paired opposite of the saintly; if asking about the saintly use the paired opposite of the worldly. The mutual causation of the Way of dualities, gives birth to the meaning of the Middle Way. So, for a single question, a single pair of opposites, and for other questions the single [pair] that accords with this fashion, then you do not lose the principle.