The Middle Way
Buddhism is often referred to as the Middle Way. In traditional narratives about the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, also referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha, we learn about how after he set out on the path to discover the truth about reality and the human condition, Siddhartha practiced various forms of yoga and meditation. Ascetics at that time believed that through overcoming the constraints of the physical form, they could transcend to the level of the gods, or attain union with Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. These ascetics would practice various austerities such as self-starvation, holding the breath for long periods of time, mutilation of the flesh, meditating in the heat of summer or freezing cold of the mountains, and so on. After six years of these practices Siddhartha discovered that they did not work. They had brought him no closer to the answers to his questions: why do we suffer, and is there an end to human suffering?
Buddhism is called the “Middle Way” because Siddhartha rejected both the luxury of the householder life and the extreme practices of the ascetics. Therefore, traditionally Buddhist monks have led a disciplined lifestyle while also engaging in practices that are not detrimental to mental or physical health, and ordinary Buddhists have relatively few religious constraints put upon them. For example, an ordinary Buddhist may choose to meditate or be a vegetarian, but this is not required. Doing what is good, and refraining from doing what is bad, and practicing moderation in all things, these are core teachings of the Buddha.
There is another reason why Buddhism is often referred to as the “Middle Way.” This is because of the Buddha’s apparent rejection of two philosophical extremes: Eternalism and Nihilism.
Eternalism, sometimes referred to as spiritualism, is represented by a constellation of beliefs: that the realm of the gods is eternal, or that there is one creator God (a Prime Mover, or First Cause), and all beings have an eternal soul that may go to this divine realm to live forever after death (or liberation from Samsara, in the case of South Asian religions). According to this view, the soul is different from matter, it is unchanging and eternal, and is the core of who you really are. Buddha rejected these views as unskillful.
Nihilism, sometimes referred to as materialism, is the belief that our actions have no lasting consequences, there is no karma, no rebirth after this life, and when we die, we simply cease to exist. We are just our bodies, there is no soul, and when the body dies, everything about us dies as well. Buddha also rejected these views as unskillful.
Therefore, the Buddha rejected the theistic (monotheistic and polytheistic) view that matter and spirit are separate, as well from the nihilistic materialist view that denies causation, rebirth, and so on. Buddhism is the Middle Way, rejecting all extremes. Buddhism is therefore non-theistic, but also non-materialistic. It is something else.
Four Noble Truths
When introducing the teachings of Buddha, it is common to begin with the so-called Four Noble Truths. This is because the Four Noble Truths are a pretty helpful way of getting across fundamental ideals that undergird the rest of the Buddha-dharma (teachings of the Buddha). Also, it is said that after having achieved awakening, the first sermon the Buddha delivered was on the Four Noble Truths. However, because the Four Noble Truths are such a popular topic, they are also often explained incorrectly.
First, the name “Four Noble Truths” is not really correct. It’s not that the truths are noble, but rather, that they are the truths understood by the noble ones. Those who “get it” (like the Buddhas, Arhats, and Bodhisattvas) know these truths to be true. In any case, because in American Buddhist culture the term Four Noble Truths is so common, it will be used throughout in this section.
The Four Noble Truths are as follows:
- The truth of Dukkha
- The truth of the cause of Dukkha (Ignorant Craving)
- The truth of the cessation of Dukkha (Nirvana)
- The truth of the attainability of the cessation of Dukkha (Eight Fold Path)
To put it another way: there is a problem, the problem has a cause, a cure exists, and the cure is within reach.
First Noble Truth: The Truth of Dukkha
The word “Dukkha” is often translated in English as “suffering.” Some people mistakenly assume that Buddhism is all about suffering, or that Buddhism is pessimistic. People often mistakenly say the Buddha said “life is suffering.” This is not the case. The Buddha did not say “life is suffering.” Dukkha is a complex concept that means something like stress, disquiet, uneasy, pain, and so on. Dukkha refers to the fact that no matter how hard we try, we will not find ultimate satisfaction in the things of this world. Money, wealth, power, possessions, or the many things we use to distract ourselves such as movies, music, sex, food, and so on, will only give us temporary pleasure. This fact, which we all know deep inside, stresses us out! This is Dukkha.
There are eight kinds of Dukkha: birth, old age, sickness, death, getting what you do not want, not getting what you do want, being with people you do not like, not being with the people you do like.
Our experience of reality is marked by three basic characteristics, or the three marks of existence: Dukkha, Impermanence, and “No-Self.” Dukkha, explained above, is a sense of unease in the face of uncertainty. We experience this stress because nothing around us lasts forever, there is no “thing” in which we might discover ultimate satisfaction. This is because all things are impermanent and dependent upon other things for their existence. Things are impermanent because they are composite and fundamentally lack an unchanging core essence. This is often referred to as “no-self,” or “not-self.” Many people misunderstand “no-self” to mean that the self does not exist or that we don’t have a soul. That is not quite right. The concept of no-self refers to the fluidity of things, the fact that whatever the “self” is, it is impermanent, in a state of constant flux, and conditioned by the surrounding environment. There is no quality to which we may point and say: “ah-ha, this is the self.” The self is like the proverbial river, you cannot step in the same river twice. To see the true nature of Dukkha, the true impermanence of all things, and the inherent fluidity of all things, is to uproot the ignorance that keeps us stuck in cyclical suffering.
The Second Noble Truth: The Truth of the Cause of Dukkha (Ignorant Craving)
Dukkha has a cause: ignorant craving. We go about our lives ignorant of the true nature of reality, the true nature of our selves in the world, and the true nature of the things we crave after. Because we are ignorant of the true nature of these things, we crave ultimate satisfaction in things that will not ultimately satisfy us. However, by uprooting the ignorance that leads to this craving, Dukkha will end.
The Third Noble Truth: The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha (Nirvana)
There is an end to Dukkha, and that end is Nirvana. Nirvana is commonly misunderstood to mean non-existence or a kind of heavenly state. The word Nirvana comes from a Sanskrit verb root meaning to blow out, like to blow out a candle. Our ignorant craving is sometimes compared to a bundle of burning grasping fuel. We feed this fire with our negative actions (Karma). Nirvana is awakening to the true nature of reality, reality as it truly is, beyond our ignorant projections and misconceptions about the world. Nirvana is sometimes called that which is beyond conditioned existence, the Deathless, Perfect Bliss, Liberation, Awakening, Freedom, or Salvation. The Buddha taught that all beings have the capacity to achieve Nirvana and become Buddhas.
The Fourth Noble Truth, The Truth of the Path to the End of Dukkha (Eight-Fold Path):
Nirvana is attainable through the cultivation of skillful thoughts and actions. This path is broken down into three categories: Wisdom (1 and 2), Morality (3-5), and Meditation (6-8).
The Eightfold Path
- Right View– Practicing right view means that one understands the Four Noble Truths, the nature of Dukkha, No-self, Nirvana, and so on, to be true.
- Right Intention– Practicing right intention means that one is working to transform the three poisons (ignorance, hatred, and greed) into wisdom, loving kindness, and generosity.
- Right Speech– Practicing right speech means that one abstains from acts of verbal misconduct, such as lying, malicious speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, abusive speech, meaningless speech, gossiping, and so on.
- Right Action– Practicing right action means abstaining from physical misconduct: stealing others possessions, engaging in sexual misconduct, or taking life.
- Right Livelihood– Practicing right livelihood means that one’s livelihood does not depend upon deceiving or harming others: slavery, weapons manufacturing, making or selling of drugs or poisons, divination, fortune telling, and so on.
- Right Effort– Practicing right effort means that one actively works towards freeing oneself from unwholesome states of mind that have arisen, prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising, maintain wholesome states of mind that have arisen, and develop wholesome states of mind that have not yet arisen.
- Right Mindfulness– Practicing right mindfulness includes forms of meditation often referred to by the term “Mindfulness” (Sati, or Smrti), wherein one remains aware of physical and mental activities. Focusing one’s attention on the breath, and counting the breath, is a common introductory form of mindfulness meditation.
- Right Concentration– Practicing right concentration includes forms of meditation commonly associated with “Zen” (Dhyana). Once one has cultivated the mind to establish right effort and right mindfulness, right concentration allows one to move beyond dualistic conceptions of the world, and to see the true nature of things.