Buddhism is often called The Middle Way. What does that mean?
The most common way of describing it was as neither remaining within the sensuality and attachment of secular life, which the Buddha had whilst staying in his father’s palace, but neither was it to do the kind of mortification practices that the Buddha with his five ascetic companions practiced, before he broke with them and had his awakening.
The middle way can also be thought of in a related way to that. The five ascetics were not simply people doing tough guy exercises. They were doing gruelling mortification practices from the standpoint that each of us has an unchanging soul or self that is trapped within the body, trapped by the circumstances of individual existence, and that through these practices of mortification, liberation of the soul, the eternal essence, could be attained.
The apparent contrast is with people – people rather like ourselves – who believe that the self comes into existence when we’re born, continues throughout our life, is the owner and agent of our experience, and at death it’s all over. It’s not eternal, but whilst we’re alive, it exists.
Buddhism is not a middle way in the sense that it tries to take some middle position between these two apparent extremes. In fact, it takes an even more extreme position by denying that there’s an essence or unchanging self at all. So in what way can we describe it as the middle way?
We can take these positions (the conscious position of the ascetics about the existence of the unchanging soul, and the unconscious assumptions of people in everyday life about a persisting, though mortal, self) and think of them in terms of views, perspectives on the world, dogmas. We can then use the analogy of two pillars forming an arch. In this perspective, the middle way is not a position, it’s the space of expression, freedom and emptiness between those two fixed positions. A bird can land and can make its home on either of these pillars, but it can’t fly through them. To the bird, the contrast isn’t between the two pillars, but between the pillars and the liberating and expressive space.
That same perspective we can apply to zazen, for example, saying, well, there’s one view that would regard zazen as being our physical activity – something we do with the body and breath, like a yoga position – and there’s the opposite view, where we think that zazen is about our consciousness, about our mind, so the activity of the body is incidental, and what’s really important is the development of our consciousness.
You can see that taking either a purely physical or mental view, or some connecting arch of the two, distorts and impoverishes our experience immensely. It conceptualizes the body whilst pretending not to, and it misses an enormous part of our actual experience.
We might take the view that our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t account for the larger part of our actual experience, our energetic sensations, our temporal fluctuations and so on. No view does.
Taking a view – any view – entails the shadow creation of its apparent opposite, but also a limitation and impoverishment of our actual experience, and the life, expression and possibilities of that experience. It’s for that reason that Nagarjuna says that Buddhism is the relinquishment of all views, and because of this, is The Middle Way.