MWP 1.3.a: Buddhist Inspiration without Buddhist Justification

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As far as we know, the key concepts of the Middle Way were first explicitly recognised and formulated by the Buddha – that is, the historical religious leader Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in what are now the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in northern India around 500 BCE. This does not mean that the Middle Way was not implicitly recognised independently elsewhere both before and after this point, as it can be implicitly developed merely by the steady application of reflective awareness in practice. I will suggest in 3.c some ways in which the Middle Way can be implicitly found in both Christian and Islamic traditions.

Recognising the Buddhist origins of the Middle Way here is largely a matter of politeness, in accordance with the academic conventions for recognising a source. Some referencing is justificatory, giving further evidence researched by somebody else to back up one’s own theory. In this case, however, the fact that the Buddha first made it explicit is not relevant to its justification, any more than belief in gravity is justified because Newton first formulated scientific theories about it. To establish justification for believing in Newton’s theories about gravity, one does not make references to Newton’s writings and then leave it at that: one gains an understanding of the theory and then tests it out in experience. Similarly, when one is dealing with a general theory like the Middle Way, that theory is justified by the consistency of evidence about it in the experience of everyone who is capable of understanding the discourse, not by an absolute source of knowledge through a priori reasoning or revelation (see 1.f and g). In the same way that Newton’s writings are now a historical by-line in scientific investigation, read largely only by historians of science, in the same way, the Buddhist origins of the Middle Way should soon become largely a historical by-line mainly of interest only to specialists. The trouble is that Buddhists don’t tend to see it that way.

The Buddhist tradition has frequently confused the Middle Way as general theory with the Middle Way as revelation, with the result that a great many metaphysical beliefs have entered Buddhist tradition with alleged revelatory justification, such as beliefs about an enlightened state, universal conditionality, and karma and rebirth[1]. Often this belief in revelation is presented as trust in the Buddha’s personal testimony, but the Buddha is far too remote a figure, mediated by millennia of transmission, translation and interpretation, for his teachings as they are recorded today to be given the moral authority of someone we know personally or have well-justified beliefs about (see 7.e on moral authority). In any case, even if the Buddha did have moral authority, this would not justify the revelatory use of his teachings by a large section of the Buddhist tradition.

In the case of the Buddha, the source of assumed revelation comes from the Buddha’s alleged status as an enlightened being, and the belief that the Buddha being enlightened somehow guarantees the truth of his teachings. Even if the Buddha had somehow gained absolute knowledge, the idea that his teachings could convey it in words runs counter to linguistic scepticism (see 1.a). The recourse to a tradition of wordless intuition (emphasised a good deal in Zen, for example) is not subject to linguistic scepticism, but offers a tradition of inspiration rather than revelation. A tradition of wordless intuition passed on from the Buddha can hardly justify verbal revelations from spiritual masters further down the line of inspirational transmission without inconsistency.

So, the Buddha’s words need to be examined and tested in the same way as anybody else’s, but nevertheless in the rest of this chapter I will, out of politeness, indicate some of the most important sources of the Buddha’s teachings about the Middle Way. This is not meant to indicate either that the Buddha did not say contradictory things elsewhere, or that my interpretation of what the Buddha said is the only possible one. I am not interested in scholarly disputes about what the Buddha really said, or what he really meant by what he said – whatever you think he said, the question is whether you can incorporate it into a consistent and practically helpful account that will be of long-term help to the world. The following particular selection and interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings in relation to the Middle Way seems to me a helpful one – whilst those that assert, for example, that the Buddha really knew metaphysical truths but kept them esoterically hidden, may or may not be correct but are not helpful.

1. The Middle Way is first introduced alongside the Eightfold Path in the the Dhammacakkapavatanasutta (Sutta on turning the wheel of the Dharma) in Samyutta Nikaya 56.2. Here it is made clear that the Middle Way is a practical path which avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism (see 3.d). The practical nature of the path is made clear by its linking to the Noble Eightfold Path, which gives eight areas of practical development: wisdom, aspiration, concentration, mindfulness, effort, action, speech, and livelihood. These eight areas link together philosophical understanding with practical activity and psychological work on mental states.

2. The parable of the raft from the Alagaddupamasutta (Majjhima Nikaya 22:13-14) offers a famous teaching of the importance of provisionality in the holding of beliefs. The Buddha compares his teachings to a raft which is used for a certain practical purpose – the crossing of the river Ganges – but would only be an encumbrance if carried further after the river crossing. This suggests that a belief starts to become metaphysical when we hold onto it only due to our egoistic identification with it, regardless of its practical usefulness or relevance.

3. The ‘silence of the Buddha’ (avyakata) occurs at several points in the Pali Suttas (e.g. in the Culamalunkya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 63). Here the Buddha refuses to answer questions about metaphysical questions that are of no practical relevance, such as the origins of the universe or the existence of the soul. When pressed, he says that either affirming or denying positions on these topics would not be helpful. Here is an indication that the Buddha meant the Middle Way to involve hard agnosticism about metaphysical positions: though amazingly, Buddhists often only apply this to the metaphysical positions specifically mentioned in the scriptures, rather than the ones that affect us most today (or, of course, the ones widely believed in by Buddhists!). This failure to relate a specific teaching to an obvious more general principle is a bit like arguing that Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan only applies to helping injured travellers and not to other acts of compassion.

4. The simile of the ocean in the Udana 5.5 stresses the importance of incrementality, comparing the teachings to an ocean that gradually slopes down and can be entered to different degrees. Since incrementality is one feature found in experience that is never present in metaphysical claims, this provides a further indication of the importance of keeping theory compatible with experience (see 1.c).

5. The Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 65) shows the Buddha responding to a group of villagers who are confused by the multiplicity of contradictory claims by different religious teachers. They are seeking epistemological advice – how should they judge who to believe? The Buddha emphasises the importance of experience as the basis of judgement (“When you yourselves know…”), but the criteria for judgement using experience include reference to the wise. This suggests that the Buddha did not support revelatory claims, but accepted that moral authority of a kind that gives increased credibility to a teacher depends on direct trust, which in turn has to be based on experience rather than remote, traditional claims.

6. The Middle Way is also symbolised (rather than explicitly taught) in the traditional story of the Buddha’s life before he was said to have achieved enlightenment. This has a clear dialectical structure (see 3.k). The Buddha first lives in an enclosed, protected environment as a privileged prince, but becomes dissatisfied with the conventional values of that environment. He then leaves home and is taught by a succession of spiritual teachers, whose limitations he quickly comes to perceive, and associates with a group of ascetics, whose values he also rejects after trying them out. The Buddha is here going through a practical process of learning by trying out lifestyles dominated by opposed metaphysical views (particularly the belief in absolute moral values accepted by the teachers and ascetics, in contrast to the relativist conventionalism of his home background). He becomes dissatisfied with both extremes, and manages to make progress by going beyond the sets of assumptions each represents.

In this final story, a key point about the Middle Way is presented. It is exploratory. It involves a process of moving on from the limitations of one’s starting point in pursuit of greater objectivity. In the process one is more successful in gaining objectivity if one learns from opposing claims and accepts their limitations, rather than wholly committing oneself to one or the other.


[1] See Ellis (2011a)


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