MWP 1.3.b The Limitations of Traditional Buddhist Presentations of the Middle Way

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Although the Buddhist tradition is our chief explicit source of Middle Way theory, on the whole it says far too little about the Middle Way. Hundreds of books are published about Buddhism every year, but I have yet to come across a serious attempt to update the Middle Way or explore its implications amongst them. Although it is accepted as a key part of what the Buddha taught, it is not given much emphasis by any contemporary school of Buddhism, but in introductions to Buddhism is often simply identified with the Eightfold Path or with conditioned arising[1]. If it is identified with the Eightfold Path we are told what areas to work on, but not how to work on them or how to make judgements as to what would actually constitute Right View, Right Speech, Right Effort etc. The distinctive insights that Buddhism has to offer about what sorts of views, speech, effort etc would be helpful to us are not given prominence when Buddhism is presented in this way.

As for identifying the Middle Way with dependent arising (or conditioned genesis, or however else you translate paticcasamuppada): as a general principle this is either so basic to our experience as to be completely uninformative, or it is an over-extended absolute metaphysical claim about interdependency. Either way, a presentation of inter-dependency in no way substitutes for a presentation of the Middle Way. The former is a metaphysical claim with no obvious practical implications, the latter a whole approach to judgement that makes a huge practical difference in any context[2].

The Middle Way does play a more prominent role in the thought of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, but here again it is often identified with interdependency or emptiness. The work of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti of the Madhyamaka School is usually treated as a new more subtle and somehow ‘better’ metaphysics than that of their predecessors the Svabhavikas. The problem here is that there can be no such thing as a better metaphysics, given that all metaphysical claims are beyond experience and thus non-incremental and absolute. I will return to this below.

Even when they do get around to discussing the Middle Way, a long way down their priority list, both Buddhist teachers and scholars of Buddhism generally confine themselves to scholarly presentation of the traditional teachings, which at best present the Middle Way applied in a very different context from our own, rather than the exploration of Western thought in relation to the Middle Way that is required to apply the Middle Way more fully to Western life.

The Middle Way in Buddhism is often presented as two distinct ways: a practical Middle Way and a philosophical Middle Way. The practical Middle Way is presented as the Middle Way between asceticism and self-indulgence, as illustrated in the Buddha’s life. The philosophical Middle Way is presented as the Middle Way between eternalism and nihilism, where eternalism (sassatavada) is defined as the belief in the eternal existence of the self, and nihilism or annihilationism (ucchedavada) is defined as the belief that the self is destroyed at death.

One of the few Buddhist writers who does develop some ideas about the implications of the Middle Way as distinct from other key Buddhist teachings is Sangharakshita. Sangharakshita makes the links between the practical and philosophical Middle Ways explicit, but in the process goes in for sweeping dogmatic claims:

How absolute is the dependence of the Middle Path in ethics upon the Middle Path in metaphysics and in psychology…should now be apparent. The belief that behind the bitter-sweet of human life yawn only the all-devouring jaws of a gigantic Nothingness will inevitably reduce man to his body and his body to its sensations; pleasure will be set up as the sole object of human endeavour, self-indulgence lauded to the skies, abstinence contemned, and the voluptuary honoured as the best and wisest of mankind. Similarly, the contrary belief that the macrocosm is grounded upon absolute Being, whether personal or impersonal, is automatically adumbrated in the sphere of psychology as the belief that above and behind the microcosm, the little world of human personality, there exists a self or soul which is on the one hand related to an absolute Being…which…is independent of the physical body…..The object of the spiritual life will be held to consist in effecting a complete disassociation between spirit and matter, the real and the unreal, God and the world, the temporal and the eternal; whence follows self-mortification in its extremest and most repulsive forms.[3]

Sangharakshita here seems convinced that belief in absolute being necessarily leads to belief in the eternal self, which in turn necessarily leads to asceticism, and its denial necessarily leads to denial of the self and self-indulgence. These are not very difficult claims to refute: all one needs to find is some counter examples to completely destroy these absolute claims that have allowed for no modulations or exceptions.  It would be quite easy to find someone who does not believe in the eternal soul who is ascetic (say, a lean workaholic materialist scientist) or who believes in the eternal soul but is self-indulgent (say, a jolly bibulous catholic). I believe (without mentioning any names) that I have met specific examples of both these counter-example types. There are also plenty of people who are materialists about the human body and do not believe in an afterlife, but do not thereby believe in “the all-devouring jaws of a gigantic Nothingness”. Marxists, for example, are materialists who have been driven by the inspiration of a Communist Society, and if anything in the process have often been rather puritanical, seeing self-indulgence as a betrayal of the people’s revolution.

The odd thing about Sangharakshita’s account is that it provides an insight into a relationship that seems to have largely held in the time of the Buddha, but he does not seem to have thought at all about its relationship to the variety of people around him in modern Western society, their beliefs and psychologies, and the complex relationships between them. The assumption that the Middle Way is metaphysical cuts out investigation into how it actually works in human experience, and ironically leads thoughtful Buddhists like Sangharakshita into exactly the trap they believe the Middle Way will help them escape from – that of dualistic metaphysics. One should not conclude, because the sweeping claims made by Sangharakshita about the relationship between beliefs, ethics and psychology are wrong, that there are not any such relationships: but a more cautious theoretical approach is needed to understanding these relationships, using an epistemological and critical rather than a metaphysical theory so as to de-absolutise the claims. It is this process of investigating eternalism and nihilism, initially inspired by Sangharakshita (whilst also struck by his limitations), that I first undertook in my Ph.D. Thesis, A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity[4].

Traditional forms of Buddhist presentation tend to take specific features of the Middle Way that were highlighted in the Buddha’s context, and take them to be generally definitive of the Middle Way, rather than deriving a more general but flexible principle from the Buddha’s indications. There may have been instances in the Buddha’s time of people who were too ascetic because of their belief in the eternal soul, such as the five ascetics in the life-story of the Buddha, but surely the more general principle is that metaphysical beliefs of whatever kind can give support to inadequate or unintegrated attitudes, by providing rallying points for dogmatic identification? The problem for Buddhists, however, is that once you admit this point all Buddhist metaphysics must itself be dropped, and the Buddhist tradition has failed to offer a clear alternative philosophical approach that avoids metaphysics.

The Madhyamaka School has a different way of presenting the Middle Way. Here eternalism is identified with the belief that the world really exists independently of conditions, and nihilism with the belief that it does not exist[5], with the Middle Way identified with a recognition of conditional interdependency (paticcasamuppada). However, this is an attempt to define the Middle Way metaphysically, a metaphysical appropriation of the Middle Way (see 3.l). If you merely substitute a supposedly correct metaphysical description of how things are for the two metaphysical extremes, you leave the method of investigation untouched. The Emptiness doctrines of the Madhyamaka are neither idealist nor realist, but that does not necessarily make them adequate expressions of the Middle Way by themselves: I will explore this point further in IV.4.d.

It would be quite possible to accept the idea that everything was conditionedly interdependent merely on the basis of the Buddha’s revelation, but that would not lead us to change our attitude to how we address conditions in our experience. Just as with any ultimate causal claim, we do not know whether or not all phenomena are conditioned, and we do not need to speculate in general – only to theorise about the relationships between specific conditions in practice. Interpreting the Middle Way as a third metaphysical position leaves Buddhist philosophy subject to scepticism, and misses the epistemological and moral insights offered by the Buddha’s rejection of metaphysics and his advice to the Kalamas. Instead, the Middle Way needs to be seen as an epistemology and ethics providing a basis to criticise metaphysics, not as a new form of metaphysics.

There can be no such thing as an anti-metaphysical metaphysics. Rather in order to get us out of metaphysics one needs to understand it in ways that are open to change and are not inevitable, and one needs to focus on the kinds of pragmatic approaches and values we need to adopt to avoid it. To my mind, the ‘Emptiness’ talk of the Madhyamaka rarely succeeds in doing this. However, it is of course possible to interpret it in ways that do, and I have myself been partially inspired by the Madhyamaka to seek clearer accounts of the insights it seemed to be trying to articulate.

The Buddhist attitude to the Middle Way today seems to act more as a spoiler than as the genuine basis of a critique of metaphysics. Nagarjuna and the Buddha give many Buddhists the reassuring impression that the issues of metaphysics have been dealt with – but then they are brought right back in again by the back door. If the sceptical arguments found in the Buddhist tradition were applied consistently, however, they would require the complete re-examination of many aspects of Buddhism currently taken for granted, starting with doctrines on enlightenment, karma, and conditionality. This is the subject of one of my other books, The Trouble with Buddhism[6], where these arguments are dealt with in more detail.

One reviewer of the first edition of this book seemed to take it as obvious that the Madhyamaka approach to the Middle Way is not metaphysical, and thus claimed that in this book I am plagiarising Madhyamaka ideas and falsely passing them off as my own – “a pompous rehash of Madhyamaka ideas in Western philosophical clothing”. If only this were correct! It would have been a great deal easier to take Middle Way Philosophy off the shelf, merely extract it from scholarly or Buddhist books, and then just practise it, than to try to cultivate the seeds of understanding that I felt they offered in the more laborious way I have been doing. I would be grateful if this reviewer, or anyone else, can contact me and tell me exactly where, in Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti, or in their modern interpreters such as Jay Garfield or David Kalupahana, they find any of the basic features of Middle Way Philosophy. Where do these people write about provisionality, incrementality, or integration? Where do they offer an adequate approach to ethics that avoids relativism? How do they account for both the limitations and the successes of Western science? How do they relate the Middle Way to the structure of human brains and the cognitive biases discovered by psychology? Show me these things in the ‘Emptiness’ literature, and I’ll happily withdraw all my books and settle down to quiet practice, rather than attempting to disrupt the academic consensus. But neither these things, nor any functional equivalents to them, are, in my experience, found in such literature. Where references to the Middle Way are found, it is almost always put in terms of something else, usually relying on a metaphysical claim, rather than explored in its own terms.

Because the Madhyamaka literature says so little of real use about the Middle Way, I had at some point to cease reading it and engage instead in Middle Way Philosophy, drawing to a much greater extent on the much more fruitful resources I found in Western philosophy and psychology. I can only apologise to those who see this as a necessarily arrogant undertaking, but it seems that I cannot avoid the appearance of arrogance (for some) whilst attempting to create a basis of adequacy.

If I were also to take up any challenge to prove my contentions about the inadequacy of the account offered in the Madhyamaka in scholarly terms, I am aware of the kind of quagmire I would be entering. Any assertion I might make on the basis of my own reading or experience would probably be deemed inadequate because of insufficient reference to primary sources. If one accepts the terms of the academic conventions involved (enslaved as they often are to the Original Language Fallacy – see IV.3.l), one might be then swallowed up into decades of work in a range of oriental languages, after which one would have learnt a lot that was merely incidental, but most likely nothing new that was central to our understanding of the Middle Way in universal human experience. Any synthetic work which attempts to bring in new criteria of judgement to a scholarly field is also automatically rejected by the scholars who control what is deemed acceptable within that field. I do not make statements about the limitations of the Madhyamaka lightly, and they are indeed based on past study of the Madhyamaka and its interpreters. But one cannot reference an absence, so I will make no further attempt to justify such statements. Instead I offer an alternative, that I hope will be read properly in its own terms before anyone else jumps to the conclusion that I am ‘plagiarising’ Madhyamaka because I dare to use the term Middle Way. 


[1] Many introductory texts on Buddhism could illustrate this point, but to take two popular ones: Rahula (1959) just identifies the ‘Middle Path’ with the Eightfold Path (p.45), and Harvey (1990) identifies the practical Middle Way with the Eightfold Path – for monastics only (p.23) and the philosophical Middle Way with conditioned arising (p.58 and other places).

[2] For further discussion see Ellis (2011a) ch.5

[3] Sangharakshita (1987) pp.162-3

[4] Ellis (2001)

[5] An account given explicitly for example, by Burton (2001) and Sangharakshita (1987) p.160

[6] Ellis (2011a) f

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