The Myth of the ‘Middle Way’
Buddhist legend translated into English has it that the Buddha taught the Middle Way. Well, maybe! But then, maybe not!
In order to decide whether or not the Buddha taught the Middle Way it is crucial to understand what the word, translated into English as ‘middle’, actually meant in its original languages (i.e. Pali and Sanskrit).
The Pali word used in Theravada discourses (note: all words are metaphors, i.e. user friendly verbal analogies, hence fundamentally fuzzy) translated into English as ‘middle’ is majjhima, meaning (i.e. its meaning derived from the context in which it appears): middle, medium, mediocre, secondary, moderate. Take your pick!
The Sanskrit word used in Mahayana discourses translated into English as ‘middle’ is
1. madhya, meaning: middle, central, middling, mediocre, of medium kind: middle-sized, moderate, intermediate; neutral; centre, inside, interior, or,
2. madhyam: in the midst of, into, amongst, in or through the midst of, between, from the midst of, out of, from among, within, or as the verbal derivative,
3. madhamaka, meaning: common, interior.
Take your pick!
When examining a text excerpt in which the term is used it can be seen that the term, in either its Pali or its Sanskrit version, does not suggest either the meaning of ‘half way’ or ‘golden mean’.
Example 1. The Buddha said: “To give oneself up to indulgence in sensual pleasure (i.e. kāma = desire), the base, common, vulgar, unholy, unprofitable; and also to give oneself up to self-torment (i.e. refusing to indulge), the painful, unholy, unprofitable, both these two extremes the Perfect One has avoided and has found the Middle Path, which causes one both to see and to know, and which leads to peace, discernment, to awakening, to nibbana.” ( LV1 11)
But where exactly is the middle between self-indulgence (or ‘exists’) as extreme and asceticism - as refusing to indulge - (or ‘does not exist’) as extreme? Where is the ‘middle way’ between indulging (to wit, low, medium or high) in tasting a strawberry and refusing to indulge (to wit, low, medium or high) in tasting a strawberry, and which is a sensual act?
Example 2. The Buddha said: “This world, 0 Kaccāyana, depends on affirmation and negation. /.../; ‘Everything exists’ is one extreme; ‘nothing exists’ is the other. Avoiding these extremes, Tathāgata teaches the middle way.”
If the extremes are abstracted as ‘1’ (meaning all) and ‘not 1’, where does one find the middle? It does seem that in these contexts the translation of majjhima as ‘middle’ is (deliberately) misleading. It should here be translated as ‘in the midst’, or ‘in between’, or ‘amidst’. But ‘in the midst between extremes’ can be anywhere and nowhere. The above is developed further as:
Example 3. The Buddha said: “ ‘Is’ is one extreme and ‘is not’ is the other. What is between the two extremes (to wit, the middle or midst, my insertion) cannot be examined. It is inexpressible, undisclosed and unachievable and it does not last. This, Kasyapa, is the sunya (i.e. in-between, wrongly translated as ‘middle’) that is called the realization of the manifestations of existence.”
If one understands ‘extreme’ to mean ‘a position’ (i.e. an actual contact base (read: dharma), and which is momentary and leads to distress (Pali: dukkha)), then relinquishing the extreme means taking no (read: zero or nil = sunya) position and suffering no distress (dukkha).
And that’s the Buddhist rub. The Buddha was the Zero (response) Man. For he took no position in order to avoid distress (dukkha). The Tathagata believed (wrongly, as it turns out when time (indeed eternalism, i.e. the abiding) is excluded from action) that whatever position (read: dharma) is taken it doesn’t last (i.e. it’s not abiding) and one does not own it (i.e. it is not proper to one, hence an’atta) since one does not control it (See the 3 characteristics sutta). Avoiding taking a temporary, not own(-ed) position prevents distress (i.e. suffering) from happening. This understanding was applied by the Buddha in his life style, namely that of an itinerant (i.e. no-abiding) beggar (who owned nothing).
In everyday terms, the Buddha recommended reducing one’s profile (i.e. one’s contact range) toward zero (sunya, Note: sunya is the Sanskrit term for zero in mathematics. This is achieved in two ways, namely 1) by not interacting with and/or responding to the everyday world, i.e. the realm of desire, hence death, and 2) by not interacting with and/or responding to the inner world. Not responding to the inner world is achieved by blindfolding death (mata) = life (or Mara, the Evil one), and which is accomplished by means of perfect (i.e. @100%) concentration (samadhi) upon an empty (sign-less) focus.
The infamous Nagarjuna, infamous because he reduced all arguments about ‘this’ or ‘is’ and ‘not this’ or ‘is not’ to the absurd, said: “If I had a thesis (i.e. a position) of my own to advance, you could find fault with it (thereby causing me distress, my insertion). Since I have no thesis (i.e. position) to advance, the question of disproving it does not arise.”
Here Nagarjuna not only explains his method of dialectic (of reducing all arguments to naught = nil), but also describes the essence of Buddhist Way, namely of not taking a position. In short, what Nagarjuna (like the Buddha) says is what he does. And what he says is that distress is avoided by not responding (i.e. by playing dead), that is to say, by not taking a position, thereby offering zero profile for contact that results in distress.
From which follows that the Madhyama School term madhya(ma) should be translated not as ‘middle’ but as ‘in between’ or ‘amidst’ or ‘inside’ (as in ‘inner’), because the madhyama operative takes no position, hence holds to (and rests in) zero (i.e. absence of) response (= nirvana).
Madhayma pratipad should not be translated as ‘Middle Way’ but as the ‘In-between (or Inner) Way’, in-between because the extremes (hence dharmas, and which result in distress) are absent.
The absence of (sunyata = zero) position is made obvious in Nagarjuna’s celebrated (indeed, breathtaking scholastic nonsense) statement:
“ Not by itself nor by another, nor by both, nor without cause
Do positive existents (i.e. dharmas) ever arise in any what whatsoever.”
This is reductio ad absurdum, and which serves to end thought and enforce silence. This quote circumscribes the Zero (or sunya) Way, i.e. the skilful means of not taking a position/dharma (hence any view which in itself is extreme because quantised) or a series of positions (to wit, steps upon a path).