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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
23 summer 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly The Middle Way If the difficulties that have arisen over the centuries can be attributed to contentious position-taking, one way to resolve them should be through the practice of non-contention. The Buddha once said that his entire teaching could be summa- rized as, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” Such a spirit of non-contention and non-clinging approaches the core principle of the middle way. The skillful refusal to pick one particular viewpoint and cling to it reflects right view; it also expresses the effort that is essential to arrive at resolu- tion. The question then arises: how exactly do we find this mysterious middle—the place of non-abiding, the place of non-contention? “The middle way” can mean a lot of different things. It can even be used by politicians to describe their war plans. In this investigation, the term denotes the fundamental prin- ciple that the Buddha realized at his enlightenment. It refers to the insight of awakening that transcends the later catego- ries of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. “The middle way” is an everyday expression. This ren- ders the principle highly accessible; however, it also belies its profundity. In the Buddha’s first discourse, he equated the middle way with the noble eightfold path, thus defining it as a quality that embodies the entire spiritual training. In this original sense, it was an all-encompassing teaching. Predictably, in later years and in certain regions, it came to be emblematic of one particular school—that based on the Mad- hayamaka philosophy of Acharya Nagarjuna. That school was distinguished from other groups such as the Chittamatrans, Vaibashikas, and Sautrantikas. Thus, although it began as a universal principle, the meaning of “middle way” shrank some- what, within this sphere, to become another tribal insignia. Although the term is not being used here in this narrower sense, it is nevertheless interesting to explore what Nagar- juna’s insight was fuelled by. For it is in this central principle of the middle way—and particularly in the analysis of the feelings of existence and of “self”—that we find the means to harmonize conflicting views. In a seminal exchange between the Buddha and Maha- Kaccana, the Buddha says: “All exists,” Kaccayana, this is one extreme, “All does not exist,” this is the other extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the middle way. —Samyutta Nikaya 12.15 There is a very close connection between this discourse, found in the Pali Canon, and the words of Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Root of the Middle Way. This latter text is considered a cornerstone of the Mahayana movement, and it has informed the approach of the Northern school for the past 1,800 years. Ironically, it makes no mention of such characteristic Northern elements as bodhisattvas and bo- dhichitta. Indeed, scholars such as Kalupahana and Warder have pointed out that there’s actually nothing particularly “Mahayana” in what it says. Nagarjuna mentions the dialogue between Buddha and Maha-Kaccana; further, he writes: “Existence” is the grasping at permanence; “non-exis- tence” is the view of annihilation. Therefore, the wise do not dwell in existence or non-existence. —Mulamadyamakakarika 14.10 Both teachings point out how to recognize the feeling of self, how to see through it, and, ultimately, how to break free from the tyrant. They both indicate that clinging to the sense of self is what primarily obstructs knowing the middle way. These teachings point to the fact that, yes, there is the feel- ing of selfhood, but they also make it clear that the feeling of “I” arises due to causes. These causes are habits rooted in ignorance and fired by craving. There might be the feel- ing of “I,” yet, like all feelings, it is transparent and empty of substance—merely a pattern of consciousness that arises and ceases. This teaching is usually taken to be a philosophical de- scription; however, it is most significant as a meditation tool. It helps us to see that questions such as “Do I exist?” or “Do I not exist?” are irrelevant. Instead the perspective shifts to one of cultivating and maintaining a mindful awareness of the feeling of “I” arising and ceasing. This is the essence of vipassana, or insight meditation. The dissolution of the conceit “I am” was described by the Buddha as “nibbana here and now,” and it cuts to the root of all contentions. The Four Noble Truths: Universality and Transparency It is said that the Buddha’s first discourse, the Setting in Mo- tion of the Wheel of Truth, encompasses all teachings—just as the footprint of all creatures that walk are encompassed by an elephant’s footprint. This is said not only by followers of the Southern school but also by Mahayana and Vajrayana