The Middle Way or the Middle Path

The Middle Path of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

The Great Buddha arrived at the principle of moderation through his own experience, having tested the futility of extreme austerities and self-mortification. He found such methods very disturbing and distracting. So he proposed the Middlw Way, also known as the Eightfold Path, as a very practical and this worldly approach to alleviate human suffering. It consisted of cultivating morality (sila), stability (Samadhi) and wisdom (prajna) by practicing the following: right thought and attitude, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration.

For the Buddha the Eightfold Path was not a mere theoretical or speculative dogma, but a very definitive and practical approach, based on his own experience, to cultivate peace and reach Nirvana, which he defined as neither existence nor non-existence, but a middle state between the two. Having lived a luxurious life as a crown prince and practiced self-mortification for years in dense forests of India before he got enlightenment under a tree, he advised his followers to shun the extremes of sensual desires and self-mortification and embrace the noble Middlw Way.

He declared the pursuit of sensual gratification as "low, vulgar, common, unworthy and useless", and self-torture as "painful, unworthy and useless. As an alternative, he presented the Middlw Way, which he said would open the eyes, produce knowledge and lead to peace, insight, enlightenment, and nirvana. (Samyutta-Nikaya 56-11).

The Buddha's Middlw Way appeared on the religious scene of ancient India at a time, when a great churning was going on in intellectual circles and established systems were disintegrating. The Lalithavistara speaks of the confusion and the decadence that prevailed in ancient India during Buddha's life time. In one of the dialogues, the Buddha enumerated 22 methods of self-mortification and thirteen of clothing (S.Radhakrishnan, 1999).

The Buddha's Middlw Way stood in stark contrast to the prevailing religious traditions of his time. It rested on the firm foundations of individual morality and inner perfection, the pursuit of which would lead to immutability, the ending of births and deaths and the consequences of karma. It was an earthly approach, which combined "ethical idealism" and moderate asceticism with unconventional atheism, as a practical solution to the existential problems of human life.

The Buddha made virtue as the foundation of spiritual transformation, in which neither God nor fate had any role. What mattered most were the actions and intentions of each individual on a journey that stretched across many lives.

Logically speaking, the Buddha's Middlw Way makes sense, because human suffering cannot be mitigated through self-inflicted torture of the mind and the body or by pursuing pleasure at the cost of one’s own values. It can be resolved only by knowing the underlying causes of human suffering and avoiding them. The Middlw Way was a logical outcome of the following Four Noble Truths declared by the Buddha.

  • Life is full of suffering
  • Suffering is caused by desires
  • It is possible to end suffering by overcoming desires
  • The path to end suffering is the Middlw Way.

The Buddha's Middlw Way was not just about right living and right conduct, but also about keeping the head straight and the eyes wide open. He wanted people to be free from self-induced illusions and false expectations. He avoided speaking about God or soul because he did not want to distract people with speculation.

He spoke of a living being as the coming together of five aggregates, namely form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and witness consciousness, to which it returned again and again till its individuality was completely dissolved and it changed no more. He spoke of liberation not in terms of self-realization but in terms of self-disintegration. He spoke against the castes and empty rituals, but respected the true Brahmans for their knowledge, wisdom and virtue. He established a monastic order and a strict code of conduct for the monks, yet exhorted them to be lamps unto themselves and arrive at the truth by themselves.

Different schools of Buddhism, like the Madhyamika school of Nagarjuna or the Yogachara School differed widely in their interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha. But they all accepted the Middlw Way as the most effective and suitable means to practice his teachings and attain nirvana. Justice Christmas Humphreys, a British scholar, spoke about the Middlw Way in the following words:

"The way of Buddhism is Middle Way between all extremes. This is no weak compromise, but a sweet reasonableness which avoids fanaticism and laziness with equal care, and marches onward without the haste which brings its own reaction. The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path to Nirvana, and it may be regarded as the noblest course of spiritual training yet presented, in such a simple form, to man."

Share This


Suggestions for Further Reading