A Healthy Recipe for Life

Spirituality and Spiritual Practice

by Jayaram V

The middle way discovered by the Perfect One avoids both these extremes; it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbana. - the Buddha

Let a man reform himself by himself. Let him not degrade himself. The self alone is the friend of the self and self alone is the enemy of the self - the Bhagavadgita

Whenever there is a decline of dharma or rise of adharma, I manifest myself. For the protection of the pious and destruction of the wicked and for establishing Dharma, from time to time, I come into Being - the Bhagavadgita

Stay away from the fire but do not avoid it altogether. Let it warm your body and cook your food, but not burn your hands - A Sufi Saint.

Human life is based on the principle of moderation. Our bodies cannot tolerate extreme physical conditions. So do our minds. We cannot withstand extreme temperatures of heat and cold nor extreme conditions of pleasure and pain. Excessive asceticism is as harmful as excessive indulgence. Repeated failures lead to frustration, unhappiness and lower self-esteem. Excessive success or fame usually results in undue mental stress, restlessness and dissatisfaction with material things in life. If overeating hurts the body, so is obsessive dieting. If lack of sleep impairs our physical and mental functioning, over sleeping leads to a state of inertia and mental torpor.

Our relationships do not thrive, if we get too close or move far away. Children would suffer if they are treated too harshly or too leniently. Society at large is uncomfortable and unappreciative of extreme forms of thinking and behavior. In contrast, the approach of the moderate is considered safe and sound by a vast majority of people, because it is perceived as normal and natural. This is even so in politics, economic and society at large. A dictator is as despised as an incompetent and eccentric leader. Nature is built upon the principle of balance and harmony and geared to nurture life on the conditions of moderation. Since we are endowed with free will, we can go against nature, but not without suffering.

The principle of moderation is an integral part of many eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Taoism. Most of these religions draw a distinction between socio religious pragmatism and uncompromising ascetic idealism, the former distinguished by the mundane acts of religious worship and practice of relative values aimed to maintain social order and religious traditions and the latter by extreme forms of self-denial and self-control in order to transcend the limitations of self and experience eternity. The former calls for faith, discipline and commitment on the part of the believers, while the latter for even a stronger faith, sacrifice, detachment, renunciation and extreme mortification of the mind and the body. In the former religiosity rather than salvation of the seeker is the immediate goal, while in the latter salvation is the only goal accomplished through inner purity and transformation of the lower self. The former is meant for the mundane, who cannot give up the comforts of life for the liberation of the soul, while the latter is for the few seekers of truth who are willing to give up everything in life to experience the transcendental states of consciousness.

Hinduism

In Hinduism we see many approaches at work that range from one extreme to the other. On the one extreme, we have the highly ascetic ways that require self-torture and self-denial based on painful bodily postures, renunciation of all pleasures and total abstinence for self-realization. On the other extreme are the weird tantric methods of self-realization which advocate the use of sexual intercourse, human or animal flesh, bodily parts, magical chants and grave yard rituals to transcend the limitations of human life. Falling in between the two extremes, are some moderate ways that call for divine centered living without renouncing the world and without sacrificing the worldly comforts and simple pleasures of life. The way of desireless actions (karma-marg) and the way of single minded devotion (bhakti-marg), which are advocated by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita, fall into this category. They are considered to be the best, the surest and the easiest means to achieve salvation. The so called popular religion practiced by millions of Hindus also fall in this category, consisting of the performance of sacrificial rituals, sacraments, adherence to code of conduct based on the scriptures, maintaining the family and social traditions and order.

The middle ways of salvation in Hinduism are based upon the principles of balance and moderation. Hinduism in its moderate forms is neither escapist nor pessimistic, neither tortuous nor licentious and neither dogmatic nor superstitious. It aims to release men from the cycle of births and deaths by bringing together the best of their both material and spiritual endeavor and by integrating the diverse components of human personality around the highest and central purpose of self-realization through holistic fulfillment of the needs of the body, the mind and the spirit. It acknowledges the importance of social and religious institutions and traditions in the spiritual elevation of the mankind and the need to align them with our higher aims and aspirations so that we can experience life in all its complexity and diversity, as a part of our inner transformation and transcendental rebirth, without compromising our spiritual and moral aims.

The concept of middle way is infused in the beliefs and practices of Hinduism and cannot be identified separately as a distinct religious tradition or school of philosophy. We can trace it in the descriptions and legends of various Hindu gods and goddesses, who despite their divinity and infinity, exemplify the virtues of moderation and a balanced life. The gods are vibrant beings, full of life and zest. They do not shun the life. They advocate restraint, but neither self-denial nor self-torture. They suggest a way of life that is in harmony with the ideals of the humanity and their spiritual aspirations. The gods live in opulence and comfort, personify abundance of material and spiritual wealth and serve as role models for the humanity to follow. In Lord Ganesha and Krishna we see this symbolism reaching its crescendo. Even the ascetic god Siva has a family of his own and is usually depicted with a robust physique.

We find the working of the same concept in the varnashrama dharma and the four purusharthas of Hinduism. The Varnashrama dharma prescribes different duties and obligations for each individual during the four stages of his existence upon earth, namely childhood (brahmacharya), adulthood (grihastha), retirement age (vanaprastha) and old age (renunciation). In childhood he has to practice celibacy and pursue knowledge. As a householder, he should perform obligatory duties towards his family, community and ancestors. When the children have grown up, he should retire from active duty and lead a life of withdrawal. In old age, he should renounce everything and prepare himself for the afterlife and the next birth. The Purusharthas are the four chief aims of human life, namely virtue, wealth, sensuous desires and salvation. It is believed that pursuit of these four aims would enable a person to experience life in all its diversity and complexity and achieve salvation through one's good deeds, commitment to Dharma and the grace of God.

Buddhism

The Buddha suggested the Middle Way, also known as the Eightfold Path, as the means to the cessation of human suffering. It consisted of the practice of right living through 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 ethical solution, but a definite means, based on his own enlightenment, to the attainment of Nirvana or the state of non-becoming or immutable beingness, which is neither existence nor non-existence, but a middle state between the two. Having lived a life of luxury during his early life and practiced self-mortification for years before he gave it up for a more benign asceticism in order to extricate himself from the problems of aging, death and disease, he advised his followers to shun the extremes of sensual desires and self-mortification and embrace the noble Middle Way. He declared the pursuit of sensual gratification to be "low, vulgar, common, unworthy and useless", and self-torture to be "painful, unworthy and useless. Instead, he presented the Middle Way as the ideal means for the mitigation of suffering, which "opens the eyes, produces knowledge and leads to peace, insight, enlightenment, and nirvana; to wit, perfect knowledge, perfect outlook, perfect speech, perfect action, perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness and perfect concentration."1

The Buddha's Middle Way appeared on to the religious scene of ancient India at a time, when society was characterized by the failure of creeds and disintegration of established systems. The Lalithavistara speaks of the confusion and the decadence that prevailed in India during Buddha's life time. In one of the dialogues, the Buddha enumerates 22 methods of self-mortification and thirteen of clothing2 . The Buddha's Middle 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 the possibility of experiencing transcendental existentialism. It was an approach based on "ethical idealism", refined asceticism and unconventional atheism.

The Buddha's Middle Way makes sense, because from a logical point of view, human suffering cannot be mitigated by more suffering. It can be mitigated only by knowing its causes and addressing them in an effective and lasting manner. The Middle Way is the logical consequence to the thought process identified in the Four Noble Truths concerning the origin and mitigation of human suffering. If we acknowledge the validity of the Four Noble Truths as universal, we have to accept the Middle Way as a natural solution to the problems and the optimism it envisages. We have to agree that human suffering is not a product of divine retribution, but one's own conduct and character, by changing which, in a proper manner, one can end it altogether.

The Buddha's Middle Way was not just about right living and right conduct, but also about choosing between the extreme postulations of our understanding of the phenomenal world and dealing with the ambiguity concerning our notions of such disparate concepts associated with it as existence and non existence, knowledge and ignorance and permanence and impermanence. It was about accepting responsibility for one's own material and spiritual well being, without the mediation of gods and priests. The Buddha honored the Middle Way in every way. He neither confirmed nor denied the existence of God. He denied the existence of soul, but spoke of an individuality that survived death. 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 dealt with these subjects differently but were unanimous in not accepting extreme standpoints. A British scholar3 commented upon the Middle 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."

Jainism

Compared to Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism is considered to be a more austere and ascetic religion, built upon the principles of severe penances, non-violence, renunciation, rigorous fasting, vegetarianism, meditation and self-mortification. Karma is believed to be not an invisible effect or a process of punishment and reward, but a substance of fine particles that attaches itself to the beings as they perform various actions and impacts their lives and future incarnations based on the purity or impurity of their actions and intentions. Life is vested in not only beings but also inanimate objects. Hence extreme care and responsible behavior are required to conduct oneself in the world and escape from the possible consequences of both intentional and unintentional acts of carelessness and immorality.

Thus with its rigid approach to the issues of morality, karma and its possible consequences, and denial of God as the absolute cause of the universe, Jainism presents existence as a perilous ordeal with an uncompromising solution, which requires immense sacrifice nothing short of self-destruction, rather than accepting life as an opportunity to experience the beauty and joy of living in a virtuous and balanced manner, through one's own adaptation and inner transformation. For the more serious followers of the religion, Jainism offers no compromise and no moderation. Theirs is a way in which there is no point of return. It consists of minimizing oneself to the extent of physical annihilation of oneself and extermination of all becoming and beingness.

However for the lay followers it makes some concessions so that they can eventually train themselves to withstand the rigors of ascetic life. The lay practitioners are expected to reach the highest state of asceticism and voluntary starvation resulting in their death through successive and increasing states of inner discipline and restraint by observing various vows. By all means, Jainism offers little solace and feelings of comfort for the weak and the insincere. It is a religion of the mentally strong and spiritually committed people, who are willing to let go of every thing and endure every suffering to realized their spiritual ideals. For the Jinas, their religion is not a side business that can be practiced as a past time to delude oneself with the notion of spiritual endeavor, but a serious pursuit that requires total dedication and unconditional surrender.

Sikhism

By all means Sikhism is a simple and moderate religion that stands in stark contrast to the rigors of Jainism and similar ascetic traditions. It is unencumbered by the ritualism of Hinduism, the complexities of its various speculative schools of philosophy, and also the monastic idealism of Buddhism. In many ways it resembles the bhakti-marg of Hindus, minus idol worship and the temple rituals. With emphasis on prayers, avoidance of vice, and practice of charity, belief in God, remembering His name all the time, faith in Guru, practice of virtues, community service, respect for the Holy Scripture (Adigranth) and accepting all humanity as equals, Sikhism offers the middle ground where both Hinduism and Islam find their common elements. There is no place for extreme penances in Sikhism or renunciation of the world. The emphasis is on simple acts of devotion, purity of faith and personal conduct and selfless service to the community and the humanity in general, in accordance with the ideals of the Adigranth, the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and the social and religious practices prescribed by them. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, found no difference between good conduct and fasting4. He questioned the validity of blind adherence to rituals and superstitious practices. He criticized social and caste inequalities based on birth material possessions. He ridiculed the traditions that were rooted in untested beliefs. He believed in the unity of Godhead and His indisputable involvement with the affairs of the mankind.

The God of Nanak is kind and compassionate and unimaginably responsive to the aspirations of human soul. Omniscient and omnipresent, He resonates in the hearts of people both as a sound and as unconditional love. He revealed Himself in the past, through various teachings, whose ideals are preserved forever in the compilation of the Adigranth, the holy book of the Sikhs. Guru Nanak, himself did not establish a separate religion, but initiated a thought process that took shape as religion four hundred years later during the time of Guru Arjun Singh, the fifth and perhaps the most influential of the Sikh Gurus. Sikhism is unencumbered by the burden of speculative philosophy or didactical analysis of existential truths. It is a simple and straightforward religion meant to connect humanity with God through the simple idiom of the common people and the language of the human heart, without distracting them with high sounding words and intellectual deliberation. Guru Nanak went to the extent of advising his followers not to waste their time arguing about such speculative issues as whether to eat meat or not and what constituted meat and what constituted plant.

Taoism

Taoism projects the imagery of an ideal life, found on the universal principles of moderation, inner balance, sublime aspiration, simplicity and harmony with oneself and with nature. It is about living in accordance with the highest aspirations man can envisage in his moments of profound revelation and utter tranquility, undisturbed by the concerns and skepticism of a pragmatic mind. The Taoist practices of Tai-chi and Feng-shui and the Taoist symbols of Yin and Yang are based on these ideals only. Moderation is one of the three jewels of Taoism, the other two being compassion and humility. The echoes of moderation are self-evident in the following verses of the Tao. They allude to an idealism that would never compromise its expansive vision with the extremities of human life.

The course and nature of things is such that
What was in front is now behind;
What warmed anon we freezing find.
Strength is of weakness oft the spoil;
The store in ruins mocks our toil.

Hence the sage puts away excessive effort,
extravagance, and easy indulgence. (29)

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For regulating the human (in our constitution) and rendering
the (proper) service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation.

It is only by this moderation that there is effected an early
return (to man's normal state). That early return is what I call the
repeated accumulation of the attributes (of the Tao). With that
repeated accumulation of those attributes, there comes the subjugation
(of every obstacle to such return). Of this subjugation we know not
what shall be the limit; and when one knows not what the limit shall
be, he may be the ruler of a state. (59)

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Conclusion

If there is anything we can learn from nature and from our experiences, it is the principle of moderation. Life on earth is conditioned by the same principle. There is an inherent balance in all creation, which reflects itself as symmetry, beauty and perfection in the shapes, forms, objects and beings of our world. In some intricate and inexplicable way, the diverse components of the universe remain in equilibrium and act like the different instruments of a great symphony. The sun is warm enough to sustain life upon earth. The seas are deep enough to support life both on earth and in the water. Each season has its own role to play in the creation, destruction and renewal of life. Even an occasional calamity of nature has a purpose to serve. Without the inherent balance in creation, life on earth would be extremely chaotic and stressful.

However, accepting the principle of moderation as the basis of our happiness and inner peace does not mean that we should settle for mediocrity in our actions or aspirations. We should aim for the best and do our best, but without pushing ourselves into the extremities where our survival becomes perilous. We can have the best of the best goals. We may test our limits and challenge our talents and skills. We may try to transcend our physical and mental limitations in the realization of such goals, but not to the extent that it would impair our health and disturb our inner equilibrium. We can make success and happiness possible in our lives through inner harmony, balance, restraint and moderation. The middle way is the way of the mankind, sanctioned by God, blessed by divinities and prescribed by the prophets, seers and sages. It is the most efficient way of our enlightened idealism that stretches all the way to the highest world of God.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

Footnotes

1. Samyutta-Nikaya 56-11.

2. Indian Philosophy, Volume 1, by S.Radhakrishnan, Oxford University Press 1999.

3. Justice Christmas Humphreys commented about

4. Let good conduct be thy fasting - Guru Nanak Var Majh