The Middle Way


Reproduced from "The Theosophist" August 1996 issue

The term 'The Middle Way' is found in Buddhism, that most gentle, compassionate and wise of religions. It probably referred originally to the realization by Buddha that the way to enlightenment lies neither in exaggerated asceticism nor in self-indulgence.

In striving--for the sake of humanity in its blindness and all beings in their suffering--to reach the Truth of things, Buddha is said to have lived for a time an ascetic life, starving himself, perhaps torturing his body, as was the custom for ascetics. When he was so weak as to be near death, he realized that the way to enlightenment does not lie in exaggerated asceticism. He had of course long since realized that that way does not lie either in gratifying one's every wish and leading a loose life--as is taught nowadays by some 'gurus'!

This realization is said to have come to him when a group of temple dancers passed singing a song (rendered in Sir Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia as follows):

Fair goes the dancing when the sitar's tuned;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high,
The string o'erstretched breaks, and the music flies;
The string o'erslack is dumb, and music dies.
According to the legend, Buddha took the lesson to heart and renounced the path of excessive asceticism. Accepting nourishing food, he recovered his strength and took the final steps to Enlightenment. In his sermon in the Deer Park near Varanasi, he is said to have taught this realization to his former companions in asceticism:

These two extremes, monks, are not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with the passions and luxury, low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless; and that conjoined with self-torture, painful, ignoble, and useless. Avoiding these two extremes the Tathãgata gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nirvana.
The extremes of asceticism and over-indulgence are not and never were limited to any particular period or religion. Christianity and other religions also had and still have their penitents. At an Easter Festival in the Philippines, volunteers are nailed to crosses, like Christ according to the biblical story! The Spartans indulged in frugality and hardship for other reasons. On the other hand, so-called civilizations tend, when they reach a certain affluence, to over-indulgence which often heralds their decline and fall--as in the case of the Roman Empire.

We witness, too, other types of exaggeration: excessive virtue and vice, love and hate, praise and condemnation. Often the same person indulges by turns in such extremes. Why do people exaggerate, why do they go to extremes? Why do they indulge or torture themselves, sometimes to breaking point? Why do they utterly condemn or blindly worship?...often by turns? Perhaps this is in the nature of things. Although the heart of all is Oneness, 'the Manifested Universe is', as HPB wrote, 'pervaded by duality', that is, we live in a world of duality, of extremes. It is, indeed, a world of beautiful and luxuriant diversity. But the basis of this world of infinite variety is duality, a tendency towards twoness--towards going off in one of two opposite directions.

This duality is actually what we might call polarity. If the source and the heart of all is Oneness--which is the fundamental teaching of Theosophy--then pairs of opposites have the same source and foundation. They are two poles, ends or extreme manifestations of the same thing, like the North and South Poles, or the two ends of a piece of string or elastic. They are complementary.

If we consider the origen of things as we know them, for example of our solar system, the two poles (or polar opposites) which originally emerged from the One, the Absolute, are primordial consciousness and primordial matter, which are, in the theosophical philosophy, inseparably linked. This original polarity is reflected in the many polarities or apparent opposites we know in daily life; beginning and end, light and darkness, outside and inside, hot and cold, soft and hard.

But are not those apparent opposites intimately connected, indeed dependent on each other? Could there be a beginning without an end? Would we recognize light if we had not experienced darkness? Whether we feel something is hot or cold, soft or hard and so on, is often rather a matter of attitude than of objective judgement. To the optimist the glass is half full; to the pessimist it is half empty! If one of my hands is cold and the other hot and I plunge them into lukewarm water, it will seem warm to the cold hand and cool to the hot hand--relativity in daily life!

Indeed, in a sense, hot and cold and the other polar opposites do not exist at all objectively. 'Look at your thermometer and see if you can discover where "heat" terminates and "cold" begins!' Thus none of the things around us is absolutely light or dark, hot or cold and so forth but only more or less--that is relatively so. Does not relativity indicate a relationship between things?

A visible sign of this relationship is a tendency in Nature towards a pendular movement from one of two imaginary extremes to the other. HPB calls this the 'Law of Periodicity: 'An alternation such as that of day and night, life and death, sleeping and waking, is...one of the absolutely fundamental laws of the universe. This pendular movement between two poles perhaps expresses an attempt to return to the Oneness out of which the two poles originally emerged.

Another example of this pendular movement in Nature is our own out-breathing. Examples are also to be found in the field of psychology, in human nature. The more emotionally elated we tend to be, the more we may be prone to depression. We all know of the sad clown, who can at times make others laugh with his gaiety, but at other times feels his own heart is broken. We all experience this to some extent. The further the pendulum swings in one direction, the further it will swing to the opposite direction.

And, thus, if we swing with the pendulum, we go to extremes, perhaps not extremes of asceticism and over-indulgence, but certainly extremes of joy, and depression, perhaps love and hate. There are people, too who change their allegiances to individuals or to ideologies. We have examples in the history of the Theosophical Society. Hysterical enthusiasm is quite likely to change its object. 'Gushing' should be viewed with scepticism.

What happens when we thus go to extremes? Perhaps going to extremes means treating the relative as if it were absolute. We take one extreme too seriously as if it were an absolute value. Thus people may be ready to sacrifice higher human values for an imaginary ideal. That is what fanatics do--like inquisitors perpetrating terrible cruelty in order to 'save the souls' of the condemned--or Nazis excusing their brutality by saying they were merely obeying orders, or Communists torturing and killing individuals 'for the benefit of the masses'.

It is probably a human tendency to go from one extreme to the other in the search for balance--for the Middle Way. But we should not take these extremes too seriously. To do so may lead to fanaticism, as illustrated above. These are of course extreme cases of heartless human beings. But are not similar tendencies at least dormant within us, ready to awaken under certain circumstances? There is a cruelty of the heart not expressed in deeds but perhaps in feelings of irritation or impatience to which we are all subject at times.

But if such tendencies become habitual, if we take our views and ourselves too seriously, we may become fanatical. What does fanaticism imply? Does it not lead to stagnation in ourselves and dogmatism in our treatment of others on whom we try to impose our opinions? Many people hold extreme views about health (what diet is best, what exercises one should do and so on)--or in the field of philosophy or religion.

Such extreme opinions often lead to quarrelling. But, ironically, they mostly have to do with unimportant issues. We are treating what is only relative as if it were absolute--a matter of life or death. This does not mean, however, that we should never remain firm. If we refuse on principle ever to be firm, we also exaggerate--and go to one of two extremes--far from the Middle Path! And there are certain things about which we should remain firm. As is said in At the Feet of the Master: 'Between right and wrong Occultism knows no compromise... Firm as a rock where right and wrong are concerned, yield always to others in things which do not matter'. What matters and what does not matter? It is up to us to decide for ourselves, using discrimination and without imposing our decision on others.

It has been said that, if one is in a dilemma, one should wonder 'Is it possible for me to do anything?' If not, one should accept the situation and not worry. But wisdom lies in knowing whether one can do something or not. An example: there are outer circumstances which we cannot alter. But we can always change ourselves, our attitude.

But is there no rule of thumb whereby we may distinguish between right and wrong, between the important and the unimportant? There is a rule of thumb, but its application in individual cases is up to us. The basis of all theosophical teachings is the inner Oneness in the heart of things. Out of insight into Oneness arises love, because we feel one with others, and also wisdom, because, ideally, we are one with Truth, seeing things as they really are and not just the images we make of them.

To perceive and to follow the Middle Way is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world. It requires constant discrimination. It is like walking on the razor's edge, which means being completely conscious and wide awake at every moment--being aware, not of what we think we are trying to do--but of ourselves doing it.

It may be useful to ask ourselves what the Middle Way is not: The Middle Way does not mean constantly jumping from one extreme to the other, like loving and hating someone by turns or compensating an unjust scolding to a child by giving in to that child's every wish. Nor does the Middle Way lie in trying to mix extremes--a little of this and a little of that, as in so-called love-hate, or as in bargaining or seeking compromises, although this is useful in business and political life.

Further, the Middle Way does not mean seeking the mid-most point by making a dogmatic principle of avoiding extremes at all costs! This may lead to indifference and laziness. The pendulum of life ceases to move to and fro. In opposing the love of pleasure, we may make ourselves numb--also to the suffering of others. The words in The Voice of the Silence: 'There klesa [i.e. worldly enjoyment] is destroyed for ever...' are followed by, '...Yet one word. Canst thou destroy divine compassion?...the Law of Laws...the light of everlasting right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal.'

Such compassion is infinitely greater than what we, in our ignorance, consider to be compassion. Though it may be seen as the source of our little personal feeling of pity, it belongs to a different dimension.

And, indeed, the Middle Way between or behind two extremes does not lie on the same level as the two extremes, but above them.

If two extremes are pictured as the two ends of a horizontal line, then the Middle Way does not lie on that horizontal line itself, somewhere between the two ends, but in a point above the horizontal line. We may imagine that point linked to the two ends of the line, to form a triangle. So out of one dimension (the line) two dimensions arise (the triangle). Thus the Middle Way signifies rising above both extremes. This would mean, for example neither personal love nor hatred but impersonal love. Impersonal love perhaps seems cool to us--but it is not cold. It is perhaps universal love--radiating towards no one object or person in particular but, like the sun, shining on everything in its path.

It is the love of the Bodhisattva, the only love which deserves that name in the highest sense, a love for which what appears to us to be self-sacrifice is simply the most natural thing in the world. It is 'like the pure snow in the mountain vales, cold and unfeeling to the touch, warm and protective to the seed that sleepeth deep beneath its bosom.'

We are certainly not capable of such love, neither of its level-headed coolness nor of its utter and perfectly natural selflessness beyond heat and cold. We still swing like the pendulum from one extreme to the other. Yet there may be moments when, forgetting ourselves, we rise above our present selves and understand a little of what is meant by Compassion and the Middle Way and of how such extremes as personal love and dislike may resolve into One. Polarity, the duality of two extremes, has its origin in Oneness and resolves again into Oneness.

The triangle formed by the two poles and their origin in a higher, overshadowing Oneness, is not something foreign to us. We ourselves are that triangle. We are its base in the outer world in which we are conscious and we are also the Divine Spark--the apex of the triangle. Thus the level of polarity--even in its ugliest forms, e.g. in fanaticism--is only one side of the coin. And it does not correspond to our True Being. When we rise, even for a moment, to that True Being which lies deeper within us, we may see clearer. We may see, in the light of Oneness, what is important and what not. Thus we shall avoid extremes. But this is no flight to Nirvana, for Samsara is also Nirvana. The Middle Way is the Oneness behind, beyond--but also inherent in--polarity. In practice, it is a matter of our attitude, also in daily life--seeing things as they are, not being blinded by taking sides.

But how does one proceed in daily life in order to seek and to follow--indeed consciously to become--the Middle Way?

Perhaps we should first be conscious of the danger of extreme, exaggerated attitudes in daily life--not in other people (which is easy) but in ourselves--though others may be holding up a mirror to us in which we condemn our own faults. When we have recognized extreme tendencies in ourselves, we can ask ourselves why. Is it due to conditioning by environment and upbringing? Is it because we accept some authority? Or is it a reaction against those?

What we do not understand and therefore perhaps reject in ourselves--be it selfish love or hate or personal desires or our fanatical opinions--torments us. What we have understood and accepted will simply drop away, like leaves in autumn. We can forget it. Then we can 'walk on...', on the Middle Way, on the razor's edge. But do we want to rise above the extremes? Is their constant influence important to us?--tickling our nerves or providing us with motivation? If so, we shall not and should not wish to change. The need for change will come in time. Perhaps we shall be like the little ant on the pendulum:

A little ant, clinging to the tip of a pendulum, was swinging giddily to and fro, just as we swing to and fro, clinging to our emotions: love and hate, joy and sadness. We identify ourselves with them, we are them. After some time the little ant tired of the ceaseless, relentless movement and discovered that he could climb further up the pendulum to a different and more restful world. If we emulate the little ant, no longer identifying ourselves with extremes, the pendulum goes on swinging but somehow we know that we are not that constant movement. We see our emotions indulgently, like the actions of a naughty child. So let us not be too hard on ourselves and others caught in the passionate pendulum game.

To summarize, the Middle Way between egocentric love and hatred is impersonal or universal love. The Middle Way between fanatical acceptance and rejection lies in wisdom, discrimination, common sense. The Middle Way between taking things and ourselves too seriously on the one hand and flippancy on the other perhaps lies in an awareness of the right proportions, expressed in a sense of humor, especially in the ability to laugh at ourselves. The Middle Way between clinging to memories and taking refuge in hopes lies in living in the here and now, that is, remaining wide awake. But is this not the very end of the way our goal? The end, however, lies in the beginning. For the Middle Way is not a way in the ordinary sense but a way of life. Like the spiritual path, it lies within us. It is us! So let us be what we are.


Mary Anderson

Miss Mary Anderson is the International Vice-President of the TS and lives at Adyar.


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