MIDDLE WAY AND THE EIGHTFOLD PATH

THE MIDDLE WAY


Buddha's teachings are known as "The Way," "The Path" or the “Middle Way.” The Buddhist "Path" consists of three directions” morality, meditation and wisdom — all of which are pursued simultaneously. The "Middle Way" refers to a life is halfway between a life of self-torture and asceticism and a life of self-indulgence in the material world.

The Buddha urged the world to relinquish the extremes of sensuality and self-mortification and follow the enlightened Middle Way. The focus was on man, not gods; the assumption was that life was pain or suffering, which was a consequence of craving, and that suffering could end only if desire ceased. The end of suffering was the achievement of nirvana (in Theravada Buddhist scriptures, nibbana), often defined negatively as the absence of craving and therefore of suffering, sometimes as enlightenment or bliss. [Source: Library of Congress]

According to the Middle Way one must: 1) live their life “fully but not care what happens; " 2) avoid putting too much emphasis on material success because "it soon turns to dust in our hands;" 3) don’t get “obsessed with the dust, convinced that nothing matters”; and 4) recognize the Four Noble Truths.

After his enlightenment, The Buddha decided to teach others what he had learned, encouraging people to follow a path he called "The Middle Way," which is one of balance rather than extremism. He gave his first sermon (Buddha's First Sermon at Sarnath, 1980.527.4) in a deer park in Sarnath, on the outskirts of present-day Varanasi. The Middle Path (Majjhima Patipada') rejects the extremes of 'attakilamatanuyoga' (self-mortification) and 'kamasukkhallikanuyoga' (self-indulgence).

The first sermon by The Buddha at Sarnath began with an explanation of the Middle Way. The Buddha said: “These two extremes, O monks, are not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with passions, low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless, and that conjoined with self-torture, painful, ignoble, and useless. Avoiding these two extremes, [the enlightened one] has gained the knowledge of the Middle Way, which gives sight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to insight, enlightenment, nirvana. [Source: Quoted in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 274.)

On one hand the "Middle way" means not to complain about life, but it also means not to waste or escape from life by living in a constant state of ascetism. In “How to practise Buddhism”, Yat-Biu Ching wrote: “The "Middle way" recommends the use of the vision of wisdom to remove life's fears, anguishes and misunderstanding, to recognize the truth about life and to control one's destiny. Fame and fortune are temporary. We didn't bring them with us when we came to this world, and we cannot take them with us when we leave. Buddhism cautions man not to be too obsessed with desires and greed. It advises us to be compassionate, charitable and kind. We must not be handcuffed by the desire for fame and fortune. Wealth cannot provide us with spiritual fulfilment. Only by having good conduct and pure minds, can we achieve peace, contentment and true happiness in life.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The term "Middle Way" here does not mean the avoidance of extremes. Instead, it indicates the Buddhist idea of non-duality, i.e., the principle of reality that lies beyond existence and non-existence. More concretely, the "Middle Way" gradually liberates a person from the sense of "I" as an individuated self. See the discussion of the Five Heaps below for more on this point. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddha’s First Sermon


First Sermon

Seven weeks after his enlightenment, The Budda left his seat under the tree and decided to teach others what he had learned. The Buddha's First Sermon was delivered to the ascetics who had previously accompanied him during his meditations and became disillusioned with. They congregated around him as he preached about the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. He presented the fundamental principles of his understanding and realization of enlightenment to these five shramanas. The First Sermon marks the inception of Buddhism.[Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Buddha encouraged those who listened to him to follow a path he called "The Middle Way," which is one of balance rather than extremism. He discoursed with five ascetics, who became his first disciples. He First Sermon was conducted in a deer park in Sarnath, on the outskirts of the city of Benares (Varanasi). Buddhists refer to that initial sermon as "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law," which means that the Buddha had embarked on a journey (turning the wheel) on behalf of the law of Righteousness (dharma). [Source: Kathryn Selig Brown, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1993]

One famous Buddhist scripture on the First Sermon goes: “On seeing their old teacher approach, the five bhikkhus agreed among themselves not to salute him, nor to address him as a master, but by his name only. "For," so they said, "he has broken his vow and has abandoned holiness. He is no bhikkhu but Gotama, and Gotama has become a man who lives in abundance and indulges in the pleasures of worldliness." But when the Blessed One approached in a dignified manner, they involuntarily rose from their seats and greeted him in spite of their resolution. Still they called him by his name and addressed him as "friend Gotama." [Source: Ephanius Wilson, Sacred Books of the East, rev. ed. (London: The Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 158, 160-61, 171-72, repr. In Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Volume I, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 67-71, Brooklyn College website]

“When they had thus received the Blessed One, he said: "Do not call the Tathagata by his name nor address him as 'friend,' for he is the Buddha, the Holy One. The Buddha looks with a kind heart equally on all living beings, and they therefore call him 'Father.' To disrespect a father is wrong; to despise him, is wicked. "The Tathagata," the Buddha continued, "does not seek salvation in austerities, but neither does he for that reason indulge in worldly pleasures, nor live in abundance. The Tathagata has found the middle path.

Buddha’s First Sermon's Descriptions of The Middle Way


The Buddhist scripture on the First Sermon continues: "There are two extremes, O bhikkhus, which the man who has given up the world ought not to follow-the habitual practice, on the one hand, of self-indulgence which is unworthy, vain and fit only for the worldly-minded and the habitual practice, on the other hand, of self-mortification, which is painful, useless and unprofitable. "Neither abstinence from fish or flesh, nor going naked, nor shaving the head, nor wearing matted hair, nor dressing in a rough garment, nor covering oneself with dirt, nor sacrificing to Agni, will cleanse a man who is not free from delusions.

"Reading the Vedas, making offerings to priests, or sacrifices to the gods, self-mortification by heat or cold, and many such penances performed for the sake of immortality, these do not cleanse the man who is not free from delusions. "Anger, drunkenness, obstinacy, bigotry, deception, envy, self-praise, disparaging others, superciliousness and evil intentions constitute uncleanness; not verily the eating of flesh. "

A middle path, O bhikkhus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by the Tathagata-a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to Nirvana! "What is that middle path, O bhikkhus, avoiding these two extremes, discovered by the Tathagata - that path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to Nirvana?

"Let me teach you, O bhikkhus, the middle path, which keeps aloof from both extremes. By suffering, the emaciated devotee produces confusion and sickly thoughts in his mind. Mortification is not conducive even to worldly knowledge; how much less to a triumph over the senses ! "He who fills his lamp with water will not dispel the darkness, and he who tries to light a fire with rotten wood will fail. And how can anyone be free from self by leading a wretched life, if he does not succeed in quenching the fires of lust, if he still hankers after either worldly or heavenly- pleasures. But he in whom self has become extinct is free from lust: he will desire neither worldly nor heavenly pleasures, and the satisfaction of his natural wants will not defile him. However, let him be moderate, let him eat and drink according to the needs of the body.

"Sensuality is enervating: the "self-indulgent" man is a slave to pleasure to his passions, and pleasure-seek. ing is degrading and vulgar. "But to satisfy the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear. Water surrounds the lotus-flower, but does not wet its petals. "This is the middle path, O bhikkhus. that keeps aloof from both extremes. And the Blessed One spoke kindly to his disciples, pitying them for their errors, and pointing out the uselessness of their endeavors, and the ice of ill-will that chilled their hearts melted away under the gentle warmth of the Master's persuasion.

Eightfold Path

The "Eightfold Path," which Buddhists are supposed to follow is comprised of: 1) right understanding (the realization that is full of suffering and suffering is caused by desire); 2) right thought (conditioning the mind to be free of desire and ill thoughts towards others); 3) right speech (refraining from lies, abuse and deceit); 4) right bodily action (refraining from violence); 5) right livelihood (avoiding self-indulgence); 6) right moral effort (showing kindness and controlling passions); 7) right mindedness (developing virtues); and 8) right concentration (practicing meditation).


Buddha hood – can be attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which constitutes a middle way between sensuality and ascetism. Enlightenment consists of knowing these truths. The average layperson cannot hope for nirvana after the end of this life, but can by complying, as best he or she is able to, with the doctrine's rules of moral conduct-hope to improve his or her karma and thereby better his condition in the next incarnation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The "Eightfold Path” is not only seen as a code conduct but also as means of achieving nirvana by overcoming the senses and consciousness in a step-by-step way progressing through the Three Pillars of the Eightfold Path: 1) wisdom (“panna” , which embraces one and two in the Eightfold Path; 2) morality (“sila”, which embraces three, four and five); and 3) concentration (“samadhi” , which embraces six, seven and eight).

1) Wisdom (also spelled prajña ) reflects the necessary insights required to eliminate desire and ignorance and achieve enlightenment. 2) Sila usually include basic prohibitions against killing, stealing, sexual promiscuity, lying, and intoxication (with monks and nuns adhering to more stringent guidelines). 3) samadhi involves various forms of meditation that differ among Buddhist traditions. Generally, though, Buddhist meditation requires careful breathing control and discipline of the mind. [Source: Joseph W. Williams, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Description of the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path (marga; Pali, magga) is often envisioned as the Wheel of the Dharma with eight spokes and seen as practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering. Gregory Smits of Penn State University wrote: "1) Right views is to know suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The first step, in other words, is to know and accept the Four Noble Truths. This may sound easy, but how many of you reading this now genuinely accept the assertion that life is suffering as a fundamental truth? Even for those living in a cultural environment influenced by Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths are difficult for many to accept as truths. Indeed, in all religions, there are often many who mouth the official doctrine, but far fewer who genuinely take it to heart. One aspect of the Four Noble Truths that we have not stressed sufficiently thus far is impermanence. The phenomena of this world are transient and fleeting, here today gone tomorrow. So, too, are we. The world we can perceive is temporary, yet people strive and strain in a futile effort to make it permanent. Most people live their lives as if they will never die — an absurd delusion according to Buddhist teaching. [Source: Indian Philosophy, pp. 277-78, but with minor modifications by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]


2) "Right resolve is the resolve to renounce the world and to do no hurt or harm. Once a person accepts the Four Noble Truths as truths, the next step toward enlightenment is to resolve to act on that realization. Renouncing the world is to reject what sense of self has created. Doing so, however, is easier said than done. An initial step in the right direction is to do no additional harm to self or others. Take some simple, concrete steps. Stop eating meat, for example, cancel those subscriptions to Playboy and Playgirl, and refrain from anger the next time an obnoxious driver nearly runs you off the road. Do not make the suffering of life any worse for anyone. ~

3) "Right speech is to abstain from lies and slander, from reviling, and from gossip. Because the act of talking is so influential in defining the human world, it should receive attention early on. Step three is a more specific case of step two: do not increase the suffering of anyone, including yourself, by what you say. Is this possible? Could a person completely refrain from gossip, for example? Although rare, we could find someone whose speech does no harm. Step number three, while difficult, is still within the realm of the possible without going through any special or extraordinary training. ~

4) "Right action is to abstain from taking life, from stealing, and from lechery. This one seems straightforward. Regarding the first item, hunters should certainly find something better to do, and we should not go out and commit murder--but there is more. Have you ever consumed the flesh of a once-living creature? How many insects have you killed, accidentally or otherwise? And what about that mousetrap in the garage and the fly swatter on the windowsill? When measured against strict Buddhist standards, most of us would appear to be mass murderers. To what extent might we also be thieves and lechers? ~

5) "Right livelihood is that by which the disciple of the Noble One supports himself, to the exclusion of wrong modes of livelihood. Notice that this step pertains to "the disciple of the Noble One." The phrase probably refers to one who has taken formal Buddhist vows, though not at the level of a monk. Such a person lives in the community but has dedicated his life to the pursuit of the Buddhist path. Naturally, such a person must engage in the proper means of making a living, namely, doing work of benefit to others. Were the Buddha transported across time and placed into today's world, which occupations might be acceptable and which ones not? By what criteria would he decide (hint: think of the Four Noble Truths)? Which present-day occupation would be most opposed to the Buddha's basic teachings? ~


6) "Right endeavor is when a monk brings his will to bear, puts forth endeavor and energy, struggles and strives with all his heart to stop bad and wrong qualities that have not yet arisen from ever arising, to renounce those that have already arisen, and, finally, to establish, clarify, multiply, enlarge, develop, and perfect those good qualities already present. This portion of the path explains the initial goal of meditation for monks. A monk is one who lives apart from the broader community in austere conditions to pursue the quest for enlightenment full time. Stage six, therefore, indicates a major step up in commitment and seriousness. There is no explicit mention of meditation here, but for the Buddha's audience, that meditation was the primary technique for attaining enlightenment would have been obvious. ~

7) "Right mindfulness is when, realizing what the body is — what feelings are — what the heart is — and what the mental states are — a monk dwells ardent, alert, and mindful, in freedom from the wants and discontents attendant on any of these things. This stage builds upon the previous one. Notice that in number six, a monk actively strives and makes effort. That effort having had its effect, in stage seven, a monk ceases to strive. He has realized the truth about his own mental states, feelings, etcetera, and they no longer have any hold on him. His body may have gone without food for a long time, for example, and the monk knows that the feeling of hunger is present, but this feeling no longer causes him to desire to eat. A person at this stage is no longer a slave to the desires of his or her body and mind. ~

8) "Right [rapture of] concentration is when, divested of lusts and divested of wrong dispositions, a monk develops and dwells in the first ecstasy with all its zest and satisfaction, a state bred of aloofness and not divorced from observation and reflection. By laying to rest observation and reflection, he develops and dwells in inward serenity, in [the] focusing of heart, in the zest and satisfaction of the second ecstasy, which is divorced from observation and reflection and is bred of concentration — passing thence to the third and fourth ecstasies." ~

Following the Eightfold Path

Anyone willing to dedicate themselves can follow each step on the Eightfold Path. Right understanding involves beginning the journey by understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha's teachings. Right thought involves dedicating oneself to practicing Buddhism and caring for others. Right speech involves refraining from lying, speaking harshly of others, or gossiping. Right action consists of following the Five Precepts. These are the five precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not consume intoxicants. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

To practice right livelihood, one should avoid jobs that harm others, such as trading weapons or alcohol, or anything that shames or injures others. Right effort can be practiced by promoting positive qualities, such as improving knowledge of the Buddha's teachings or completing assignments on time. Right mindfulness involves doing something with full attention. The last step on the Eightfold Path is right concentration, which involves focusing the mind, typically through meditation. Buddhists depend on their community, or sangha, to assist them on their paths towards understanding the Buddha's teachings on suffering and impermanence, achieving enlightenment, and ultimately reaching nirvana. Nirvana is the state in which a person breaks free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three distinct phases that should, ideally, be progressively mastered. The first phase is sila (ethics) and involves purifying one's outward behavior (and motivations for such behavior). The Buddha describes three elements in sila (the first three steps of the Eightfold Path): 1) right action, 2) right speech, and 3) right livelihood. Next comessamadhi (meditation), which is broken down, likewise, into three elements (the next three steps): 4) right effort, 5) right mindfulness, and 6) right concentration. The third phase is prajna (wisdom) and is broken down into two elements (the last two steps): 7) right understanding and 8) right intentions. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Prajna is not just knowledge or things one learns. Rather, it is a profound way of understanding being in the world. Prajna is often described as a sword that cuts through all illusion, a mental faculty that enables one to fully experience the world as it is without grasping. A later Mahayana school uses an image of geese reflected on a perfectly still pond to describe this state: The average person looks at the pond and, upon seeing the reflection of a flock of geese, immediately looks up. But the person who has perfected prajna does not look up but, rather, fully experiences the thing that he or she is seeing in the moment, the reality of the reflection, without distractions. In a sense such a person does not think at all but only sees the world as it is — what the Buddha called yathabhutam (in a state of perpetual flux).

Dharma Wheel
rotating dharma wheel

Four Noble Truths

The Buddha preached his view of life and suffering in a formula known as the Four Noble Truths, the most basic doctrine of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: 1) “dukka,” the belief that human life is an exercise in suffering replete with evil, disease, imperfection and unhappiness; 2) “samodaya” , the concept that suffering is caused by craving and desire, which can not satisfy the spirit; 3) “nirodha” , freedom offered by renouncement of desire, which is rooted in ignorance; and 4) “magga” , the cessation of desire which culminates in nirvana by following the Eightfold Path. These principals were introduced in the First Sermon at Sarnath.

The fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine are the Four Noble Truths: suffering exists; craving (or desire) is the cause of suffering; release from suffering can be achieved by stopping all desire; and enlightenment — buddhahood — can be attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path (right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration), which constitutes a middle way between sensuality and ascetism. Enlightenment consists of knowing these truths. The average layperson cannot hope for nirvana after the end of this life, but can — by complying, as best he or she is able to, with the doctrine's rules of moral conduct — hope to improve his or her karma and thereby better his condition in the next incarnation. *

Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “These truths tell us, 1) that life in samsara is suffering; 2) that this has a cause..our longing for illusory things; 3) that this suffering may be ended by following the path of the Buddha; 4) what that path is. The first two truths comprise the basic worldview of Buddhist thought. The final two truths point towards the practical core of Buddhism: its path towards salvation through self-cultivation in the manner of the Buddha's own struggle to enlightenment.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024


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