Within the religio-philosophical traditions of Asia, the term middle way is associated with both Confucian and Buddhist teachings. In Confucianism, the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong ) advanced a vision of the goodness of human nature in terms of its “centeredness” (zhong ) prior to the arousal of the feelings, and its harmoniousness (yong ) when balanced after the feelings are aroused. Through “sincerity” (cheng ) in thought and deed, the centrality of this original state is preserved in a harmonious relationship to all things, making possible a mystic unity with everything between heaven and earth. However, the Doctrine of the Mean only came to be emphasized as a canonical text with the appearance of neo-Confucianism, a post-Buddhist development, during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Though the “mean” as the course of moderation and balance had been a part of the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE), the importance assigned to the Doctrine of the Mean can be viewed as an indication of the extent to which neo-Confucians felt compelled to respond to themes that had been more emphasized by the Buddhists. Mention of the “middle way” first and foremost brings to mind the teachings of Siddhártha Gautama (563–483 BCE), the historical Buddha, and later Maháyána Buddhist philosophers such as Nágárjuna (c. 150–250).
After having been raised in luxury, as the son of the king of the Shakya tribe, Siddhártha Gautama left his family and embarked on a search for the meaning of life, one that involved him in a prolonged period of ascetic practice. Icons representing the extent to which Siddhártha pursued this course depict him as an emaciated figure, sitting in meditation, with a taut layer of flesh binding his pronounced skeleton. Ultimately, however, Siddhártha accepted a small portion of rice-milk from a goatherd, Sumedha. Though he continued his search for meaning, Siddhártha abandoned extreme asceticism, as he had earlier abandoned his life of luxury, in favor of a “middle way,” or a search for understanding and liberation based on balance and moderation.
Not long after taking up this middle course, Siddhártha achieved enlightenment. In his first sermon, Siddhártha praised the middle way as superior to both the life of luxury and that of asceticism. He then related his realization of the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering; that there is a cause of suffering, desire and attachment; that there is a cure, elimination of attachment; and that the path to such elimination is the Eightfold Noble Path. The latter can be summarized as a way of life that flows from the practitioner’s realization that there is no self (the absence of self is referred to as anátman ), that all things lack self-nature, and that everything is transitory. With these insights into the meaning of life, Siddhártha was able to achieve nirvána, or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation through the “putting out of the flame” of existence. He thus became known as “the awakened one,” or “the Buddha.” The implication of the Buddha beginning his first sermon with praise for the middle way is that the entirety of his teachings should be understood as an expression of the course that steers clear of extreme practices that lead to rebirth and continued suffering. More particularly, however, the middle way, lauded as the source of wisdom, peace, and nirvána, was identified with the practical way of the Eightfold Path.
The philosopher Nägärjuna made the teaching of the middle way virtually identical with Mahäyäna Buddhism as it came to be understood metaphysically. Nägärjuna’s most famous work, the Múlamadhyamaka káriká, or Treatise on the Middle Way, explained “the middle way” (mádhyamaka ) in terms of an eightfold process of negation systematically denying all theses and their antitheses. Nägärjuna viewed both thesis and antithesis as extreme positions that could be mediated only by denial of both. Furthermore, he insisted that the denial of both thesis and antithesis be denied, as well as the affirmation of both thesis and antithesis. Ultimately, Nägärjuna affirms the middle way as súnyatá, or emptiness, the state of all aspects of existence that is midway between independent, self-sustaining existence and utter nonexistence. Súnyatá properly understood is neither absolute existence nor absolute nonexistence, but instead the middle way that recognizes the dependent nature of any aspect of existence in relation to all other aspects of existence. Rather than being a negation of reality, súnyatá makes possible the phenomenal world as we know it. Nägärjuna’s metaphysical interpretation of the middle way as applied to all categories and things—including time, space, causality, suffering, the self samsára, the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path, nirvána, and so on—complemented the earlier practical interpretation of the middle path as an existential course of moderation, one avoiding the extremes of indulgence in luxury or excessive asceticism. Followers of Nägärjuna’s “middle way” teachings, known as Mádhyamikas, found comfort especially in knowing that suffering and samsára are empty in the sense that they have no independent existence. Alternatively, they have found in the emptiness of the self, the Buddha, and nirvána an absence of obstacles that might otherwise hinder their unity with them.
SEE ALSO Buddha; Buddhism; Religion
Cheng, Hsueh-li. 1982. Nágárjuna’s Twelve Gate Treatise ; Translated, with Introductory Essays, Comments, and Notes. Boston: D. Reidel.
Inada, Kenneth. 1970. Nágárjuna: A Translation of His Mülamadhyamakakärikä with an Introductory Essay. Tokyo: Hokuseido.
Kalupahana, David J. 1975. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Kalupahana, David J. 1999. Múlamadhyamakakáriká of Nágárjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass.
1. (Skt., madhyamā-pratipada; Pāli, majjhimapātipadā). General term for the way taught and practised by the Buddha, which avoids extremes; the name also of the system derived from Nāgārjuna known as Mādhyamaka.
2. In the Latin form, via media, it is used to describe the Anglican Church, which is both Catholic and Reformed; neither papalist nor dissenting.