Saturday, July 27, 2013

One of Many Middle Paths

     "We can never tell how patient or humble a person is when everything is going well with him. But when those who should cooperate with him do the exact opposite, then we can tell. A man has as much patience and humility as he has then, and no more."—attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

     The Middle Path, or Middle Way, in Pali majjhima paipadā, is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism; and according to tradition it was discovered by the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment, and was the main point made in his first formal discourse after his enlightenment, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Discourse on Rolling Forth the Wheel of Dhamma"), given to the five ascetics who became his first Buddhist disciples.
     As it turns out, though, there are many Middle Paths. The Purābheda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, for example, sets up a number of pairs of opposites which a good monk wisely passes between. He is not attracted to gain, and has no aversion to loss; he is not opposed to craving, yet he is not in favor of it either; he is not impassioned, nor is he impassive; and so on. In the Aṭṭhakavagga, of which the Purābheda Sutta is a part, it is said repeatedly that a monk should have nothing received (atta) and nothing rejected (niratta), which also obviously is a pun: he should have no self (attā) and no not-self either.
     Another good example of this multiplicity of Middle Paths is the Lokāyātika Sutta of the Samyutta Nikāya (S.12.48): In it, a non-Buddhist philosopher called a lokāyātika comes to the Buddha and asks him some questions about the nature of the world. Lokāyātikas, incidentally, were the ancient Indian predecessors of modern scientists; they were not so much interested in enlightenment, or the difference between right and wrong, as in determining natural law and understanding the world in general. In Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Samyutta Nikāya the Buddha's questioner is called a cosmologist. Anyway, this worldly philosopher comes to the Buddha and asks, "How is it, Mr. Gotama, does everything exist?"
     "'Everything exists':" the Buddha replies, "That is the oldest philosophy of the world."
     Then the philosopher asks, "Well then how is it, Mr. Gotama, does everything not exist?"
     Whereupon the Buddha replies that this is the second oldest philosophy of the world.
     The worldly philosopher follows up by asking if everything is One—which turns out to be the third philosophy of the world; and then he asks if everything is a multiplicity—which of course is the fourth philosophy of the world.
     Then the Buddha says that he avoids such extremes by adopting the Middle Way, or the Dhamma by the middle (in Pali, majjhena dhammo), which he identifies with dependent co-arising. Thus in this case dependent co-arising is a Middle Way which passes between the extremes of existence and non-existence, which is rather a mind-bender, and between the extremes of one and more than one, which is also a mind-bender. (Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka school, one of the most important and mind-bendy philosophical systems of Mahayana Buddhism, is based upon this kind of thinking.)
     However, all of this is some rather dizzying philosophy; and although I'm certainly not opposed to dizzying philosophy, I'd like to discuss a simpler, more practical version of the Middle Path, which is a version of the one taught in the Buddha's traditional first discourse: the Middle Path between self-indulgence and self-torture. The Sutta itself has the Buddha saying this:
     There are these two extremes, bhikkhus, which he who has renounced the world should avoid. What are these two? A life following pleasures, devoted to pleasures and luxury: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and without benefit; and [the other is] a life following self-mortification: this is painful, ignoble, and without benefit.
     By not approaching these two extremes, bhikkhus, the Tathāgata has realized the knowledge of the Middle Way which leads to vision, which leads to knowledge, resulting in calm, in higher knowledge, in full Enlightenment, in Nibbāna.
After this the Buddha identifies the Middle Way with the Noble Eightfold Path, then teaches the Four Noble Truths, and then declares his own Enlightenment.
     This Middle Path/Way between self-indulgence and self-torture is often conveniently interpreted to mean no gold Rolls Royce on the one hand, and no sleeping on a bed of nails and broken glass on the other. These kinds of extreme extremes actually have precedents in the Pali texts themselves; in fact, according to tradition, the Buddha before his Enlightenment indulged in extreme extremities on both sides. It is written that in his youth he was provided with three palaces, one for the cold season, one for the hot season, and one for the rainy season; that he was also provided with a harem of beautiful dancing girls and female musicians; and furthermore that his entire household staff was composed of young, beautiful females. On the other hand, shortly after he renounced the world he began the traditional ancient Indian regimen of extreme austerity and continued it for six years. According to one strange text, the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M.12), he followed such ascetic practices as going around naked, not bathing, eating only once every two weeks, and feeding on cow dung; and he eventually became so malnourished that if he rubbed his arms the hairs on his arms would simply break off, and if he grasped his belly with his hand he could feel his own backbone. So, people nowadays often equate the Middle Path with avoiding such extremities and give the whole concept of the Middle Path little thought. They don't want to sleep on nails anyway, and can't afford the gold Rolls Royce. Plus harems are politically incorrect nowadays.
     It should perhaps be borne in mind, however, that the Middle Path between luxury and self-torture taught by Gotama Buddha involved wandering around homeless, wearing rags, sleeping under trees, having no family and no money, and silently begging for one's food in the street. This was the Middle Way, even though nowadays most people, including perhaps most monks and nuns, would consider it way beyond the range of acceptable austerity. As ancient Buddhism became more of a popular religious movement a new Middle Path developed, which was the Middle Path between self-indulgence and...the original Middle Path. This may be called the traditional Middle Path. And then when Buddhism came to the modern West, yet another Middle Path developed, which is the Way between self-indulgence and the traditional Middle Way. And although the Middle Path is now hugging up close to self-indulgence, still most people are veering off even closer to the pleasant extreme.
     It may be that what is called for is an interpretation with a more psychological emphasis. After all, Buddhist ethics are primarily psychological. Whether what we do is right or wrong (or rather, skillful or unskillful) depends upon our mental states. Karma is volition. For example, if we prevent a snake from eating a frog, whether we do a good deed or a bad one depends on our intentions: if we do it out of compassion for the frog, we have done well; but if we do it out of aversion toward the snake, we have done not nearly so well.
     Bearing all this in mind, I'll try to describe a variant of the Middle Way that may be easier for Westerners to relate to, and may have some real practical application in everyday life. Of course there are many Middle Paths, or interpretations of it (including the Eightfold Path), and the following is only one of them.
     Many of us, (maybe most of us in the West, where we have more opportunity for such things), try to arrange our life so that it runs smoothly, so that nothing uncomfortable happens. We may settle our life into a standardized routine which is relatively predictable and "safe." It may involve something like, get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. We may go out and have some fun sometimes, go on a vacation sometimes, go for a walk, and so on, but for the most part it's all set up to make sure nothing unpredictable and unpleasant happens. The lifestyle may not be all that pleasant or fun, but at least it's more or less predictable, familiar, and non-scary. It seems like especially in America we worry about what might go wrong, and then try to fix it before anything has even happened—and much of the time the worrying about what might go wrong causes more suffering than if whatever it is really went wrong.
     We tend to avoid people who push our buttons, if we can. We generally tend to avoid reading books or watching documentaries that we know in advance we'll disagree with, in order not to feel uncomfortable; and if we find out partway through one that we disagree, we may not stay with it till the end. In other words, we avoid being "triggered." 
     "Triggered" is rather a new concept for me, largely because it is discussed very little in the Buddhist texts. One might try to study triggers in the Abhidhamma literature, for instance, and not find very much on the subject. It's not an outstanding issue in a Buddhist country like Burma. But it's mentioned often in American conversation nowadays, and strikes me as an interesting and important thing to mention.
     It could be said that each of us has at least two personalities: the nice one when everything is running smoothly, and the triggered one, when everything isn't. The triggered personality may be angry, or bitterly complaining, or full of guilt and self-loathing, or even humbly obsequious and eager, even desperate, to please; there are many different ways of being triggered, and each of us has our own favorite version of it. The "smooth" personality is generally pretty nice: we may seem like we've got it all together when everything is calm. Most of us are pretty good people when we're not triggered. In fact most of us want to identify with the untriggered us, and consider the triggered version to be a kind of insignificant anomaly. Some of us even fear the triggered version. So we try to keep things unfluttered, unruffled, and "safe."
     But the berserk version is just as much "us" as the smooth version. For example, a notoriously vicious dog is probably not vicious most of the time. Most of the time even a really mean dog may be quietly, calmly lying there on the ground scratching himself, licking himself, peacefully sniffing something, or whatever it is that a peaceful, friendly dog would be doing under the same circumstances. But that minority of the time, maybe less than 5%, is sufficient to qualify that dog as "vicious." Humans are not so different. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was pretty calm and even rational most of the time, although his bouts of hitting people, ripping things off walls, and smashing windows were still key features of his personality.
     Consequently it has been said, for example by Saint Francis of Assisi, that we really don't know someone until we've seen them when things go wrong. People may seem good, wise, and "together" so long as everything's fine, but they may appear very different when the fecal matter hits the fan, so to speak.
     The thing is, though, that triggering experiences are a valuable spiritual resource, and should not always be avoided. Triggers point out to us what our attachments are. Suffering in general shows us, or at least has the potential to show us, where we are still stuck. In a way the entire Universe is designed to bring up our "stuff," to show us again and again where we're stuck until we finally work it through and clear it up. Our existence is a matter of karma untangling itself, or at least trying to, like water seeking its own level.
     If stuff doesn't come up and ruffle our feathers, so to speak, we often lack the opportunity to clear it, or even to become aware of it. Ram Dass used to tell the story of a swami who meditated alone in a forest for years until light shone from his face. He figured it was time to go back into the world to share what he had learned, so he walked to a nearby town. Almost as soon as he got there somebody jostled against him on the sidewalk, and he flared up with indignation and—poof—his equanimity and seeming enlightenment were gone. Practicing in a sheltered, peaceful environment definitely has its advantages, but largely it prepares us for dealing with chaos, and the chaos also is necessary to help us to develop. This is one reason why in Buddhism it is said that a human birth is the best for spiritual development: beings in the lower realms lack the wisdom and opportunity, but beings in the higher realms have it so good, with so little trouble to trouble them, that their latent "stuff" doesn't come up, and they are little motivated toward improving their situation.
     The reason why suffering shows us where we are still attached, and is thus an invaluable spiritual resource, is because, in accordance with the Second Noble Truth, all suffering is caused by desire and attachment. Whenever we are unhappy, it is because we want something. So it is a useful spiritual practice, whenever we are unhappy, to ask ourselves "What do I want?" Sometimes, like if one is slightly depressed, the answer may not be obvious, although usually it is. And sometimes the answer may be completely ridiculous, and our desire totally silly or futile. For example, let's say we want to go on a hike, or a picnic, or some other outdoor activity, and it starts raining. Well, we may be upset and disgusted, maybe even swearing and being rude to someone; and why? Because we want it not to be raining, which is an utterly futile desire causing an utterly futile unhappiness. All the wanting in the world may not cause a single raindrop less to fall. It's good to be aware of these things.
     But being aware won't necessarily make the feelings of unhappiness go away. I remember once I was living at a monastery in Burma where my friend the abbot assured me the electricity stayed on 24 hours a day. Of course I didn't believe him, because there may be no place in all of Burma where the power is on all the time. Sure enough, it was on only 22 or 23 hours a day (certainly nothing to complain about, considering), with the one or two hours of blackout occurring at random, in a very unpredictable way. Also, this monastery was in the hills, and the well water was so cold that one gallon of boiling water added to ten gallons of well water got it up to just lukewarm enough to make bathing bearable. So sometimes I'd start boiling my bathwater on a little electric stove I had access to…and the power would cut off. Immediately I would observe frustration and disgust arising. I could easily remind myself that the desire wasn't going to make the electricity go back on, but still sometimes I'd be sarcastically criticizing the incompetent so and so's in charge of…and then suddenly the electricity would come back on, and my frustration and disgust would disappear almost as quickly as the power came on. It would be a sudden feeling of relief—ahhh…….
     Still, observing such feelings is very useful and valuable, even if they don't just disappear as a result. By observing them we detach from them to some degree, which decreases our reinforcement of them, and which also decreases our identification with them. By observing anger, it's no longer "I'm so pissed off" but simply "Anger is arising." By observing mental states, it's no longer we who are disgusted, or scared, or guilty, or hateful, or whatever. We withdraw support to some degree, which helps the karma fueling its arising to run its course and expend itself. But it doesn't necessarily disappear all at once.
     Paraphrasing venerable Ajahn Chah, a negative habit (like anger or disgust) is like a stray dog: If you feed it, it won't go away; but even if you stop feeding it, it may take awhile before it finally gives up and clears out.
     Anyway, a psychological interpretation of the Middle Path is one in which we don't deliberately trigger ourselves by making icky things happen to us, but we don't run from triggers either, we don't necessarily avoid them. To some degree, actively making unpleasantness for ourselves, like by actively seeking out the company of people who bother us, is just making new karma, and not necessarily clearing out the old. But even this may be more spiritually effective than hiding or running away or building a wall around ourselves to keep the world off our back. It isn't necessary to make bad things happen to us anyway, as they will happen when the conditions are ripe, without us having deliberately to accelerate the process. Things we don't like will keep happening, naturally, until we eventually learn how to be OK with them. That's the way the Universe works. 
     Many spiritual teachers have recognized the value of being triggered. For example, George Gurdjieff, an Armenian sage of the early twentieth century, had a kind of ashram in France which also housed some Russian refugees, including one extremely difficult one. He was very fussy and foul-tempered and hard to get along with, and Gurdjieff's disciples disliked him and plotted to drive him away. Eventually they succeeded by playing some cruel practical joke like stealing his false teeth, rolling them in cow dung, and then putting them back. The Russian man left in a passion; and then Gurdjieff actually went after him, hunted him down in another country, and begged and bribed him to come back to the ashram. It wasn't because he missed him, but because he perceived that the fellow was excellent practice for his students in learning to handle life's difficulties wisely.
     The practical applications of this practical Middle Path are rather more useful than avoiding beds of nails that we don't want and avoiding gold Rolls Royces that we can't afford even if we do want them. One bit of spiritual advice that arises from this approach is: Don't Cling to What Is Worn Out. Many of us cling to relationships that really ended years ago, or jobs we've grown bored with, or circles of friends we've outgrown, or habits that no longer bring us satisfaction, or even a physical environment that doesn't suit us anymore, mainly out of fear of change, fear that the unknown consequences of letting these things go may be more unpleasant than just staying in the rut. But even if there will really be a fair amount of unpleasantness, it may still be preferable. Being vulnerable to risks is spiritually conducive to waking up, or at least to learning about ourselves. So don't be afraid to take risks if you feel a change would be good for you. Dare the unknown. In a way, the Universe looks after those who live this way.
     (Incidentally, I consider this lack of risk to be an important weakness of traditional monasticism. The wanderers of "primitive Buddhism" had plenty of opportunities to be severely triggered, while monks and nuns living in sheltered, comfortable monasteries nowadays may be like the swami described above, living in a kind of artificial wisdom through hiding from chaos.)
     Another useful bit of advice is not to consider feeling uncomfortable to be necessarily a bad thing, regardless of what Consumerism tells us. Discomfort and emotional triggers help us, if we let them.
     And when a trigger does happen, observe it. (This takes practice, and it may be helpful to start with little pet peeves, like the yapping dog next door, before making oneself vulnerable to monsters. Mindfulness practice is invaluable for this.) Observing it may not make it disappear, but it helps us to detach from our attachments, including our identification with feelings and other mental states. 
     Mental states are not us. Ultimately, we're neither the calm, polite personality nor the triggered, upset one. But that's No Self, and getting into the Buddha's second sermon, so I'll stop here.

"There is no spoon"


  1. This is an excellent post, for which I thank you. How do you see this relating to the Buddha's advice in the Sabbasava Sutta (MN 2) that one way to work on the fermentations/taints is to actively avoid them?
    "There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, avoids a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull, a wild dog, a snake, a stump, a bramble patch, a chasm, a cliff, a cesspool, an open sewer. Reflecting appropriately, he avoids sitting in the sorts of unsuitable seats, wandering to the sorts of unsuitable habitats, and associating with the sorts of bad friends that would make his knowledgeable friends in the holy life suspect him of evil conduct."
    The "triggers" you refer to presumably bring about the feeling of vexation:
    "The fermentations, vexation, or fever that would arise if he were not to avoid these things do not arise for him when he avoids them"
    Is there some way of determining which "triggers" ought to be actively avoided, and which it would be OK to tolerate as providing grist for the mill of practice? The Sabbasava Sutta clearly says that some fermentations are to be avoided by tolerating things; but how do we decide which?

    1. I suppose that triggers that cannot be experienced mindfully would best be avoided for the time being. If something is too big or intense to be handled with mindful detachment, then it is best to avoid it. On the other hand, if we can observe the internal phenomena that have been triggered, and/or learn something valuable from the experience, even though they may be very unpleasant, then it is to our advantage, spiritually speaking, to go ahead and experience the trigger.

      Consequently there is the ironic fact that the more advanced we are, the more intensely unpleasant our spiritual practice can be. It is only after we are mature enough and strong enough to deal with big issues that we voluntarily face them. But forcing the issue is an extreme.

    2. Unpleasant in what sense? Is this a reference to something like your experience as described in 'Is Infinity Too Much?' Or, perhaps, that with the absence of romantic mystery about the practice, it becomes a more chore than a delight?

    3. Unpleasant in the sense that, as we become more advanced we become more capable of working through heavy stuff, and so we become more inclined to fully experience heavy stuff. Delight also increases though, as capacity for experiencing affect increases both positively and negatively. We become more conscious, so we're more aware of both sides of the coin.

  2. Many thanks - that's a helpful response.

  3. U. ponnobhasa I like this blog very much because it is very interesting to me because of the words and the way they are formed.