When I first started my work on the Middle Way, more than ten years ago now, I always wished to engage Buddhists in debate about it, and possibly learn from what they had to say. I have an account of what I think the Middle Way seems to be and why I think it is important, and I imagined that others would also have similar accounts. However, I have succeeded very little in actually exploring the Middle Way with others in this fashion. My overwhelming impression has been that, contrary to initial appearances, Buddhists are not actually very interested in the Middle Way, even though they usually agree that it is an important part of Buddhism. I was ready to engage with disagreements about what the Middle Way is, but what I have usually found was that, if they were interested in intellectual discussion at all, the Buddhists I knew were too busy exploring something else: conditionality, or Going for Refuge, or scriptures. Rather than working out what the central principle of Buddhism really means, they usually seemed to assume that they knew what it was and just needed to get down to putting it into practice. This is an attitude that I find very difficult to understand, because for me exploration of what the Path means is inextricable from following it.
I may then have also made the mistake of adopting what may have appeared as too strident a critical tone in trying to lay bare the inadequacies of the traditional attitudes I encountered. However, the uniting of practice with theory in the Middle Way demands that we move forward from a variety of starting points. I do think that the Middle Way can be reached, implicitly or explicitly, from a great variety of starting points in other traditions, but Buddhists usually do have the advantage of having thought about the Middle Way explicitly, and (often) tried to relate it to spiritual practice in experience. I would like to hear what they have to say about it, as well as what others have to say about it.
Various Buddhist friends have told me at various times that they disagree with me, but I am rarely clear about what we actually disagree about. I would usually describe my disagreements with traditional Buddhism in terms of what I see as the metaphysical tendencies in traditional Buddhism (which I have written about in my book The Trouble with Buddhism). Sometimes Buddhists are willing to admit that their understanding of Buddhism is a matter of faith in these metaphysical objects (the unconditioned, enlightenment etc), but then I never get any clear explanation of how they still think they can follow the Middle Way whilst adopting such beliefs. Given their practice of the Middle Way to at least some extent (sometimes a very impressive practice of it) I also have trouble understanding why they think these beliefs are necessary. The other possibility, which I am quite willing to consider, is that I have got my basic understanding of the Middle Way wrong, but then I am often unclear as to exactly what Buddhists think it is, and how they reconcile it with their metaphysical beliefs.
For a brief summary of what I think the Middle Way is and is not, you can see the Middle Way page on this blog. For a more detailed account of its relationship to Buddhism, also see the start of section 3 of my book Middle Way Philosophy 1, the first two chapters of which are also given here. Also see this page on ways that I think traditional Buddhist accounts of the Middle Way are mistaken.
So, my question to Buddhists (whether ‘traditional’, ‘Western’, ‘secular’ or whatever type), or to anyone else interested in the Middle Way from whatever angle, is “What do you really think the Middle Way is?”. The Middle Way traditionally lies between eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), but what are these and how do you think we avoid them? Here are some philosophical classifications of possible answers: though these are not exhaustive, nor intended to constrain your thinking if it does not fit:
1. Is the Middle Way a different metaphysical view, distinct from the metaphysical views on each side that it rejects?
2. Is the Middle Way just an ethical view between moral extremes, just accepted on authority rather than itself providing us with a means of investigation?
3. Is the Middle Way only critical of some kinds of metaphysics and not others? If so, why?
4. Or is the Middle Way, as I would argue, a means of investigating which itself provides an account of how we justify our beliefs – in other words, is it epistemological rather than metaphysical, requiring agnosticism about metaphysical claims?
The poll that follows uses these four categories, as well as allowing other answers to be added. Alternatively or in addition, I’m interested to hear your views in comments.