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Buddhism, Middle Way Philosophy

What is the Middle Way then? A question for Buddhists

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.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


3 thoughts on “What is the Middle Way then? A question for Buddhists

  1. From my following your posts and your other writings – which I admire – I can’t disagree with your comments on how Buddhists respond to your Middle Way teachings. I can only guess at why this happens, and in commenting I’m risking offending you, but I just want to help.

    1. You are very articulate and your style is – I find – very attractive and compelling. But you do write a lot, and use many platforms. I sometimes feel swamped by your articles and posts, the huge amount of cross-referencing you do, and the naked urgency of your need to convince us of the truth of your arguments. For example, Robert, your poll reminds me of the crude teaching machines of the 1970s, with three obviously ‘wrong’ responses and one with almost pleads to be ticked. This might even be called a bid for quantitative pleasing.

    2. People are proud. It’s not a very attractive attribute, but it’s common and deeply entrenched. You already know this. I guess that many Buddhist readers of your writings feel that most of what they understand as ‘their understanding of Buddhism’ is weak and ill-founded, but because they’ve made an intellectual and emotional investment in it, they can’t easily give it up. And when you challenge me (for example) to evidence how my slowly emerging insight into what you teach is working in my daily life or daily practice, I feel as if I’m being put ‘on the spot’ and I clam up. My strong impression is that you are a splendidly empathic and light-footed teacher face-to-face. But in cyberspace I sense too much pressure of thought and too much need for response from us.

    3. I’m maybe fortunate in that I’ve not made much investment in metaphysical Buddhism, and my own practice is closely integrated into my professional (nursing/teaching) activities and into a bit of chaplaincy in which formal Buddhist ideas and rituals have no utility. I meditate only occasionally, but am quite mindful often. So your teachings chime in with what I’ve always felt (and said) is ‘wrong with Buddhism), and – what’s more – with what the majority of Buddhists I’ve known (mainly Westerners) feel is wrong. But what’s right with it – your Middle Way – is so new and out-of-the-box that it’s difficult to assimilate. And it’s also at variance with much of the way I/we think about everything, not just religion.

    I hope you’re not fed up with getting feedback from me, Robert. I don’t want you to give up on this challenging mission you’ve embarked on. The tone of some of your posts and blogs strikes me as slightly desperate at times. BTW I’m still working my way through ‘Being Wrong’ by Kathryn Schultz, which you recommended. It’s a book that rewards reading but it can’t be read (by me) at one sitting. It takes time to absorb and ponder. It’s a profound teaching, works slowly from the depths. And translates itself slowly and subtly into a changed perception, a changed way of life (I think). Like your own work.

    My very best wishes and thanks. Take it easy, brother. Be patient and have faith in the potency of your message – ultimately.


    Posted by bagmanhattan | October 19, 2012, 9:51 pm
    • Wise and empathetic words, Peter, which I can only thank you for and agree with on the whole. The only thing I would dispute is your interpretation of the poll, where I really do not have much expectation that many people will click my preferred option 4. I put it up, not for this kind of unlikely confirmation, but because I really would like to know what those people who have thought about it at all think the Middle Way is, and I thought that a poll involves minimal effort – less than a comment.

      You’re right that I do encounter feelings of desperation at times, though I wouldn’t say that this post arose from immediate feelings of desperation: more from a long-term intention to use this blog to make another attempt to try to engage intellectually with many Buddhists (particularly from the TBC) with whom I regret past failures of communication. The need for a response I would just recognise as a common human need shared by everyone, but certainly there is a particular loneliness of the long-distance philosopher that is probably an unavoidable effect of the path I have taken. I’d say I am about 70% accepting of that isolation these days, which is certainly further on from where I was a few years ago: but perhaps this post came from the other 30%. Doubtless the sense of isolation has not been aided by what you call “too much pressure of thought”.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | October 19, 2012, 10:29 pm
      • Fair and reasonable responses to my own from which I can learn a lot. Thanks.

        Posted by bagmanhattan | October 22, 2012, 1:34 pm

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