Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’ in Majjhimā Paṭipadā, the Buddha’s path

Edited on 5,14 May 2018 (clarified reference to majjhimaŋ).

This post, where I am counting on the blog's schedule facility, has been published at the precise moment of the spring equinox — the midpoint in duration between night and day. It’s a moment of equipoise and fine balance, as marvellously captured by the NOAA environmental satellite image above.

A fitting occasion then to reflect on an experience of perfect balance expressed by the Buddha Gotama [recorded in Pali]:

Dve’me, bhikkhave, antā pabbajitena na sevitabbā. Katame dve? Yo c’āyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo c’āyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito.

Ete te, bhikkhave, ubho ante anupagamma majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati

These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be adopted by one who has gone forth from the home life. Which two? On the one hand, the devotion to sensual indulgence, which is inferior, the cause of erecting houses, full of defilements, unable to be rid of them, and of no benefit; and on the other hand the devotion to self-mortification, which brings suffering, unable to be rid of defilements, also of no benefit.

The practice that does not go to either of these two extremes, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way awoken to by the Tathāgata through his great insight. It produces vision, knowledge, and leads to appeasement, to superknowledge, to awakening, to Nibbāna.

This is is a quote from the famous Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, SN 56.11, ‘Setting in motion the Wheel of Dhamma’, for which numerous translations are available, e.g. from Ñanamoli Thera. (The Tathāgata is how the Buddha referred to himself.)

So what did the Buddha mean by ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’? The Buddha proceeds to state the following:

katamā ca sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati? ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṃ — sammādiṭṭhi sammāsaṅkappo sammāvācā sammākammanto sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati sammāsamādhi. ayaṃ kho sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati.

And what, monks, is the Middle Way, awoken to by the Tathāgata? It is the Eightfold Noble Path that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbana.

So the Buddha informs us that a necessary aspect of the Middle Way is the avoidance of the extremes of sensual indulgence and austerity, but it's not way itself; that way is precisely the Eightfold Noble Path.

But what is the ‘middle’ in all this, especially in the mode of practice? A couple of points are worth noting about the context. First, the Buddha was speaking to advanced practitioners, so he only taught in brief; some aspects are taken as read. Also many of the Pali terms we have to consider have multiple senses, including majjhimā. If we consult one of the standard references, the Pali Text Society dictionary (see e.g. the DSAL Pali dictionary entry online), one of the meanings of the noun majjhimaŋ is ‘the waist’, denoting a natural anatomical position by which to make reference to the central region of the physical body. Although it's not precise as the actual centre varies depending on factors such as body shape, it might be used as a general marker.

Exploring along the Centre

It was along these lines that the Middle Way was entered upon and explored in depth by the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), the one who re-discovered this practice, popularly known as Dhammakaya Meditation. This great Abbot of Wat Paknam realized that the mind has an exact centre of gravity at which everything comes into balance and from that naturally arises a direction of travel along a path that is successively at the centre of the centre. In this way the centre acts as an anchor and natural axis, around and along which to follow and develop the Eightfold Noble Path at increasingly advanced levels. It's an axis for all the core teachings, especially the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (Four Foundations of Mindfulness). The path naturally resolves what might otherwise appear paradoxes such as kāye kāyānupassī, which means 'contemplating body in body' — for all the teachings have the right focus.

As the Satipatṭhāna Sutta indicates, the Path itself is long, but proceeding along the Middle Way is the way to keep steering in the right direction. It’s a bit like driving from one end of the country to the other — we can take any road, but the side roads require extra effort and energy as there are more obstacles, navigation and delays; if one doesn’t know the way can easily get lost, and generally it will take much longer. It’s much more efficient to take the motorway.

In focus

The path of practice requires looking closely at things and making them clear, but especially bringing the right things into view. At each step the path continues along the Middle Way, but the practice becomes steadily more refined

We may use here the analogy of a microscope with a number of lenses. We start by bringing an object under the microscope, which we wish to examine, under the least powerful lens. As we zoom in, we use a new higher quality lens with an increased level of magnification for which we need to make finer adjustments to keep the object in view. If we keep the object at the very centre of our view it will remain in view under our lens, but if we start to deviate, then it can quickly disappear. In any case, our focus needs to be sharper and more precise to observe the object clearly at that magnification. The direction of travel comes from successively zooming in and seeing with increasing clarity and insight — a motion for which we may use the Pali term opanayiko (leading onwards or inwards).

These aspects to Middle Way meditation are nicely described in a guided session by Venerable Burin (please excuse YouTube's still image, which is not-so-well focused!):