Being Buddhist means bringing into being the Middle Way, an intentional life skill classically defined as the avoidance of “falling into” extremes of existence and non-existence. Part of the Buddhist worldview is the belief that everything is connected to everything else. The spiritual goal of Buddhism, ie the end of suffering, is not a distant one but rather is immediate and intimate for each person.
Extremist views offer a kind of refuge to people and the middle way asks people to recognize and eschew the lure of unwholesome extremes and instead find refuge in Buddhist teaching, communities and teachers. The genius of this teaching is that the skills which resist the lure of extreme refuge are the same no matter what cultural conditions exist. The middle way is a matter of balance much more than a matter of peril or trespass.
The narrative and emphasis of early Buddhism is centred on the self. This is, by its very nature, an excluding kind of effort. The later, Mahayanist variant of original Buddhism arose from spiritual turmoil that resulted when monastic vows were extended to include all beings, especially the so-called “laity”. At some point; and scholars are not quite sure when, but probably very near the advent of the common era, there arose the prajna paramita (Sanskrit meaning 'wisdom beyond wisdom' and pron. 'prahj-nya pa-ra-mi-ta) style of teaching. The prajna paramita is also about the middle way, and it leans heavily into the quasi-mystical doctrine of “sunyata”, usually rendered as 'emptiness' but also carrying a sense of “zero-ness”, since the root is the term for zero in the mathematics of ancient India.
The Great Teacher Nagarjuna made sunyata the touchstone of the middle way. The fierce, sometimes harsh, forms of popular Zen derive from the founder's effect of radical emptiness. The lasting contribution of Nagarjuna in the history of Buddhist thought is the notion that “all dharmas (artifacts) are empty of own-being”. This idea of “own-being” means something that exists because a Creator made it and it is eternal. Nagarjuna made the revolutionary point that this relinquishment of Destiny (ie, forever unchanged) is equally eternal and yet still subject to the reality of transience. The struggle to subdue unwholesome impulses leads directly to the teaching of another Great Teacher, Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu..
Here we find yet another understanding of the middle way. Here sunyata means “zeroness”; zero being an ephemeral and artificial point between negative and positive. These are the extremes of life. Asanga and Vasubandhu are the founders of the Yogacara viewpoint within Mahahyana thought. The more gentle, gradual but less popular forms of Western Zen derive from this stream of thought.
The middle way is something that must be doable. “How to do sunyata?”; that is the question. Sunyata as 'emptiness' easily falls into nihilism and thus cannot be routinized; but sunyata as zero can. How? Through meditation. Hence: Zen, the form of Buddhism which emphasizes, above all scripture and ceremony, meditation practice; zero opinion, zero judgement and an absence of grasping onto anything.
Zen in our time is, or is becoming, yet another iteration of the middle way. Basically, Zennist or not, we carry in our very soul the ideals and assumptions of the so-called Western world. Can there be crafted an expression of the middle way that honours Buddhist teaching, the great teachers cited earlier and also finds purchase within this cultural norm? Many cultures before ours have made that adjustment, so it is historically possible. As Zen monks are wont to say, “shift happens”.
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog - http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com
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*This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday May 23.