The Middle Way
Originally printed in the JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Burnier, Radha. “The Middle Way.” Quest 96.1 (JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008): 7-11.
To be speaking about the Middle Way seems to be an appropriate way of honoring the founders, both of whom took the Buddhist vows, the Panchashilas, and openly declared themselves to be Buddhists. They were not Buddhists in the conventional sense of the term, but rather, according to the way that A. P. Sinnett made use of that word in his book Esoteric Budism spelled with a single “d” Budhisim or Budhi, signifying higher intelligence.
The term “middle way” is very much associated with Buddhism and the Buddhist teachings. It was a term which came into currency with the great holy teacher and philosopher Nagarjuna who lived in the second century and who expounded this concept of “the middle way.” But the concept itself, not the term, existed much earlier. For example, in the Upanishads there is mention of the “razor-edged path,” a path on which you had to go straight ahead carefully and not stray here and there. Perhaps the phrase “straight is the gate and narrow the way” expresses the possibility of finding similar ideas in the different religions of the world. The razor-edged path suggests that there are dangers; the danger of falling off or falling down on one side or another. It is like what the circus people do when walking on a wire. One has to remain in perfect balance to go along that path.
It is the same idea that was presented by Thomas à Kempis who said that it is necessary to let go of all aims except the one aim of journeying towards the light of wisdom, the Eternal. All of us who are familiar with At the Feet of the Master know that the chapter entitled “Love” had its origin in a teaching which spoke about the earnest aspiration to liberation. The Sanskrit term [mumukshutva] which was translated as “the desire for liberation” speaks about it as a single-mindedness, a letting go of all aims but the one aim of finding “the true—the eternal.”
Hearing the term “the razor-edged path,” one might think it is the most dangerous, but it is the safest of all paths because it is where a complete equilibrium is preserved and therefore there is complete security. It is a path where there is a profound peace, a path where there is absolute harmony. If you stray from that path, get lost in the surroundings, and find other paths, there maybe conflict, there may be hesitation, but when you tread the middle path, it is secure, because it is one-pointed and in it, harmony can be found from the beginning to the end.
In the Mahatma letters it states that, “we recognize but one law in the universe; the law of harmony, of perfect equilibrium.” In the Bhagahavad Gita, there are several definitions of yoga and one of the very well-known definitions is that yoga is equilibrium. Yoga is the unbreakable peace which human beings can come to if they tread the right path. Yoga is a sublime sense of harmony. In fact, the universe itself is in that state of harmony. In the dialogues J. Krishnamurti had with David Baum, he makes a rather startling statement that the universe is in a state of meditation. That means a state in which there is total harmony, peace, and bliss. Otherwise meditation is not possible. There is balance all over the universe.
Sir Martin Rees, the eminent scientist who is the British Astronomer Royal, states in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, that there is this kind of equilibrium or balance in the cosmos itself. According to him, these six numbers, which are either very, very small or very large, represent various forces in the universe, but all those forces exist in a state of equilibrium. It is very similar to the Eastern idea that there are three gunas or three kinds of forces working throughout manifestation. When they are in a state of equilibrium, it is called spiritual sattva or truth. Sir Martin Rees mentions that through the ages, the force of gravity has been in a state of fine balance with the force of expansion. If the force of gravity were too great, the universe would collapse into nothing. If the force of expansion were too great, the universe would expand away into nothingness.
But neither of these has occurred. The universe remains preserved in that state of very fine equilibrium. In the Indian tradition, it is said that the second aspect of the logos is called Vishnu. He is the preserver, that is, the principal which maintains the balance in the universe. When there is that kind of balance, there is a unity of all opposites. If there were not such a unity, there could not be that equilibrium, so when that balance is disturbed a little, duality arises and then continues on the path of diversity.
It is difficult for us to be aware of that kind of balance and of the existence of an unbreakable unity in this diverse world. Only when we come to realize that diversity is not different from unity, can we really experience something of the eminence of God—the presence of the one reality everywhere. I believe that we should stop thinking of unity and diversity and begin to think of unity as diversity and diversity as unity. They are the same as many examples will show. A flower, any flower, is made up of different things, but it is a unity. The thousand petaled lotus is a symbol of the fact that there can be any number of different things, but from the point of view of reality, they all form part of that one blossom.
In Buddhist tradition, they also speak about the universe appearing like a vast lotus flower. The word “thousand” does not literally mean thousand, it only means innumerable or uncountable. Buddhists also say that at the tip of every one of those petals of the lotus a Buddha is seated. This symbolizes that from all those different directions a person can come to a state of enlightenment and perfection. In nature, we find that almost everywhere there is growth, there is balance. It is not only the forces of the universe that are balanced, but everything grows in a balanced way. HPB mentions in one of her writings that a baby who begins as a tiny little embryo does not grow one leg first, then the nose, and then another part. The baby grows in an all-round way and in perfect shape.
The other extraordinary thing is that all things know when growth should end. A coconut tree is a beautiful example. It grows up into the air perhaps seventy or eighty feet, and it retains its balance. It knows when it should stop growing in order not to topple down. In many of the phenomena of nature there is this wholeness—the harmonious blending of all parts, but we are unable to see the significance of it because our minds are in a state of duality.
Our minds are divided into different sections and the Gita speaks about a consciousness which arises entirely above all duality and diversity. That is the Middle Way. We cannot think of light without darkness or darkness without light. When we use the word pleasure, implicit in it is the absence of pain and vice-versa. Everything seems either good or bad, but all of that is part of the world of unreality, or Maya, the world of illusion. Things are not good or bad. All things are what they are. They are not pleasurable or painful. They are what they are. Our mind interprets what we experience as either pleasure or pain, as likeable or unlikable, as attractive or not attractive—so it is within our being at present, our mental being, that we have created duality and division. Therefore, we bring about imbalance in ourselves and in all our surroundings. Since the universe is in a state of meditation that is of profound harmony, and the law of harmony is the most important of all the laws and includes all the laws, the universe brings about a restoration of the harmony wherever it is broken—that is the Law of Karma.
HPB explained that the Law of Karma is not a punishment. The Law of Karma is a beneficent power which brings or restores harmony all the time, for example, whenever human beings create problems because they see everything in terms of duality and division. Therefore, a pathway which restores and maintains harmony from beginning to end is the best pathway and that is the Middle Way. Long before Nagarjuna, the Buddha gave his first sermon near the city of Varanasi in which he said that all excess should be avoided by the person who wishes to tread the spiritual path. In his day and even today, there are people who practice extreme austerity; standing for years with one arm lifted till it withers away or lying on bed of needles. The Buddha said that kind of extreme austerity serves no purpose. On the other hand, if there is indulgence in pleasure—becoming addicted to pleasure--this also needs to be avoided. There must be no attachment to pleasure nor a repulsion to what appears as pain. If karma brings about what is painful to us, perhaps it is more important to think about how imbalance has been created rather than resist the karma. In The Voice of the Silence there is the statement “chafe not at karma.” Can we accept karma with a calm, observant mind and look intelligently into what underlies that karma?
The Lord Buddha spoke about non-indulgence and avoiding austerity. While the body has to be preserved and looked after, if we give too much attention to it, it becomes a kind of self preoccupation. If we give too much attention to all the things around us, it becomes materialism. Although the body has to be looked after, we must not overdo it, because dwelling inside the body, there is that which unfolds its powers through the body. He spoke about this and if tradition is to be believed, also spoke many a time about an inner balance of our psychological being. I do not like to use the word “mind” which seems to separate desire from thought. The Sanskrit word manas, on the other hand, indicates that complex of desire and thinking which is what we really work with.
There is a story about a person, named Sona, who was born in a rich family but after hearing the Buddha, he took orders and became very absorbed in practicing all the disciplines. His zeal was so great that he walked up and down the pathway near his house till his feet became lacerated and the path looked like a butcher’s shambles. The Buddha, somewhere far away, could see all this and he realized that Sona was very sincere, but that he was overdoing all this. Sona was very devoted, but he did not know how to maintain balance, so the Buddha decided he would visit Sona at his residence. Meanwhile, Sona began to think, “I am working so hard at following what the teachings have said, but I seem to be getting nowhere and not making progress. What if I go back home where much wealth awaits me? I can use that wealth to help other people instead of making, what seems to be, a fruitless effort here.” When the Buddha saw him, he said “Sona are you not thinking like this? Thinking of going back to your worldly life?” Sona replied, “Yes, I have been thinking like that because I have no success with my practice.” And the Buddha said, “Before you became a monk, you were a good musician. You played well on a particular stringed instrument and when the strings were taut could you play well?” Sona answered, “No, of course not.” “When the strings were too loose could you play well?” “No, I could not.” The Buddha taught him saying: “Spiritual practice is like this; if you are too eager to gain your objective, to reach a certain place, it is like making the strings too tight and then you will not succeed.”
It is very interesting to find something similar in the Mahatma letters. The Master says: “Remember, too anxious expectation is not only tedious, but dangerous. Each warmer and quicker throb of the heart bears so much of life away. The passions, the affections are not to be indulged in by him who seeks to know.” We can think here of our ordinary experience. If you are too anxious to find happiness, you will never find happiness. The anxiety is a form of unhappiness, so you are actually moving the wrong way. If you exert yourself a great deal to discover peace, peace will never come to you, because the exertion is a disturbance. If you are too eager to understand yourself, you may become a self preoccupied egoist. Too much eagerness or too much anxiety is not desirable. That is why it was said: Do not be anxious to become the pupil of a spiritual teacher. You do good work, purify your love, lead a holy life, and whatever you merit, will come to you.
This is an important part of the Theosophical understanding of the Path. Merit alone— worthiness—is what brings reward, without your asking for the reward. Perhaps, not even thinking of what the reward might be. Do the work and everything which is according to the law will happen. One should not be eager for progress or enlightenment, but wait for the right time and make yourself worthy. The Middle Path implies all that.
Becoming unbalanced because of too much eagerness or becoming too slack will leave us stagnating. Therefore, idleness and sluggishness are not desirable. At the same time, superficially desiring to tread the path, as well as the anxiety--the eagerness, the constant wishing to reach somewhere by not being indifferent--becomes a new form of ambition. Such are the dangers which might occur when treading the path. What is the Middle Path between those? The Mahatma goes on to say that the person on the Path must not even desire too earnestly or too passionately the object he would reach, else the very wish will retard or even prevent the possibility of its fulfillment.
Nagarjuna’s teaching was, at that time, something very new because he spoke about this way of proceeding which is a way of tranquility, of taking things as they come. He said that if you look at something or listen to something, do not immediately reject or accept it. Neither rejection nor acceptance is desirable. Can you simply observe? We can see that there are various states of mind that go contrary to this teaching. A mind which does not accept or reject is a still mind. It is looking, it is reflecting, trying to go deeper into things, while not arriving at conclusions. This is something that Krishnamurti referred to or spoke of—not to come to conclusions. Do not say that so-and-so has done this or is doing the wrong thing. Perhaps it appears wrong to you, but wait and observe. Sympathetically observe by observing and listening without conclusions, without judgments, and always remaining calm.
In the Mahatma letters it is taught that it is the calm and unruffled mind which goes through life without wanting anything, without deciding anything—except in a pragmatic situation, but we are not talking about that—but by remaining with things, allowing things to be what they are; not trying to model them, and change them to suit our own likes and dislikes. There must be emptiness within. Even if we try it for a short time, we will find that much of the stuff in the mind, manas, is simply dropped and the mind becomes less encumbered, free, inwardly receptive to everything—to the truth. Compare this to what happens to a seed which you plant in the soil. If every now and again you dig it up to see if the seed is growing, it will never grow. Similarly, if you see the truth in some words which are spoken or written, do not try to follow it up with your small mind. Receive it quietly, give attention to it. Try to be more awake because if you are trying to work with it too much, to immediately put it into practice according to your own ideas, that truth may disappear. Allow that truth to remain deep in your heart just as you would allow the seed to remain in the soil, to grow by itself. All that we can do is to provide the right conditions for the seed to grow. Similarly, truth will reflect itself in a quiet mind, in an empty and pure mind, and when it does, we can let it be and not be ambitious to go further to learn more.
When the mind is inwardly free, the greatest problem, which is the problem of egoism, solves itself. In fact, this whole thing is paradoxical, because the ego is the great illusion maker. It is, itself, an illusion, and if we try too hard to wipe away that ego, it only increases. It struggles harder and it may overcome us. What is important is to observe rather that fight the ego and all its actions in order to understand what harm it does.
Nagarjuna’s advice was that there must be that state of quiet attention and receptivity to truths which we have not known. When the mind is quiet, we begin to perceive more and more of what is hidden within everything in Nature. As we said, in all the diverse things of the Earth, there is a unity of the one reality which we are not able to see, but if the mind can be quiet, then we will begin to see what we cannot observe today.
I think the Middle Way—that freedom from drawing conclusions—is really the way of the Theosophist. All belief is a conclusion, especially religious belief. We do not know anything about the higher truths as we are still only at the beginning of the way. Belief is the most pernicious form of coming to conclusions and in the Theosophical Society, belief is not encouraged. Taking Buddhist vows or doing something external may have their place, but listening, study, meditation, reflection—those should become part of our way of life; then we would be truly treading the Middle Path.