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Throughout the 2,500-year history of Buddhism, the concept of the Middle Way has seen multiple interpretations, but, simply, it describes the way or path that transcends and reconciles the duality that characterizes most thinking.
In the broadest sense, the Middle Way refers to the Buddha’s enlightened view of life and also the actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others; it is found in the ongoing, dynamic effort to apply Buddhist wisdom to the questions and challenges of life and society. In this sense, the search for the Middle Way can be considered a universal pursuit of all Buddhist traditions—the quest for a way of life that would give the greatest value to human existence and help relieve the world of suffering. It is for this reason that Buddhism itself is sometimes referred to as the “Middle Way.”
Shakyamuni’s life exemplifies a basic interpretation of the Middle Way as the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.”
Born a prince, Shakyamuni enjoyed every physical comfort and pleasure. However, dissatisfied with the pursuit of fleeting pleasures, he set out in search of a deeper, more enduring truth. He entered a period of extreme ascetic practice, depriving himself of food and sleep, bringing himself to the verge of physical collapse. Sensing the futility of this path, however, he began meditating with the profound determination to realize the truth of human existence, which had eluded him as much in a life of asceticism as it had in a life of luxury. It was then, in his rejection of both self-mortification and self-indulgence, that Shakyamuni awakened to the true nature of life—its eternity, its deep wellspring of unbounded vitality and wisdom.
In sixth-century China, the Buddhist scholar T’ien-t’ai (Chih-i), based on his extensive study of Shakyamuni’s teachings in the Lotus Sutra, described life and phenomena in terms of three “truths.” These articulate the reality of all phenomena from three separate dimensions.
The truth of temporary existence indicates the physical or material aspects of life including appearance, form and activities. The truth of non-substantiality refers to the invisible aspects of life, such as our mental and spiritual functions, which lay dormant in our lives until they are manifested. T’ien-t’ai proposed a third truth, the essence or substance of life that transcends and encompasses these opposites. He defined this as the Middle Way.
T’ien-t’ai observed that the three truths are unified in all phenomena and thus clarified the indivisible interrelationship between the physical and the spiritual. From this viewpoint stem the Buddhist principles of the inseparability of body and mind and of self and environment.
related article Buddhism and Human Dignity Ultimately, the Buddhist understanding of human dignity is rooted in the idea that we are able to choose the path of self-perfection. Similar to T’ien-t’ai, Nichiren described life as an “elusive reality that transcends both the words and concepts of existence and nonexistence. It is neither existence nor nonexistence, yet exhibits the qualities of both.” In other words, life itself is the ultimate expression of the harmony of contradictions. Like the lotus flower that blooms unsullied by the muddy waters in which it grows, Nichiren maintained that human beings possess tremendous potential and the life condition of Buddhahood which they can bring forth in direct proportion to the depth of confusion and predicament they face. He encouraged individuals to perceive the inherent dignity of all life—their own and others’—and strive to make this the guiding principle of their actions.
From this perspective, to pursue the Middle Way is not a compromise. It is to bravely confront life’s challenges—identify root causes and seek means of resolution—while summoning the transformative strength and wisdom of Buddhahood from within one’s life to create harmony. Moreover, the Middle Way does not equate to society’s definition of what may be accepted or considered “normal” at any given time. Rather, it transcends subjective values and accords with something more fundamental—our humanity. At the social and political level, the Middle Way could be expressed as the commitment to upholding respect for the dignity of life and placing it before adherence to a particular political or economic ideology. This approach is expressed by Gandhi in his well-known words: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”
The vision of the Soka Gakkai is that individuals committed to this sustained effort to orient their lives in a positive direction will inevitably begin to move society itself in the direction of happiness and harmonious coexistence. Daisaku Ikeda writes that the Middle Way is a process of “living and making one’s mark on society while constantly interrogating one’s own actions to ensure that they accord with the path of humanity.”
The historian Eric Hobsbawm titled his volume on the 20th century The Age of Extremes. Indeed, the violence and grotesque imbalances of that era drive home the need to find a guiding principle for the peace and fulfillment of humankind. The Middle Way of reverence for the dignity and sanctity of life, making the welfare of people and the planet the starting point and final goal of every human endeavor, can provide a path forward.