The Middle Path

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Lectures on Basic Study Materials (12)
from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 376

The Middle Path
True Wisdom and Practice

What is the Middle Path?
The fundamental meaning of the term “Middle Path” is to walk the
indivisible middle way, not only unswayed by such extremes as
suffering and pleasure, existence and void, or impermanence and
eternity, but also based on correct Buddhist wisdom, which
comprehends that all things manifest and become extinct because of
causal relationships.
In an ancient sutra called the Shugyo Dochi Sutra, there is the
following story, called “The Parable of the Bird,” that concerns itself
with the Middle Path of Buddhism.
At a certain royal palace, it seemed as if every day, a large number
of birds were seized, and from among them, the plumper ones were
served at the king’s table, one by one. One of the captured fowl
observed the state of affairs and thought secretly in his heart:
If I gorge myself and become obese, I will certainly be slaughtered
and devoured. But then again, if I do not eat, I will perish. Either
way, I cannot escape death. In any case, just as I am now, I’ll try to
exercise moderation and eat just the right amount, so that I can live
a long life.
From that day on, the bird adequately reduced the amount of food he
ate. When he had shrunk himself just to the size of the holes in the
net meshing of his bird cage, it is said that the bird flew out into the
open air and became free.
We common mortals sometimes act as the foolish bird who adheres
only to what is in front of its face, when we are unable to correctly
surmise the dangerous situations we find ourselves in. In short, to
take an actual problem, it is not easy for those of us who are
extremely selfish, or who become too attached, to actualize the
Middle Path of Buddhism. We will therefore find a clue to the Middle
Path by becoming enlightened to the wisdom of the Middle Path by
reflecting upon the two extremes of any given matter.

Merits of the Middle Path
Shakyamuni discarded the two extremes of any given spectrum and
became enlightened to the Middle Path. It could be said that the
Middle Path is correct wisdom, correct practice and correct, truthful
presentation of oneself.
As the Buddhist phrase “All things are impermanent” and the truths
of “birth, old age, sickness and death” explain, our real world is not a
place of stasis, but a place where the circumstances of things are
constantly changing.
In order to practice the Middle Path in the midst of these changing
circumstances, a two-sided “Wisdom of the Middle Path” is needed.
One aspect is the kind of wisdom with which one correctly discerns
overall circumstances, while the other is critical wisdom with which
one then chooses the correct response to those circumstances.
Further, because one cannot display the “Wisdom of the Middle Path”
if one has extreme attachments, it can also be said that the “Wisdom
of the Middle Path” also incorporates provisional Mahayana wisdom
(the wisdom of “ku”).
The merits of the Middle Path are clear from the preceding points.
Through practice of the Middle Path, one can attain a life condition of
harmonized and unrestricted freedom.

Various Aspects of the Middle Path
(The Middle Path between Suffering and Pleasure)
Shakyamuni expounded the teaching of the Middle Path between
suffering and pleasure to the five ascetics. The Middle Path between
suffering and pleasure is the Middle Path that is removed from each
of the two extremes of austerities and pleasure. If one uses the
wisdom of the Middle Path to act with propriety and without running
either of the two extreme courses of life’s sufferings or pleasures,
one can carry on an agreeable life of the Middle Path between
suffering and pleasure.
In “Happiness in This World,” the Daishonin also gives the following
explanation on the posture of practicing the Middle Path between
suffering and pleasure by embracing the Mystic Law.
Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard
both suffering and joy as facts of life and continue chanting Nam-
Myoho-Renge-Kyo, no matter what happens. (M.W., Vol. 1, p. 161)
In other words, the meaning of the Middle Path between suffering
and pleasure is not simply the midway point between suffering and
pleasure. Because both suffering and pleasure are unavoidable in
real life, the way to actualize the Middle Path between suffering and
pleasure is by not trying to easily avoid sufferings when visited by
them, nor becoming too indulgent in pleasures, even while enjoying
them. That is the true practice of the Middle Path.

The Middle Path between Existence and Non-Existence
Although the Middle Path is illustrated from various points of view,
from an intellectual viewpoint, the Middle Path is explained in terms
of existence and non-existence. The truth of causal relationships
(cause and effect) penetrates the foundation of Shakyamuni’s
This Buddhist doctrine of causal relationships (dependent
origination) excludes the two partial views of existence and non-
existence, and the reasoning that “neither existence nor non-
existence” is known as the Middle Path between existence and non-
existence. The Middle Path between existence and non-existence can
also be expressed as the equilibrium of both existence and non-
For example, although we are attached to existence, and think that
we will always have our youth or wealth, both youth and wealth are
fragile entities, and though they might seem to exist (permanently),
they really do not exist as fixed entities. Anyone can understand that
if they look face-to-face at old age and death.
On the other hand, it is a mistake to be attached to non-existence,
overtaken by the notion that the “non-existence” of the Middle Path
between existence and non-existence means “nothingness.” At that
point, one sinks into nihilism, and that will not lead to true wisdom.
Everything in the world exists through the harmony of causal
relationships. Given that, the teaching of the Middle Path between
existence and non-existence is the correct understanding that the
nature of all things incorporates both existence and non-existence.

The Eight Negations of the Middle Path
The Indian philosopher Nagarjuna further underscores the meaning
of the Middle Path expounded by Shakyamuni through the Eight
Negations of the Middle Path, which are as follows: neither born nor
dying, neither eternal nor ending (impermanent), neither the same
nor different, and neither coming nor going. The teaching of the Eight
Negations of the Middle Path can be summed up by the idea, “neither
born nor dying,” which perceives that the actual realm of birth and
death is the very realm where there is neither birth nor death.
For example, when a seed is planted in the earth, it is said to
germinate, but by the time that the seed has germinated, it has
already absorbed water and nutrients to become transformed into a
sprout. From the perspective of the sprout, it has been “born.” But at
the same time, from the perspective of the seed itself, the seed is
“dead.” In short, as we can see from the relationship between the
seed and the sprout, if one takes a biased view of either “birth” or
“death,” one cannot capture life’s Middle Path aspect that is “neither
born nor dying.”
In this way, the doctrine of the Eight Negations of the Middle Path,
which is exemplified by such ideas as “neither born nor dying,”
correctly elucidates the overall picture of the Middle Path.

The Middle Path of the Lotus Sutra
The foregoing explains the implications of the Middle Path from
various points of view. However, in contrast to the partial treatment
given the Middle Path by various earlier sutras, the Middle Path
expounded in the Lotus Sutra, which completely clarifies the Middle
Path of Buddhism, is the Perfectly Melded Middle Path of the
Threefold Truth (kutai, ketai and chutai).
In the Maka Shikan, the Great Master T’ien-t’ai explains the
Threefold Truth as follows:
A polished mirror could be used as a metaphor for the [Three
Perfectly Melded Truths]: the mirror’s clarity can be likened to
nature or potential (kutai), the image reflected in the mirror is but
temporal existence (ketai), and the mirror itself can be compared to
entity (chutai). Though the three are neither combined nor disparate,
their differences fit together gracefully.
In other words, T’ien-t’ai explains that the situation in which nothing
is reflected in the mirror is the mirror’s natural or potential state
(kutai), while the image of all that is reflected in the mirror
represents temporal existence (ketai), and the mirror itself possesses
both potential and temporal existence, which represents the entity of
the Middle Path (chutai).
From the perspective of the Threefold Truth of the Lotus Sutra, the
Great Master T’ien-t’ai explained that the mind of a common mortal
is the object for the practice of observing one’s mind, and considered
the truth of the genuine Middle Path found within the minds of
common mortals to be the [entity] of the Mystic Law.
But in the Latter Day of the Law, even if we common mortals were to
make our common mortal minds the objects for practice of
observance of the mind as T’ien-t’ai espoused during his day, we
would not be able to obtain the benefit of the Mystic Law.
Observance of the mind in the Latter Day of the Law includes both
our direct belief in the Dai-Gohonzon, which is the embodiment of the
True Buddha, and our chanting of the Daimoku of the True Buddhism
of Sowing.
In the Ongi Kuden (Orally Transmitted Teachings), the Daishonin
[The nature of] ‘one’ is entity (chutai), ‘ultimate’ is nature or potential
(kutai) and ‘phenomenon’ is temporal existence (ketai). These Three
Perfectly Melded Truths are none other than Nam-Myoho-Renge-
Kyo. These five characters are the True Entity, and the reason for
Nichiren’s advent in this world. (Shinpen, p. 1729)
The Daishonin explains here that it is the very practice that reveres
the Middle Path founded in the Dai-Gohonzon that is the correct path
to the attainment of Buddhahood.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly. All rights reserved