By Wayne Shen-Cheng Shi
OEB Spring Retreat, 2022
The Buddha first speaks about the Four Ennobling Truths in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, but that is not the first thing he talks about. He begins with a short lesson in extremes.
“Monks, these two extremes should not be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ignoble people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
(translation by Piyadassi Thera, with a little editing from me, i.e., language)
Consider that the Buddha had experienced both extremes. He had been the pampered, sequestered son of a Lord, his father, Suddhodana, leader of the Sakya clan. All his needs had been filled, and his wants and desires had been fulfilled. He had experientially verified what an “indulgence of sense pleasures” was, and how, when not obtained could lead to suffering. Leaving home on his spiritual quest he got his first taste of the other extreme “self-mortification”. Removing his princely garments, Siddhartha gave them to his retainer, Channa. He then went into a charnel yard and clothed himself with cast-off fabrics. This was his initial step on the path to another type of extreme, self-mortification. It was a path that nearly led to Siddhartha’s death from fasting and other forms of self-harm.
The Buddha speaks of the dangers of either extreme, both being unworthy and unprofitable. Addiction to sense-pleasures (attachment, craving) is an ignoble path, and leads to both dishonesty and dishonor. Self-mortification is painful; not only can it be physically painful, but it is psychologically painful. The goal must be to avoid both extremes so that the Middle Path can be practiced.
“Avoiding both these extremes, the Awakened One has realized the Middle Path . . .” is the practice that enabled the Buddha to find the Middle Path, the Eightfold Path, and is the instruction for anyone else seeking that same path. He offers that his experience has revealed that the Middle Path will lead to vision (appropriate view and intent), knowledge (appropriate speech, action, livelihood), to insight (effort, mindfulness, concentration), and to a state of enlightenment and Nirvana (to being a better human being).
A fundamental misunderstanding of the Middle Path does arise. It really has nothing to do with balancing any aspect of life. It doesn’t mean that a practitioner can be compassionate 50% of the time, or ignorant, or generous. It isn’t some sort of spiritual scale. These are extreme views and practicing the Middle Path is one of avoiding extremes. The Middle Path requires practitioners to mindfully set-aside preconceptions, preferences, and opinions; they are hindrances to any full realization and effective practice of the Eightfold Path.
Earlier in May the abortion rights issue in America flared again, with the release of Supreme Court documents revealing a push to overturn the nearly 50-year law. This debate is one of extremes, us vs. them, right or wrong with both sides claiming the “right”. Is there a viable Middle Path in this debate? I think so, so did David Foster Wallace.
OPINION, CHOICE, COMMITMENT – The Middle Path
Human beings have opinions that decisions are based on. We accept, as Buddhists that these opinions may arise from delusions or misinformation we hold. Still, they are our opinions. We accept, as Buddhists that these opinions WILL change given internal and external causal influences, i.e., information, knowledge, and experience and still they might remain our opinions.
People have opinions across every topic. Some will defend their opinion by stating it is not opinion, it is fact, a truth. For many opinion and truth are synonymous terms. The most effort is put into defending morality-based opinions or truths. The concepts of moral truth, the obligation for our ethical thoughts and actions to parallel our voiced beliefs, and that of physical truth, that truth is dependent on experiential verification are pragmatic views, views mirrored in Buddhist philosophy. Arising from these views is the danger of speaking to create truth. A person can speak what they believe to be or want to be a ‘truth’ even as all around them is proof of the falsity of their speech. There are instances when someone may be speaking truthfully while in fact saying something you believe to be a lie or delusion. Both of you are engaged in your own truths. What you experience as truth . . . others experience as your opinion if it doesn’t agree with their truth (opinion). No opinion is inherently true or true to all people. Coming to terms with the fact that ‘truth’ is a product of everyone experiencing their ideals interacting with the realities of life is practicing the Middle Path.
From opinion we must move to making a choice. Opinion is largely based in habitual reactivity and perception. Choice must be based on knowledge and experience. Choice transforms to ‘truth’, a fully realized truth . . . for you after experiences happen that corroborate that choice. “Truth” transforms into commitment. All human beings hold commitments.
Reading “Consider the Lobster”, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace you’ll find one titled, ‘Authority and Usage: A Review’. In it, Wallace is doing a review for a new book on language and language arts. In this article is an argument about commitments, and how some try to force their commitments, particularly moral commitments on others. It skillfully describes the ideal of the Middle Path. There is recognition that we all have opinions and make choices; and realization that we can commit to two seemingly opposite positions without weakening either one.
Consider the Lobster
David Foster Wallace – Little, Brown – 2005
Authority and American Usage: A Review
Argument: As of 4 March 1999, the question of defining human life in utero is hopelessly vexed. That is, given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is not a way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life. At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
This reviewer is thus, as a private citizen and an autonomous agent, both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. It is not an easy or comfortable position to maintain. Every time someone I know decides to terminate a pregnancy, I am required to believe simultaneously that she is doing the wrong thing and that she has every right to do it. Plus, of course, I have both to believe a Pro-Life + Pro-Choice stance is the only really coherent one and to restrain myself from trying to force that position on other people whose ideological or religious convictions seem (to me) to override reason and yield a (in my opinion) wacko dogmatic position. This restraint has to be maintained even when somebody’s (to me) wacko dogmatic position appears (to me) to reject the very Democratic tolerance that is keeping me from trying to force my position on him/her; it requires me not to press or argue or retaliate even when somebody calls me Satan’s Minion or Just Another Shithead Male, which forbearance represents the really outer and tooth-grinding limits of my own personal Democratic Spirit.”
Keep in mind that Mr. Wallace is not speaking of political democracy, he speaks of Democratic Spirit: A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. This ideal has parallels to a foundational ideal in Engaged Dharma, pluralism.
The position Mr. Wallace came to regarding abortion mirrors is eerily similar one I have held for many years. We each must make moral choices based on our experiences and knowledge, choices that become commitments. We do not have a “human right” to denigrate the commitments of others, or to force our commitments on others. You might be thinking at this moment, ‘This seems like avoiding the issue. You either believe in abortion or you don’t’. This is not the case at all. I firmly believe that abortion is inappropriate, an unwholesome choice for me and I am committed to a more pragmatic middle path. And, I firmly assert that I do not have the ethical right to make that choice for others.
Let’s step back onto the Middle Path. We must each subtract opinions and add commitments. Those commitments, whether they are on Left or Right side of path are individual ones. We stay on the Middle Path by not allowing our commitments to affect how we interconnect and interact with others. There is no need for us to defend our commitments, or to attack the commitments of others.
Mr. Wallace’s definition of democratic spirit is that it combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous, a dedicated and diligent respect for the convictions (commitments) of others (pluralism). He stands in good company with Siddhartha.
Siddhartha revealed his democratic spirit in how, and to whom he offered the dharma. There has long been a controversy concerning whether Siddhartha believed in rebirth. While the term and its implications arise in the Hindi scriptures and in many Buddhist sutras, Siddhartha chose not to answer the direct questions of his own commitment to it. He named it a metaphysical question, an unanswerable one given the knowledge present at that time. Why then is it referred to in the early sutras? Siddhartha realized his own commitment to belief or disbelief in the concept of rebirth wasn’t important. Skillfully offering the dharma in language and concepts that could be recognized and understood by his audience was important.
Walking the Middle Path is not easy, it is not black and white. We can hold a commitment to an ideal and still treat those that hold a different commitment with respect, loving-kindness, and generosity of ‘democratic’ spirit.