Next Thursday (July 17) will be one of the most important days for Buddhists. That is the day when the Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma the first time, thus completing the Triple Gems and we can also say that Buddhism came into this world the first time as there was the Teacher, the Message, and the Follower.
The Message that the Buddha taught to his five former disciples who had earlier left him before he became the Buddha was the universal message of Buddhism – Middle Way and Four Noble Truths. Let me quote a passage from the Message itself, which was called in Pali “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta” or “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth.” This is the very first teaching of the Buddha and perhaps the most important. The following quote is from a translation of the Sutta from accesstoinsight.com:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
This is the teaching on the Middle Way. This will be further elaborated and explained throughout the history of Buddhism. And in fact there are many levels of meanings in this short passage. At the first level, the Buddha was saying that the lives of the householder who indulges in pleasures of the senses, and that of the ascetic who denies all pleasures at all are not the correct way. One does not gain Realization either way.
Usually when a student comes across this teaching, he or she might overlook its profound message, which indeed lies at the heart of the Buddha’s message to the world. The way toward Liberation, the way toward freeing oneself from all the fetters that have bound all of us to the samsaric world, is not to be found in indulging in pleasures or in denying them. One who enjoys all kinds of pleasures of the senses will not attain Liberation because his mind is too preoccupied with these pleasures, seeking them and becoming attached to them. It is as if the mind believes that these pleasurable experiences are real and worthy of being attached to. But since all these are fleeting and momentary, the mind thus continually seeks and seeks, with no possibility of coming to rest. I often had the experience of holding a TV remote and sift through the channels very fast; on the one hand I wanted to finnd a good channel to watch, but was frustrated because there was nothing to watch; on the other I did not want to get up and quit watching the TV altogether. Or when you found a channel and wathced it, then when it was over you found yourself a bit empty, saying “Now what next?” The teachers usually say that this is like drinking sea water; the more you drink, the more thirsty you become.
This is the predicament of those who are attached to sense pleasures. You might have all the sex and all the food you desire, but in the end you find yourself empty. Is this all the meaning in life? Is this what we are born for? Now I am thinking of what Prince Siddhartha must have felt when he woke up one night and found all the dancing girls lying around on the floor, soundly asleep. With no action that put them up and presented them in a way that pleased the eyes of the audience (namely the Prince), what he saw now was the girls themselves in their very natural state. And the story said that the Prince was much repulsed by the sight.
On the other hand, denying all pleasures and seeking self mortification is not the answer either. Prince Siddhartha also found this out by himself, when he was practicing very austere forms of asceticism during his quest for Liberation. He decided to eat less and less, until in the end he ate perhaps only a grain of rice a day. He also tried denying the body in many other ways. He held his breath so hard he could hear winds blowing very loudly in his ears. And so on. In the end he found that he was much the same as he was before practicing these things. So self mortification was not the way to go.
The message is that there is a common thread that lies behind both self indulgence and self mortification. In self indulgence one believes that there is something that you believe is there to be grasped and held on to. This could be the pleasures that we seek and cherish. This could be sexual pleasures, or could be other kinds such as our fond memories, our plans for the future, the sounds we love to hear, the taste of food we love, etc. However, when we found that these pleasures are no good we try to drive them away, we try to deny them and go away from them, fleeing them like wildfire. Instead of being attached to the pleasures, we feel angry toward them and want to destroy them completely. But the Buddha says this is not the way to go either. In trying to flee from the pleasures, we also believe that they are there and they are real enough that we must flee from them. The more we try to escape the pleasures and to destroy them, the thought that “these pleasures are there” is still around. So it is like runnig away from your shadow. Isn’t that rather silly?
Another way that is not correct is to find a ‘balance’ or a ‘compromise’ between the two extremes. Suppose one is convinced by the Buddha’s teaching that both self indulgence and self mortification is not the way, then perhaps one finds a mixture and an average of the two, striking the “middle way” literally. But this is not it. The Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way goes much deeper than that (otherwise Buddhism would be only a religion of “averaging”🙂 ). No, this is not a matter of averaging. When the Buddha says that one should avoid both self indulgence and self mortification, he wants us to be aware of the nature of our attachment and our aversion that are there in our minds. In self indulgence there is attachment and in its counterpart there is aversion. Both are in fact one and the same.
So the teaching is that one realizes things the way they really are. The pleasures and the pains are natural states of things, and they should be recognized as such. The most important thing is our mind. When the Buddha taught his five former disciplines (who would then became the first five monks in Buddhism, following this sermon in the Deer Park) that these extremes should be avoided, the meaning was that one should avoid grasping at things as if they have objective, substantial reality. One should avoid both the extremes of believing that things exist and of believing that things do not exist. One believes that things do not exist, for example, when one goes to self mortification way and try to deny all that is important and normal for living, such as food, air and water. This can also be seen in other guises when people try to discipline themselves physically, but not making an attempt to gain a true understanding of things. So sitting in the meditation posture for six hours alone won’t get you closer to Realization if not coupled with the understanding. And in another way, one also does not believe that things exist when one indulges oneself in all kinds of pleasures, believing that there is no tomorrow, for example.
Nagarjuna says that the true message of Buddhism is the abandonment of all views. I believe this lies at the heart of the Buddha’s own message to his disciples at the First Turning of the Wheel. One does not grasp at any view, whether it is the view that things exist, or that things do not exist. One realizes that having a view at all involves arguing for it and defending it and behaving as if the view is objectively there. For the Buddha, that is, ultimately speaking, not the Middle Way.