Today is an important day in Buddhism. It’s the day when the Buddha gave the first sermon to his first batch of students. This is also known as the day when the wheel of Dharma was turned for the first time. What this means is that the Buddha’s first teaching set the religion of Buddhism going for the first time. There will be further turnings of the wheel according to the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, but the first turning was the most significant because it set everything going in the first place.
So what did the Buddha teach his first group of students? No less than the essence of the Buddhist message itself. The Buddha talked about the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way. For most Buddhists these are simple messages that they have been exposed to ever since they are very young. However, the messages can be very profound and it encompasses all aspects of the Buddha’s own teaching.
Let’s start with the Middle Way. Ordinarily in the exposition of the Sutra containing the first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta, or the Sutta on the Turning of the Wheel, the Middle Way is explained as lying somewhere between two extremes, namely indulging in sensual desires and self mortification on the other. So many people think that the Buddha’s message is some kind of moderation. You do not indulge in too much sensual pleasure, but you do not completely deny it either. So the message, according to the standard interpretation, is that you should enjoy the pleasure only in moderation. In standard Thai Buddhism this is given as eating just for keeping the body going, not too much and not too little. To eat too little would be to fall toward the other side of the Middle Way. So the idea is: Not too much, not too little.
But the Buddha’s real message is much more than that. It is much more than just to look for a space between the two extremes, or an actual “middle” point between the two. While this idea may have a place in the teaching on the Middle Way, the Buddha’s real intent in teaching about this is much more than this. When the Buddha exhort his future disciples not to indulge in sensual pleasure and not to undertake self mortification, what he is driving at is that we should be attached both from sensual pleasure and its complete opposite, which may be likened to harming the body. The point is not just to find a moderation, as if we are to drink in moderation. That is not the Middle Way.
A problem with equating the Middle Way as moderation is that it is difficult to find where exactly the moderation really lies. One person’s “drinking in moderation” may be too much, or too little for others. And it is hard to see why enjoying something in moderation constitutes the Buddha’s profound teaching that is at the heart of Buddhism. In order to see this clearly let us look at the words of the Buddha himself in the Sutta:
There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.
It is clear that the Buddha sees the Middle Way as the path to Liberation and Enlightenment. But how do we find the Middle Way? Clearly one necessary condition is to avoid these two extremes. But to do that does not mean we look for the averaged point and strike there.
Avoiding indulgence in sensual pleasure and self affliction pertains to bodily behavior. So is the Middle Way to be found in the way of living conducted by the monks? Perhaps that is the case, but it is not possible that any monk who abides by the monastic rules alone will gain Enlightenment. So abiding by the monastic rules (or any other rules, including lay precept rules or sila) is going to be anywhere sufficient for Realization.
By giving the teaching on the Middle Way, the Buddha does not so much prescribe how Buddhists should behave as pointing out a path that anybody who would like to follow what the Buddha has already gone should take to become like him. So my Middle Way does not have to be the same as yours, even though your Way and my Way will, if they are both genuine Ways, lead to the same destination. In any case, what is required is that you fully understand the profound nature of the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not some kind of moderation (as has been said), but a realization that any “way” at all, any prescribed method based on attachment that this, and not that, must be correct, is ultimately unsatisfactory and hence will always lead one astray. One could still treading the Middle Way even though one is surrounded by all sorts of sensual pleasure; one only has to realize that all these sensual delights are just empty of their inherent characters and are nothing more or less than bubbles or illusions on a sunny day. If one is not attached to these delights then they are just what they are and nothing more.
Those who have studied the Buddha’s life story know that, before he became a Buddha, Prince Siddhartha tried every which way of gaining Realization that was available at his time. He tried meditation with his former teachers until he achieved the highest state of meditation that his teachers were capable of. Then he tried the self mortification route until he almost died. Then he realized that these were not the way toward cessation of suffering. He almost died when a village girl Suchata gave him rice and milk with honey. The Prince ate it up and regained his strength, the strength that was there until he eventually attained Enlightenment and became a Buddha. So the point was not self mortification or torture; and the point was not to indulge in the senses as he did when he was living at his palace. But then the really important lesson here is that these are only means toward the end. To eat rice with milk and honey was not to enjoy the pleasure of eating, but to gain strength for meditation. To enjoy the rice would mean that the mind is no longer free. And in the same way to starve oneself to the point of death also means that the mind is not free either, for now the focus is on the very act of fasting and starving, instead of giving the mind the freedom it needs to investigate and become focused.
So here lies the true Middle Way. The Path to Liberation does not lie with any prescribed sets of bodily behaviors. In fact the Middle Way goes much deeper. It is also about not reifying things through saying that they exist, and it is also about not annihilating things through saying that they do not exist. But that is another story.