Middle Way

The following discourse is addressed to ascetics who have dedicated their lives to the practice leading to liberation. Lord Buddha uses forthright language to encourage monks and nuns to put aside thoughts and behaviours associated with lay lives. Even so, non-ascetics, lay people, even married couples have successfully practiced restraint of the senses for short or long periods for training purposes. Lord Buddha encouraged all Buddhists to practice restraint of the senses and dedicated periods of intense practice.

The restraint of the senses and simplifying ones life even for short periods is enormously beneficial. These days many people are busy indulging their senses with music, colourful and enticing images, fragrant odours, and so on. They would consider restraint as a waste of time. Very few people now would go to the other extreme of self-mortification.

In terms of spiritual practice, that is behaviour directed at making progress in a spiritual sense, it is rare to find people who would advocate either extremes of hedonism or self-mortification. Usually present day hedonists are keen to enjoy themselves without consideration of spiritual life. There are some so-called new-age people who mix and match a range of beliefs and practices (such as various types of yoga, Sufism, tantra, Zen, voodoo, witchcraft, magic, Egyptian religion, UFOs, anamism, druidism, shamanism, crystals, tarot, reiki, psychodelic substances … ) to suit their moods and personal preferences without deep understanding or proper regard for the contexts and traditions they graze from.

These practices are based on a superficial understanding and wrong view. Lord Buddha outlined a wide range of common wrong views in the first discourse in the Dighanikaaya, the Brahmajaala Sutta.

Lord Buddha encourages us to avoid extemes of indulgance in sensual pleasure and self-mortification in order to take the Middle Way – the Eight-fold Noble Path. I’ll write more about that later.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.139. Ara.navibhanga Sutta: The Exposition of Non-Conflict (อรณวิภังคสูตร)

4. “‘One should not pursue sensual pleasure, which is low, vulgar, course, ignoble, and unbeneficial; and one should not pursue self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?
“The pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires –low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble, and unbeneficial–is a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair and fever, and it is the wrong way. Disengagement from the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires–low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble, and unbeneficial–is a state without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the right way.

“The pursuit of self-mortification painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial–is a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair and fever, and it is the wrong way. Disengagement from the pursuit of self-mortification–painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial–is a state without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the right way.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should not pursue sensual pleasure, which is low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble, and unbeneficial; and one should not pursue self-mortification which is painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial.’

5. “‘The Middle Way discovered by the Tathaagata avoids both these extremes; giving vision, giving knowledge, it leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbaana.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘The Middle Way discovered by the Tathaagata avoids both these extremes…to Nibbaana.’

14. “Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We shall know the state with conflict and we shall know the state without conflict, and knowing these, we shall enter upon the way without conflict…’

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