Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Moderate Beliefs Lead To Moderate Practice

In Buddhism, one of the teachings most important to the praxis aspect of the system, the Latin word we get the term practice from, from meditation to mindfulness, is the Middle Path/Way. One’s initial instinct is to interpret it as total neutrality, which then leads to monastic isolation. But this isn’t the case, even if such practices still flourish in Buddhist countries and can be an edifying event even for laypeople to occasionally engage with devotees in. The middle path is most often characterized as Buddha’s advice to steer between asceticism’s self mortification of the body and hedonism’s disregard for self control in favor of pure sensual pleasure. But a better, more practical, way to explain it is the principle of balance and harmony between extremes. One shouldn’t be absolutely nonresistant pacifist, for instance, since it leads to unnecessary pain and suffering as well as death in some cases; but one shouldn’t be a strong martialist either, for this can lead to unnecessary violence and habits resulting from it in non combat situations. A mediation between the two is possible with the commonly associated training in martial arts, but only for the means of self defense or defense of others without excessive force. I’ll enumerate some examples in detail and then explain how it relates to the topic I’ll delve into in the next few weeks, the Eightfold Path.

Another important median the Middle Path advises is that intersecting nihilism and eternalism. Nihilism in this case refers to metaphysics, saying that everything is annihilated at its end. Eternalism, by its very name, gives us the contrasting idea that things are eternal in nature and persist on after death. Neither of these is technically true, though they have kernels of truth within each of them. Things are never permanent, that much is true, but there is always a sort of persistence in spite of the changing nature. Energy remains energy in one form or another, and matter remains matter, so to speak. A median point is the teaching of dependent origination, which I spoke about in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny”. To summarize again, it is the idea that all things are dependent on other preceding or antecedent causes. While this could cause a philosophical issue of infinite regress, it is of practical benefit to focus on those things that can be observed and considered with reason as opposed to things that serve to stifle or stop thought entirely for servitude of the mind, e.g. a creator or afterlife. With belief in dependent origination, there is no need to reject evolution, for example. It is also complimentary to philosophical and scientific thought in general. Gautama advocated critical thinking, as evidenced by this quote attributed to him; “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it,” The middle path conforms with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which said that the best state of virtue was between excess and deficiency. Confucius also taught something similar as well in his Analects, but was only hinted at and was interpreted later.

Another important dichotomy I’ve talked about is the wavering between wisdom and compassion, in “Heart and Mind, Loveand Wisdom”. If you focus entirely on love, you neglect the use of your reason and rational faculties. But if you only care about wisdom in an intellectual or knowledge based sense, you miss out on the fulfilling relationships with people that not only enrich your life, but give you understanding of others that can improve your wisdom in its own way. They are intertwined, in a sense, so this is both a matter of balance and synthesis, which Hegel advocated in his philosophy of dialectics. Albeit there are technical differences between the modern understanding and Hegel’s own writings on it, the similarities are intriguing. You have internal contradictions of any concept, in the same way that there is a sort of absurdity of our existence leading to our nonexistence. These are the thesis and antithesis aspects of the formula.  So to solve the absurdity, we posit that, instead of being or nothing, we are becoming. Herein lies the synthesis of the two previous counteracting forces. With love and wisdom, both of them in excess or deficiency is defective to our humanity, so we must moderate them and meld them together instead of concentrating entirely on one while neglecting the other.

A few pairs that I can’t elaborate on as much, since I’d run out of space quickly, are the conventional and absolute truths, which I discussed in “Two Truths, One Path” as well as the religious and secular, detailed in no small part by “A Synthesis of Sacredand Secular”. There are so many more of these relationships I could talk about, like sophia and phronesis, the physical and mental, leisure and business, the list goes on for a mile. The point remains that the middle path is central to Buddhism in a way that the Eightfold Path is as well, but for different reasons. The 8 different areas of life it confronts are divided further into three areas of wisdom, ethics and concentration. But they all affect one another in different manners, not unlike the dual sided perspective we commonly take every day. Think of the Eightfold Path topic as going into the triangular perspective we also utilize.

Fundamentally, the middle path is a balance between extreme views and seeking to be as objective as possible, acknowledging the relative nature of things, but also absolute qualities within the transient universe. To practice the middle way is something done over a lifetime and is only maintained through disciplined practice without being overly strict. It is a paradox, not a contradiction. It appears to collapse upon itself, but can be reconciled by a particular approach that takes things as they come, but also understands things in a past and future sense. It’s definitely not an easy thing to achieve, but an ideal that is workable in a gradient sense as opposed to simply having it or not having it entirely. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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