What Is The Middle Way in Buddhism?

Category: Buddhist Path | Recent Meditation Posts

An image of a mountain road, traveling the middle way

The middle way is any path between two extremes. In Buddhism, the middle way has particular significance. It is a descriptor of skillful, beneficial practices and behaviors and also describes a philosophical approach to life, the Buddhist worldview. We might refer to the two meanings of the middle way as the practical and the philosophical.

The Practical Middle Way (How to Understand the Buddha’s Life)

Practically speaking, the middle way encourages us to be disciplined, yet caring and tender, in our approach to spiritual practice. The Buddha and the Middle Way meet in the story of the Buddha’s life.

When he first left the palace, the Buddha discovered that living as a prince and indulging in the finest luxuries had not brought him wisdom and true happiness. Neither, however, did living as an ascetic. Extreme abstention and self-mortification made him so weak, he could barely meditate.

What he discovered, through personal experience, was that taking the middle path between indulgence and self-denial was the fastest way to peace, contentment and freedom.

We may have had similar experiences in our own life. In an attempt to seek happiness and put an end to insatiable desire, we may have tried indulging in the accumulation of wealth, material objects, relationships, food or experiences. And yet in the process, we found we were not free. Getting what we want often leads to wanting more.

Having discovered that indulging in pleasure doesn’t bring authentic joy, we may instead have attempted to escape from the world. We may have tried severe ‘diets’ of any and all varieties. Perhaps happiness would result if we cut ourselves off from certain foods, our cell phones, or even family and friends. Yet spending a lifetime hidden away in meditation also keeps us bound.

And so, to get free, we turn to the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not a compromise between two extremes in which we take part of each and mix them. It is an intention not to enter into either one of them. The Middle Way asks us to walk the line, neither falling into attachment nor aversion. We do this not by becoming indifferent or uncaring, but by remaining grounded, centered, curious and loving.

Practical Examples of the Middle Way in Buddhism

What, exactly, the Middle Way looks like is different for everyone. The following are some real-life examples of how the Middle Way might manifest in our life and practice.

  • Studying Buddhism without taking vows or becoming a monk
  • Meditating for 5 minutes versus taking a one-hour-or-nothing approach
  • Committing to the Buddhist precepts for one month only, then reassessing
  • Practicing non-harming but continuing to eat meat
  • Joining a silent retreat but speaking with a teacher if you are in crisis
  • Sitting upright for a formal meditation but changing posture when your leg falls asleep
  • Noticing when you’re thinking in black and white, right or wrong, and challenging it
  • Noticing when you judge someone as liked or disliked and questioning it
  • Practicing non-reactivity without becoming indifferent
  • Practicing healthy skepticism, versus blind faith or disbelief
  • Being willing to change your beliefs in light of new information

The Philosophical Middle Way

While the practical Middle Way describes our behaviors, the philosophical Middle Way offers a deeper meaning that highlights the Buddhist worldview.

We tend to see the world in dualistic terms. We label things as either good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, solid or changing, me or not me. This split leads to suffering because it simply isn’t reflective of reality. Our biggest mistake could be our greatest lesson. Someone who makes us angry can also be a good teacher. Something seemingly solid, like a rock, is also full of space. Nothing and no one exists in only one way.

Buddhist teachings on how things exist encourage us to question absolutism or eternalism, the idea that things exist in one way and may continue to do so, forever. Upon hearing this teaching, some mistakenly swing to the opposite extreme, falling into nihilism or thinking that nothing exists.

Buddhism is called the middle path because the Middle Way is so central to its philosophy. The Buddhist Middle Way invites us to step outside of dualistic thinking and explore a new possibility. Things do exist, they just don’t exist the way we think they do. Things have qualities of both existence and non-existence simultaneously. Things are changing and impermanent.

By adopting the middle way as both a worldview and a way of operating in the world, we can transcend the habit of dualistic thinking. By doing so, we open ourselves to a world of potential. Who we are, and everything we experience is potentially perfect, just as it is.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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