The manner in which the Buddha gave his teaching is indicative of his realization of Dhamma as: here and now, not delayed in time, inviting one to investigate, leading inwards, to be realized by the wise within their own experience. Therefore the Buddha tried to make his teaching relevant to the experience of the people he was addressing. Sometimes he would respond with silence to people who were just tangled up in confused ways of thinking—it was a way of indicating that Truth went beyond speculation. Sometimes he would answer a question with a counter-question to encourage the person to examine his or her own views and beliefs. Sometimes he would highlight an incident that had just occurred or a particular experience that a person was going through. In this Sutta, addressed to a group who must have heard a whole range of ideas about the nature of existence and Truth, the Buddha concerned himself with talk on the means of their practice.
In this way, his approach differed from that of the other samana teachers who seemed to have taught doctrinally: that there is no consequence to deeds in this life, that the world is an illusion in which nothing has any reality, or that one can achieve liberation only through severe asceticism (see Background in the Introduction). Here the Buddha focuses on the experience of the Way rather than its notional goal. Right now, liberation and salvation after death are only ideas and views in the mind; what can be directly known is how things are at this time and place. Focusing on the means, the here and now of how one lives, brings one into the present moment, and into a state of mind where there is no view to defend or uphold. Then, direct reason has the possibility to operate. This epitomizes the Buddha’s teaching method.
For example, one time the villagers of Kesaputta¹ asked the Buddha what they should believe in because so many different people were giving them different ideas. His response was firstly to affirm their right to have doubts when given conflicting views. Then he appealed to their own understanding: “If you act in ways that are cruel or mean, does that seem good to you or not?” “No, they replied, we don’t think that’s a very good thing to do.”
“Then it’s best not to do it, isn’t it?” commented the Buddha. “And what about being calm and kind, is that valued by you or not?” And they replied, “Well, we think it’s very good.”
In this way, he helped them to realize the value of concentrating on means rather than doctrines. Otherwise one is liable to get caught in “the tangle of views” and come no nearer to Truth. The Buddha’s teaching asks one to reflect on what one already knows or on one’s principles, and to proceed from that intuitive sense of certainty.
But in the case of the Group of Five, the Buddha was addressing “those who had gone forth,” samanas—“strivers”—who had made a one-pointed commitment to personal realization. They needed no recommendation that Truth was worth seeking or that one had to apply oneself to it; they just needed to have the means clarified. So the Buddha gave some advice on the cultivation of right means as an expression and experience of enlightenment itself.
The Sutta proceeds with:
Yo cayam kamesu … anariyo anatthasanhito
Devotion to pursuing sense pleasure, which is low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble and produces no useful result; and devotion to self-denial, which is painful, ignoble and produces no useful result.
These are the two extreme positions that a samana might take if following the advice of teachers who taught in terms of a goal rather than a Way. At first glance, it seems obvious that anyone with a serious spiritual commitment would avoid such positions. However, the very notion of transcendence to a sphere beyond the conventional reality allows the possibility of discarding, sometimes deliberately, the normal conventions of life. This applies just as much to 20th century “samanas”—as anyone familiar with the present-day spiritual network will know. Under the guise of liberated wisdom, people will justify the most crazy and harmful sexual indulgences, or the use of drugs and liquor—“to release ego-bound conditioning.” Sometimes, even quite sincere disciples will condone or experiment with such practices. What adds substance to this way of thinking is that there are many harmful repressive tendencies in modern life.
The other extreme of self-denial, or self-mortification, is rarer nowadays. Although asceticism does have a certain appeal, it is usually in the religious life of traditional monastic orders that some degree of self-mortification, deprivation or asceticism is practiced. Rigorous discipline and asceticism (including self-flagellation in a few Christian monastic orders) is not unusual; an almost military discipline and life of hardship is a major part of the traditional Zen life; and certainly, in the continuing samana life of India, long periods of fasting and other kinds of physical mortification are observed with the aim of transcending worldly life and reaching higher states of consciousness. In this regard, the Jains stand out. Their tradition is of an even longer duration than the Buddhist Sangha, and still attracts spiritual aspirants today.
The relevance of a reflection on self-denial to an average follower of the Buddha, who is not interested in hair shirts and prolonged standing on one leg, may seem slight. This reflection is more subtle, and often is one aspect of an oscillation of the mind between two positions. If one overindulges in food and drink for example, then the natural reaction (unless you’re told that this extreme is good for you) is to feel a sense of regret, and then to veer towards complete abstinence. One feels annoyed with one’s “weakness,” and decides to be firm and cut it out. However, abstinence without wise reflection and insight doesn’t solve the need syndrome that made one indulge in the first place, so after a period of abstinence one feels rather wretched, and decides to have just a little drink … which leads to another ….
In meditation, one can observe the mind following similar tendencies: periods of hard concentration, followed by periods of daydreaming and laxity; moments of really applying oneself—back straight, jaw tight and fierce one-pointedness on the meditation object … then, strained from the effort, or feeling that one has achieved something through that, one thinks that it’s now time to relax and integrate into “normal life,” get a few beers or just go to the movies. On a meditation retreat, one can adopt the view that one should not even think or talk. Then, at the end of the retreat, one returns to the world of daily life having gained little or no understanding about one’s relationship to the sensory world. By itself, refraining from thinking and talking doesn’t lead to a liberation that is Ultimate—not bound to time and place, here and now. We have to get beyond this very predicament of being bound to extremes that continually block out a careful investigation of our sensory experience. Having seen its ultimate pointlessness, it is from this very situation that one should be “going forth.”
In this second picture, some of the highly evolved, yet ultimately endless, goings-on of the two extremes are suggested by the border of Celtic knot-work. The snakes (no nagas, these) coil around the heads of the characters typifying the two extremes, and face the words relating to them. On the left, the rather corpulent character is kamasukhallikanuyogo, sensual indulgence, gorging itself on a chicken drumstick, and featured with a made-up, decorative face. The other portrait is of a tortured ascetic, complete with thorns and anguish coming out of every pore. Above them is the mudra or hand gesture that signifies the turning of the Wheel of the Law, the Dhammacakkappavattana mudra. At the bottom is a conch which is used in Tibetan religious art as a symbol for the sending forth of the Dhamma.
The Buddha’s proclamation of the Way that goes Beyond is at first indicated:
Ete te bhikkhave … nibbanaya samvattati.
Avoiding both these extremes, bhikkhus, the Middle Way that a Tathagata has Awakened to gives vision and insight knowledge, and leads to peace, profound understanding, full realization and to Nibbana.
Here, we should understand that the Buddha describes this not as his Way, but as an ancient Path that had become overgrown and lost. It is a Way that he Awakened to and discovered rather than created. Here, he refers to himself as one of the Tathagatas, a word that defies adequate translation. “Thus Gone” has to be stretched to include: Gone into the Thus-ness of Things—one who has seen things as they really are. Another of its implications is explained by the Buddha in a subsequent discourse:
Bhikkhus, as a Tathagata speaks, so he acts; as he acts, so he speaks. Therefore he is called a Tathagata. (Anguttara Nikaya: [II], Four, 23)
So Tathagatas are those who say what is known through direct experience. Their teaching is an explanation of their own practice. And what are the characteristics of such a practice? They are referred to in a very broad scope which includes: “vision, insight knowledge, leading to peace, profound understanding, full realization and Nibbana.” The Path encompasses all of these. The “middleness” of the Way implies a kind of balance. It offers the encouragement to see clearly in analytical and gnostic terms rather than reject or adhere to experience. And the results? Peacefulness and true understanding; Nibbana—the cooling of the fire, the calming of the wind, the settled quality and sensitivity of still water.
- Here follows the gist of the “Kalama Sutta.” (Anguttara Nikaya: , Threes, 65) [return to text]