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What is the Middle Way?
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Bobbie Perkins - What is the Middle Way? (26 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Bobbie Perkins
June 4, 2017 - Dallas, Texas

I really actually want to read the sutra to you. It's not very long and I think it'll make whatever I say next make a little more sense. So this is called the Sutra on the Middle Way.

"I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at the guest house in a forest of the district of Nala. At that time, the Venerable Kacchayana came to visit him and asked, 'The Tathagata has spoken of Right View. How would the Tathagata describe Right View?'

"The Buddha told the venerable monk, 'People in the world tend to believe in one of two views: the view of being or the view of nonbeing. This is because they are bound to wrong perception. It is wrong perception that leads to the concepts of being and nonbeing. Kacchayana, most people are bound to the internal formations of discrimination and preference, grasping and attachment. Those who are not bound to the internal knots of grasping and attachment no longer imagine and cling to the idea of a self. They understand, for example, that suffering comes to be when conditions are favorable, and that it fades away when conditions are no longer favorable. They no longer have any doubts. Their understanding has not come to them through others; it is their own insight. This insight is called Right View, and this is the way the Tathagata would describe Right View.

"'How is this so? When a person who has correct insight observes the coming to be of the world, the idea of nonbeing does not arise in her, and when she observes the fading away of the world, the idea of being does not arise in her mind. Kaccayana, viewing the world as being is an extreme; viewing it as nonbeing is another extreme. The Tathagata avoids these two extremes and teaches the Dharma dwelling in the Middle Way.

"'The Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not. Because there is ignorance, there are impulses; because there are impulses, there is consciousness; because there is consciousness, there is the psyche-soma; because there is the psyche-soma, there are the six senses; because there are the six senses, there is contact; because there is contact, there is feeling; because there is feeling, there is craving; because there is craving, there is grasping; because there is grasping, there is becoming; because there is becoming, there is birth; because there is birth, there are old age, death, grief, and sorrow. That is how this entire mass of suffering arises. But with the fading away of ignorance, impulses cease; with the fading away of impulses, consciousness ceases; …and finally birth, old age, death, grief, and sorrow will fade away. That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.'

"After listening to the Buddha, the Venerable Kaccayana was enlightened and liberated from sorrow. He was able to untie all of his internal knots and attain Arhatship."

So some parts of that are pretty easy to understand, and other parts might be a little bit complicated. But I wanted you to hear it because I think that the things that might have seemed complicated will kind of clear up as we talk about them a little bit. When Prince Siddhartha left his home, his wife, and his young son, he set out on a quest for enlightenment. I'm not sure he would have called it enlightenment, but he just felt there was something he needed to know. And so he traveled quite extensively for that time and studied with many very highly respected teachers. He did well with all of these teachers. He always excelled and, as we would say, went to the top of the class, but it never seemed to him that he had really achieved what he was looking for. And so he kept looking, and eventually he ended up with a group of monks who were practicing a very extreme practice of self-mortification and austerity. And he practiced almost to the point of killing himself with that kind of austerity and self-mortification. Fortunately, he was found by a village girl who shared milk with him and sort of nursed him back to health. He realized because of this experience that forcing his body and his mind into any practice would not lead to liberation. And so he just sat in meditation (and you've heard that story before) until he gained the insight that allowed him to awaken. And this insight is what he called the Middle Way, a path between austerity and indulgence in sensual pleasures. It's actually a path between any extremes, like Cornell mentioned at the beginning.

So after his enlightenment, the Buddha shared his insight with the five monks who had been practicing that asceticism with him, and this was his first dharma talk, the teaching on the Middle Way. This teaching forms the basis of everything else he taught for forty-five-plus years of his life, and we see that showing up in various ways all throughout his teaching. It's most notably present in the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path IS the Middle Way. It isn't always called that, but that's pretty much what it is. Next Sunday, our dharma brother Aaron Conner will speak about Right View in the way that it relates to this sutra.

But tonight I wanted to share some thoughts on another important aspect of this sutra, and this is something that's called dependent co-arising. And we've talked about this before. We call it that, but what dependent co-arising is is the fact that everything is linked to everything else. There is nothing that is separate from anything else. We are not separate from others, from our country, from our land, from our blood and ancestors in spirit. We're not separate from anything. We have no separate self. We are completely linked to everything else, and that's what I want to talk about tonight.

But before I get into that too much, I do want to say, why do we need a middle way? Why is that an important thing for us to know about and for us to practice? Well, in this sutra, the Buddha talks about the extremes of being and non-being, and the extremes of austerity or indulging in sensual pleasures. He didn't list the thousands of other extremes, but they're implied in this sutra. Any extreme will take us either to the point of grasping and clinging to something or to the point of trying to push something away, so we're either going to be clinging and grasping or we're going to be in a state of aversion. And these are things that cause us to suffer. They are the components of suffering. And so a middle way provides us a path to understanding, a path that will help us to eliminate the clinging, the grasping, the aversion, and therefore help us to avoid those kinds of sufferings. The Middle Way, then, provides a path to understanding, liberation, and peace.

So dependent co-arising: we've called it inter-being, or inter-dependence, and basically it means that everything depends on other things for its existence. Nothing can arise alone or stand on its own. Everything is dependent upon everything else. The phrase in the sutra that embodies this is the one that says, "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not." I've commented on this favorite teaching of mine many times. But it says, when conditions are sufficient, things manifest. When conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest. And when things do not manifest, they are waiting for conditions to be sufficient. It's this same idea: "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not."

Take a simple example like this little table. If we take any one of the elements out of this little table, it does not exist anymore. If we take out the wood, obviously there is no table. But if we keep the wood and we take out the artisan who made this table, we have no table. If we take out the parents that gave birth to the person who made this table, we have no table. If we take out… you get the point. So this little table represents many many many conditions that had to be sufficient in order for it to manifest. And the same is true of you, the same is true of the mat you're sitting on, the cushion you're sitting on, this building we're in: if we take out any one of the elements of any of these things, they do not exist. They can't be. So "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not." You can say it the other way, too: "That is, because this is; that is not, because this is not." And so, this is just evidence that everything is dependent on everything else. There is dependent co-arising. It happens simultaneously.

I know all of us have heard that saying talking about somebody who's very successful, and you'll hear somebody say, "He's a self-made man" (interestingly, I've never heard anyone say that about a woman… but anyway). So, in light of dependent co-arising, it's a false statement even if you look at it logically, because there is no way that any person can make themselves. There are parents involved, and there are grandparents involved, there are ancestors involved in the blood relation aspect of it, even in other aspects. There is no person (in this country at least) who hasn't had some kind of an advantage educationally. Somebody gave this person a book. Somebody taught him how to read. Somebody built a school that he could go to. The list goes on and on and on, so there's no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Or then there's this one, which I really think is just hilarious: it's when somebody thinks you're not doing a good job of managing yourself or whatever, and they say, "Just pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!" And that, to me… I mean, the visual of that just kind of makes me laugh. I mean, if a person actually did pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they would pull their feet out from under them and land on their keister! But who… Like, where did the boots come from? Who made the boots? Did this person make them herself/himself? It's just a ridiculous image and a ridiculous thought. I don't have a clue who said that the first time, but they were deluded, in my opinion. But let's go back to "This is, because that is."

In this book that I'm referring to, actually there is a commentary on the Middle Way by Thich Nhat Hanh. So this is one of his books. And in this book, in the commentary, Thay says, "For there to be a father, there has to be a child. And if there is a child, there has to be a father. If there is an elder brother, there must be a younger brother. And if there is a younger brother, it's because there is an elder brother. There is night because there is day. These things rely on each other to exist."

In this sutra, the Buddha talks about the twelve links of dependent co-arising, and they're listed, one after the other. But Thay reminds us that they're all present within one another and they inform one another; they influence one another. The list in the sutra begins with ignorance. You may remember that, as I was reading it. The Middle Way says, "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not. Because there is ignorance, there are impulses. Because there are impulses, there is consciousness," and so on. So, all of these things are already linked; they're already present. But Thay points out that when the list of links begins with wisdom instead of ignorance, things shift. And the way we can make that happen is by employing mindfulness.

I want to write these things on the board… So, these are the twelve links of dependent co-arising. And this list begins with ignorance. And we'll talk in a minute about that the list doesn't always have to start with ignorance, but most of us start here before we have some kind of an insight. Ignorance leads to impulses. Impulses lead to consciousness, which I would take in this context to mean that the impulse leads you to have some awareness of the impulse. Does that make sense? So, consciousness of the impulses leads to what they call "psyche-soma," but this is just "mind-body." Psyche-soma means mind body. So then there is an awareness of your mind and your body. And that, an awareness of your mind and your body, leads to your awareness of your six senses.

Now, in Buddhism they always talk about six senses, not just five, because they include the mind. So this is… You wouldn't think I'd have to read it off the list, but I'm going to. The six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, and forms. And the things that your eyes do, like your eyes see, your nose smells, your ears hear: it's those things also, not only the sense organ itself but what the sense organ does. So that's all included in the six senses. That leads to contact. Contact leads to feeling. Feeling leads to craving. Craving leads to grasping. Grasping leads to becoming. Becoming leads to birth. And after that it's old age, death, grief, sorrow. And this is a prescription for suffering.

So fortunately, in this, you can see this in the Buddha's first four teachings. So, he said there is suffering. And there are causes of suffering. These are the causes of suffering. There is a way to cease suffering. And that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. So, when we look at these things… Now, Thay tells us that because ignorance influences this whole cycle, it leads to suffering. But if instead of ignorance, through a mindfulness practice, through our meditation and through our mindfulness practice, we now have insight, and we begin with wisdom, it changes everything. Because with wisdom, when impulses arise, leading to consciousness and body-mind and sense organs, all of these things, then we recognize when we get to the point of craving or grasping. And then we can say, "Well, I've had enough of this! I'm not going to do this anymore!" And so we change our behavior at about this point.

Audience question: "What is the birth that is in there?"

Bobbie: Well, think about it this way. In that original ignorance-impulse-consciousness, all of that stuff, the becoming: if we're craving something, grasping something, wanting something to happen, to become, then we will birth it. You know, whatever it might be, and then everything changes. This is just a reference, I think, to the fact that our bodies change, but I'm thinking that it's a reference to the fact that anything gets birthed, anything that gets birthed out of this cycle from ignorance will lead to decay of one kind or another because it's impermanent. It's going to change. It's going to bring sorrow, grief and sorrow. It's a very broad category, when we get down to here.

But if we start with wisdom and we influence this whole segment, this whole chain, with wisdom, then even though we get to this point, we may recognize that we're clinging to something, we're grasping at something, we're attached to something. And then we have an opportunity to let it go, to change, to transform that particular situation. There is still going to be this sequence, but, as you all know, any of you that have experienced the loss of a loved one, or your own aging body, if you're coming at it from a place of understanding, a place of wisdom and insight, then there is less grief, or else there is a much better way to manage it. There's less sorrow, there's much less suffering, because we know how to manage our suffering. We know how to suffer.

So Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to remember that we have this opportunity as well, and we approach this by coming back to our mindfulness practice. Thay points out that when the list of links begins with wisdom, which arises when we practice mindfulness, all the other links are influenced by wisdom, and the outcome is very different. He says, "When you light up the lamp of awareness, you will see how the twelve links of dependent co-arising are working. You will say, 'Let's not let the links work like that anymore. We've suffered enough already.'"

So when we are doing our meditation and mindfulness practices, we are definitely influencing this link, this set of links, and changing the outcome.

Transcribed by Meghan Horton

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