Pursuit of The Middle Way in Buddhist Practice
Some have suggested that following the Eight Fold Path implies pursuing the middle way between sensory pleasure gratification versus self-mortification. Both of these extreme experiences are unhelpful to people. Others suggest the middle way is between being inactive versus self-centered striving, desiring, and clinging. The Buddha’s advice was that everything is duality. All things both exist (conventional reality) and do not exist (ultimate reality). All things and experiences (consciousness) arise and fall; the forces of impermanence, dependent origination (all things are interdependent – this exists so that exists, and that exists so this exists), and emptiness all support this view of solid permanence and concrete substantialness versus non-existence and the illusion of self. Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way presented these beliefs in formal fashion. The great paradox of emptiness assumes the middle way between a perceived view of self-existence and no-self existence. Conventional truth may be required to obtain ultimate truth, but conventional truths only points us toward ultimate reality. True enlightenment requires us to utilize both without attachment or clinging to what we desire.
The Heart Sutra is said to contain the absolute essence of true and perfect wisdom – the two realities. True wisdom suggests that all five aggregates of experiencing are ultimately empty. No form, no feeling, no perception, no volitional formation, and no consciousness implies there is no independent origination of all things, thus no ultimate reality of being. Although the key Buddhist teaching are that suffering exists, and that the cessation of suffering is through practicing the Eight Fold Path (noted in The Four Noble Truths). The problem is, however, that all conceptual knowledge is only conventional truth – not ultimate truth. The entire core teachings of Buddhism also includes the negation of the entire core teachings in ultimate reality. So in a more complex way the six senses do not exist, the 18 elements of the senses do not exist (sense organ, sensory perception, and consciousness of such contact), and the 12 links of dependent origination – all do not exist. Thus The Four Noble Truth and The Eight Fold Path also do not exist in ultimate reality. Likewise wisdom and its attainment do not exist. The experience of just being is that moment-by-moment disintegration of conscious experience is the only reality, thus unsatisfactoriness is the common awareness. Everything is always changing. We humans think it is all real, just like we think our thoughts are realities. Our conventional reality is that verbal concepts are solid and permanent beliefs of mind. But in ultimate reality all conventional experience is time-limited in and out of awareness – a mere flash of conscious experience and no solid or permanent thing-being.
Huineng’s Platform Sutra follows these above noted forms of ultimate reality. He emphasized great differences between conventional and ultimate reality. His stand on dharma wars – the asking of challenging questions and the answering by others – was to always answer in the opposite. The implication is that all conventional truths – even The Four Noble Truths are simply verbal forms that we can use to become enlightened as long as we do not attach to and grasp at them. Core dharma sets the stage for understanding impermanence, dependent arising, and emptiness. All things rise and fall; all things arise depending upon other things; and, all things that arise and fall depend on causes and conditions in relation to other things. There is no independently arising self-existence in anything. Thus all consciousness of things and experiences that dependently arise are ultimately empty. The no-self, even, does not exist ultimately.
These are very complex conceptual patterns to process. Do your best to meditate on some of these. See where you come out! What was your meditative experience? Was it conventional in nature? Was there a glimpse of ultimate reality? Did your consciousness disappear?
For more information refer to Armstrong, G. (2017). Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators. Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, pp. 197-208.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
Author of Mindful Happiness