The Middle Way
commentary by Gendo
TEXT:“The gross material of which you are composed is at the mercy of the four elements, earth, water, fire and wind; the fine material of which you are composed is at the mercy of the four phases: birth, being, decay and death. Followers of the Way, you must right now apprehend the state in which the four elements and four phases are formless to avoid being buffeted about by circumstances.” ("Recording Sayings of Linji", trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki)
The so-called first sermon of the Buddha is associated with the four noble truths, “suffering and its resolution,” but actually it doesn’t begin with those four truths. Or, rather, it begins with an underlying principle. It begins with the “two extremes (that) should not be followed.” The first is hedonism or sensual pleasure, and the second is the “pursuit of self-mortification.” The advice is not to “veer toward either extreme,” but to awaken to the “middle way.”
In Zen these two extremes are seen as the universal juxtaposition of opposites, like the “yin and yang” of Taoism; like expansion/ contraction, male and female , life and death, light and dark,…the list is endless.
Buddhism attributes such dualisms to the nature of consciousness itself. In other words, the way consciousness ‘works’ is to break apart an experience that is originally undifferentiated, breaking it apart by contrasting one thing to another according to our preferences. This, in my view, is what Linji wants us to understand “right now;” to see that the “ buffeting circumstances” of such dualisms are ultimately one wholeness, one ‘middle way.’
This idea is also expressed as “dependent origination” (pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit language), the notion that something that we distinguish as having independent existence is, on inspection, arising in dependent relationship with something else. In-breatth and out-breath, night and day, are distinct activities and yet utterly dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other. Pleasure and self-mortification do not ultimately exist independent of each other. This is the insight of Zen. But it is also an everyday experience.
The middle way begins with recognition of the duality inherent in the existence of any object, whether it is an object of the senses or mind objects such as a feeling or a thought. Collectively, these are all beings, as in the daily chant, “Beings numberless, vow to liberate.” With that recognition comes the realization that we hold on to one side or another of such dualities according to our preferences. These are the “faults” we vow to overcome. Language itself is objectification, giving something substance and “reality” by naming it. Yet for every object, a contrasting subject lies in the background. This is the wisdom we vow to attain.
Who is it that distinguishes one from the other. It is of course, the “self,” the self that picks and chooses according to its preferences. Discriminating consciousness is self affirming.
The middle way expresses the idea that, to embrace the truth of what is going on, is to embrace the whole situation, is to embrace the whole of expansion and contraction, the whole of male and female, of life and death. That embrace of both sides of duality is also described in Zen is as the coming together of subject and object.
When two sides come together, what happens to the self that was distinguishing one from the other according to its preferences. Of course, the discriminating “self” has disappeared. To embrace the big picture, to embrace both sides, is to forget the self. That is the teaching of Zen. But it is also your own experience. Is that right? Like old Nisargadatta says, “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything that is love. My life turns between these two.” To let go of the picking and choosing activity of “self,” is the wisdom, the “true knowledge” capable of holding the “whole picture” beyond the self-centered fixation of the moment. This is the “awakened way” we vow to attain.
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