Siddhârtha’s Gift – The Middle Way
Essentially, meditation is about finding balance.
For example, obviously, to meditate, we must use effort – but we find that if we use too much effort, we create tension and anxiety – and stillness cannot happen.
Same thing with the main object – if we focus too hard on the main object, we lose awareness and fall asleep, or become tense. Alternatively, if our attention is too light, it becomes easily distracted.
So you see, with everything we do in meditation, the best results always come from walking the middle path between extremes – the middle way.
But it goes much further than that. The ‘middle way’ was one of the main factors in the Buddha’s enlightenment – the central core within everything he realised. So maybe we should take a look at how it evolved.
Before the Buddha became a wandering ascetic in search of enlightenment, he was Prince Siddhârtha Gotama, born 2500 years ago to a warrior king who ruled over the land of the Sâkyans on the Nepalese frontier.
When Siddhârtha was born, a sage told the king that either of two things would happen with his son – he would either become a great and powerful ruler, or a wandering beggar-ascetic in the tradition of spiritual seekers of the day. Of course, the king wanted his son to become his eventual successor, so he decided to try and tweak fate by grooming Siddhârtha as a king- to enclose him in luxury while educating him to rule.
This cocoon of luxury was so complete that Siddhârtha spent many years totally oblivious to very basic truths of life. Surrounded as he was by youth, beauty and luxury, he had no idea there was old age, or sickness or suffering or death in the world – which made it all the more shocking when, as a young man, on a few of his rare forays outside one of the palace compounds, the prince began to glimpse the suffering which had always been hidden from him.
Four separate events changed him profoundly and sowed the seeds for his eventual life direction.
On the first occasion, as the he was driving with his charioteer Channa to the royal gardens, he saw a man weakened with age, lying on the ground where he had fallen and crying out for help.
The second occasion was when he caught sight of a man who was diseased and dying, so thin he was skin and bones.
And the third occasion was when he saw a group of weeping men carrying a corpse to cremation.
Siddhârtha was shocked. He had never known that there was suffering like this, and he’d never contemplated death. And when his charioteer told him that even he and his beautiful wife and child, and all his youthful friends would, without exception, eventually become subject to ageing, disease, and death, he was stricken with grief. He found it almost impossible to assimilate this new reality into the kind of life he was living. Suddenly all the luxury and pleasure of his life was revealed as only temporary – to be lost when sickness and death eventually came.
As one used to perfection and facile fulfilment, this realisation of the profound unsatisfactoriness of life nagged at Siddhârtha. It didn’t make sense to him, that most beings should be born to such ignoble suffering, with death as their only reward. And because he had never experienced suffering or sickness, he felt as if he had been tricked into a grand deception by his father’s desires for him.
He became obsessed with suffering – the idea of it, the questions it created in his head. No matter how he tried, he could no longer ignore the fundamental ‘wrongness’ he saw in life around him. He saw death and imperfection everywhere. And the more he thought about it, the more the questions haunted him, until finally he realised he had no way of knowing how to address the questions in his head, because his experience was so limited by his luxurious life.
He became very unhappy. Luxury no longer satisfied him, nor did the prospect of becoming a king, and no-one could distract him from the despair he felt, which became stronger every day.
Then one day he happened to come upon one of the many wandering holy-men who were common at that time. These were men who had left home and family to devote themselves to the spiritual life. In India, these wandering holy men were very revered, and were supported with donations wherever they went. Though the man was emaciated and dressed in rags, Siddhârtha was impressed by his grace and quietly happy demeanor. He was different to other people – oddly unconcerned with the obvious physical hardship he lived with.
Siddhârtha asked his servants why this man seemed so happy when he lived in apparent poverty. It was explained to him that many men in India and the surrounding countries of the region did this with their life – became travelling beggars to devote themselves to spiritual truth through renunciation and meditation – and they all seemed impervious to suffering.
As he watched the holy-man begging, Siddhârtha saw his life direction. He knew by now that the tug of all the questions and doubts that nagged at him continuously, had made him utterly unsuitable to be king, no matter how alluring the luxury and power. He had experienced all the luxury, power and gratification that the material world could offer him, yet it only confused and suffocated him. Inspired, he realised that the answers he needed lay in finding the solution, not only to suffering as it appeared in life, but his own suffering as well.
So he cut off his hair, gave away his robes and left his young wife and son, and the palaces where his whole life had been spent, and became a wandering sadhu.
At first Siddhârtha sought guidance from the most obvious place – from sages famous for their knowledge. Under their guidance he brought all his intelligence and willpower to bear on the new challenge of meditation. Such was the power of his will, it was not long before he had surpassed his teachers, yet still the answers he was looking for eluded him. Though many would have been satisfied with the progress he had made, the original questions that had caused him to renounce his life as a prince still remained unanswered.
Now, at that time there was, and still is, a belief in India that it is only through rigorous self-denial and physical mortification that spiritual purification and enlightenment can be achieved. Siddhârtha decided that if this was what he must do to find the answers to his questions, then he would take it as far as he could to achieve that end.
So he thanked his teachers and left, wandering until he found a suitable place beside a river, where, with a few fellow ascetics, he began his efforts anew – determined this time, to find what lay beyond life itself. For the next six years he and his companions struggled to annihilate and transcend their physicality in the hope of liberation. During this time they lived on nothing but roots and leaves, all the time reducing the amount of food they needed to stay alive. They wore cast off rags and slept on the bare ground, no matter how cold it became at night, or how badly bitten they were by insects.
Of all of them, Siddhârtha was most extreme in these privations as he tried to succeed in this endeavour that he had given up so much for. He meditated for days on end, and when that wasn’t enough, he meditated for longer. In his desperation to find an ultimate truth that would satisfy his questions, he pushed the limits of mind and body right up to the point of death.
It was only then, on the brink of death, that he suddenly realized how futile his extreme efforts had been. He was no closer to his goal. All he’d done was nearly waste his efforts by almost killing himself. He realised then, that his will had been too strong, too full of ambition and desire. It had pushed him to ignore and abuse his only true friends in this endeavor – his own mind and body.
So by now Siddhârtha had experienced the two opposite extremes in his life. He had experienced absolute wealth, luxury, pleasure and comfort, and he had experienced absolute poverty, starvation, suffering and deprivation. And now he knew that true liberation did not come from either of them – neither in the indulgence of the senses, as he had experienced when he was a prince, or in the extreme abstinence and denial of an ascetic.
He realised that the true path to his goal, or any goal for that matter, lay between the two extremes, in what he termed ‘The Middle Way’. He is reputed to have said, “The middle path, avoiding the extremes, gives vision and knowledge and leads to calm, realization, enlightenment, and Nibbâna.”
In the middle way Siddhârtha saw how important it was for his body to be nourished and well kept. To this end, he took meditation in a new direction. Rather than using it to try to escape mind and body, he saw that liberation could only come from the total reconciliation of mind and body with life itself. In that new cause, he abandoned extreme measures and began to eat and take care of himself, and make himself healthy, so he could investigate how mind and body interact with one another to create the reality we live in.
His companions did not understand. Where previously they followed Siddhârtha’s example, now they turned against him, accusing him of weakening in the ascetic cause. They thought that by forgoing extreme self denial, Siddhârtha was giving up the goal of enlightenment to resume his old princely habits of luxurious living.
In disgust they left him.
Siddhârtha was not swayed by their disdain. With firm determination and complete faith in his own inspiration, now alone and unguided by any teacher or companion, Siddhârtha set out on his new, and unique path.
After taking the time he needed to nurse himself back to health, he seated himself beneath a banyan tree and began. But this time as he meditated, he did not seek to escape his physicality. Rather he turned his attention around and did the opposite. He looked into the mental and physical stuff of his being to see how it worked, patiently examining the mechanic of his conditioned mind and body, looking for answers to his questions about life and and the nature of suffering.
As his absorption deepened he gained what, at the time, was a revolutionary insight into the nature of habits, reactions and conditioning. Siddhârtha saw how the mind is caught in a strange revolving cycle of suffering – a wheel of habits in which mental and physical habits create and sustain each other.
Put simply, the cycle of suffering goes something like this:
- Everything we do generates different sensations in the body.
- We develop a liking for some of these sensations, and we dislike other sensations.
- This causes us to seek out the sensations we like and avoid the sensations we don’t like.
- This seeking and avoiding has the effect of strengthening the reactive habits that cause the sensations. When our desires are fulfilled, we interpret the sensations as pleasure, and when not, we interpret them as pain. In this way our mental habits use a kind of carrot and stick to strengthen themselves.
- At the same time, we develop a fear of change, because it takes away the sensations we like – that we’ve become addicted to, and threatens to bring sensations we don’t like.
- So, we try to stop change. And we develop a habit of clinging to what we think will give us pleasure, and trying to avoid what we think will create pain.
- But change is an inevitable truth of life. So the more we try to stop it happening, the more we suffer as it inevitably takes away the happiness we crave and cling to. We become like a pinball bouncing between the two cushions of desire and dislike, as things keep changing and we keep trying to cling to what we like, and avoid what we don’t like.
- The harder we try, to stop change the more we suffer. And so it goes – we’re caught in a wheel of suffering.
As he meditated, Siddhârtha realised that the compelling habits and reactions being generated by his own mind, and in his own body, were creating the wheel of suffering that he and all of humanity were caught upon.
He also noticed that as he changed his view of the habits and saw them for what they are – simply sensations in the body accompanied by thoughts in the mind, the habits slowly lost the definitions his conditioning had created for them. They no longer created pleasure or pain. They became characterless – just what they are – thought energy and sensations.
And as his habits lost their character, he found he no longer felt the need to pursue or avoid the objects that had caused them. Result being, his needs became less – not through denial or abstinence, but through wisdom.
Siddhârtha’s other revelation was revolutionary for the time, and even today it remains controversial with those who are not Buddhist. He saw very clearly that, aside from the tangled habits that form the layers of conditioned mind, there is no essential ‘Self’ or ‘soul’ to anything, whether it be a human being, an animal, a tree, or anything else in this universe. He saw that all things are just composites of other things – that a human is a composite of organs and skeleton, which are composites of cells, which are composites of molecules, atoms, particles, and so on. And within all these collections of different things, the only permanent thing common to all, is an awareness that’s not specific to any of them. And in this awareness, everything in the universe is unified.
In short, he saw that the separateness of being we commonly perceive is an illusion created by our habits.
As such, Siddhârtha realised that no one thing in this unity in existence is worth clinging to, or valuing, or fearing, or desiring – because all things, except bare awareness itself, are insubstantial, temporary, and essentially illusory. And if we cling to any part of this vast web of being, we will suffer.
As his mind experienced this new view of itself, it began to change. It naturally lost interest in the conditioned attachments it had been formed from and his conditioned being began to fall apart.
As his sense of self naturally deconstructed, his absorption grew deeper. He now had no need to try to transcend his mind – his own mind had transcended itself.
He is reputed to have exclaimed, “Wonder of wonders! This very enlightenment is the nature of all beings and yet they are unhappy for lack of it!”
Buddhist texts speak of the many different stages he went through on the night of his enlightenment, but nobody can really know just how deep his experience of ultimate reality actually was. All we know is that the product of his enlightenment was profound insight into the nature and psychology of mind, physicality, and conditioned reality.
When Siddhârtha told his followers what he had found, they were astonished by the stunning dichotomy of simplicity and profound depth of what he had discovered. They gave Siddhârtha the title, ‘Buddha’, meaning ‘enlightened one’.
The wonder of Siddhârtha’s enlightenment was that it was so clean of religious connotation. Unlike most sages, gurus and prophets of the time, he did not refer to gods, or mystical or apocalyptic visions. Siddhârtha did something incredible. He stepped outside the religious beliefs and conditioning he’d been born into and, looking back from a totally detached position, he stripped away the mythology and superstition that had built up over thousands of years, and laid bare the simple truths about life. He simply said, “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind.”
In the intensely fatalistic mysticism of the time this was unique. The idea of self-responsibility had never been considered, because few had ever made the connection between suffering and their own actions.
Added to which, they had a lot of other places to conveniently place the blame.
With the vast pantheon of gods that most of humanity believed in at that time, people had become used to feeling powerless – blaming the gods for their suffering, or praising them for their good fortune. As a result, humanity lurched from one disaster to the next, never learning from personal experience because, whatever the problem was, it was usually ascribed to the gods, or fate, or evil spirits.
It is this clarity that distinguishes the Buddha from other religious teachers. He never claimed mystical powers, or to be a God or any incarnation of God, nor did he try to make himself a prophet.
In fact, the last thing he thought to do was to become another spiritual teacher, as there were already too many at the time. His initial reaction to his enlightenment was to keep quiet about it, because he had no faith in people’s ability to understand what he now knew. He is reputed to have said, ‘… if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.’ It was only the encouragement of the rapidly expanding group of fellow meditators who convinced him his knowledge should be spread.
So he set out to teach what he knew.
He laid out a way to realise the true nature of our life experience through meditation. As such all of his teachings, both moral and theoretical, are specifically and entirely to do with the development of meditation and mindfulness.
Central to these teachings is ‘the middle way’ – the idea of balance – that the most effective path towards anything, be it meditation, or life itself, is the path that runs between the extremes. And the only way we can travel this middle path is to be mindful of the habits and addictions that pull us away from it.
Modern psychology has appropriated a lot of what the Buddha taught, so his revelations are not seen as being particularly significant these days. It’s really only when we have practised meditation for a while that they become clear, as we begin to experience the truths of what he said. The more we meditate, the more we realise how profound was the gift that this extraordinary man gave us.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)