“‘Everything exists’: that is one extreme.
‘Everything doesn’t exist’: that is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle…”
In wrapping up our whirlwind tour through the foundational view I would like to share a sketch of how these ideas might be helpful in understanding our times, like an impressionist painting in words.
First here is a reminder of why any of this is being discussed. We are trying to find a way to live knowing all the detailed horrors of our ecological circumstances yet still be joyfully appreciative for life just as it is. The paradoxical nature of this agenda is leading us throughout. Earlier posts have already addressed that this joy we are looking for is not the happy face, Pollyannaisms of popular feel-good society but recognition that in order to be of benefit to those we come into contact with, being suicidally depressed is less than helpful. If you are in a relationship, celebrating your loving bond involves being happy to be alive in the circumstances of that relationship. If you are a mother or father, inspiring your children with the best of your love entails showing them how life can be lived well. If you are a teacher or a nurse or any of the countless other professions that seek to serve the needs of others your effectiveness involves the ability to share an appreciation for life. Basically we are trying to understand how in spite of it all, being aware and awake to the exquisite highs and lows of life is worth the pain involved.
The pain is unavoidable, the suffering is optional. That is one way to summarize the teaching the view is trying to convey. It is a tricky thing to communicate and a tricky thing to grasp because it is looking to navigate a middle way between the two extremes of what was known classically as eternalism and nihilism or what might be more readily understood today as idealism and realism.
On one side there are all those thought systems that claim some aspect of our experience touches upon eternal, unchanging somethings. Platonic forms, deathless souls, mathematical truths and gods as popularly understood are a few of these types of thought systems that entail some aspect of eternalism. More pedestrian, yet perhaps more relevant in the final analysis, the same tendency is found in our social and political realms when the value of justice or freedom or other ideals are held up as more than guides amidst ever changing conditions. Ideas and ideals are meant to serve the needs of living, breathing beings – not the other way around.
The other side is populated by all those skeptical thought systems that wield a deconstruction of those eternalisms that are taken so far only confusion and meaninglessness remain. There are fewer widespread instances of these thought systems since they do not compliment our egos but they remain as undercurrents in much of what passes for normality today. The suspicion that mortals with conscious awareness is a joke at our expense perhaps H.P. Lovecraft captured most colorfully: that the universe might have a blind, gibbering, idiot god at its heart. The conviction that love is nothing more than chemical reactions and that chemical reactions are somehow less worthy of holding such an elevated emotion is more of the same.
It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the eternalism position. Our ego would like to build a castle in the air and then move into it and thereby avoid death. The defense against this danger is the advice to always ‘take your body with you’, advice familiar to anyone practicing mindfulness. Our elaborate religious and philosophical systems all seek to identify a truth that will stand for all time, outside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If we can just find the right combination of conceptual details the puzzle of existence will be unlocked and then we can proceed with life fearless and free of suffering. It is our happiness project.
When the happiness project falls apart, which it inevitably must if in fact all compound things are impermanent, the ego falls not to the ground of the particulars but into the hells of the nihilists.That this is the usual way of things is well known yet resisted, feared. We see this in the religious fanatic quick to kill anyone who might threaten the legitimacy of their particular castle in the air. Just seeing someone else living in a way different from the fanatic’s choice threatens to be the lightning strike that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. The same dynamics play out in the political realm when war is justified not because a physical threat to communities has occurred but because belligerents have dared to question our castles. Those of us old enough to have lived most our lives under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and Russia are all too familiar with how these seemingly philosophical differences get translated into very real policies and actions. More recently all the rhetoric about ‘they hate our freedoms’ used to turn attention away from historical grievances and injustices between East and West is more of the same type of air-castle defense.
The classical presentation of the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism uses the idea of self and the possibility of an afterlife. The eternalism position is found in those that teach the self exists now and will continue to exist after the body dies. The nihilism position is found in those that teach the self exists now but will not exist after the body dies. The middle way between these two is held by those teachers that teach that the self does not exist now nor will it in some afterlife. This is the teaching of selflessness within the Buddhist traditions.
The idea of selflessness is important because relief from suffering is related to how well we understand it in our heart-mind, yet it is easily misunderstood. I recently completed Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson and can recommend it to those interested in the contributions neuroscience can make to our understanding of these things. The summary is that there is no self as an entity but only as a process; life lives us. We could say there is indeed a center to the mandala but that it is occupied by centerless space.
By the way, speaking of the afterlife, this middle way view is the root of the contemplative recommendation to call to mind one’s own death every day. While our feel-good, all is awesome in consumer-land culture sees only depression here, it is actually a way of staying in touch with what is most real and important, as well as cutting through the fog of habit that so easily blinds us to just how precious each and every day actually is.
Taking in the last few hundred years of philosophy in the west allows us to use reason to illustrate the middle way. I think for many people this resonates more deeply than speculations about selfhood. This is all about the role of science, the inheritance from the age of the western enlightenment and how we justify our educational and political institutions today. The Descartes – Locke – Kant traditions have placed reason on a pedestal as the means by which we might grasp the eternal truth and the really real. They would like to have the certainty deductive logic provides extended to inductive logic. Recognizing that inductive logic can only provide insights of a wholly different type the skeptics rise and in their deconstructions soon give rise to nihilism. The Hume – Nietzsche – Derrida traditions have been interpreted this way. The Bayesian approach to reasoning sketched out earlier is one way to navigate the middle way between these two extremes by recognizing that reason is a useful tool, thereby avoiding the nihilism and yet it is not some sort of direct line to cosmic truth central, which avoids the other extreme of eternalism.
It is worth returning to the point made earlier. The middle way is not meant to be a final answer, an alternative air-castle. The wisdom it embodies is that the answer to the riddle of life is to be found in the living of it. What it offers is an alternative lifestyle which satisfies the existential longings and conforms to the existential circumstances of a finite, conscious being. This contemplative lifestyle is the alternative to dogma and any conceivable conceptual-only system claiming to be or represent the final truth. It offers an ever changing process instead of fixed structures, relationships as primary instead of things. It teaches us to train in seeing that right here and right now is an ever new and fresh moment – open, spacious and relaxed, even while being in the midst of all these appearances that are so luminous, vivid and clear.
Ecological issues today also illustrate the three positions people can take regarding what is really real. The eternalists assure us there is nothing to worry about. The nihilists are sure the end of the world is just around the corner. The middle way between these extreme sees a collapse of fossil-fueled industrial civilization as inevitable but not fundamentally different than the collapse of previous civilizations in the past. Can you see how each of these positions will lead a person into distinctly different lifestyles? Can you see how accepting finitude might lead one to be able to let the huge cycles of history unfold as they will, while we carefully tend our gardens and take joy in their harvests?