by Robert M. Ellis
For the past twenty years I have been developing an approach that I call Middle Way Philosophy, which is an attempt to articulate some key practical insights that I initially found through Buddhism in a more universal way. This approach has become the basis of a number of books, such as Migglism (2014) and The Buddha’s Middle Way (2019 – with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor). It’s also the basis of the Middle Way Society, which has been running since 2013 and now has various ongoing discussion groups and retreats.
Although Buddhism is obviously an important influence in this work, it’s far from the only one, and it gets a lot of its whole point from what I’d call ‘critical synthesis’. It draws on a lot of different kinds of sources, though in a discriminating way, and identifies common patterns of what works in practice, in the long-term, in different contexts. The idea of the Middle Way, which is of course a term that is Buddhist in origin, is central to my understanding of what works, but I also find it very important not to be limited by Buddhism, and to investigate other sources of insight wherever I find them.
I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places.
The Middle Way approach
The view that I’ve arrived at of the nature of the Middle Way, after around 20 years of work, is that it is a process of navigation between positive and negative absolutes in human judgement. Judgement is something we all have to do all the time in our response to every new experience, interpreting what we find, developing beliefs about the world around us and prioritising the values we apply to it. Judgements range from the trivial to the life changing – whether to eat a small amount of animal produce out of politeness, whether to listen to the birdsong or carry on thinking, whether that person’s probing question is hostile or benevolent, whether to turn off that life support machine. Such judgements depend on our mental states and emotions as well as our beliefs, and we judge better or worse at each point.
We judge better when we make maximum use of the experience available to us, but worse when we take our limiting assumptions to tell us the whole story – when we are convinced that we know the ‘truth’ of the matter. Crucially, though, those limiting assumptions can be just as much negative as positive, and we are just as deluded in assuming an absolute falsehood as an absolute truth. I could absolutize, for instance, by assuming the questioner must be hostile – or must not, or that we must never end a life – or that any preference for ending a life must be good enough. Judgement is the universal working ground of practice, for it is there that the value of meditation, of critical thinking, of the arts, or of any other kind of integrative practice, is tested out at each moment. The Middle Way is thus not a cosmic truth of any kind, but a principle of judgement newly minted at each moment.
My path to the Middle Way
The personal history that led me to this approach is complex. I come from a liberal Christian background, and first met Buddhism in the form of the Triratna movement at university. I was obviously influenced by that form of Buddhism, but had an unstable relationship with it, because I simultaneously valued it as a context of practice, but also needed to be able to reject it when intellectual integrity seemed to demand that I do. Eventually I became a member of the Triratna Order in 2004 but resigned in 2008. I had a good go at working within Buddhism, but the Middle Way seemed to be constantly offering me a wider perspective.
I have found important sources of the Middle Way in all kinds of other places – in pragmatic and sceptical philosophy, in scientific method and critical thinking, in many forms of psychology, in the neuroscience of the brain hemispheres, in the embodied meaning thesis of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Jungian psychology, and in systems theory, to name only the most important influences. Symbolism has also long been important and meaningful to me – I’m not just a dried out philosopher but also a poet and musician – but I’ve also often found that Buddhist symbols often leave me stone cold, whilst Christian ones speak to me far more deeply.
Universal vs. Traditional Buddhism
I’ve often been puzzled by what I’ve encountered of Buddhist approaches to the question of universality. Often, I find Buddhists using the term ‘the Dharma’ to mean something universal, yet when it comes to points where a choice of priorities is required between ‘the Dharma’ and the Buddhist tradition, the judgement is often fudged. If we are actually devoted to practice and to what works, our best understanding of what works must take priority every time. Buddhist tradition can offer rich resources for practice and a lot of prima facie credibility, but we don’t have to endlessly give it the benefit of the doubt when it advises things that are clearly not helpful. There are some entrenched aspects of the Buddhist tradition that strike me, on examination, as clearly not helpful, such as the monastic-lay divide, and also many others that need to be interpreted in a bottom-up fashion in the light of the Middle Way, rather than as abstract conceptual ‘truths’ to be applied top-down onto our practice – for instance, enlightenment, karma, the Four Noble Truths, etc.
So does that make me a ‘secular Buddhist’? Obviously one important thing I share with many secular Buddhists is the capacity to investigate the Buddhist tradition critically, a willingness to try to separate the wheat from the chaff. Another is a strong valuation of what we can learn from science – though in my case my focus is much more on the methods of science than on the results. I also have social links with lots of secular Buddhists, particularly Stephen Batchelor, who has been very helpful and encouraging.
However, ‘secular Buddhist’ is not a label I have embraced. I did have a period of involvement with secular Buddhism after leaving the Triratna Order. There are many ways that I find it an unsatisfactory label, but the main one is a lack of what I’d consider clear coherence in what it means. Yes, we need a critical approach to Buddhist tradition, but what criteria should that critical approach be based on? ‘Secular’ is not a term that tells me much about those criteria, whilst ‘Middle Way’ tells me a lot more.
The problematic meaning of ‘secular’
‘Secular’ often means ‘non-religious’ or ‘anti-religious’, and I don’t see the Middle Way in either of those approaches. Rather, to avoid absolutizing assumptions, we need to be able to question anti-religious assumptions as well as religious ones. Most importantly, we need to view religion as a complex system and understand how it operates in people’s experience, rather than identifying it solely with absolute beliefs. For instance, from this standpoint, atheism (in the sense of the belief that God does not exist) is just as absolute and speculative as theism, and determinism (which implicitly claims to understand the nature of all the causal links in the universe) is just as far beyond human experience as absolute freewill. Identifying oneself with a reaction against religion, rather than with the Middle Way that even-handedly questions both types of dogma, leaves the dialogical process between them incomplete, as though the story of the Buddha’s life stopped in the forest after going forth from the palace.
I do appreciate that Stephen Batchelor’s interpretation of the term ‘secular’ is rather wider than that, and is much more compatible with the Middle Way. If ‘secular’ means trying to be adequate to the conditions of the world, then we should all be trying to be ‘secular’ in that sense.
However, even then the term ‘secular Buddhism’ really does not seem to be putting its finger on what is most important, or offering a coherent and positive vision or symbolism. Rather, it’s a cobbling together of two ideas that in many ways seem contradictory – Buddhism and secularity. Yes, they can be reconciled, but how? It’s the practice of the Middle Way and its questioning of absolute assumptions that is needed to reconcile them, so that seems to me to be the prior and far more important idea to draw on in making ‘secular Buddhism’ coherent and effective.
Identifying and engaging with multiple traditions
So that’s one reason why I have a lot of sympathy with secular Buddhists and what they are trying to do, but stop short of embracing their label for what they are doing to describe my own position. Another one is perhaps more personal, which is a strong desire to remain free of the constraints of any one tradition or discipline, so that I can engage with any of them as I wish. If I’m a ‘secular Buddhist’ in some senses, I’m also a ‘secular Christian’ and a ‘secular Jungian’. The Middle Way Society, which I founded, is also by no means confined to ‘secular Buddhists’, but also contains Christians (particularly Quakers) and a humanistic rabbi from the Jewish tradition. It’s a central aspect of what we are trying to develop that the Middle Way can be found to varying extents in all sorts of places.
To avoid vague or naïve universalism, that also means that we have to keep applying a critical awareness to whatever traditions we’re working with – but there are a very wide variety of traditions we can potentially work with. To ‘work with’ a tradition often means recognizing your own embodied roots – how deep the meaning of its symbols goes into your experience if you have been engaging with that tradition since childhood.
In my own case, I found it something of a surprise, given that I spent much of my childhood proclaiming myself an atheist in rebellion against my liberal Christian family, to find how much Christian culture mattered to me, even when interpreting it non-absolutely is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The meaning of religious symbols does not have to be indelibly associated with unhelpful absolute beliefs, given that in their complex sources there are also many indications of Middle Way insights (ones I have tried to bring out in my books on ‘The Christian Middle Way’ and on Jung’s Red Book). To transform ourselves we need to engage with our roots, and western Buddhism often seems in danger of deracination.
Cultivating an even-handed critical standpoint
I am convinced that it is not the forms of what we believe that matter, but the ways in which we judge things – the process of practice in relation to whatever material we encounter. We can find meaning and gain inspiration wherever we will, whilst maintaining a sceptical provisionality about the traditions we are working with. An even-handed critical standpoint is one that can just as easily be applied in the context of any complex or developed tradition, whether religious, political or artistic, to learn what we can from all sides without accepting their associated absolute claims (or their opposites). However, an understanding and confidence in the Middle Way itself, apart from specific traditions, is needed to follow this path.
That’s what the Middle Way Society is all about – people from any tradition having the courage to support each other in rejecting polarizing absolutism and seeking integrative interpretations of whatever complex material they find. I would find it completely pointless to be call myself a ‘Buddhist’ if that was just a commitment to another tribe, another flag to wave, as it so often seems to be. The Buddha’s insights are far too important for that.
In a series of seven talks based on his book, The Buddha’s Middle Way: Experiential Judgement in his Life and Teaching (Equinox. 2019), Robert M. Ellis puts forward an interpretation of the Buddha as a potential inspiration for Middle Way practice, led by practical needs rather than by traditional or historical claims in Buddhism. Click here to learn more.