The Middle Way has long been a central idea in Buddhism, but also a neglected one. In my experience, Buddhists often simply identify the Middle Way with the Buddhist tradition as a whole (or with the Eightfold Path) and have little idea of specific ways that the Middle Way as a distinctive approach can support and structure practice. My own life’s work has been to try to understand and communicate it as a basis of practice – a work that began in the context of Buddhist tradition, but now frequently takes me beyond it. My new book ‘The Five Principles of Middle Way Philosophy’ is an account of the conclusions I have reached over some 25 years of work about what the Middle Way means as a practice, complete with justifications and implications.
I want to give a brief idea in this article of what these five principles are, and why I think they should be inspiring and helpful to secular Buddhists (along with many other people). I will do that whilst also mentioning a connection with them that I made in an earlier book – ‘The Buddha’s Middle Way’. There I discussed the Five Principles in relation to metaphors of the Buddha: specifically the arrow, the second arrow, the raft, the lute strings, the ocean, the blind men and the elephant, the snake, and the wet piece of wood. Assuming that I’m writing predominantly for an audience of Buddhists who are likely to have heard of some or all of these metaphors, they can help to provide an imaginative anchor for the principles, and also to show that they have not come out of nowhere, but are a development and clarification of a vein of insight found in Buddhism and beyond.
One thing I should also warn you of is that all the principles imply each other. They are an analysis of what the Middle Way implies – not the only possible one, I’m sure, but one that seems to have proved useful so far. None of them make complete sense in isolation from the others, but nevertheless, each one reveals a new and important aspect of what it means to practice the Middle Way.
The first principle is scepticism, by which I mean the use of sceptical arguments as a reminder of uncertainty. By ‘sceptical arguments’ I mean any of a whole range of arguments that can be found in the philosophy of scepticism to cast doubt on claims to ‘knowledge’ – that is, whenever people think they ‘know’ the ‘truth’ or have the whole story. These arguments remind us systematically that our senses and processing of information is fallible, that all our assumptions rely on other assumptions that may be wrong, and that language, dependent on bodily association for its meaning, is incapable of representing ‘reality’ in any case. One simple example of sceptical argument is what is known as the ‘error argument’. When you think you’ve got something right, just try reflecting on all the times you’ve made errors before, but not realized it: this might just be happening again!
To be used in a way compatible with the Middle Way, sceptical arguments need to be used non-selectively and even-handedly. A lot of trouble and misunderstanding of scepticism has been created by the neglect of these two points. People often use sceptical arguments selectively to only cast doubt on someone else’s position, but have fail to acknowledge that the same arguments lead to uncertainty in their own views. People also often confuse scepticism with negativity and denial, forgetting the basic point that sceptical arguments apply just as much to negative assertions as to positive ones. So, for instance, if you argue that basic uncertainty means that you cannot assert that objects absolutely ‘exist’, this does not imply idealism, the belief that objects must therefore only be ‘in your mind’. You don’t know either of these two things: you just have a consistent experience of an object that you can apparently keep relating to. The consistent recognition that negative claims are just as uncertain as positive ones is one of the distinctive starting points of the Middle Way approach.
Because it does not entail any negative positions, there is nothing at all threatening about scepticism. It’s not impractical nor indecisive nor contradictory, nor any of the other things it’s commonly accused of being. It’s just a consistent recognition of uncertainty – that is, of the implication of being an embodied human rather than God.This does not threaten any beliefs that have already taken uncertainty into account in the way they are held. It is a threat only to dogmatic or absolute beliefs (see my previous article and book on absolutization), not to the confident holding of beliefs that we can justify through experience.
In the Buddha’s metaphors, the principle of scepticism is reflected in the story of the man shot by an arrow, who wants endless explanation of the provenance and nature of the arrow before he plucks it out. Note that the man involved is not being sceptical: he does not ask difficult questions about the justification of his own or other people’s beliefs about the arrow, but on the contrary, he wants certainty about everything before he can get on with the most obvious practical action. The Buddha tells this story in the context of a discourse about the insistence of a man called Malunkyaputta in trying to get certainty about ultimate metaphysical questions. Of course, no answers to these are available.
It’s also reflected in the story of the second arrow. The first arrow is the one that causes us direct and unavoidable pain. The second arrow, though, is the one we (as it were) fire at ourselves: the arrow of absolutization whereby we think the pain is the whole story. That tells us something about the direct and practical uses of sceptical argument to provide us with context for both pleasant and painful experiences. If we recognize the uncertainty of our beliefs about overwhelming pleasure or pain, probably through a combination of mindfulness and reflection, it is no longer so overwhelming.
The application of scepticism takes us to the second principle, provisionality. Provisionality is the holding of our beliefs in a way that makes it possible to modify them in the light of new experience or information. Provisionality, then, is the Middle Way alternative to metaphysics – that is, to ultimate claims of any kind. It’s an implicit ideal of science that when new evidence comes along, a committed scientist is able to change their theory, however much they may have invested in it. However, relatively little attention is usually given to the exact conditions that make that possible.
How do we gain the ability to change our minds? By sufficient contextual awareness of alternatives. This is not about the beliefs we hold so much as the way that we hold them (though there is also some correlation between the two). If the only possible beliefs we can think of are the one we are clinging to and its (unthinkable) negation, so that all seems lost without that belief, then we are holding it absolutely. However, if we acknowledge other possibilities in our imagination, even if there is no particular reason to accept them right now, we have a way into provisionality. We do not believe the alternatives so as to act on them, but they are meaningful to us – which is why it is so important to distinguish meaning from belief, and to cultivate resources of meaning through the arts and imagination. We do not know in advance when we may need those resources to form a completely different view, in response to radically new conditions. For instance, we don’t know, especially given climate change, when an extreme event such as a hurricane, fire or flood might deprive us of all the conditions we’ve been relying on in our lives, such as our home, possessions, and relationships. In such circumstances, it’s the imaginative who can rebuild.
I’m convinced that imagination is the most important element of provisionality – not ‘rationality’, as much traditional academic discourse would have it. That doesn’t mean that some elements that people have identified with ‘rationality’ might not help. To let go of our old beliefs, we need to be able to critically see their limitations, and to justify the view we eventually take, we need to be able to weigh up possible beliefs against each other, assessing the rough probability of them being correct. However, none of this will come into play if we are not aware of alternative possibilities in the first place. Without that, our ‘rationality’ will most likely just enable us to concoct ever more elaborate reasons as to why our fixed view is the correct one.
The Buddha’s famous metaphor for provisionality is the raft. We build a raft to get across a river, but when we get to the other side, we don’t burden ourselves by carrying the raft: we leave it behind. The Buddha applied this to his teachings, but it also applies to any belief whatsoever: its justification depends on the context, and we may need to let go of that belief in another context. Another such metaphor is that of the lute strings: we need to tune ourselves, like the lute, neither too taut nor too slack. Constant adjustment is needed, rather than feeling that we have tuned ourselves into permanently right beliefs.
The third principle, incrementality, is the practice of judging the qualities or classifications of things as a matter of degree, rather than as absolutes. This is an effective way of identifying and avoiding our tendency to absolutize, because something that is a matter of degree is never the whole story. Systems in experience, as opposed to merely conceptual beliefs, have different complex elements and change gradually: so, we get closer to that experience, and further away from over-simplifying shortcuts, by deliberately thinking of them in that way. For instance, a ‘black’ dog, examined more closely, is a shade of grey. A ‘black’ or ‘white’ person has a complex genetic inheritance with many different incremental characteristics. An animal that we identify as a particular species has many of the characteristics that we identify with that species to a fair degree – but it isn’t absolutely an orangutan or a grey wolf: it just happens to largely fit the categories that zoologists have agreed on (and sometimes they disagree!).
Of course, our practical actions do have to be judged on the basis of assumed categories or qualities: for instance, if I think a spider is a black widow spider, I may take precautions to avoid being bitten that I wouldn’t take with many other small creatures. At the time of making our judgement, we have to turn the incremental beliefs we may have into absolute assumptions based on the best available estimation of probabilities. However, we do not have to do so before that point. The skill of practising incrementality, then, is to increase our provisionality by using incremental models as much as possible, but to be ready to switch to an action mode that makes the best possible use of those models. We don’t have to maintain absolute beliefs about objects all the time.
Incrementality also implies that our judgements about changes should be modelled on gradual change, rather than assuming that anything has instantaneously switched from one state to another. For example, a young man who used to go out drinking with his male friends is not going to suddenly switch to no longer wanting to do that because he has got married. Similarly, a resolution to give up cigarettes is not going to instantaneously rid us of nicotine addiction. However, sometimes things do change relatively quickly, due to reaching a tipping point: birth and death, both processes rather than instantaneous events, are examples of that. Whenever we think something has changed instantaneously, though, it is because we have imposed a conceptual absolute on it – sometimes just in our own minds, or sometimes (as in the case of marriage) as a matter of social convention.
The Buddha’s metaphor for incrementality is that of the ocean, which he says “gradually shelves, slopes and inclines” in the same way as his teaching, which he says is a gradual teaching and a gradual training. There “is no sudden penetration to final knowledge”, he also says, in what seems like a clear discouragement of the absolutization of nirvana. In another place, he also compares spiritual training to the building of a palace – it has to proceed stone by stone. If the training is incremental, it is also because the wider view of the world in which the training occurs is incremental – because we are systemic, embodied organisms.
The fourth principle, agnosticism, is the defensive application of scepticism to disengage ourselves from the pressure of the constant dualistic pairs of assumptions that almost every group will try to recruit us to. Absolute beliefs are a quick and easy way to bind a group, so not surprisingly, when you engage with a group, they usually want you to accept their absolutizations and reject those of their opponents. If you show any sign of resistance, there are all sorts of dirty tricks that groups get up to try to deceive you into conforming, and there is unfortunately no alternative than to be wise to these.
These pairs of absolutizations become very culturally entrenched – for instance, freewill versus determinism, theism versus atheism, realism versus idealism, absolutist ethics versus relativism, materialism versus supernaturalism. Philosophers are often the worst people for insisting on these pairs, because they have been trained into thinking that they are the only alternatives available. However, they never are, if we take the trouble to go back to our experience, reframe and incrementalize rather than taking any dualistic model for granted. For example, to deal with theism versus atheism, you need to track back to the experiences that people interpret as being God, and reflect that these are a matter of degree – however amazing and life-changing they may be. At no point does such an experience, or its absence, justify us in concluding that there either is or is not an infinite being, because we cannot experience an infinite being. The ‘belief’ that God either exists or does not exist thus needs to be seen as a group-binding mechanism, not as something that we could ever justify using our experience. This can be completely separated from the experience of God as an inspiring archetypal symbol, which does not require any belief that God ‘exists’. The same point applies to many other beliefs, all of which often have practical implications (freewill and determinism, for instance, is all about reward and blame).
Agnosticism should not be underestimated. Far from being a matter of weakness or indecisiveness, as it is often misleadingly portrayed, agnosticism requires a lot of courage. Courage is needed to resist group pressure, not once, but twice, as the Buddha is said to have done when he first went forth from the Palace, then also moved on from the teachers and ascetics in the Forest. You need to begin with a clear understanding of what the Middle Way is, and to have confidence that it is possible. You need to have a clear understanding of what you need to avoid and how it might be misleadingly presented. There are a whole set of dirty tricks that absolutizing groups use in relation to any Middle Way position: they appropriate it to their own, or they lump it into their opponents’, they assume that it is negative just because it doesn’t accept their view, and they even sometimes enter into unholy alliance with their supposed opponents against anyone who might threaten their shared adversarial framing.
The Buddha’s story of the blind men and the elephant offers one approach to agnosticism: all the blind men touched the elephant in different places, and all assumed that the part of the elephant they were touching was the whole elephant. To resist their loud conflict, we have to maintain an idea of the whole elephant as distinct from what they can feel. Another helpful image used by the Buddha is that of the snake that bites you if you get hold of it in the wrong way: he likened this to his teachings. If you give way to all the pressure to turn the Middle Way into just another absolute teaching, positive or negative, then you have effectively lost control of it: it will have turned into an absolutization that can turn round and bite you when the conditions change.
The final principle, but in many ways the most important one, is integration – the principle that we should keep working over the long-term to reduce the conditions that create conflict. Absolutization and conflict are inextricable, because conflict (whether internal or socio-political) only occurs when one or both sides think they have the whole story, and are unwilling to modify their view of the situation in the light of information from their opponents. Our psyches are full of conflicts that we frequently also project outwards into the world. Overcoming those conflicts can unify our desires, the meaning we draw on, our attention, and our beliefs, to make us far more effective in the judgements we make as we move through the world.
We can overcome conflict by avoiding absolutizations (by practising the other four principles), but we can also make this a lot easier in the longer term through what we can call integrative practice, also often called by Buddhists spiritual practice. Integrative practices can work at the level of immediate desire (for instance, mindfulness) to unify our attention, at the level of meaning (for instance, the arts) to unify our meaning resources and sense of meaning in relation to our experience, and at the level of belief (for instance, critical thinking) to understand and reframe absolutized beliefs. These three levels give us what I refer to as the Threefold Practice – distinct from the Buddhist Threefold Path because based on integration rather than enlightenment, and including meaning-related practice.
Integration can give us an overall direction in our practice of the Middle Way that depends only on our experience and the way in which we work with that experience. We don’t need to ‘believe in enlightenment’ to give a direction to our practice, because we don’t need ultimate goals, only intermediate ones. Becoming increasingly integrated over our lifetimes is an achievable (and incremental) goal that doesn’t tempt us towards any absolute beliefs or revelations to distract us from the process of actually practising in our experience. Various clarifications of the concept of integration may be needed, though: it can have temporary forms (such as jhana, meditative absorption), but these do not necessarily give us lasting integration; it can be asymmetrical (we get integrated more in some ways than others, so we can still be surprised by the conflicts that come up); its psychological and socio-political versions are also inextricable, so that we very rarely have one without the other.
The Buddha’s image for integration is not such a well-known one: a wet piece of wood that is gradually suffused by water. There are several versions of this with slightly different meanings in different places in the Pali Canon, but perhaps the simplest and most useful version is the idea that integration of our energies suffuses us in the same way. When you meditate, you could imagine yourself as a log suffused by water, as your body relaxes, energizes and (at least temporarily) integrates.
If you put the Five Principles together and try to see them as a whole, I think they provide a very useful model for practice that secular Buddhists could use to try to isolate the practically helpful aspects of Buddhist tradition from the less helpful. Some beliefs associated with Buddhism are clearly incompatible with the Middle Way, at least when interpreted metaphysically: we just need to let go of these. Other Buddhist doctrines require the Middle Way as a key to interpreting them helpfully – for instance, the Four Noble Truths or the Five Precepts. The first precept may tell us not to kill, but by itself doesn’t help with specific judgements about what counts as ‘killing’ in a complex environment.
Whatever material we are working with, from any tradition, we need a general set of principles that focus on judgement as a process rather than on ultimates. Whether we are working with meditation, or ethical practice, or relating to people from different traditions, or even political issues, we need principles that are practical, universal, and capture the Buddha’s insights relevantly, without bogging us down in questions of loyalty to beliefs that are not helpful or relevant. It seems to me that the Five Principles of the Middle Way provide these. That doesn’t mean that they are in any sense an easy option. If you find them challenging, they’re meant to be! It also doesn’t mean that as a formulation they are final: Middle Way Philosophy is an ongoing project that has already been through several substantial changes and developments in its 25-year history, and one that I do not see only as my own individual project, but hope others will also take up.
Further Reading and Discussion
This article is, of course, a trail for my new book, ‘The Five Principles of Middle Way Philosophy: Living Experientially in a World of Uncertainty’, now published by Equinox. You can purchase this at a 25% discount from the publisher’s website https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/middle-way-philosophy/ by inputting the code ‘MWP’ when checking out. You can also see a chapter summary of the book on my personal website at https://www.robertmellis.net/lesson/the-five-principles-of-middle-way-philosophy/ .
There will also be a series of online discussions and retreats in the Middle Way Society on the Five Principles, over the year between early 2023 and early 2024. Click here for the programme of online talks and discussions in the Middle Way Network. And click here for the series of five weekend retreats (one on each principle) that I will be running at Tirylan House in Wales.