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Buddha’s perverse theory

‘“Everything is,” Kaccāna, this is one dead-end. “Everything is not,” this is the other dead-end. The Tathāgata (Buddha) reveals the dharma from a middle that avoids both dead-ends …’ *

Sometimes being right is just a way to avoid doing right.

Like everyone, I get into arguments with my family. The people we let down our guard with most easily are the ones we battle with most viscerally. Also, like many over-educated people, I tend to deal with the most blindly reactive side of myself by retreating into the convenient clarity of logic. When my wife and daughters are most anxiously in the grip of their emotions, I take refuge in being correct, and couldn’t be more wrong.

I became a monk in part to escape the confusion of emotional relationships, in part to find nirvana. I presumed the two were compatible, but over the years they remained stubbornly at odds. Whenever I denied messy feelings, my inner voice escalated to an incessant babble. One way or another I managed to rationalize my behavior, but reason became more of a maze than a source of clarity.

I’d been intoxicated by my scholarly ego, trying to interpret a simple instruction as a sophisticated theory

Buddha taught from “the middle,” and so I embarked on what I imagined would be a balancing act. I visualized the middle way as a sort of tightrope, a fine line through life with treacherous falls on both sides. This fit the idea of nirvana as elevated and difficult, requiring rare skills; perfectly removed from imperfect reality.

It also fit with what my Tibetan teachers taught. They explained that my thinking should be free of the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. As a good student I was able to rattle off definitions of these abstract terms, but exactly how they inflected my life was a mystery to me. Before Buddhism, I’d been trained in the natural sciences. I had no illusions that anything lasted forever; life was contingent, but experience was too real to ignore. As far as I saw I possessed the Buddha’s ‘right view.’ So why was I still hesitant, stuck in self-doubt?

I found nothing that resembled the precise middle way of my imagination. Life was a confusing ground of criss-crossing paths, each with its own shades of right and wrong, none of which I could figure out until I’d walked it. Thinking I should be taking one clear and recognizable step after another, I felt the chaos of my life as a mark of failure. Convinced that nirvana had eluded me, I sank into years of disappointment. I wrote my story and called it The Novice, because that’s how I felt.

You might think it perverse to persist in that disappointment, but it one day bore fruit. As a good Buddhist I’d long believed that the problem wasn’t with the world outside but with my expectations of it; now I finally internalized it. I’d been intoxicated by my scholarly ego, trying to interpret a simple instruction as a sophisticated theory.

All Gotama said was that life was unsatisfactory. Where Buddhists so often go wrong is thinking his path is a solution to that; rather, it’s an acceptance of it. The difficulty is not to understand it but to swallow it.

The middle way has nothing to do with mastering philosophical views. I finally learned this through my willingness to stumble and fall and pick myself up; to try and err and respond pragmatically, rather than with high and mighty ideas.

The opposite of the middle way is anta (a dead-end) in which we insist on seeing things as we want, as this and not that. Instead of responding pragmatically, we identify personally with our place in life. In being defensive we become petrified, unable to act. What helps in these situations is the agility to let go of judgments and opinions. We arrive at a dead-end when we insist on clear, satisfactory solutions.

The middle way is not about being right, but being unstuck

I saw the error of my ways by staying with my disappointment until I knew it from the inside. It’s not just a matter of being miserable, but of viscerally exploring that feeling and what it makes us do. Embodied attention (yoniso manasikāra) gets past theoretical correctness to understand suffering practically and personally. It’s the first step (complete view) of the eightfold path, a perspective on life that no longer relies on the opinionated either-or of “it is” one way and “it is not” another.

The middle way is not about being right but being unstuck. It reminds me that logical correctness isolates me from my loved ones, from their emotional pain. Whether they’re right or wrong is not the point. Logic has its place, but this is not it.

By insisting on what things are and what they aren’t we create an abstract world that may help us describe things in words, but it requires a deft touch. It’s not just easy—it’s tempting—to become academic, correct and out of touch. The pragmatic life is inconvenient and unsatisfactory. The challenge is to be real, not to be right.

* From the Kaccayanagotta Sutta (on Complete View): Saṃyutta Nikāya 12:15. Translated & abbreviated by Stephen Batchelor


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9 responses to “Buddha’s perverse theory”

  1. lamb-O

    Well, that is a capital mistake of mine. I just can’t seem to stand the unsatisfactory character of life. A difference is in the fact that I tend to slip toward nihilism, although not always.

  2. Christina

    Thank you.
    “All Gotama said was that life was unsatisfactory. Where Buddhists so often go wrong is thinking his path is a solution to that; rather, it’s an acceptance of it.”
    This really helps!

  3. Brendan

    So many meaty insights in this post, thank u again Stephen. I would say that I am a kindred spirit of Lamb-O, my default tendency is to slide toward nihilism. But I see many lurid attractions to Eternalism too. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of these “dead ends” is that they require so little from you. The Lazy Man’s roads to Nirvana, i guess.

    Whereas the Middle Way requires effort and discernment. The flip side of acceptance is that it calls us to make judgments even though we will never have all the facts or know the whole story. It requires us to respond to the world as it is not hide from it. And that can be downright scary. There is no room in the Middle Way for Escape Fantasies. Really sucks to acknowledge that deep down, I can be a lazy bastard.

  4. Dana Garrett

    This piece is a brilliant and accessible depiction of the middle way. And that is its irony.

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