The Middle Way

Buddhism is a nontheistic religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one”. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha lived … Continue reading

Buddhism is a nontheistic religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one”. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.[1] He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end their suffering through the elimination of craving and ignorance by way of understanding and the seeing of dependent origination, with the ultimate goal of attainment of the sublime state of nirvana.[2]

Two major branches of Buddhism are generally recognized: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar etc.). Mahayana is found throughout East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan etc.) and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, and Tiantai (Tendai). In some classifications, Vajrayana—practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and adjacent parts of China and Russia—is recognized as a third branch, while others classify it as a part of Mahayana.

While Buddhism is practiced primarily in Asia, both major branches are now found throughout the world. Estimates of Buddhists worldwide vary significantly depending on the way Buddhist adherence is defined. Estimates range from 350 million to 1.6 billion, with 350–550 million the most widely accepted figure. Buddhism is also recognized as one of the fastest growing religions in the world.[3][4][5][6]
Buddhist schools vary on the exact nature of the path to liberation, the importance and canonicity of various teachings and scriptures, and especially their respective practices.[7] The foundations of Buddhist tradition and practice are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). Taking “refuge in the triple gem” has traditionally been a declaration and commitment to being on the Buddhist path, and in general distinguishes a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist.[8] Other practices may include following ethical precepts; support of the monastic community; renouncing conventional living and becoming a monastic; the development of mindfulness and practice of meditation; cultivation of higher wisdom and discernment; study of scriptures; devotional practices; ceremonies; and in the Mahayana tradition, invocation of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The Four Noble Truths (Sanskrit: catv?ri ?ryasaty?ni; Pali: catt?ri ariyasacc?ni) are “the truths of the Noble Ones,” which express the basic orientation of Buddhism: this worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory, but there is a path to liberation from repeated worldly existence. The truths are as follows:

  1. The Truth of Dukkha is that all conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying;
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Dukkha is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath;
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha is that putting an end to this craving and clinging also means that rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath can no longer arise;
  4. The Truth of the Path Of Liberation from Dukkha is that by following the Noble Eightfold Path—namely, behaving decently, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation—an end can be put to craving, to clinging, to becoming, to rebirth, to dissatisfaction, and to redeath.

The four truths provide a useful conceptual framework for making sense of Buddhist thought, which has to be personally understood or “experienced.” Many Buddhist teachers present them as the essence of Buddhist teachings, though this importance developed over time, substituting older notions of what constitutes prajna, or “liberating insight.”[1][2]

In the sutras the four truths have both a symbolic and a propositional function. They represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, but also the possibility of liberation for all sentient beings, describing how release from craving is to be reached.

The first noble truth is the truth of dukkha.[note 17] It gives an overview of what is regarded to be dukkha, starting with samsara, the ongoing process of death and rebirth:[citation needed]

  1. Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha;
  2. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha;
  3. Association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha;
  4. Not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
  5. In conclusion, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

The Dukkhata Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 45.165,[web 13][web 14] describes three kinds of dukkhataa, suffering in the most general sense:[web 13][note 18]

  1. Dukkha-dukkhataa, “the actual feeling of physical or mental pain or anguish”,[web 13] “response to unpleasant physical or mental experiences”;[web 14]
  2. Sa?kh?ra-dukkhataa, “the suffering produced by all ‘conditioned phenomena’”;[note 19][note 20] “craving for things to be how we want them to be.”[web 14] It is a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to ignorance of the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. It is a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
  3. Vipari??ma-dukkhataa, “the suffering associated with pleasant bodily and mental feelings: “because they are the cause for the arising of pain when they change”,[web 13]“when we’re enjoying a pleasant experience, we crave for it to continue […] inevitably, the universal law of impermanence leaves that craving unsatisfied.”[web 14]

Majjhima Nikaya 149:3 gives a concise description of dukkha:

When one abides inflamed by lust, fettered, infatuated, contemplating gratification, […] [o]ne’s bodily and mental troubles increase, one’s bodily and mental torments increase, one’s bodily and mental fevers increase, and one experiences bodily and mental suffering.[23]

From a Buddhist perspective, labelling Buddhism as “a bleak, pessimistic and world-denying philosophy,” as some commentators have done, “may reflect a deep-seated refusal to accept the reality of dukkha itself.”[24]

The Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: ariyo a??ha?giko maggo, Sanskrit: ?ry?????gam?rga)[1] is one of the principal teachings of?r?vakay?na. It is used to develop insight into the true nature of phenomena (or reality) and to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion. The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths; the first element of the Noble Eightfold Path is, in turn, an understanding of the Four Noble Truths. It is also known as the Middle Path or Middle Way. Its goal is Arhatship.[2] The Noble Eightfold Path is contrasted with the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana which culminates in Buddhahood.[3]

All eight elements of the Path begin with the word “right,” which translates the word samyañc (in Sanskrit) or samm? (in P?li). These denote completion, togetherness, and coherence, and can also suggest the senses of “perfect” or “ideal.”[4] ‘Samma’ is also translated as “wholesome,” “wise” and “skillful.”

In Buddhist symbolism, the Noble Eightfold Path is often represented by means of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra), whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path.

The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes divided into three basic divisions, as follows:[11][12]

Division Eightfold Path factors Acquired factors
Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñ?, P?li: paññ?) 1. Right view 9. Superior right knowledge
2. Right intention 10. Superior right liberation
Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: ??la, P?li: s?la) 3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
Concentration (Sanskrit and P?li: sam?dhi) 6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

This presentation is called the “Three Higher Trainings” in Mah?y?na Buddhism: higher moral discipline, higher concentration and higher wisdom. “Higher” here refers to the fact that these trainings that lead to liberation and enlightenment are engaged in with the motivation of renunciation or bodhicitta.

The Way of Zen

The Way of Zen begins as a succinct guide through the histories of Buddhism and Taoism leading up to the development of Zen Buddhism, which drew deeply from both traditions. It then goes on to paint a broad but insightful picture of Zen as it was and is practiced, both as a religion and as an element of diverse East Asian arts and disciplines. Watts’s narrative clears away the mystery while enhancing the mystique of Zen.

Since the first publication of this book in 1957, Zen Buddhism has become firmly established in the West. As Zen has taken root in Western soil, it has incorporated much of the attitude and approach set forth by Watts in The Way of Zen, which remains one of the most important introductory books in Western Zen