Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (4) Buddhism - The Middle Path   

Among all religions, Buddhism is one that has withdrawn itself from theistic thought. To understand why this is so, we need to know about the other religions in India during the Buddha’s time. During the period of the Vedas to the time of Upanishad, Brahmana influence was very extensive. The Brahmana believed in the mysterious creation of the universe. Theirs was a philosophy that believed in the existence of a time of cosmic origin. A god created mankind, and it was believed to be the origin of all things. It was called the God of Birth, the God of Prayer, the Brahman, or "I". Although the title for the creator varied over time, its implications were the same.

The Brahmana believed that the Brahman was the origin of the universe and of mankind. Spiritually, mankind had similar characteristics to the Mahabrahmanas, that was, a permanent, free, and happy "I" or ego. This was the nature of human life. This spiritual "I" of mankind was the same spirit as that in which adherents of the popular religions believed. The spirit had a close relationship with the god.

The Brahmana regarded the nature of the universe and of human life as permanent, free, and happy. In reality though, the Brahmanas knew that life in this world, be it normal activities, relationships in society, or even our own body and mind, always brings dissatisfaction. All phenomena are impermanent and constantly rising and falling, coming and going. Why did a permanent, free and happy existence create such an impermanent and uncomfortable world? This was the great contradiction. However, the Brahmana’s intelligence seems to have been deluded by their emotion. They ignored the contradiction, and only thought of ending their suffering in order to regain the permanently blissful state of the Brahman/god. Hence, the theory of liberation arose.

About the Buddha’s time, there was a great change in Indian thought and ideology. The culture of the Brahmana, which originated in north-west India near the Five Rivers, became most popular near the upper stream of the Ganges River, at a place called Kuru. When their ideas travelled east along the Ganges River, the eastern countries such as Magadha and Vashali, which were influenced by the culture of the West, opposed the teachings of the Brahmana. The old religions in Western India were shaken, and the new religions, with various groups of ascetics in Eastern India were very extreme, and this created many doubts among the people. During this transition period where the new Western and old Eastern ideologies met, the Buddha was born. He introduced a new religion to the era.

The Buddha incorporated the theories of rebirth and of liberation into his teachings. But the Buddha denied the Brahmana’s imaginative theistic theory, and set his own foundations upon an intelligent analysis of reality. He made a thorough change in both theory and practice from the old religions. Although the cycle of life and death, and the attainment of liberation in Nirvana were theories that were accepted by Indian society at that time, the problems lay in the questions of why was there rebirth and how could one be liberated. The Buddha gave wise answers to these questions. This was the teaching of the "Middle Path". The "Middle Path" distinguished the Buddha’s Teachings from other religions.

"Middle Path" may be misunderstood as equivocal. In fact Buddhism is not as such. "Middle" means neutral, upright, and centered. It means to investigate and penetrate the core of life and all things with an upright, unbiased attitude. In order to solve a problem, we should position ourselves on neutral, upright and unbiased ground. We investigate the problem from various angles, analyze the findings, understand the truth thoroughly, and find a reasonable conclusion.

The Middle Path in Buddhism does not mean having a biased view or superficial understanding only. The "Middle Path" represents a distinct theory and way of Buddhist practice that is not common to other religions. Buddhism is a religion with high moral values. It lays great emphasis on human thought and action in dealing with the natural environment, society or individual problems. It is concerned with the relationship between thoughts and behavior, and the relationship between behavior and its consequences.

By observing the activities of mankind in real life, the Buddha mastered the principles of human behavior. He then taught the two characteristics of the Middle Path: The Middle Path of Dependent Origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Law of Dependent Origination explains the process of human activity. The Noble Eightfold Path shows the way of practice that enables one to uplift oneself.

"The Tathagatha avoids the two extremes
and talks about the Middle Path.
What this is, that is; this arises, that arises.
Through ignorance volitional actions or karmic formations are conditioned.

Through birth, decay, death, lamentation, pain etc. are conditioned.
When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.
hrough the complete cessation of ignorance, volitional activities or karmic formations cease. 
Through the cessation of birth, death, decay, sorrow, etc. cease."

(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)

"What this is, that is; this arising, that arises" is the principle of the Law of Dependent Origination; the Conditioned Genesis that says that, "Through ignorance volitional actions or karma-formations are conditioned" is the content of the Law of Dependent Origination.

The Law of Dependent Origination based on the Middle Path avoids attachment to the two extremes. This can be clearly seen in the Samyuktagama. Based on the Theory of Dependent Origination, in Chapter 12 the sutra says that "It is not one nor different". It also says that "It is not permanent nor discontinuous." In Chapter 13 it says, "It is not coming nor going." In chapter 7 it says, "It neither exists nor not exists." (This is the "Eighth Negation of the Middle Path" in the Madhyamika Sastra, an abstract from the Samyuktagama). The basic principle of the Law of Dependent Origination is, "What this is, that is; from this arising, that arises; when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases." It explains the creation, cessation and existence of all phenomena and all things.

How does human suffering happen? The Buddha said it is not something that happens without any cause. It also does not arise because of perverted causes created by a god or Brahmana. It has its own causes. All things exist in accordance with the Law of Cause and Effect. When there is a cause there will be an effect. When causes exist, effects exist. The rising and existence of things are determined by causes and conditions. This is why the Buddha says "what this is (cause), that is (effect); this arising, that arises". This is the Circulation Process of the Law of Dependent Origination. It explains the existence of worldly phenomena.

We may also see this formula in its reverse order. According to the Law of Dependent Origination, in order to end suffering, we must stop its causes. Thus, "When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases." When there is a cause there will be an effect; when there is perverted thought, there will be wrong behavior, and this will certainly result in evil consequences, i.e. sufferings. On the contrary, when there is no cause, there will be no effect. Once the perverted thought is corrected, wrong behavior will stop and sufferings will also cease.

All things arise due to causes and conditions. As causes and conditions are impermanent and will cease one day, all things will also cease correspondingly. When there is rising, there will be falling; when there is existence, there will be extinction. The rising and existence of things has its natural tendency towards cessation and extinction. It is like a wave; it comes and goes. Thus, when one sees the truth of "what this is, that is; this arising, that arises", one should also see the truth of "when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases". The Law of Dependent Origination pointed out the possibility of ending worldly suffering. It shows the way of liberation that corresponds to the Law of Cause and Effect.

"When one is born, one will die.
One who admires high status will fall one day."

This is the natural Law of Cause and Effect. It is also an inner implication of the Law of Dependent Origination. It can be called the Cessation Process of the Law of Dependent Origination.

The two complementary processes active in the Law of Dependent Origination, of the Middle Path, are two processes that are in reverse or conserve sides of each other. They explain the Laws of Circulation and Cessation. This rise and fall of causes and effects is still a worldly principle, and an explanation for superficial phenomena. Although it was not the final truth, it is from this that the ultimate truth was realized. The ultimate truth was drawn from the empty nature of the Law of Dependent Origination. Thus, the Sutra says,

"Tell the Bhikku, the ultimate truth of emptiness,
realized by the Enlightened Ones,
corresponds to the Worldly Law."

(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)

By understanding these two processes of the Law of Dependent Origination, we may see the truth of emptiness, which is the ultimate truth. Chapter 13 of "The sutra on the Ultimate Truth of Emptiness" in the Samyuktagama says:

"When the eyes see, the scene comes from nowhere. 
When they shut, it goes nowhere.
Thus the eyes see unreality.
All that arises will be destroyed....
except the truth of the Worldly Law.

The Worldly Law says that
what this is, that is; this arising, that arises."

Through the rising and falling of the Worldly Law of Dependent Origination, the Buddha explained the First (ultimate) Truth. The ultimate truth averted attachment to either existence or non-existence; to permanence or change. This is similar to the "True Jhana" (The Vipassana that leads to the realization of the First Truth) explained by Katyayana:

"To contemplate the unreal nature of all things,
there is nothing real.
Various names arise due to the coincidence of
causes and conditions which are unreal.
When one sees the truth of emptiness,
one will realize that there is no Dharma
(the perverted view of existence)
and non-Dharma
(the perverted view of extinction)."


All Dharma is unreal, for it is mainly the coincidence of causes and conditions. These are worldly (mundane) views. Through this worldly understanding we can see that it is conditioned. The Enlightened Ones see and realize the Truth of Emptiness. They relieve themselves from attachment to both the existence and non-existence of Dharma, and hence realize the Ultimate Truth. This is why the Buddhas always preach about emptiness, hoping that beings may be detached from perverted views. The Buddha also said,

"If we can see the truth
of the causes of worldly sufferings,
we will not be attached to the view of nothingness.
If we can see the truth of cessation in the world,
we will not be attached to worldly existence.
By avoiding the two extremes,
the Tathagatha teaches us
the Middle Path, which is,
what this is, that is; this arising, that arises…"

(Chapter 12, Samyuktagama)

When worldly people see existence, they think that there is a real existence. When they see cessation, they think that it has really ceased. This is the perverted view of the two extremes. By compassion the Enlightened Ones, when they see Dharma arising, know that it is not nothingness, while at the same time not becoming attached to it as something real. When they see the Dharma disappear, they do not become attached to its extinction nor at the same time do they think that the extinction is real and means nothing at all. This is because, according to the Law of Dependent Origination, when there is a cause there will be an effect. When the cause ceases, the effect ceases. The Dharma is alive. It can exist or cease, rise or fall. If it is something real that has a permanent identity, then it should not cease and become extinct. If it is nothing, then it should not rise and exist. The Dharma rises and ceases, it can exist and become extinct. If we investigate the core of all things, we will realize that everything is conditioned and has empirical names. Things have no permanent identity, existence, extinction, rise or fall. Their nature is empty and silent.

Thus, when we talk about emptiness, we do not deny the rising, falling, existence and extinction of all phenomena. In fact, emptiness explains the truth of rising, falling, existence and extinction. This is the main teaching of the Tathagatha. Do not misunderstand Circulation and Cessation as two separate identities. From these Laws of Circulation and Cessation, we can see the creation and extinction, rising and falling of all phenomena and hence realize the truth of emptiness in all things. This is the Principle of Emptiness of the Middle Path, the ultimate explanation of the Middle Path. It is also the special characteristic of Buddhism — the Truth of Emptiness and of Dependent Origination. This is also "the immediate moment is empty" that is always mentioned by Mahayana scholars.

We should not think that this is only an old saying. We should know that this is the part of Dharma that is beyond all worldly knowledge. The worldly religions assume a god, the creator of the Universe; and the real characteristics of "I" as perfect, permanent, and happy. With such philosophy, their faith tends to be emotional. The Buddha emphasized reality and explained that all things are impermanent, and in constant change. There is nothing that rises but never ceases. There is nothing that is permanently unchanged. All things rise and cease due to causes and conditions. There is no independent identity that can exist without other conditions. The permanent, independent god that most worldly people believe in is denied by Buddhism.

From the Law of Dependent Origination, the Buddha expanded the truth of emptiness and articulated the Three Universal Characteristics. As the sutra says,

"All volitional actions are empty.
There is no law that is permanent and unchangeable.
There is no I nor mine."

(Samyuktagama, Chapter 11)

As all things have the nature of emptiness, there is thus no law that is permanent and unchangeable. There is no ego that is permanent and independent. With continuously changing phenomena, the existence of all things is a web of interrelationships. Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, we can realize the Truth of Impermanence and Egolessness and hence the nature of the emptiness of all things. Emptiness also implies Nirvana, that is the renunciation of the perverted view of permanency and ego, leading to the realization of liberation. Thus, the sutra says,

"One who thinks of impermanence
will understand the truth of ego-lessness.

The Enlightened One
lives in the state of ego-lessness,
renounces self-conceit
and hence progresses towards liberation and Nirvana."

(Samyuktagama, Chapter 10)

To realize the Three Universal Characteristics of impermanence, ego-lessness and Nirvana from the standpoint of Emptiness in Dependent Origination and on the Middle Path, is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Often people tend to become attached to worldly phenomena, and think that only the phenomena that change are impermanent and that the origin of things is still permanent. They think that egolessness means that "I" has no real identity; that it is only an image formed by a co-operation of factors and that there is no "I" but that Dharma is still real and does exist nevertheless.

The original idea of the Agama Sutra is to indicate that both impermanence and egolessness mean emptiness. This is the nature of Dharma. The nature of Dharma is emptiness. It is not permanent. Thus, the Dharma is ever-changing. If the Dharma has a permanent identity and is not empty, why do phenomena change all the time? It is because of the nature of emptiness in Dharma that ego is unobtainable. If there was a real Dharma that existed permanently, whether in physical or spiritual form, it could become a place for the ego to reside.

"The eyes (and all senses) are empty; 
The law of permanency and change is empty;

I and mine are both empty.
Why is it so?
Because this is the nature of things."

(Samyuktagama, Chapter 9)

Isn’t it very clear that the main theme in the Agama Sutra is to explain the concept of impermanence and ego-lessness from the standpoint of emptiness? Emptiness is the nature of all things. However, most people cannot see the truth and become ignorant and perverted, and they become attached to permanency and egotism and hence become entangled in the cycle of life and death.

From the rising and falling, existence and extinction of conditioned phenomena, one should eliminate the idea of an absolute, independent, permanent identity. Once we are able to realize the nature of emptiness, we will be liberated. To realize the nature of emptiness through the understanding of Dependent Origination is a penetration to the core of things. It is not a superficial understanding only. This is the truth of the Buddha’s explanation of the Circulation and Cessation of human life. It can be used to identify our own religion, and to distinguish it from the other religions. This is the speciality of Buddhism.

Besides, there is another type of Middle Path. This is the Noble Eightfold Path that emphasizes good practice. The Noble Eightfold Path also corresponds to the Law of Dependent Origination. It does not explain why the deluded life can be liberated and does not talk about "What this is, that is; this is arising, therefore that arises." It tells us about the Middle Path that those who wish to be liberated should follow. It is a path that avoids both the extremes of suffering and of luxury.

Some heretics in India during Buddha’s time encouraged extreme luxury and desire. They regarded extreme enjoyment as the purpose of life. Others concentrated on meaningless asceticism and tortured themselves. All these things do not help, nor do they bring us liberation. It was to counsel avoidance of these extreme behaviors that the Buddha taught us about the Middle Path. This is also a theme that is commonly found in the Agama Sutra. The Noble Eightfold Path teaches us to be normal and reasonable in our speech, action, emotion, determination, ways of living and so on. Everything we do should be fair and right. This is the Middle Path.

All Dharma is conditioned. All Dharma is empty by nature. There is no exception rightness of one’s behavior whilst following the Noble Eightfold Path. How does such right behavior whilst following the Noble Eightfold Path coincide with the nature of the emptiness of Dependent Origination?

One should know that "practice" is also conditioned. In the Parable of the Seven Carts, in Chapter 2 of the Middle Agama (Madhyamagama), King Prasenajit departed from Sravasti. It was a long journey. However, the King was able to reach his destination within one day. This was because he set stops on the way. At every stop there was a new, fresh and healthy horse. Thus, when he reached a stop, he did not need to rest. He changed to a new cart and horse and started his journey again. Hence he was able to reach his destination in a very short time. The travel from one place to another was not the hard work of one cart and one horse only. It was the co-operative effort of many carts and many horses. It was the co-operation of many causes and conditions.

To practice Buddhism is a similar journey, from the time we begin to practice, to the time of final attainment. We cannot rely on one Dharma only. We must rely on the co-operation of many Dharmas, many causes and conditions. Since the ways of practice depend on the coincidence of favorable causes and conditions, they are thus also empty in their nature.

In the Raft Parable the Buddha says,

"We should let go of the Dharma, and the non-Dharma ".

"Dharma" refers to moral behavior. "Non-Dharma" refers to immoral behavior. In the process of practising the Middle Path one should first use moral behavior (Dharma) to correct immoral behavior (non-Dharma). This Dharma that emphasizes moral values arises due to causes and conditions. It is empty in nature. If we cling to a perverted view, becoming attached to images and things as real, then we will not realize the nature of emptiness and we will not be liberated. The Sata Sastra says,

"We should first rely on merits
in order to get rid of sin.

Secondly, we should rely on equanimity
and let the merits go.

Then we can attain the state of
formlessness or Nirvana."

Chapter 7 in the Samyuktagama says,

"If I feel that nothing is obtainable,
then there is no sin.
If I am attached to form (and to other things),
then it is sinful.....

If one knows this, 
then one will not be attached to anything
in this mundane world".

Sin means defilement and obstacles. As long as we constantly become attached to various things as real, we will not see the truth of emptiness. This is an obstacle on the way towards liberation. Therefore it is clear that we should not become attached to the merits of good deeds, as these are also empty in nature. The Nagarjuna Bodhisattva once said, "Merit is like a hot, burning gold coin, although it is valuable, it is untouchable".

Thus, the nature of the Noble Eightfold Path is also empty. It coincides with the wisdom (theory) of the Middle Path. Under the truth of emptiness, theory and practice merge into one.

The Middle Path that emphasizes emptiness and Dependent Origination avoids perverted views. The Noble Eightfold Path avoids the two extremes of suffering and luxury, and emphasizes non-attachment. These two main themes of the Middle Path supplement each other and lead us to perfection. If there was only theory to explain the Law of Dependent Origination without the emphatic proof of personal practice and experience, the Path could not fulfil religious faith in helping followers disentangle themselves from suffering, thereby attaining ultimate freedom.

On the other hand, if the Path only taught us the ways of practice without theoretical or intelligent guidance, it might be defeated by our lack of wisdom, and we might become a theistic follower. The Noble Eightfold Path of the Middle Path fulfils human religious expectations by encouraging moral practice. In addition, it has the intelligent guidance of the Law of Dependent Origination and of Emptiness. The Middle Path emphasizes the unity of wisdom and faith. This is the special characteristic of Buddha’s teaching.

(Translated by Shi Neng Rong, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (6-7-96)

© Buddha Dharma Education Association > home > back