The Middle Way is an alternative name that Buddha give his Noble Eightfold path. However, the term Middle Way has greater meaning than just being a synonym – it suggests to us that it is not enough to just follow the path to inner peace, but that we must following it in a particular way.
Buddhism must be practiced in a balanced and reasonable way that avoids extremes and excesses. Those who are familiar with the life of Buddha will recall that the life of Buddha before his enlightenment falls into two distinct periods. This time before his renunciation was one in which he enjoyed every possible luxury. Some accounts say Buddha had three palaces, one for each season, filled with sources of pleasure that were hardly imaginable in his day.
This period of ‘enjoyment’ was followed by six years of extreme asceticism and self-mortification, when he did without the basic amenities of normal life. Buddha lived out in the open, wore the poorest garment, and fasted for long period of times. During this period, Buddha also tormented his body through various practices such as sleeping on beds of thorns and sitting around fires under the cruel heat of the midday sun.
Having experienced the extremes of luxury and deprivation and have reached the limits of both extremes, Buddha saw their futility and thereby discovered the Middle Way, which avoids both the extreme indulgence in sense pleasures and the extreme of self-mortification. The Middle Way capable of many significant and profound interpretations, but most fundamentally it means moderation in one’s approach to life and in one’s attitude toward all things. Buddhists subscribe to the ancient Roman saying: “Moderation in all things.”
The essence of Buddhism is peace, and that peace arises from truly knowing the nature of all things. In other words, the real basis of Buddhism is full knowledge of the truth of reality. If one already knows this truth, then no teaching is necessary. If we investigate closely, we will see that peace is neither happiness or unhappiness. Neither of these is the truth.
It will be hard to believe at first, but happiness is just a refined form of suffering. The path to inner peace requires letting go of both of them. Both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent.
You can compare it to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head; even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.
As we discussed in Step 3: The True Mind, the mind is separate from feelings. When you think about it, whether people are happy or sad, content or discontent, doesn’t depend on their having little or a lot – it depends on wisdom. A wise person recognizes that nothing can be permanently satisfying or dependable. (See post on Impermanence for further discussion.) A wise person has inner peace.
Happiness is a pleasant feeling in the mind and sadness is just an unpleasant feeling. The happiness or sadness is not the mind but merely a mood coming to deceive us. If we mixed them up, then we don’t know them. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things. Then we think it is we who are upset or at ease.
Buddha taught to separate this happiness and unhappiness from the mind by following the path. The natural state of the mind is neither happiness nor unhappiness. It’s the balance in between – peace. We will still experience happiness or unhappiness but know them only as feelings so that we don’t cling to that feeling or carry it around.