THE MIDDLENESS OF THE MIDDLE WAY
Informal remarks after a talk, August 5, 1981.
I can tell a resolute person when
I see him -- like our Ven. Acariya Mun. It was intimidating just to look at
him. How could the defilements not be intimidated by him? Even we were intimidated
by him, and the defilements are smarter than we are, so how could they not be
intimidated? They had to be intimidated. That's the way things have to be. A
teacher who possesses the Dhamma, who possesses virtue, has to be resolute so
as to eliminate evil. He has to be resolute. He can't not be resolute. The stronger
the evil, then the more resolute, the stronger his goodness has to be. It can't
not be resolute and strong. Otherwise it'll get knocked out. Suppose this place
were dirty: However dirty it might be, we couldn't clean it just by splashing
it with a glass of water, could we? So how would we make it clean? We'd have
to use a lot of water. If this place were filled with a pile of excrement, we'd
have to splash it with a whole bucket -- and not just an ordinary bucket. A
great big one. A single splash, and all the excrement would be scattered. The
place would become clean because the water was stronger.
Being resolute is thus different from being severe, because it means being earnest toward everything of every sort in keeping with reason. Take this and think it over. If you act weakly in training yourself, you're not on the path. You have to be strong in fighting with defilement. Don't let the strong defilements step all over you. If we don't have any way of fighting defilement -- if we're weak and irresolute -- we're good for nothing at all.
Those who want what is clean and good from the Dhamma: What is the Dhamma like? What did the Buddha teach? What sort of defilements are eliminated by what sort of Dhamma so that it deserves to be called the middle way? The Buddha taught, 'The middle way realized by the Tathagata -- producing vision, producing realization -- leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to nibbana.' This is in the Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. The middle way is what can cause all these forms of knowledge to arise. Realization: This is penetrative knowledge that's very subtle and sharp. Even discernment is less penetrating and sharp than it is. Self-awakening. Nibbana: This path leads to nibbana. All of these things without exception come from this middle way. They don't lie beyond range of this middle way at all.
What does it mean, the word 'middle'? Middleness as it is in reality and the middleness we hear about, study, memorize, and speculate about: Are they different? Very different. I'll give you an example. Suppose there are two soldiers, both of whom have studied the full course of military science. One of them has never been in the battle lines, while the other has had a lot of experience in the battle lines, to point where he has just barely escaped with his life. Which of the two can speak more accurately and fluently about the reality of fighting in a war? We have to agree without hesitation that the soldier who has been in battle can speak of every facet in line with the events he has seen and encountered to the extent that he could come out alive. If he were stupid, he would have had to die. He had to have been ingenious in order to survive.
So the middle way: How is it 'middle'? We've been taught that following the middle way means not being too lax, not being too extreme. So what way do we follow so that it's not too lax or too extreme, so that we're in line with the principle of middleness aimed at by the genuine Dhamma? When we've sat a little while in meditation, we get afraid that we'll ache, that we'll faint, we'll die, our body will be crippled, or we'll go crazy, so we tell ourselves, 'We're being too extreme.' See? Understand? If we think of making a donation, we say, 'No. That'd be a waste. We'd do better to use it for this or that.' So what is this? Do you understand whose 'middleness' this is? If we're going to follow the way of the Dhamma, we say it's too extreme, but if we're going to follow the way of defilement, then we're ready for anything, without a thought for middlenessat all. So whose middleness is this? It's just the middleness of the defilements, because the defilements have their middleness just like we do.
When people do good, want to go to heaven, want to attain nibbana, they're afraid that it's craving. But when they want to go to hell in this very life, you know, they don't worry about whether it's craving or not. They don't even think about it. When they go into a bar: Is this craving? They don't stop to think about it. When they drink liquor or fool around with the ways to deprivation (apaya-mukha): Is this the middle way or not? Is this craving? Is this defilement or not? They don't bother to think. But when they think of turning to the area of the Dhamma, then it becomes too extreme. Everything becomes too extreme. What is this? Doesn't the thought ever occur to us that these are the opinions of the defilements dragging us along? The defilements dress things up just fine. Their real middleness is in the middle of the pillow, the middle of the sleeping mat. As soon as we do a little walking meditation and think buddho, dhammo, sangho, it's as if we were being taken to our death, as if we were tied to a leash like a monkey squirming and jumping so that we'll let go of the buddho that will lead us beyond their power. Whether we're going to give alms, observe the precepts, or practice meditation, we're afraid that we're going to faint and die. There's nothing but defilement putting up obstacles and blocking our way. We don't realize what the middleness of defilement is like, because it's been lulling us to sleep all along.
Just now I mentioned the two soldiers who had studied military science, one of whom had gone into battle while the other one hadn't. We can compare this to studying the texts. Those who have gone into battle -- who have had experience dealing with defilement and fighting with defilement -- are the ones who can describe the middle way correctly and accurately. If you simply study and memorize....Here I'm not belittling study. Study all you can. Memorize all you can. I'm not criticizing memorization. But if you simply memorize the names of the defilements -- even if you memorize their ancestry -- it doesn't mean a thing if you aren't intent on the practice. If you don't practice, it's just like memorizing the names of different criminals. What this or that gang of criminals does, how it makes its money, what it likes to do, what their names are: We can memorize these things. Not to mention just their names, we can even memorize their ancestry, but if we don't get into action and deal with them, those criminals whose names we can remember will keep on harming the world. So simply memorizing names doesn't serve any purpose. We have to get into action and lay down a strategy. Where do those criminals rob and steal? We then take our strategy and put it into practice, lying in wait for them this place and that, until we can catch them. Society can then live in peace. This is the area of the practice.
The same holds true with defilements and mental effluents. We have to practice. Once we know, we put our knowledge into practice. What is it like to give alms? We've already given them. What is it like to observe the precepts? We've already observed them. What is it like to meditate? We've already done it. This is called practice. It's not that we simply memorize that giving alms has results like that, observing the precepts has results like this, meditation has results like that, heaven is like this, nibbana is like that. If we simply say these things and memorize them, without being interested in the practice, we won't get to go there, we won't get any of the results.
So now to focus down on the practice of fighting with defilement: The defilements have been the enemies of the Dhamma from time immemorial. The Buddha has already taught that the defilements are the enemies of the Dhamma. Where do they lie? Right here -- in the human heart. Where does the Dhamma lie? In the human heart. This is why human beings have to fight defilement. In fighting the defilements, there has to be some suffering and pain as a matter of course. Whatever weapons they use, whatever their attack, whatever their tactics, the Dhamma has to go spinning on in. The ways of sidestepping, fighting, jabbing, attacking: the ways of eliminating defilement all have to be in line with the policies of the Dhamma -- such as Right Views and Right Attitudes -- spinning back and forth. Gradually the defilements collapse through our practice. This is what is meant by the middle way.
So. Go ahead and want. Want to gain release from suffering. Want to gain merit. Want to go to heaven. Want to go to nibbana. Go ahead and want as much as you like, because it's all part of the path. It's not the case that all wanting is craving (tanha). If we think that all wanting is craving, then if we don't let there be craving, it's as if we were dead. No wanting, no anything: Is that what it means not to have defilement or craving? Is that kind of person anything special? It's nothing special at all, because it's a dead person. They're all over the place. A person who isn't dead has to want this and that -- just be careful that you don't go wanting in the wrong direction, that's all. If you want in the wrong direction, it's craving and defilement. If you want in the right direction, it's the path, so make sure you understand this.
The stronger our desire, the more resolute our persistence will be. Desire and determination are part of the path, the way to gain release from stress. When our desire to go heaven, to attain nibbana, to gain release from stress is strong and makes us brave in the fight, then our persistence, our stamina, our fighting spirit are pulled together into a single strength by our desire to attain nibbana and release from stress. They keep spinning away with no concern for day or night, the month or the year. They simply keep at the fight all the time. How about it? Are they resolute now? When the desire gets that strong, we have to be resolute, meditators. No matter how many defilements there are, make them collapse. We can't retreat. We're simply determined to make the defilements collapse. If they don't collapse, then we're prepared to collapse if we're no match for them. But the word 'lose' doesn't exist in the heart. If they kick us out of the ring, we climb right back in to fight again. If they kick us out again, we climb back in again and keep on fighting. After this happens many times, we can start kicking the defilements out of the ring too, you know. After we're been kicked and hit many times, each time is a lesson.
Wherever we lose to defilement, whatever
tactics the defilements use to beat us, we use their tactics to counteract them.
Eventually we'll be able to stand them off. As the defilements gradually become
weaker, the matters of the Dhamma -- concentration, mindfulness, discernment,
persistence -- become stronger and stronger. This is where the defilements have
to grovel, because they're no match. They're no match for the Dhamma. Before,
we were the only ones groveling. Wherever wegroveled, we'd get kicked by the
defilements. Lying down, we'd cry. We'd moan. Sitting, we'd moan. Standing,
we'd feel desire. Walking, we'd feel desire and hunger. Wherever we'd go, there'd
be nothing but love, hate, and anger filling the heart. There'd be nothing but
defilement stomping all over us. But once these things get struck down by mindfulness,
discernment, conviction, and persistence, they don't exist no matter where we
go -- because the defilements are groveling. They keep on groveling, and we
keep on probing for them without let up. Whenever we find one, we kill it. Whenever
we find one, we kill it, until the defilements are completely eradicated, with
nothing left in the heart. So now when we talk about defilement, no matter what
the kind, we can talk without hesitation. Whatever tricks and tactics we employed
to shed the defilements, we can describe without hesitation. The purity of the
heart that has no more defilements ruining it as before, we can describe without
This is like the person who has gone into battle and can speak without hesitation. It's not the same as when we simply memorize. If we simply memorize, we can speak only in line with the texts. We can't elaborate the least little bit. We don't know how. But a person who has gone into battle knows all the ins and outs -- not simply that military science says to do things like this or to follow that route. He can make his way through every nook and cranny, every zig and zag, depending on what he needs to do to get to safety or gain victory. A fighter takes whatever means he can get.
It's the same with us in fighting
defilement. Whatever approach we should use to win, the Buddha provides all
the weapons of the Dhamma for us to think up with our own mindfulness and discernment.
We people never run out of rope, you know. When we really come to the end of
our rope, then mindfulness and discernment produce ways for us to help ourselves
so that we can bash the defilements to bits, until no more defilements are left.
From that point on, wherever the defilements bring in their armies, in whoever's
heart, we know them all -- because they've been entirely eliminated from ours.
This is the practice. This is what's called the middle way. When the defilements come swashbuckling in, the middle way goes swashbuckling out. If they bring in a big army, the middle way has to fight them off with a big army. If they're hard-hitting, we're hard-hitting. If they're dare-devils, we're dare-devils. This is what's meant by the middle way: the appropriate way, appropriate for defeating the armies of the enemy. If their army is large while ours is small and our efforts few, it just won't work. We'll have to lose. However large their army, however many their weapons, our army has to be larger and our weapons more. Only then will we win. This is what's called the army of the Dhamma. However large the army of defilement may be, mindfulness, discernment, conviction, and persistence have to go spinning in and treat them with a heavy hand. Finally, the defilements fall flat on their backs, and we won't have to chant a funeral service for them. We've gained the superlative Dhamma.
When the defilements have fallen
flat on their backs, we aren't worried about where we'll live in the cosmos.
Why ask? We're not interested in whether we'll be reborn in heaven, in the Brahma
worlds, or in hell after we die. There is nothing that knows more than the heart.
Normally, the heart is already a knower, so now that it knows clearly in line
with reason, in line with the Dhamma, what is there to wonder about?
This is why there is only one Buddha at a time -- because a Buddha arises with difficulty, gains release with difficulty. He's the first to gain Awakening, making his way all by himself past the enemy army of defilement, craving, and mental effluents, to proclaim the Dhamma to the world so that we can study it and put it into practice, which is our great good fortune. We've been born right in the midst of the Buddha's teachings, so be earnest in practicing them so as to profit from them. The teachings of the Lord Buddha aren't a child's doll or plaything, you know.
The Dhamma is sanditthiko -- directly visible. The teachings of the Buddha are the open market of the paths, fruitions, and nibbana. They're never out of date -- unless we're out of date, which is why we let the defilements fool us into thinking that the Dhamma is out of date; that people who practice the Dhamma are old-fashioned and out of date; that people who enter monasteries are old-fashioned and out of date; that the teachings of the religion have no paths or fruitions any more; that the paths, fruitions, and nibbana don't exist; that no matter how much you practice, you'll just wear yourself out in vain. These things are nothing but defilement deceiving us -- and we believe everything it says, so we keep going bankrupt without even a scrap of good to our names. Why are we willing to believe it so thoroughly?