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Middle way vs. middle way of practice

While it is well known that the Buddha called his path the “middle way” in his first sermon, it is somewhat less well known that a similar phrase is used to describe the philosophical dimensions of the teaching. In fact the phrase majjhena desanā “teaching by the middle” occurs three times as often as the more familiar “middle way of practice”, which perhaps surprisingly only occurs five times in the suttas.

Translating majjhena desanā is a little hard, because “teaching by the middle” is too literal and abrupt, while “teaching by the middle way”, which I have adopted, risks confusion with the practice. I’ve chosen to solve this by adding “of practice” where needed.

  • majjhimā paṭipadā: the middle way of practice
  • majjhena desanā: teaching by the middle way
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Is it the case teaching by the middle way refers to presenting the right view via the framework of dependent origination / cessation ?

While, the middle way of practice refers to developing the eightfold path and its associated principles (i.e. seven factors of awakening, five spiritual powers, etc)?

:anjal:

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Thank you for saying what I should have said in the OP!

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Thank you Bhante, for the clarification. I didn’t really register before, but I can see some of the examples:

All exists’: this is one extreme.
‘All doesn’t exist’: this is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One teaches by the middle way:
‘Ignorance is a condition for choices. Choices are a condition for consciousness. … That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. …
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And what is that middle way? It is simply this noble eightfold path,
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As far as I see, majjhena desanā is quite limited to SN 12, whereas majjhimā paṭipadā is not so clear in its provenance, maybe from SN 56.11?

Also, a probably little known fact: One of the mysteries is that Buddhism is so absent from the immediate post-Buddha literature. One of the very few references can be found in Baudhayana-Dharmasutra 2.11.26.

Here, all sorts of ‘spiritual wanderers’ (parivrājaka) are lumped together, saying that they abandon relatives and possessions, are shaven except for a topknot, wear a loin cloth or ochre robes, and reside in one place during the rainy season. They go for bhikṣā, practice ahiṃsā, reject the Vedic rites and embrace the madhyamaṃpada.

It is clear from other passages that also Jains are meant (and maybe more samanas), but this is quite a clear reference to Buddhism, which shows that even though ‘the middle path’ is relatively rare compared to other labels (4NT, Eightfold Path), it was popular enough as a label in the old days.

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Thank you. You are absolutely right that there should be a clear distinction between the two.

I’d however rather tend to leave the “middle way” for majjhimā paṭipadā untouched and render majjhena desanā as something like “teach the middle teaching”, “er lehrt die mittlere Lehre” in German. Or better “teach by the middle teaching”, “nach der mittleren Lehre lehren”.

I can’t speak for German, but in English these just sound way too clumsy.

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Is “teach by the middle way” less clumsy than “teach by the middle teaching”? Maybe it’s because of the repetition of “teaching”…

To my understanding “teaching” would just very clearly point to what is aimed at in the context of dependent origination.

Or you might find that even more clumsy: How about “teach by the middle principle”? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

I’m still a bit uncertain what I will do in German.

The reason why I am hesitant about your solution is that many people who have heard even only a little about Buddhism do associate the term “middle way” with the noble eightfold path. Now using “middle way” for a different context, and having “middle way of practice” for the eightfold path, can be confusing.

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Buddhist Teachings about the Middle: A Critical study of the Majjhe-sutta of the Aṅguttara-nikāya

Abstract
The Majjhe sutta, which comes in The Book of the Sixes (chakka nipāta) of the Aṅguttara-nikāya, incorporates six interpretations (by six different elder monks) of the Buddha’s phrase ‘the middle’. Later, they await the verdict of the Buddha to make it clear whose understanding was the most reliable. After hearing a report of their discussion, the Buddha consented to all six definitions and further drove away their doubts by explicitly confirming the first monk’s version. The term ‘majjhena’, which means ‘the middle’ or ‘Central Philosophy’, occasionally appears in the Nikāya texts and is similar to the term ‘majjhe’ ([in] the middle). Furthermore, while the term ‘majjhimā’ symbolizes ‘the middle path’, the ‘majjhe’ of the Majjhe sutta stands for neither of these two meanings. However, by using the term ‘majjhe’, the sutta does present expositions akin to ‘majjhena’ as ‘Central Philosophy’. Thus, this paper proposes to compare the similarities and dissimilarities between ‘the middle’ (majjhe) and ‘Central Philosophy’ (majjhena). In addition, it aims to question the possibility of the setting up of a different middle teaching in the Majjhe sutta, one which differs from the Kaccāyanagotta sutta. The scope of this paper addresses the “philosophical” aspect of ‘the middle’ in Buddhism.

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How about “er vermittelt die mittlere Lehre” or “unterweist in der mittleren Lehre”? (other ideas: “er lehrt die mittlere Betrachtungsweise”? or “… den ausgewogenen Ansatz”? or “beschreibt die mittlere Lehre”)

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:open_mouth: Didn’t know you speak German!

At present I have “er lehrt nach der mittleren Lehre”, but I might change my mind and make it “er lehrt nach dem mittleren Grundsatz”.

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I mean, clumsiness is subjective, but to me, yes. But it’s also grammatically problematic.

Grammatically, majjhena means “by the middle way”, not “by the middle teaching”. The instrumental covers the way or manner in which something is done.

In this case, a literal translation would be:

majjhena dhammaṃ deseti
teaches the teaching by the middle

“Teach by the middle teaching” would require both dhamma and majjha to be in instrumental:

majjhena dhammena deseti

In my translation, I usually render Dhamma in such contexts as “teaching”, so I omit it here as it creates unwanted duplication. Duplication is always dicey to handle, as it creates patterns and expectations in the text. Here, since the Pali in fact uses different words, the duplication would be unwise. So we should either change the rendering:

Proclaims the teaching by the middle

Or as I sometimes do:

Teaches the Dhamma by the middle

In any case, the Dhamma, if it is to be directly translated, should remain the direct object of the verb.

Perhaps, on reflection, since it is a fairly rare and powerful statement, I will change to:

Teaches the Dhamma by the middle way.

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It seems to me majjhena desanā (teaching by the middle [way]) in SN 12.15 (cf. SN 22.90) is not entirely the same focus of majjhimā paṭipadā (the middle way) indicated in SN 56.11.

Majjhena desanā in SN 12.15 is about empty of the two extremes, existence (eternalism) and non-existence (nihilism), whereas majjhimā paṭipadā in SN 56.11 is about the middle way of sense-pleasures and self-mortification.

Majjhena desanā in SN 12.15 becomes the foundation of the Mahayana’s emptiness insight. This is not found in the early Buddhist schools (the so-called Hinayana traditions by the Mahayana).

But, Majjhimā paṭipadā in SN 56.11 is shared by both Mahayana and early Buddhist schools regarding the way leading to the cessation of dukkha.

Well, yes, but also not quite. In fact the phrase is associated with a range of different extremes, not just those emphasized by Nagarjuna, i.e. existence and non-existence.

It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that all Buddhist schools upheld the notion that dependent origination is a teaching that avoids philosophical extremes of all kinds. This was especially emphasized by the Madhyamaka school in the context of avoiding the extremes of existence and non-existence.

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This is interesting,

Mendicants, I will teach you the wrong practice and the right practice.
micchāpaṭipadañca vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi sammāpaṭipadañca.

Listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied.

The Buddha said this:

“And what’s the wrong practice?
“Katamā ca, bhikkhave, micchāpaṭipadā?

Ignorance is a condition for choices.

Choices are a condition for consciousness. …

That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

This is called the wrong practice.

And what’s the right practice?
Katamā ca, bhikkhave, sammāpaṭipadā?

When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, choices cease.

When choices cease, consciousness ceases. …

That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.

This is called the right practice.
SN12.3

I saw an ancient path, an ancient route traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past.

And what is that ancient path, the ancient road traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past? It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is that ancient path, the ancient road traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past.

Following it along, I directly knew old age and death, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation. Following it along, I directly knew rebirth … continued existence … grasping … craving … feeling … contact … the six sense fields … name and form … consciousness … Following it along, I directly knew choices, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation.**

Having directly known this, I told the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. And that’s how this spiritual life has become successful and prosperous, extensive, popular, widespread, and well proclaimed wherever there are gods and humans.”
Sn12.65

**it is also interesting, ‘ignorance’ is not mentioned here.

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Hi Thomas,

I thought that was the point of the OP, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding your post.

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Thank you for this sentence! Only now did it dawn on me that “way” here isn’t used in the sense of “path”, but in the sense of “the manner in which something is done”! In English it’s all the same word; in German we use different words for that.

In this light there is of course a substantial difference between “by the middle way” and “by the middle teaching”. “By the middle way” is much closer to the grammatical structure of the Pali.

And for German it would be quite elegantly rendered “er lehrt den Dhamma auf die mittlere Art”—which has the big advantage that I can keep “mittlerer Weg” for the “middle way” referring to the noble eightfold path. For I really think this eightfold path is what most people associate with the term “middle way”, and if it now stands for something else this is confusing.

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However, the Pali/Theravada Abhidhamma considers Dhammas are real (“paramattha” ultimate reality); i.e. Nibbana and citta, cetasika, rupa (the five aggregates), are ultimate reality (cf. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Abhidhammattha Sangaha, p. 25).

This idea does not fit in well to Majjhena desanā in SN 12.15 about avoiding the two extremes, existence and non-existence.

In Mahayana (such as the Madhyamaka school and/or its sutras), it considers all Dharmas are empty of any permanent entity, i.e. void of existence and non-existence. This seems to follow better to the teaching of Majjhena desanā indicated in SN 12.15.

But Majjhena desanā in SN 12.15 centres mainly on practice and experience for individuals in a practical sense, rather than on idealistic and systematic theory.

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:slight_smile: These sort of observations coming from multi-lingual understanding and perspectives are enjoyable and beneficial to me (& probably others). Thank you for this sharing, Anagarika! :slight_smile: :anjal:

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Thanks, Bhante! I added both to Voice examples.

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