Buddhist errors in relation to the Middle Way

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The Buddhist tradition has preserved its teachings of the Middle Way through many centuries, and for that it deserves much credit. However, the teachings of the Middle Way as presented by most Buddhists today are full of confusions. In my experience they are often reluctant to acknowledge or address these confusions, because of their misplaced respect for tradition in itself as a source of wisdom, which leads them rather to defend traditional accounts of the Middle Way than really examine them. If you want a positive account of what the Middle Way has to offer, and why it offers a profound answer to many moral and philosophical problems, read much of the rest of this website. However, this page concentrates on aspects of the traditional Buddhist Middle Way that do not make sense.

Buddhists often assert the following about the Middle Way, eternalism and nihilism:

All these common Buddhist views are inconsistent with the central insights to be found in the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not, and cannot coherently be, a metaphysical position of any kind. Instead, the Middle Way can only be understood as a moral and anti-metaphysical position (see metaphysics page for more on this). This misunderstanding of the Middle Way has arisen from an incoherent view of eternalism and nihilism, which I will try to summarise below.

Why eternalism and nihilism cannot be defined in terms of belief in the self

Belief in the self, or denial of the self, is only one metaphysical contest amongst many, yet Buddhists tend to elevate it as somehow more important than other metaphysical dualisms. Like any other metaphysical belief, belief or disbelief in the self can be an object of ideological attachment, which can then be used to defend otherwise indefensible positions against the assaults of experience, but in this respect it is no different from say, belief that God created the world, belief in freewill, or belief that all morality is relative.

Belief in the self has only gained a privileged position in Buddhist thinking because of the notion that belief in karma and rebirth helps you to be moral. In this way of thinking, disbelief in karma and rebirth supposedly undermines morality, and the belief that you will survive death as a fixed self supposedly creates a lesser, more subtle force of immoral attachment. How any Buddhist can seriously maintain this belief who lives in the West, surrounded by people with varying degrees of moral objectivity, the vast majority of whose beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with eternal selves or denied selves (and some of the best of which have never even thought about karma and rebirth), I find incomprehensible, but nevertheless they do. If Western people vary in moral insight, but that insight clearly does not vary in proportion to their degree of belief in an eternal self or denial of an eternal self, but rather has more complex causes, then this belief is refuted by all the evidence around us.

The Buddha's account of eternalism and nihilism served a purpose in its context. But far too much of the incidental features of that context is being imported undiscrimimatingly into modern Buddhist accounts of the Middle Way. Perhaps the moral problem of attached views in the Buddha's context genuinely did consist mainly of attachment to the existence of the self or its non-existence. But it does not take very much reflection to realise that this cannot be true of our time, and thus that this aspect of the Buddha's teaching is not universal.

What the Middle Way tells us more informatively, is that metaphysics of any kind forms a basis of attachment, not that one type of metaphysics is any better or worse than another. The roots of the terms 'eternalism' and 'nihilism' (or 'annihiliationism') may be to do with belief in the self or its denial, but this etymological or historical point tells us nothing about the justifiable insights offered by the doctrine, and whether they have anything specifically to do with belief in the self.  

Why eternalism and nihilism cannot be defined in terms of belief in the world's existence

It is similarly asserted, in the tradition of discussion of the Middle Way that stems from Nagarjuna, that eternalists believe that the world is really there and nihilists deny that it is. If we deny the reality of the world, it is claimed, we deny conditionality and fail to take into account the conditions we meet with; but if we assert that the world ultimately exists, it is similarly reasoned, we have do not take into account the ways that true conditions differ from our understanding of them, and the ways that conditions are insubstantial and impermanent. Again, a little critical reflection on these claims should make it clear how incoherent they are.

Belief in the world's real existence or non-existence may indeed sometimes lead us not to face up to the conditions that affect us, but again this is only one possible metaphysical belief among many that we might get attached to. These beliefs have no necessary connection with any particular type of eternalist or nihilist moral failing, or with belief or disbelief in a self. For example, those with a very "this worldly", "materialist" view such as Marxists, followers of scientism, or money-obsessed capitalists, combine an affirmation of things in the world with a stereotypically nihilistic moral outlook. It is quite difficult to find idealists who seriously deny the existence of the world on philosophical grounds these days, but perhaps the most widely-quoted historical idealist, Bishop Berkeley, was decidedly eternalist in his moral outlook, definitely believed in the eternal soul, and thought that affirming the world's existence was the path to dangerous atheism.

It doesn't require a detailed survey of Western philosophy, but only a few moment's reflection on whether Nagarjuna's model actually fits the relationship between metaphysical views and ethical ones that we can see in people around us, to see that this way of defining eternalism and nihilism is also confused, and mistakes a case that may have applied to a few examples in Nagarjuna's time for a universal truth.

Why nihilism is not a philosophical expression of aversion, nor eternalism a philosophical expression of craving

Craving and aversion, or greed and hatred, are recognised in core Buddhist teaching as the seeds of ignorance. This is because we prematurely reject views about the world that may be relatively true due to aversion, and/or prematurely accept relatively inaccurate views of the world due to craving. The core recognition that craving and aversion are responsible for the inaccuracy of our views, and thus that the Middle Way should consist in views that are relatively free of craving and aversion, is an invaluable insight of the Buddha.

However, the idea that eternalism is specifically associated with craving and nihilism with aversion is a naive one. A little thought, again, about the examples around us in western society shows that this cannot possibly be the case. Some very rigorous forms of eternalism, such as Calvinist Christianity, are very much characterised by disapproving aversion. Similarly, the philosophically nihilist views of the hippy era and the New Age, which assume that no view is any more true than another, are often full of craving for happy states. Any metaphysical view we come up with is likely to be held with craving, but defended with aversion against other views, requiring not a particular association with one or the other, but a mixture of craving and aversion. It is thus nonsensical to claim that eternalism is any more a philosophical expression of craving than nihilism is, or that nihilism is any more an expression of aversion than eternalism is. Both are an equal expression of both. It is rather metaphysics generally which is an expression of both craving and aversion.

Why eternalism is not better than nihilism

There is a widespread belief amongst Buddhists that eternalism is better than nihilism, because believing that there are some real moral rules at least gives life some moral structure, even if one then becomes over-attached to that moral structure, in contrast to nihilism where no such moral structure can be justified. In this apparently trivial preference for second-place in the philosophical stakes, there lurks an important confusion.

It is not belief in eternalistic or nihilistic dogmas that allows human beings to create basic, conventional moral structures. Wherever a group of people lives together and creates a social organisation, that social organisation will require shared values to maintain it. These shared values will often be supported by an appeal to metaphysical beliefs. However, it makes no difference whatsoever what these metaphysical beliefs are. People can be united as a group, and also divided from other groups, by a belief in God, a shared determinism, a rejection of the values of the dominant class or of the previous generation, or even by a belief in ultimate nothingness. It is the metaphysical nature of that belief (being beyond all critical comparison with experience), not its precise form, that makes it easy for a group to use it as a binding agent, and thus as a basis for social morality.

Eternalist ethics do not lead to better social morality than nihilist ethics. The widespread abandonment of belief in God in modern European society has not, contrary to conservative warnings, led to the collapse of society. People can be bound together by purely worldly ends, and motivated by economic goals, just as they can by a desire for rewards in heaven. In both cases, these ways of understanding and motivating ones life are limited and deluded, but they are equally limited and deluded. The Buddhist tendency to privilege eternalism cannot be unrelated to the many respects in which traditional Buddhism has actually become eternalist in its moral attitudes (by appealing to enlightened beings as a source of moral revelation), and to a tendency amongst Western Buddhists to underrate the positive achievements and moral basis offered by their own Western culture.

A follower of the Middle Way needs to be rigorously even-handed in his/her treatment of eternalism and nihilism. The denial of metaphysical claims is no truer than the affirmation of metaphysical claims, and this is the only position compatible with the Buddha's refusal to offer answers to metaphysical questions, the so called 'silence of the Buddha'. If an eternalist position is neither truer not falser than a nihilist one, it cannot address conditions any better, and therefore cannot be any better morally speaking. The idea that eternalist positions are somehow more true is not compatible with either Nagarjuna's or the Buddha's basic recognitions of the delusions involved in metaphysics.

Why the Middle Way cannot be metaphysical

If the Middle Way questions the dualism which rules both eternalism and nihilism, this does not make the Middle Way itself metaphysical. If the Middle Way was itself just another metaphysical view, making further absolute assertions and binding together another group, it would offer no particular advantages over other metaphysical views. However, traditional Buddhists seem to be inevitably led towards the assumption that the Middle Way is a metaphysical view by their identification of eternalism and nihilism with specific metaphysical views. Just avoiding one pair of opposed metaphysical views is not enough, for you can very easily fall straight into another one: for example, avoiding either eternal self or no self, the Buddhist has made no progress if he or she then starts to believe in karma and rebirth (or its denial) instead.

Only clarity about the need to avoid all metaphysical views, and some awareness of the range and hold of those metaphysical views, will be enough to help a Buddhist escape them into relatively provisional views, capable of being revised through the examination of experience. The Middle Way understood as an avoidance of metaphysics thus offers at least an understanding of how dogma might be avoided and conditions addressed. However, no Buddhist will be able to work their way through the thicket of views in the way advised by the Buddha if they use the traditional conception of the Middle Way as a guide - for this confuses just as much as it helps. I accuse Buddhist tradition of nothing less than disabling a profoundly true teaching, by the confusion of its universal elements with elements which are only relevant in limited and far from universal circumstances.

Links to further discussion

The Buddhist origins of the Middle Way

Four errors in traditional Buddhist thinking (paper)



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