April 1997


A View from the Buddhist Middle Way

by Ian Clark

The History of the Middle Way

Buddhists view the self as an illusion to which the mind grasps: it is this grasping that returns the mind to cyclic existence or samsara. The mind is regarded as the sixth sense and it is, in its essence, clear.

Shakyamuni Buddha lived in India around 500 BC. He realized beings were in a state of suffering and that the origin of these sufferings was delusion. Buddha believed that if a being really desired permanent happiness, he or she could meditate on ways to end that suffering and thus find happiness, just as he had.

He realized suffering could be quite subtle and is related to happiness. Happiness occurs and is grasped by those who experience it because they want repetition. Yet the repetition (of the happy experience) can itself fall short of the original experience or, just the opposite, be too much to the satiated. That's why in the Sanskrit "Dukkha" means "unsatisfactory" or "suffering" and that term came to represent the human condition.

At the time of Buddha, there were many people in India who were proto-materialists because they believed that things had absolute existence. Buddha preached a great sermon (or sutra) known as the "Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom" in which he spoke of the "inherent non-existence" of all things, which means that although things exist in a conventional way, they do not exist "from their own side." We perceive the world with the senses, interpret it with the mind, and then create objects in the world which we then impute with "goodness." We give the objects names and treat them as if they were permanent and of great value so much so that for some we are quite prepared to give up our lives. The desire to possess these things not only motivates us to take action (karma), but it mostly prompts us to take non-virtuous action.

In the 2nd century, a Buddhist saint, Nagarjuna, addressed the philosophy of "inherent non-existence" and created a series of philosophic works which was carried in a very pure form to Tibet by Atisha and Je Tsongkhapa. This work became known as "Madhyamika Prasangika" or "The Middle Way." It was a way of viewing the world which, for a student, could be first understood conceptually; then, as a non-conceptual realization, it could provide the basis of liberation from rebirth for anyone who so chose. Liberation consists of a visceral realization after much meditation that everything exits only conventionally and that nothing exists "from it's own side." Everything is a factor of mind.

This realization was more than a nihilistic repudiation of the existence of things. It was a realization of their "inherent non- existence" and, at the same time, a recognition of their "conventional" existence. This awareness applied not just to objects in the world, but also to the self. The essence was that nothing has inherent existence and that all depends on the co-arising of other events in order to achieve what seems to be an ephemeral, impermanent state of being.

If this philosophy is true, it is a pity that we devote so much of our lives wanting to possess these things. Our full prisons and wartime cemeteries are a testament to this. There has not been such a significant statement of existence in Western Philosophy until just recently when Ludwig Wittgenstein left his native Austria and tilted philosophic lances with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. Perhaps spurred by the intellectual ferment of early quantum physics, Wittgenstein expressed his philosophy in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Note: I would like to draw your attention particularly to what Wittgenstein has to say about Science in the Tractatus, 6.371 and 6.372.

But it was not Wittgenstein who first thought along the lines of the Buddhist Middle Way in the West. It was the Greeks, who just about thought of everything and, true to form, Parmenides of Elea Heraclitus of Ephesus tried to define whether the world was comprised of things or events. Heraclitus believed the world existed because of the play of events (panta rhei), but it was Parmenides whose ideas of immutable things and of creation seemed easier to understand to Plato.

The rest, they say, was history. It seems the philosophy of the Buddhist "Middle Way" had a parallel in Western thought which died an untimely death until the "Alice in Wonderland" world of Quantum Physics overcame the simplistic, confident materialism of the late Victorian era.

Cyberspace and the Mind

Buddhists regard mind as the route to liberation. It is a way to both erase desire and non-virtuous action traces from the mind. The mind is, in its natural state, clear, an empty slate on which our consciousness constructs reality. "The world in which we live seems to be solid and real and shared with others, but what we experience is our individual construction," says Dorothy Rowe, a British clinical psychologist and author of "Living Together." The clear mind is the "tabla rasa" on which our consciousness constructs reality. Its nature reflects a Buddhist interpretation. There is a chain of causation and of events co-arising--a displayed Web page meeting eye-consciousness, a subject selected by desire and motivated by intent, the display illusory and impermanent, a reflection of mind and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As Joanna Macy comments in her "Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory," "self and being are both unique and inseparable from its natural and social matrix--a fleeting meeting ground of intricately woven relations, its nature being profoundly participatory." Here we have the idea that the self is merely an event!

The Internet is an ideal medium for reflecting and searching for the "self." Some projections of the mind occur when, for example, we react in abhorrence to views with which we are uncomfortable or possibly become attracted to a person with whom we have established some intimacy on the Net. The Net is useful because it allows us to begin isolating the "self" that is an always-present projection. The Web gives so many opportunities for reaction! With this clear observation of the "self" as pre-requisite, we can then meditate on its inherent emptiness. This is a way of liberation.

CyberSangha, The Electronic Support System

The Internet, used intelligently, provides a Buddhist with practice on the path of wisdom and compassion. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders have already commented on their delight in the Web and the opportunity it gives of spreading the Dharma (teachings). It can meet many of the requirements of talking about Buddhism such as:

  • providing a "CyberSangha" by which people can gain support in their practice either from books, journals, indexes, Buddhist center home pages, Sutras, commentaries, debates, and advice;

  • providing emanations of the Buddha in the form of thankas and mandalas for contemplation;

  • using hypertext as an ideal structure for the expression of the logic of the Path to Liberation Lam Rim or studying the nature of mind (Lorig);

  • teaching only when asked, implied by a user downloading a page;

  • practicing the four virtues of speech when engaging in debate in a newsgroup--not to slander, lie, use hurtful speech or gossip;

  • being aware of the nature of suffering Dukkha and developing compassion for others now connected globally on the Web and

  • turning difficulties into the path when working with others on the Web and if anger arises, transforming the energy to patient versatility, sorrow to empathy with others, jealousy to admiration and so on.

Ian Clark ( is a practicing Buddhist and has traveled in South Asia and the Middle East for ten years during 1973-83. His trade is computing and he is presently a systems engineer with an oil-company. He has spent much time studying and learning about Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the I-Ching, Sufism, Vedanta and Modern Philosophy.

Copyright © 1997 by Ian Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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