8

The Middle Teaching

 

 

To understand the principle of Dependent Origination is said to be Right View (sammaditthi). This Right View is a very balanced kind of view, one which does not tend to extremes. Thus the principle of Dependent Origination is a law which teaches the truth in a median and unbiased way, known as the Middle Teaching. The 'median-ness' of this truth is more clearly understood when it is compared with other teachings. In order to show how the principle of Dependent Origination differs from these extreme views, I will now present some of them, arranged in pairs, using the Buddha's words as explanation and keeping further commentary to a minimum.

 

First Pair: 

    1. Atthikavada: The school which upholds that all things really exist (extreme realism).

    2. Natthikavada: The school which upholds that all things do not exist (nihilism).

 

"Venerable Sir, it is said 'Right View, Right View.' To what extent is view said to be right?"

"Herein, Venerable Kaccana, this world generally tends towards two extreme views -- atthita (being) and natthita (not being). Seeing the cause of the world as it is, with right understanding, there is no 'not being' therein. Seeing the cessation of this world as it is with right understanding, there is no 'being' therein. The world clings to systems and is bound by dogmas, but the noble disciple does not search for, delight in or attach to systems, dogmas or the conceit 'I am.' He doubts not that it is only suffering that arises, and only suffering that ceases. When that noble disciple clearly perceives this independently of others, this is called Right View.

"Kaccana! To say 'all things exist' is one extreme. To say 'all things do not exist' is another. The Tathagata proclaims a teaching that is balanced, avoiding these extremes, thus, 'With ignorance as condition there are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ... with the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases ...'" [S.II.16-17, 76; S.III.134]

*  *  *

A Brahmin approached the Buddha and asked, "Venerable Gotama, do all things exist?"

The Buddha replied, "The view that all things exist is one extreme materialistic view."

Question: Then all things do not exist?

Answer: The view that all things do not exist is the second materialistic view.

Question: Are all things, then, one?

Answer: The view that all things are one is the third materialistic view.

Question: Are all things, then, a plurality?

Answer: The view that all things are a plurality is the fourth materialistic view.

"Brahmin! The Tathagata proclaims a teaching that is balanced, avoiding these extremes, thus, 'With ignorance as condition there are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ... with the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases ...'" [S.II.77]

 

Second Pair:

    1. Sassatavada: The school of eternalism

    2. Ucchedavada: The school of annihilationism

Third Pair:

    1. Attakaravada or Sayankaravada: The school which upholds the view that happiness and suffering are entirely self-determined (kammic autogenesism)

    2. Parakaravada: The school which upholds the view that happiness and suffering are entirely caused by external factors (kammic heterogenisism).

    These second and third pairs are very important to the fundamental teaching of Buddhism. If studied and clearly understood they can help prevent a lot of misunderstandings about the law of kamma.

 

Question: Is suffering caused by the self?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Is suffering then caused by external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Is suffering then caused both by oneself and external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Is suffering then caused neither by oneself nor external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: In that case, is there no such thing as suffering?

Answer: It is not that there is no such thing as suffering. Suffering does exist.

Question: In that case, is it that Venerable Gotama does not see or know suffering?

Answer: It is not that I do not see or know suffering. I do indeed know and see suffering.

Question: May the Blessed One please tell me then, please instruct me, about suffering.

Answer: To say 'suffering is caused by the self,' is the same as saying 'he who acts receives the results (suffering).' This tends to the eternalist view (sassataditthi). Saying 'suffering is caused by other agents,' as a person who experiences sharp and painful feelings would feel, is just like saying, 'one person acts, another suffers.' This tends to the annihilationist view (ucchedaditthi). The Tathagata, avoiding those two extremes, proclaims a teaching that is balanced, thus, 'With ignorance as condition there are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ...   with the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases ...' [S.II.19]

*  *  *

Question: Are happiness and suffering caused by the self?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Are happiness and suffering caused by external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Are happiness and suffering caused by both the self and external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: Are then happiness and suffering caused by neither the self nor external factors?

Answer: Do not put it that way.

Question: In that case, then, do happiness and suffering not exist?

Answer: It is not that happiness and suffering do not exist. Happiness and suffering do exist.

Question: In that case, does the Venerable Gotama neither know nor see happiness and suffering?

Answer: It is not that I neither see nor know them. I do indeed both see and know happiness and suffering.

Question: May the Blessed one please inform me, please instruct me, about happiness and suffering.

Answer: Understanding from the outset that feeling and self are one and the same thing, there is the clung-to notion that happiness and suffering are self-caused. I do not teach thus. Understanding that feeling is one thing, self is another, there is the clung-to notion that happiness and suffering are caused by external factors. I do not teach thus. The Tathagata, avoiding those two extremes, proclaims a teaching that is balanced, thus, 'With ignorance as condition there are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ... with the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases ...' [S.II.22]

*  *  *

"Ananda, I say that happiness and suffering are dependently arisen. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact (phassa).

"Dependent on body and volition in relation to the body, internal happiness and suffering can arise. Dependent on speech and speech-volition, internal happiness and suffering can arise. Dependent on mind and mind-volition, internal happiness and suffering can arise.

"With this very ignorance as condition, bodily actions which are a cause for internal happiness and suffering are created. Dependent on other people (at the instigation of another person or external force), bodily actions, a cause for internal happiness and suffering, are created. With awareness, volitional bodily activities, the cause of internal happiness and suffering, are created. Without awareness, volitional bodily activities, the cause of internal happiness and suffering, are created ... volitional speech is created ... volitional thoughts are created ... instigated by another ... with awareness ... without awareness. In all these cases, ignorance is present."[21]

 

Fourth Pair:

    1. Karakavedakadi-ekattavada: The belief that the doer and the experiencer of the fruit of actions are one and the same (the monistic view of subject-object unity).

    2. Karakavedakadi-nanattavada: The belief that the doer and the experiencer of the fruit of actions are separate things (the dualistic view of subject-object distinction).

 

Question: Are the doer and the receiver one and the same thing?

Answer: Saying that the doer and receiver are one and the same thing is one extreme.

Question: Are, then, the doer one thing, the receiver another?

Answer: To say the doer is one thing, the receiver of results another, is another extreme. The Tathagata, avoiding these two extremes, proclaims a teaching that is balanced, thus, 'With ignorance as condition there are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ... with the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases ...' [S.II.75]

*  *  *

Question: Revered Gotama, what are aging and death? To whom do they belong?

Answer: You have asked the question improperly. To say either, 'What are aging and death, to whom do they belong,' or 'aging and death are one thing, the experiencer another,' is to say the same thing, the statements differ only in the letter. When there is the view, 'life and the body are one and the same thing,' there can be no Higher Life (brahmacariya). When there is the view, 'life and the body are two different things,' there can be no Higher Life. The Tathagata, avoiding these two extremes, proclaims a teaching that is balanced, thus, 'With birth as condition are aging and death.'

Question: Revered Sir, birth ... becoming ... clinging ... craving ... feeling ... contact ... the sense bases ... body and mind ... consciousness ... volitional impulses ... What are they? To whom do they belong?

Answer: You have asked the question wrongly. ... (same as for aging and death) ... Because of the complete abandoning of ignorance, whatsoever views there be that are confused, vague, and contradictory, such as 'What are aging and death, to whom do they belong?', 'Aging and death are one thing, the experiencer another,' 'The life principle and the body are one thing,' 'The life principle and the body are separate.' are done away with, finished with, abandoned and unable to arise again. [S.II.61]

*  *  *

Question: Who is it who receives contact?

Answer: You have put the question wrongly. I do not say 'receives contact.' If I were to say 'receives contact,' you could, in that case, rightly put to me the question 'Who is it who receives contact?' But I do not say that. To ask 'on what condition does contact rest?' would be to ask the question rightly. And the correct answer would be, 'With the sense bases as condition, there is contact. With contact as condition, feeling.'

Question: Who is it who experiences feeling? Who is it who desires? Who is it who clings?

Answer: You have put the question wrongly ... To ask 'On what condition does feeling rest? What is it that conditions desire? What is it that conditions clinging?' would be asking the question in the right way. In that case, the correct answer would be, 'With contact as condition there is feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging.' [S.II.13]

*  *  *

"Monks, this body does not belong to you, nor does it belong to another. You should see it as old kamma, something conditioned and concocted by volitional impulses, a base of feeling.

"In regard to this, monks, the learned, noble disciple wisely considers the dependent arising of all things, thus, 'When there is this, this comes to be. With the cessation of this, this ceases. That is, with ignorance as condition are volitional impulses; with volitional impulses as condition, consciousness ... With the complete abandoning of ignorance, volitional impulses cease; with the cessation of volitional impulses, consciousness ceases.'" [S.II.64]

 

The teaching of Dependent Origination demonstrates the truth of all things in nature as having the characteristics of transience, stress and not self,[*] and as faring according to cause and effect. There is no need for questions about the existence or non-existence of things, whether they are eternal or whether they are annihilated and so on, as such questions do not pertain to what is truly useful. However, without clear understanding of Dependent Origination, the Three Characteristics, especially not-self, will also be misunderstood. Quite often the teaching of not-self is taken to mean nothingness, which conforms with the nihilist (natthika) view, a particularly pernicious form of wrong understanding.

    In addition to helping to avoid such views, a clear understanding of the principle of Dependent Origination will prevent the arising of views about a Genesis or First Cause, such as mentioned in the beginning of this book. Some of the Buddha's words in this connection:

"Monks, for a noble disciple who sees the dependent arising of things in conformity with the principle of Dependent Origination, it is impossible to fall into such extreme views as, 'What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what in the past did I become thus?'; or such views as, 'In the future, will I be? In the future what will I be? In the future how will I be? In the future what will I become?'; or, 'Am I? What am I? How am I? Where did this being arise from, and where will it go?' -- none of these doubts can arise for him. Why? Because that noble disciple has seen the dependent arising of things in accordance with the principle of Dependent Origination, clearly, as it is, with perfect wisdom." [S.II.26]

    In this context, one who sees the principle of Dependent Origination will no longer be inclined to speculate about the questions of metaphysics. This is why the Buddha remained silent on such issues. He called such questions abyakatapa˝ha -- questions better left unanswered. On seeing the principle of Dependent Origination, and understanding how all things flow along the cause and effect continuum, such questions become meaningless. Here we may consider some of the reasons why the Buddha would not answer such questions:

"Revered Gotama, what is the reason that, while recluses of other sects, being questioned thus:

    1. Is the world eternal?
    2. Is the world not eternal?
    3. Is the world finite?
    4. Is the world infinite?
    5. Are the life principle and the body one thing?
    6. Are the life principle and the body separate?
    7. Do beings exist after death?
    8. Do beings not exist after death?
    9. Do beings both exist and not exist after death?
    10. Do beings neither exist nor not exist after death? ...

... give such answers as 'The world is eternal,' or 'the world is not eternal,' ... 'Beings neither exist nor do not exist after death,' but the Revered Gotama, being so questioned, does not answer thus?"

"Herein, Vaccha, these recluses of other sects believe either that the body is the self, or that the self has a body, or that the self is in the body, or that the body is in the self, or that the self lies in the body; or that feeling ... perception ... volitional impulses ... consciousness is the self, or that the self is consciousness, that consciousness lies in the self or that the self lies within consciousness. It is for this reason that those recluses, being so questioned, answer in such ways.

"But the Tathagata, Arahant, Fully Self-Enlightened Buddha, does not apprehend the body to be the self or the self to be the body, or that the body lies in the self, or the self within the body ... that consciousness is the self, or that consciousness lies within the self, or the self within consciousness. For this reason, the Tathagata, Arahant, Fully Self-Enlightened Buddha, being so questioned, does not make such statements as 'the world is eternal' or 'the world is not eternal'."[22]

 

There are a number of other theories or schools of thought which have a special relationship to the concept of kamma, and which also clash with the principle of Dependent Origination, but those points are covered in another work, so I will not go into them here.

 


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Footnotes:

21. S.II.39; for further study, see D.I.53; S.I.134; D.III.137. [Back to text]

[*] The Three Characteristics: aniccam, dukkham, and anatta. [Back to text]

22. S.IV.395; the reasons that the Buddha refused to answer questions dealing with metaphysics are many. Most importantly, such questions are based on wrong assumptions, such as the concept of self. They do not correlate with reality. As the Buddha would say, "You have asked the question wrongly." Another reason for his silence is that the truths these questions seek are not accessible to logical thinking and cannot be answered in words. Like trying to look at a picture with one's ears, such indulgences are a waste of time. Another reason is that, since such questions are inaccessible to rational thinking, debating them would yield no practical results. The Buddha's main interest was in giving teachings that would yield results on a practical basis, so he swept aside the questions of metaphysics and instead guided his questioners to more practical concerns. If the question was one which could be answered by personal experience, the Buddha, rather than prolonging the conjecture or debate, would show how the questioner could realize it for himself. Lastly, the Buddha was born at a time when metaphysical questions generated intense interest, and teachers and philosophers were debating them heatedly all over the country. Whenever people approached religious teachers or philosophers they would tend to ask these questions. The questions had become so much of an obsession that people had gotten out of touch with practical reality; that is why the Buddha would remain silent on them. His silence was not only a check on metaphysical discussions, but also a powerful jolt to the listener to take heed of what it was the Buddha did have to teach. For references to these reasons for not answering, see M.I.426, 484; S.II.222-3; S.IV.375; A.IV.68; A.V.193. [Back to text]
































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