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The Middle Way was Middle to What?

Buddha's most highly condensed rules for living are sometimes called the Middle Way. In ancient Greece and Rome, there were two opposite poles of thought about how to behave and what to direct one's life towards. One pole was the Epicureans, who believed that life was a search for pleasure. In other words, they were hedonists. The other pole was the Stoics, who put pleasure aside as being non-important, and felt that there were honorable ways to live, and one should strive to do that. 


Someone with a background in these two opposite schools of philosophy, or the meaning of life, might think that the Middle Way was a compromise between these two points of view: pleasure versus honor, and that the Middle Way supports some pleasure seeking, but having it limited by the sense of honor, and doing what is right and just. Hedonism can exist as an extreme, where there is no consideration of justice or honor or anything else, only pleasure in whatever ways the individual prefers.


These viewpoints started early in Greece, perhaps twenty three centuries ago, and have become very well known throughout the world, as they were expressed well, and continued to be followed for the next six or so centuries. Much of the writing from that time is lost, but enough exists so that those who learn Greek and Roman philosophy have a clear idea of these two opposites.


In North Central India twenty-five centuries ago, there were different extremes. Siddhartha in his early years experienced both, first the hedonism that is possible to the heir to a king of a nation, and then the asceticism that was practiced as the only way to free oneself from bad karma, which is the accumulation of the values of the good and bad deeds done in previous lifetimes, some sort of very long period integral over time. People grew up there believing in reincarnation as the mandatory route of their essence, which was something like their intelligence or personality but not including memory.

For some reason, stemming likely from the tales told by the priestly class of that region, everyone was given the task of improving their karma by good deeds in the present life. It is easy to see how this can be exploited, but the point is that there were many preachers who taught that doing good deeds is not enough, one also had to punish one's body through various deprivations or degradations. Only then could karma be erased and one's next reincarnation designated as one with a higher station.


Hedonism in India was not much different from hedonism elsewhere.


The Middle Way was not between Stoicism and Epicureanism, but between asceticism and hedonism. More specifically, it was very akin to Stoicism. There are varieties of stoicism, some have asceticism included in it, but mostly it evolved into a life of honor, following the proper rules for conduct. Pleasure and pain as well were not particularly sought after or avoided, respectively, but simply accepted as a transient part of life, not to be paid too much attention. This mainline stoicism is quite akin to the Middle Way. They differ in the choice of behavioral rules, but the idea is the same, that things of the world involving pleasure are not worth much effort to obtain, and there are higher goals that are much more preferable.


Stoicism and the Middle Way also had one very important feature in common. They were designed to preserve the existing social order. Stoicism propounded that one should fulfill one's role in society as best as possible. Society had a complex structure, and many different roles in it. But if there were no rapid changes, it would be clear just what each person should do by looking at his position in the structure. The idea was not to advance one's position, except if that were the usual method by which promotion was obtained. One should instead concentrate on understanding what tasks were necessary for the position one held, and how to do them better. A businessman would concentrate on how to perform his business as best as possible, not seeking profit at all costs, but not refusing or dissipating profit that came from successful operations. A government official should try to do whatever his position demanded, keeping in mind the interests of the various groups that might be affected by it. A farmer should grow crops and try to maintain his agricultural output as best as weather would allow. A slave should attempt to follow his master's commands, and to even anticipate them if allowed. Everyone should understand their role and do it well, and then, according to the Stoic philosophy, everyone would benefit according to their station.


The Middle Way preaches that believers should adopt certain attitudes and certain practices. Siddhartha taught that becoming a monk is the only way to avoid the otherwise perpetual cycle of reincarnation, and the monk would have to follow the Eight-fold Way, which is a more detailed listing of the proper behaviors. Lay people who could not or chose not to become monks or nuns had analogous rules to follow. These lay people were the large majority of the population, and the rules told them not to be acquisitive, to be content, to recognize one's life as just one episode of the eternal sequence of death and rebirth, and otherwise to live a compassionate life, avoiding certain prohibited professions. There was not the Greek and Roman twist toward making society work well for all, but the effect of the Middle Way was to keep things going as they were.


Meditation is one of the three categories into which the eight behavioral injunctions are divided, and meditation is not a avenue for promoting revolution in society, but instead accepting it for what it is. Neither of the other two categories involves striving for some higher station or some acquisition of goods. Thus, those who were involved in accumulating wealth would certainly welcome the presence of Buddhist thought as it led to little or no disturbance of existing social roles and activities. It would have been the same for Stoicism.


This is an essential fact of religion. In order for a religion to receive the support it needs to become widespread, it must provide some benefits to those who control that support, such as monarchs, wealthy landowners or traders, and upper class individuals. The basic desire of this collection of people, in any society, is that things go on as they were, which allows them to live at the peak of society. Any religion will have to provide some mechanism for ensuring that the large fraction of the population, those not in this collection of people, remain content or calm or non-resentful to a large degree. Supernatural benefits are one of the two principal means by which this is achieved. Supernatural here refers to benefits that will be received by something connected to an individual which survives death. Thus there must be a promise which will never be paid that allows the hierarchy in society to continue. The other means happens in earlier forms of religion, not the most primitive, but what might be called the second stage, where there are recognizable gods who have supernatural powers, and who have to be placated. Typically that is by making sacrifices and donations to a priestly class, but also by not espousing rebellion and inversion of the social order.


It is thus no surprise at all that both Stoicism and Buddhism promote preservation of the status quo.


Stoicism had an origin in the second stage of religion, and the gods provided a respected audience where honor was important and whose various behavioral rules could be understood and followed. Thus, one accepts the status quo under Stoicism because the gods, who are more important that normal humans, believe in some sort of acquiescence in certain areas of society, while channeling an individual's striving in other directions. Under Buddhism, one accepts the status quo for personal benefit, as this is supposedly the only route by which one's mystical essence can be delivered from immortality of a sort, which is considered to be a bad thing to have, as it includes suffering of various types, such as repeated episodes of old age and disease.


Reincarnation overwhelmed the older form of gods with honor and behavioral rules in India, indicating that it must have been more attractive to some group involved in the acceptance of the concept, either the average individuals who might like another chance at life, the priestly class who now had a better weapon in their armory to control individuals, or the upper classes, who could recognize that this concept was even better than the honor of the gods in promoting the continuation of the status quo. The concept spread widely throughout Asia, displacing the old god system, but the largest thrust of expansion came not from the original Vedic concept, but on Siddhartha's modification of it whereby immortality of the essence might be curtailed by putting it in some sort of blissful state, called nirvana.


Just next door to North India was Persia, where Zoroastrianism had spread to cover first the state and then the whole Persia Empire. Zoroastrianism was perhaps the first to use the idea of a blissful eternity for an essence, and there were certainly wandering believers who might have been proselytizing for it in India, traders and simply travelers. There is no indication whatsoever that Siddhartha had any dealings with Persian devotees of Zoroastrianism, but the concept could have come second-hand or third-hand, given the large number of wandering religious seekers at that time. Certainly, since there were rules in Zoroastrianism as to how one could gain access to this blissful extension of life, it had the ability to conduct social control as well. So perhaps there is a hierarchy of successful religious concepts to preserve the status quo, starting with the honor of a pantheon of gods, moving to an essence which returns to the world with its fate partially decided on the last tour, and finally to the idea of a blissful eternity for the essence.


Primitive people might not have much conception of eternity, so the latter two concepts might simply be “a long long time” instead of eternity, but that would make little difference in the ability of the concept to spread and become the reason for living. The economics of religion may have played the dominant role in the selection of which concept continues and which dies out.  But it must be asked, is such a situation mandatory for a new twenty-first century religion?  Should Advanced Buddhism be designed to placate society and preserve the status quo, or can a completely different, wholly novel source of support for the religion be sought?


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