Middle way

Middle way
Part of a series on

Dharma Wheel.svg
Outline · Portal

Timeline · Councils
Gautama Buddha
Later Buddhists

Dharma or concepts

Four Noble Truths
Five Aggregates
Suffering · Non-self
Dependent Origination
Middle Way · Emptiness
Karma · Rebirth
Samsara · Cosmology


Three Jewels
Noble Eightfold Path
Morality · Perfections
Meditation · Mindfulness
Wisdom · Compassion
Aids to Enlightenment
Monasticism · Laity

Four Stages · Arahant
Buddha · Bodhisattva

Traditions · Canons
Theravāda · Pali
Mahāyāna · Chinese
Vajrayāna · Tibetan

v · d · e

The Middle Way or Middle Path (Pali: majjhimā paipadā; Sanskrit: madhyamā-pratipad; )[1] is the descriptive term that Siddhartha Gautama used to describe the character of the path he discovered that led to liberation. It was coined in the very first teaching that he delivered after his enlightenment.[2] In this sutta - known in English as The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma - the Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This, according to him, was the path of wisdom. The middle path does not mean a mid point in a straight line joining two extremes represented by points. The Middle Way is a dynamic teaching as shown by the traditional story that the Buddha realized the meaning of the Middle Way when he sat by a river and heard a lute player in a passing boat and understood that the lute string must be tuned neither too tight nor too loose to produce a harmonious sound.

In later Theravada texts as well as in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Middle Way refers to the concept, enunciated in the Canon, of direct knowledge that transcends seemingly antithetical claims about existence.[3]


Theravada contexts

In Theravada Buddhism's Pali Canon, the very phrase "middle way" is ascribed to the Buddha himself in his description of the Noble Eightfold Path as a path between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence. Later Pali literature has also used the phrase "middle way" to refer to the Buddha's teaching of dependent origination as a view between the extremes of eternalism and annihilationism.

Noble Eightfold Path

In the Pali canon, the Middle Way (majjhimā paipadā) was said to have been articulated by the Buddha in his first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11):

"Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.
"Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata...? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."[4]

Thus, for the attainment of Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana), the Middle Way involves:

  • abstaining from addictive sense-pleasures and self-mortification
  • nurturing the set of "right" actions that are known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

In this discourse (Pali: sutta), the Buddha identifies the Middle Way as a path for "one who has gone forth from the household life" (Pali: pabbajitena)[5] although lay Buddhists may center their lives on this path as well.

In regard to the Buddha's admonition against the "indulgence of sense-pleasures" (Pali: kāmesu kāma-sukha-allika), Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma has written:

"...This kind of practice is the concern of so-called 'urban civilization,' which condones sensuous pleasures as the highest attributes of bliss; the greater the pleasures, the greater the happiness....
"The Buddha taught that indulgence in sensuous pleasures is not the practice of enlightened, noble ones (ariyas). Noble ones who live the worldly life do not have attachment to sense objects. For example, in the first stage of an enlightened noble life, the sotāpanna, or stream winner, has not yet overcome lust and passions. Incipient perceptions of the agreeableness of carnal pleasures (sukhasaññā) still linger. Nevertheless, the stream-winner will not feel the need to indulge in worldly pleasures."[6]

According to the scriptural account, when the Buddha delivered the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was addressing five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced severe austerities.[7] Thus, it is this personal context as well as the broader context of Indian shramanic practices that gives particular relevancy to the caveat against the extreme (Pali: antā) of self-mortification (Pali: atta-kilamatha).

Dependent Origination

Harvey (2007) writes, "Conditioned Arising is ... a 'Middle Way' which avoids the extremes of 'eternalism' and 'annihilationism': the survival of an eternal self, or the total annihilation of a person at death."[8] In Theravadan literature, this usage of the term "Middle Way" can be found in 5th c. CE Pali commentaries.[9]

In the Pali Canon itself, this view is not explicitly called the "Middle Way" (majjhimā paipadā) but is literally referred to as "teaching by the middle" (majjhena dhamma) as in this passage from the Samyutta Nikaya's Kaccāyanagotta Sutta (in English and Pali):

"'Everything exists': That is one extreme.
'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle...."[10]

Sabbamatthī'ti kho ..., ayameko anto.
Sabba natthī'ti aya dutiyo anto.
... [U]bho ante anupagamma
majjhena tathāgato dhamma deseti.

In this discourse, the Buddha next describes the conditioned origin of suffering (dukkha) – from ignorance (avijja) to aging and death (jaramarana) – and the parallel reverse-order interdependent cessation of such factors (see Dependent Origination and Twelve Nidanas).[12] Thus, in Theravada Buddhist soteriology, there is neither a permanent self nor complete annihilation of the 'person' at death; there is only the arising and ceasing of causally related phenomena.[13]

Mahayana contexts

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Madhyamaka ("Middle Way") school posits a "middle way" position between metaphysical claims that things ultimately either exist or do not exist.[14]

In the Tendai school, the "middle way" refers to the synthesis of the thesis that all things are "empty" and the antithesis that all things have phenomenal existence.[15]

In Zen Buddhism the Middle Way describes the realization of being free of the one-sidedness of perspective that takes the extremes of any polarity as objective reality. For example, in the Platform Sutra of the Great Master Huineng, in Chapter 10 he gives instructions to be handed down about how to explain the Dharma. Huineng enumerates 36 basic oppositions of consciousness and discusses how the Way is free from both extremes.

"If one asks about the worldly, use the paired opposite of the saintly; if asking about the saintly use the paired opposite of the worldly. The mutual causation of the Way of dualities, gives birth to the meaning of the Middle Way. So, for a single question, a single pair of opposites, and for other questions the single [pair] that accords with this fashion, then you do not lose the principle. Suppose there is a person who asks, ‘What is taken for and called darkness?’ Reply and say, ‘Light is the proximate cause and darkness is the contributory cause. When light is ended, then there is darkness. By the means of light, darkness manifests; by the means of darkness, light manifests. [Their] coming and going are mutually proximate causes and become the meaning of the Middle Way.’"

See also


  1. ^ Kohn (1991), p. 143. Also see the Pali version of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (available on-line at SLTP, n.d.-b, sutta 12.2.1) where the phrase majjhimā patipadā is repeatedly used.
  2. ^ Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya, 56:11 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html
  3. ^ David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 1. "Two aspects of the Buddha's teachings, the philosophical and the practical, which are mutually dependent, are clearly enunciated in two discourses, the Kaccaayanagotta-sutta and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, both of which are held in high esteem by almost all schools of Buddhism in spite of their sectarian rivalries. The Kaccaayanagotta-sutta, quoted by almost all the major schools of Buddhism, deals with the philosophical "middle path", placed against the backdrop of two absolutistic theories in Indian philosophy, namely, permanent existence (atthitaa) propounded in the early Upanishads and nihilistic non-existence (natthitaa) suggested by the Materialists."
  4. ^ Piyadassi (1999).
  5. ^ See, for instance, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 414, entry for "pabbajita."
  6. ^ Dhamma (1997), p. 25.
  7. ^ See, for instance, the Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Longer Discourse to Saccaka," MN 36; see, e.g., Thanissaro, 1998).
  8. ^ Harvey (2007), p. 58. Similarly, Gethin (1998) states: "The understanding that sees a 'person' as subsisting in the causal connectedness of dependent arising is often presented in Buddhist thought as 'the middle' (madhyama/majjhima) between the views of 'eternalism' (śaśvata-/sassata-vāda) and 'annihilationism' (uccheda-vāda)" (p. 145). Gethin's endnote (p. 290, n. 22) then references SN 12.17 (e.g., see Thanissaro, 2005).
  9. ^ For instance, Bodhi (2000), p. 739 n. 41, quotes from the Samyutta Nikaya Commentary (SN-a or Spk.) in regards to SN 12.17 (S ii.20):
    The Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle without veering to either of these extremes – eternalism or annihilationism – having abandoned them without reservation. He teaches while being established in the middle way. What is that Dhamma? By the formula of dependent origination, the effect is shown to occur through the cause and to cease with the cessation of the cause, but no agent or experiencer ... is described.
    More tersely, in the Visuddhimagga, the following is found (Vsm. XVII, 24): "...'dependent origination' (paticca-samuppada) represents the middle way, which rejects the doctrines, 'He who acts is he who reaps' and 'One acts while another reaps' (S.ii.20) ..." (Buddhaghosa & Ñāamoli, 1999, p. 531).
  10. ^ Thanissaro (1997) translation of Kaccayanagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). Other Samyutta Nikaya discourses that reference majjhena dhamma include SN 12.17, SN 12.35, SN 12.48 and SN 22.90. While not explicitly using the term majjhena dhamma, the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15), the Pali Canon's longest discourse pertaining to Dependent Origination, includes an extended analysis of "the self" in light of this teaching.
  11. ^ Kaccānagottasutta (SLTP, n.d.-a, sutta 1.2.5). The ellipses here refer primarily to the eliding the name of the addressed monk Kaccāna so that the Pali text more closely matches the provided English translation.
  12. ^ In Theravada Buddhism, only nibbana is "unconditioned"; nonetheless, even the arahant or Tathagatha (who has attained nibbana) upon passing neither exists nor non-exists according to the Canon.
  13. ^ See, e.g., Bodhi (2005), p. 315:
    Several suttas hold up dependent origination as a 'teaching by the middle' (majjhena tathāgato dhamma deseti). It is a 'teaching by the middle' because it transcends two extreme views that polarize philosophical reflection on the human condition. One extreme, the metaphysical thesis of eternalism (sassatavāda), asserts that the core of human identity is an indestructible and eternal self, whether individual or universal.... The other extreme, annihilationism (ucchedavāda), holds that at death the person is utterly annihilated.... Dependent origination offers a radically different perspective that transcends the two extremes. It shows that individual existence is constituted by a current of conditioned phenomena devoid of a metaphysical self yet continuing on from birth to birth as long as the causes that sustain it remain effective....
  14. ^ Kohn (1991), pp. 131, 143.
  15. ^ Kohn (1991), pp. 143-144.


  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Sayutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed., trans.) (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
  • Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya & Bhikkhu Ñāamoli (trans.) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
  • Dhamma, Rewata (1997). The First Discourse of the Buddha: Turning the wheel of Dhamma. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-104-1.
  • Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-520-4.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • middle way — noun singular a policy or course of action that is between two extremes: The government must pursue an economic middle way …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • middle way — noun a) The middle of three paths. Obamas choice, according to McChrystal, a former special forces commander, boils down to this: Escalate or evacuate, get on or get out; there is no middle way that does not invite calamity on a grand scale. b)… …   Wiktionary

  • middle way — UK / US noun [singular] a policy or course of action that is between two extremes The government must pursue an economic middle way …   English dictionary

  • middle way — noun 1. : a course of action, mode of conduct, or policy for action or conduct between two extremes: as a. usually capitalized M&W : middle path b. : a system of democratic economy between individualism and socialism 2. obsolete …   Useful english dictionary

  • middle way — /mɪdl ˈweɪ/ (say midl way) noun Buddhism the, the ideal lifestyle of a Buddhist, avoiding excess of all kind, whether self indulgent or ascetic, in the search for wisdom and morality …   Australian English dictionary

  • Middle Way — Sanskrit  Madhyama pratipadā , Pāli  Majjhima patipadā        in Buddhism, complement of general and specific ethical practices and philosophical views that are said to facilitate enlightenment by avoiding the extremes of self gratification on… …   Universalium

  • The Middle Way — is a book on political philosophy written by Harold Macmillan and first published in 1938 (by MacMillan Co, Ltd, London)). It advocated a broadly centrist approach to the domestic and international problems of that time, and was written during a… …   Wikipedia

  • (find) a middle way — (steer, take, etc.) a middle ˈcourse | (find, etc.) a/the middle ˈway idiom (to take/find) an acceptable course of action that avoids two extreme positions Main entry: ↑middleidiom …   Useful english dictionary

  • (find) the middle way — (steer, take, etc.) a middle ˈcourse | (find, etc.) a/the middle ˈway idiom (to take/find) an acceptable course of action that avoids two extreme positions Main entry: ↑middleidiom …   Useful english dictionary

  • Middle school — and Junior High School are levels of schooling between elementary and high schools. Most school systems use one term or the other, not both. The terms are not usually interchangeable. In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,[citation needed][1], and Vietnam …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.