In Buddhism there is a philosophical doctrine called “The Middle Way.” This idea centers on the Buddha’s suggested method for spiritual enlightenment. The revered sage’s story is well known. Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, was an esteemed prince raised in the luxury of his father’s palace replete with all the material wealth and privileges bestowed upon men of royalty during his time. Though, his father had been told by an oracle that his son was destined for a life of sainthood outside the comforts of the palace, the young prince knew not of his destiny. That is, until one day while touring outside the kingdom, he saw for the first-time lepers wandering the streets, elderly people on the verge of death, and children begging for food . In response to witnessing human suffering, the Buddha grew disillusioned and resolved to discover the cause and remedy to suffering. As his karma would compel him, the Buddha then made the fateful decision to leave his life of luxury and become a wandering aesthetic or holy man.
After years of deep and intense searching that included enduring brutal physical austerities like prolonged periods of extreme fasting that nearly killed him, the former prince at last found his enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree for 49 days. Among one of the many profound truths that he found in his transcended state was the idea of the middle way or path to enlightenment. In stark contrast to his own path, the Buddha concluded that spiritual seekers should try and avoid either extreme of living in luxury or abusing their bodies in their quest for liberation. Instead the Buddha advocated for the virtues of balance and moderation in one’s path to enlightenment.
Buddha’s middle way could easily be adopted as our guiding vision for the new year that is upon us. If the events of 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021 have taught us anything at all, it is that extreme thinking and action only increase our collective suffering. Recent and turbulent events like the January 6th storming of the US capitol by an angry mob of violent Donald Trump supporters, scenes of chaotic left wing riots that erupted during some of last summer’s BLM protests, the dangerous propagation of QAnon conspiracy theories by unscrupulous right-wing media outlets, the ongoing threats of violence posed by rabid militia groups in the US, as well as Big Tech companies’(like Facebook and Twitter) recent purge of certain conservative leaders on social media are at their core the result of extreme ways of thinking and reacting to the world around us. Each of these events are also representative of a people dangerously out of balance with the greater reality of living spirit. We should aspire to adopt moderation and balance in our discourse and actions when confronting divisive topics in the same manner that the Buddha advocated for the middle way in his suggested path to enlightenment. How might applying the middle way to our divisive environment positively reshape our reality?
First, through finding balance within we would truly learn to listen to the perspectives of those people who we disagree with. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everyone’s opinion from the “other side.” Rather, through walking the path of the middle way we would avoid judging, condemning, and ridiculing those with different beliefs from our own.
Second, applying the Buddha’s middle way to our collective predicament would help heal the fractured realities that exists to appalling degrees in nations like America. If we can learn to bring greater awareness, balance, and moderation to our discourse on divisive themes, we will succeed in rebuilding bridges between disparate groups and focus on our common humanity.
Third, following the path of the middle way will help each of us spot extremist thinking at its inception before it has the opportunity to fester in our communities and threaten our common decency, democracy, and goodwill. Regardless of our political, ethnic, or religious affiliations we will become skilled at calling out extremism in any of its forms or disguises if we embrace the principles of balance and moderation.
Finally, adopting the vision of the middle way will help the human race effectively respond to the very dire existential problems like climate change, deforestation, ecological destruction, and nuclear proliferation that transcends the contours of all the “isms” that currently separates us. How can we expect to rise to the occasion as one human family to address our greatest existential and planetary threats if we can’t even agree on the basic facts of a novel virus or the outcome of a contentious election?
The promise of brighter days ahead will be a matter of not if, but when humanity learns to avoid extremes in both thought and action. Let us all look deep within ourselves and embrace our own living Buddhas.
One day a popular local magician performed his act in front of a large group of people on the town square. The magician pulled all of his best tricks out of his hat to entertain the grateful audience. Everyone in attendance cheered wildly for the magician and his feats of illusion except for one young woman in the crowd who stood unimpressed with her arms folded. After he finished up his act, the magician immediately approached the woman, politely introduced himself and then asked if she enjoyed his act.
The woman replied:
“I thought your tricks were very good. Certainly, you know how to entertain an audience. However, did I hear correctly that you said you could perform magic?”
The magician took a few nervous steps backwards and then said in a defensive tone:
“I stand by what I told the audience. I am a magician; therefore, I can perform magic.”
A warm smile broke out across the woman’s face as she replied:
“I mean you absolutely no offense. In fact, in my humble judgement you are a very talented street magician. What I question is your claim that you can perform magic.”
The magician scowled and grew more defensive:
“I am afraid I have no idea what you are getting it. I am a great and revered magician.”
The smile on the woman’s face grew even warmer and more inviting. Remarkably, the magician then saw a heavenly white aura emerge around the woman. In a gentle and soothing voice, she then said:
“Can you love your neighbor as you love yourself? Can you perform the glorious act of serving the poor without seeking any praise or honor from others? Can you see within yourself all the earth’s forests, mountains, rivers, plants, animals and all the people too? Can you live in this world but not be up of it? Can you embrace death as your friend so you may live this life to the fullest? If you can accomplish all of these things, then indeed my kind magician, you can perform magic.”
The magician froze in silent reflection and then he suddenly placed his magic cap before the feet of the mysterious woman and handed her his wand. For the first time in his life, he humbled himself before another person, bowed, and then said:
“In truth, all I am is an entertainer. In my heart, I believe it is you who might be able to truly perform magic. Please, teach me your ways of wisdom. Please, teach me your magic.”
An angelic smile swept across her face as the beautiful goddess like woman waved the magician’s wand and out of thin air a radiant ball of swirling golden and purple light appeared that washed over the magician with overwhelming love. In that moment, it has been said that that the magician achieved cosmic understanding and learned how to truly practice magic for the first time.
A poor man and a rich man each found themselves captives as part of a secret personality test conducted by a team of very unscrupulous researchers. The two individuals were kidnapped and each subsequently detained in different rooms. Both were then told that they could be released from their captivity if they authorized their captors to torture the other. Without any hesitation, the rich man consented to the torture of his impoverished counterpart. Posing as a captor in this experiment, the lead researcher then asked the rich man why he seemed so at ease with his decision. The rich man replied in a very arrogant tone:
“Its really quite simple. I’m more important. I worked hard to get to my station in life while he (referring to the poor man) failed to improve on his own lot in life. If released, I can do better for society then some leech who lives off the system.”
Meanwhile, in the other room, the poor man was given the same stark choice by his phony captors to either authorize the torture of the rich man and secure his release or remain in captivity. The poor man replied just as quickly as the rich man but unlike him, inflected deep kindness and sincerity in his voice:
“Look, I know that the rich man will probably opt to have me tortured to secure his release. However, no matter what he decides I can’t in good conscience know that my freedom would come at the cost of another’s suffering. If coming from less has taught me anything it is to have empathy. I have suffered grave indignities that I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. Leave me to rot then in my own captivity.”
The team of researchers were so moved by the selflessness of the poor man that after unmasking their true identities they arranged for a one-time payment to him of $ 3 million for his participation in the study. The poor man gratefully accepted the payment and in good nature even embraced the individuals who he had thought were his captors.
In sharp contrast, the rich man received no cash payment for his participation in the study. But the researchers did offer to set him up with one of the most renown therapists in the country to address his extreme narcissism. Predictably, the rich man refused the researchers’ offer and instead threatened to sue them for the ordeal he had just endured.
Over time, as the seeds of karma would dictate, the rich man was devoured by his own selfishness. In only one years’ time, the rich man managed to push away all his friends and family due to his callous behavior and sadly became addicted to opiates. Eventually, the rich man’s businesses went under too and he found himself destitute and homeless on the streets. By happy comparison, the poor man went on to start countless service projects for the very homeless community that the rich man now belonged to and became a highly beloved figure within that community for his boundless love, flowing generosity, and infinite compassion.