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Twenty Years on the Middle Way

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by Sangharakshita

... to the other view, the opposite view, Man possesses no soul, unchanging or otherwise, and there is therefore nothing of him that survives bodily death. These two extreme views were very well represented in the time of the Buddha by different thinkers. Here the middle way is the view that there is not an unchanging but a changing soul and that this changing soul continues to exist after death, in the same way as it existed during life. Of course after death it may again become connected with a physical body, whether gross or subtle, and this is what is popularly known as rebirth or reincarnation.

So much then for the middle way in psychology as I explained it in India all those years ago. The middle way in metaphysics is somewhat more abstruse. One may think, as some of the thinkers in the Buddha's day did, one may think of ultimate reality in terms of existence, in terms of Being. Or one might think of it in terms of non-existence, non-Being. The middle way consists in thinking of it in terms of Becoming, that is to say consists in thinking of it in terms of sunyata or Voidness.

Now in India this threefold explanation of mine of the middle way, was very popular with my various audiences, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Here in England, as in the West generally, it forms part of our standard FWBO teaching, but this evening I'm not going to enlarge on these three aspects of the middle way. I'm going to take them, so to speak, as read. I'm going to speak instead of the middle way and of our being on the middle way in more directly practical terms, terms which moreover have particular relevance to us here in the West.

I've emphasized that the FWBO is a Buddhist movement. Now I want to emphasize that it is a movement the heart of which is an Order, that is the Western Buddhist Order. The FWBO was established 20 years ago with a view to the establishment of the WBO, that is to say the Western Buddhist Order itself which came into existence almost exactly a year later in 1968. Being a Buddhist Order, the Western Buddhist Order, the WBO, naturally follows the middle way, it is on the middle way. But the question arises: in what way specifically is the Western Buddhist Order on the middle way? In order to understand this we shall have to take a look at the eastern Buddhist world as exists even today, and especially at the Theravada Buddhist world which we find in Sri Lanka, in Thailand, Burma and so on. In the East the Buddhist community is divided, in fact rather sharply divided, into two major sections. On the one hand there are the monks, on the other the lay men and lay women. Some of you may be wondering, well what's happened to the nuns, but I have to explain that nuns, bhikkunis only exist in some of the Mahayana countries and even then only in very small numbers, but that is another story, I'm not going into it this evening. Not only is the Buddhist community in the east divided into 2 sections, 2 major sections, the monks on the one hand, the laity on the other, in the east usually it is only the monks who are regarded as being the real Buddhists, the true followers of the Buddha. It's only the monks who are regarded as practising Buddhism. So, in the east if you really want to practise Buddhism you have to become a monk. The function of the laity is generally considered to be to support the monks, so that the monks can practise Buddhism. In other words, the laity tend, though there are exceptions, the laity tend to practise Buddhism indirectly, tend to practise it at second-hand. In a way the monks practise it for them. And this is really from a Buddhist point-of-view self- contradictory, quite opposed to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha himself.

According to the Buddha, the Dharma is something that you have to practise yourself, because it's only if you practise it yourself that you'll develop, just as it's only if you eat food yourself, that you'll be nourished and will grow.

At this point perhaps I should mention that the division between the monks and laity is not equally sharp in all parts of the Buddhist world. In the Mahayana countries of Asia, that division - the sharpness of that division - has been modified in varying degrees by the emphasis on what is known as the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva Ideal is something that can be practised by both the monks and the laity, and thus the Bodhisattva Ideal acts as a unifying act. Nonetheless, the division between monks and laity remains at least to some extent, and in the Theravadin countries of course it remains very sharp indeed since in those countries the Bodhisattva Ideal is not emphasized.

So how did this division, this quite sharp division in some cases between monks on the one hand and the laity on the other, come about? How is that the monks, the yellow-robed monks, perhaps even the red-robed monks, has come to be regarded as the real Buddhist? How is it that the layman or the laywoman has come to be regarded simply, or at least mainly, as the supporter of the monk? What is the source of this confusion, as it actually is? In order to understand this we shall have to make a very important distinction. A distinction with which we in the FWBO have become familiar in the course of the last 20 years but which is not always recognized by other Buddhist groups. And this is the distinction between what we call commitment and what we call lifestyle. By commitment we mean spiritual commitment, that is to say commitment to the three Jewels, to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. By lifestyle we mean the particular way, the specific way in which we express that commitment, manifest that commitment in our ordinary, daily living.

Now being a monk is a matter of lifestyle, being a layman or laywoman is a matter of lifestyle, and in neither case does the lifestyle as such necessarily express spiritual commitment though it may do so. In the greater part of the eastern Buddhist world however, the monastic lifestyle has come to be identified with spiritual commitment.

If you are a monk you are automatically committed, if you are committed you are automatically a monk. In the FWBO and the WBO however, we do not see things in this way. In our case whether you are a monk or a layman or a nun or a laywoman is of secondary importance. What really matters is whether you are spiritually committed, whether you are committed to the three Jewels, whether you are committed to the path of spiritual self-development, and other development, whether you are committed to the path of supreme Enlightenment - that is what really matters.

And this attitude of our has found expression in a little saying that is widely current in the FWBO, and which most of you must have heard at some time or other, and the saying is: Commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary. This little saying can however be misunderstood, as most little sayings I've found can be misunderstood whether mine or anybody else's. It can be misunderstood as meaning that lifestyle is not important, that it doesn't really matter from the Buddhist point of view, it's just how you live. You can live any old fashion. The misunderstanding consists in thinking that any lifestyle can be an expression of spiritual commitment. But the fact is that lifestyle is very important indeed, but it is of secondary importance. That is it is of importance only as an expression of commitment. So we can now begin to see in what way the Western Buddhist Order as such follows the middle way, in what way it is on that middle way. It is on the middle way in the sense that it avoids the extreme of rigid, perhaps formalistic, monasticism on the one hand, and lax laicism, as we may call it, coining a term, on the other.

The individual member of the Western Buddhist Order is first and foremost simply a Buddhist, simply one who is committed to the three Jewels, whether he or she lives more or less as a monk or more or less as a member of the laity, so-called, depends on the particular nature of his or her spiritual needs. And those needs are not always necessarily the same, not the same so to speak from one year to the next. It's not easy to be simply a Buddhist, it's not easy to be committed to the three Jewels. In the east a monk, that is to say one who has been ordained as a monk, often assumes himself to be committed, assumes himself to be leading a spiritual life, simply because he's shaved his head, wears the yellow robe and observes various rules. Similarly the layman often assumes, in the east, that he is not committed because he is not doing any of those things, that is to say not shaving his head, not wearing the yellow robe and so on. Indeed in the east, the layman can often be heard to say 'how can I be expected to practise Buddhism, I'm only a layman or laywoman' as the case may be.

Thus most of the so-called monks and most of the so-called laymen are able to evade in fact the demands of the spiritual life. But in the case of a member of the Western Buddhist Order no such evasion is really possible, or at least not really possible for very long. In one way or another he or she, a member of the Western Buddhist Order, is constantly being brought up against the question 'am I deepening my commitment to the three Jewels, and is my lifestyle - whatever it may be - giving ever more adequate expression to that commitment?'. For this and other reasons therefore, it is not easy to be simply a Buddhist, not easy to be a member of the Western Buddhist Order, in fact it's not even easy to be a Mitra. I sometimes say that it's much easier to go to the east and become a fully-ordained monk than it is to become a Mitra in the FWBO. If you went to almost any eastern country well this week, probably next week you could be a monk, that is if you are a man. If you wanted to be a nun that would be much more difficult. But it might take you years and years before ...

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