The Middle Way and The Great Way

By a nice coincidence, after writing last week’s blog Finding the Middle Way, I happened to be reading the Hsin-hsin Ming (alternative spellings Xinxin Ming, Xin Xin Ming or Xinxinming), attributed to the Third Zen Patriarch. The Hsin-hsin Ming is a beautiful piece of writing likely dating from some time between 600 and 900 AD containing some very lovely verses exploring non-duality. Non-duality is a term that isn’t used in the Pali suttas, but the experience of seeing the world free from concepts is very much a part of Theravadin practice too, and is covered in the Pali texts many times in various different ways.

What I found particularly nice about the coincidence is that last week I was talking about needing to have the right frame of mind to get into the middle way, and these verses describe that state of mind with clarity and in a very calming way. I find it impossible to read the Hsin-hsin Ming without my mind becoming quite still, even if it is only for a few moments.

“The Great Way is not difficult For those not attached to preferences. When not attached to love and hate, All is clear and undisguised. Separate by the smallest amount, however, And you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.

When the fundamental nature of things is not recognized the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail. The Way is perfect as vast space is perfect, where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.” Hsin-Hsin Ming By Seng-ts’an, Third Chinese Patriarch, trans. Richard B. Clarke

Though the verses were written about Chan Buddhism, and are a marriage of Tao and Buddhist ideas, we can still read the first line as: ‘The middle way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences’, and find that each aspect explored in the verses still rings true.

The Way for us is the middle way, the place we need to inhabit to be able to see clearly, and not be pulled into our usual habits and mistakes.

These verses can act like a handy crib sheet, the different verses remind us of the behaviours, ideas and tiny shifts of perspective that take us away from the middle way. They remind us of the short falls of preferences, and opinions. They point out to us where behaviours we sometimes don’t pay much attention to take us away from clear seeing and into self-view, like judging, comparing, and even thinking about time.

But importantly they also remind us of the benefits of staying on the middle way: the peace, the tranquillity, the simplicity. As I’ve written before, sometimes we get so focussed on doing the work we forget to enjoy the fruits of our labours.

Non-duality is the right frame of mind to allow you to not be taken to extremes. Or to be more exact, to allow you to not attach a sense of self or identity to extremes.

The duality that we are trying to get away from is the usual habit we have of viewing the world in terms of a subject and an object. In simple terms this is someone (the subject) and the thing that they see (the object). Duality is the conceptual world, the world of ideas, names, categories, comparisons, sizes, time; what Ajahn Amaro refers to as ‘convenient fictions’. So non-duality is the world that exists without the conceptual machinations of the human mind; it is our experience before our minds start to interpret it and conceptualise it.

From the Pali suttas the word attamatayā means ‘not made of that’, and it basically means the same as non-duality. It is a state of mind where we let go of viewing the world in terms of subjects and objects and simply experience whatever comes to our senses without discrimination. You might have heard phrases like resting in pure awareness, bare attention, being the knower; all of these point to the same state, the one where we stop being an ‘I’ looking at the world as a ‘that’, ‘me’ over here and ‘that’ over there.

“Attamatayā… It is the genuine collapse of both the illusion of the separateness of the subject and the object and also of the discrimination of phenomena as somehow being substantially different from each other.”

The Island, Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro p116

While the Pali suttas never use the term duality or non-duality, throughout the teachings it is clear that to see things as they really are it is essential to scratch off the veneer of conceptual ideas.

In one famous sutta (UD 1.10), a spiritual practitioner called Bāhiya of the Bark Robe, realises that the Buddha has the knowledge he needs to become enlightened, so he travels some distance to meet him to ask for his teaching. When he arrives the Buddha is out on an almsround, but he goes to find him anyway. Twice he asks the Buddha for his teaching, but twice the Buddha tells him he must wait because he is busy. There is a strange custom that apparently if you ask a buddha a question three times he must respond to you, so upon asking the Buddha again Bāhiya gets an answer:

“For a third time Bāhiya of the Bark Robe said this to the Gracious One: “But it is hard to know, reverend Sir, the dangers to the Gracious One’s life, or the dangers to my life! Let the Gracious One preach the Dhamma to me, reverend Sir, let the Fortunate One preach the Dhamma, that will be for my benefit and happiness for a long time.”

“In that case, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In what is seen there must be only what is seen, in what is heard there must be only what is heard, in what is sensed there must be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there must be only what is cognized. This is the way, Bāhiya, you should train yourself.”

“And since for you, Bāhiya, in what is seen there will be only what is seen, in what is heard there will be only what is heard, in what is sensed there will be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there will be only what is cognized, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be with that; and since, Bāhiya, you will not be with that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be in that; and since, Bāhiya, you will not be in that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be here or hereafter or in between the two—just this is the end of suffering.” trans. Bhikhhu Ānandajoti

This short teaching is enough for Bāhiya of the Bark Robe and he gains enlightenment there and then.

So the Buddha tells us that we need to let our minds add nothing more to our experience than what is already there. Usually what happens is we take the basic sensory data that we receive and quickly add layer upon layer of conceptual ideas onto it. This doesn’t have to be a problem, but the trouble is that we forget what is concept and what is reality; we take the conceptual ideas to be the reality, when in fact they are additions to it. We lose touch with reality, we forget there was something underneath it all to begin with.

For example, say we look out the window and light hits our eyes, there are shapes and forms; this is basic experience, this is the seen in the seen. Then we see ‘a car’; this is a concept. This cannot be seen, but can only be thought about, this is not in the seen. There is clearly a large solid metal mass in your driveway, but if you didn’t know the word car or any other word for it then you couldn’t have described it as a car just by looking at it. It doesn’t need to be labelled as a car, it can exist and function perfectly well without that name.

Then we think this is ‘my car’ and that’s another concept. Then we think ‘I don’t like my car,’ and that’s another concept. Then we think ‘maybe if I had a new car, a really shiny one, then I would be happy.’ All of these are concepts, and you might notice that included in them is that sense of self : my car, I don’t like it, I want a new one.

So you might think that perhaps if you could just keep it to the bit where you identified ‘a car’ and didn’t then think it was your car that you would be ok, but even this first layer of concept needs to go. To be able to identify an object (the car) you need to make yourself a subject; there has to be a separation so there can be a ‘me’ looking at ‘that’. So even without realising it every time you identify an object from your sensory experience you create a self in a very subtle way.

Even something as seemingly benign as a feeling of peace can, if we are not aware, create a sense of self. Peaceful and calm states of mind are something we aim for in our meditation practice, and yet even these can hold us back.

“When you try to stop activity to achieve quietude, Your very effort fills you with activity. As long as you remain attached to one extreme or another You will never know oneness.”

Hsin-hsin Ming

We can become very good at recognising thoughts as just thoughts, sights as just sights, feelings as just feelings – when they are negative ones – but we can have a bit of an oversight when it comes to the more pleasant elements of meditation practice. But the middle way is about attaching to neither, so we need to learn to let go of the nice feelings too – no matter how difficult our meditation was up to that point where we finally got a bit of peace.

Wanting anything purely to satisfy our craving for nice feelings takes us away from reality and into the conceptual, simply because it allows the creation of a self who wants something. The subtly of this is that while we think we are doing the right thing trying to go towards peace, we can actually undermine the peace by trying to ‘do peaceful’.

It helps to be able to notice the subtle movements of the mind towards something it likes, and away from something it doesn’t like. If you are meditating and a bit of a nice feeling comes up, watch very carefully to see if there is a movement towards it. That is craving, wanting; you want the peace and you want to get away from the not-peace. In that tiny movement a separation occurs where there is a ‘thing’ and a ‘someone’ who wants it; a self is created who wants the peaceful feeling, and will be disappointed if they can’t have it.

When you see that, then you need to let go; you need to try to not attach your self onto the peaceful or pleasant feeling. But it is important to note that the way to do this isn’t to reject the nice feeling, it is just to not grab onto it. Just see it, and experience it as it is, without grasping. If you struggle to understand how to do this with a pleasant feeling then think about what you do when it is an unpleasant feeling: you just recognise that it is an experience and allow it to be as it is.

The extreme we move between is the wanting of either peace or action. If you didn’t want anything, then there would be no activity. Or, to be clearer, if you didn’t want anything to be different then there would be no activity.

Trying to change anything creates resistant energy, it is us pushing away from our present experience. Resisting comes from a position of self-view, and self-view is too unstable to be peaceful for more than a few moments, so we are constantly having to reapply the effort. By trying to be peaceful we instead create internal agitation.

Or instead we find that we are already peaceful but then we apply more effort because we want to become even more peaceful, we grab the peace and squeeze the life out of it. Needless to say the peacefulness quickly disappears under the weight of all that effort.

This can seem frustratingly paradoxical; we are told that we need to develop peaceful states of mind but if we try to make our mind peaceful this will not work. But the problem isn’t the application of effort, it’s the self who wants things to be a certain way. If instead of putting the effort on trying to make the peace happen, you put your effort on observing the feeling of or the absence of peace then ironically that would make you feel a lot more peaceful than trying to go the direct route. It’s the self who wants something that creates the lack of peace, so if you put your efforts on uprooting the self view, then you will get to the peace more easily.

But there is no denying that some of this gets a bit complicated to follow:

“Although all dualities arise from the One, Do not be attached even to ideas of the One.”

Hsin-hsin Ming

So while we need to deploy our effort more wisely by focusing on oneness, if we try to grasp onto oneness, or we want to achieve oneness, this will stop that from happening. If we even have an idea of oneness, a concept of it, then that automatically is not oneness. Oneness isn’t to be thought about, it is to be experienced.

Ajahn Pasanno and Amaro remark that when we try to step out of the conceptual world we quickly find ourselves in:

“….those regions where the buses of reason and imagination do not run.”

The Island Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, p117

This means that we have to learn to change our habit of trying to understand things by thinking about them; noodling will only give you a headache – or an existential crisis – once you start dealing in the world beyond concepts.

The reality of experiencing without concepts isn’t difficult, but trying to explain it in words can be bamboozling. Can you imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike by reading a book? Or learning to drive a car? Naturally we understand that this would be impossible, so we don’t try, and largely people are kind enough to not write books about these things either.

The Dhamma needs to be learned in the same way as riding a bike, by just doing it and hopefully with the help of someone who knows how to do it already to give us some pointers. Unfortunately there aren’t as many people who know the Dhamma as there are people who can ride bikes, so much of the teaching comes to us in written form. While it’s not ideal, it is still a great blessing to us; for all of the 2500 years that the Buddha’s teaching has been in the world it is only in the last 200 years that any of it has been available in English, and the internet now allows us easy access to teachings by some truly great practioners 24 hours a day. We are incredibly lucky to be living at this point in history in terms of the access to the Dhamma we have available to us. But the written word will always have its limitations; language is entirely symbolic and only ever points us towards the idea of something, the gist of something, it can never describe it exactly as it is.

“Words! Words! The Way is beyond language, For in it there is no yesterday, No tomorrow, No today.”

Hsin-hsin Ming

Because words can never describe exactly what any of these practices are like, Dhamma teachings are only ever given for reflection; something to take away and explore the experience of yourself. These blog posts too are for reflection, they are not facts per se. They only become facts at the point that you yourself experience what has been written about. Up until that point they are just ideas. But while a book about riding a bike would be a thankless exercise for both the author and the reader, writings about the Dhamma can allow us to understand enough to then go on and experience the teachings in them, but they are just a starting point for us to investigate, not an instruction manual.

We don’t need to be able to understand the written teachings conceptually, in fact it is much better if we can engage with the teachings without using our conceptual mind at all.:

“All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, With no need to exert the mind. Here, thinking, feeling, understanding and imagination Are of no value. In this world “as it really is” There is neither self nor other-than-self.”

Hsin-hsin Ming

If all of this is getting a bit muddlesome for you then don’t worry, the simple solution to it is to just stop thinking about it. Like the strings of Sona’s harp from last week, the easiest way to find out if they are in tune is to pluck them, and the easiest way to find out what these teachings mean is to try them. Have a go at trying to ‘do peaceful’, see what happens. Then have a go at not trying to do anything, and see what happens. That approach is all we ever do in practice, we try it one way, then we try it another, and see if the outcome is different. The words and ideas can be complicated, but like the Great Way, the actions are always simple.

Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

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