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The Middle Way or Middle Path (Pali: majjhimā paṭipadā; Sanskrit: madhyamā-pratipad[a]; Chinese: 中道 zhōngdào; Japanese: 中道 chūdō) is the term that Siddhartha Gautama used to describe the character of the path he discovered that leads to liberation.
In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, the expression Middle Way is used by the Buddha in his first discourse (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) to describe the Noble Eightfold Path as a path between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence.
Noble Eightfold Path
The term Middle Way was used in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first teaching that the Buddha delivered after his awakening.[c] In this sutta 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.
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.
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.[d] 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 (Pratītyasamutpāda) describes the existence of objects and phenomena as the result of causes. When one of these causes changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomena will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomena. Thus, there is nothing with an eternal self or atman, only mutually dependent origination and existence.
But the absence of an eternal atman does not mean there is no-thing at all. Early Buddhism adheres to a realistic approach which does not deny existence as such, but denies the existence of eternal and independent substances. This view is the Middle Way between eternalism and annihilationism:
Dependent origination views human persons too as devoid of a personal essence or atman. In Theravadan literature, this usage of the term "Middle Way" can be found in 5th century CE Pali commentaries:
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.
In the Visuddhimagga the following is found :
'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) ..."
In the Pali Canon itself, this view is not explicitly called the "Middle Way" but is literally referred to as "teaching by the middle" (majjhena dhamma).
Conditioned arising also gives a rationale for rebirth:
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.
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.[f]
Conditioned arising also describes the twelve factors of conditioned origin of suffering (dukkha) leading to rebirth, from ignorance (avijja) to aging and death (jaramarana), and the parallel reverse-order interdependent cessation of these factors (see Dependent Origination and Twelve Nidanas).[g]
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. Nagarjuna's influential Verses on the Middle Way deconstructs the usage of terms describing reality, leading to the insight into emptiness. it contains one reference to a sutta by the Buddha himself, namely the Samyutta Nikaya's Kaccāyanagotta Sutta:
In Chán 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.
In chapter ten of the Platform Sutra Huineng gives instructions for the teaching of the Dharma. Huineng enumerates 36 basic oppositions of consciousness and explains 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.[j]
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- 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.
- Kalupahana: "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."
- Samyutta Nikaya, 56:11. See 
- See, for instance, the Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Longer Discourse to Saccaka," MN 36 Thanissaro, 1998).
- Gethin's endnote (p. 290, n. 22) then references SN 12.17. See Thanissaro 2005)
- See, e.g., Bodhi (2005), p. 315: "Several suttas hold up dependent origination as a 'teaching by the middle' (majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ 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.
- 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.
- Sabbamatthī'ti kho ..., ayameko anto.
Sabbaṃ natthī'ti ayaṃ dutiyo anto.
... [U]bho ante anupagamma
majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ deseti.
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.
- 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.
- For example: "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."
- Kohn (1991), p. 143.
- David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 1.
- Piyadassi (1999).
- Gethin (1998),p. 145
- Bodhi (2000), p. 739 note 41, quoting from the Samyutta Nikaya Commentary (SN-a or Spk.) in regards to SN 12.17 (S ii.20)
- Buddhaghosa & Ñāṇamoli (1999), Visuddhimagga XVII, 24, p. 531
- Harvey (2007), p. 58.
- Kohn (1991), pp. 131, 143.
- Thanissaro (1997), Translation of Kaccayanagotta Sutta, SN 12.15
- (SLTP, n.d.-a, sutta 1.2.5).
- Kohn (1991), pp. 143-144.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta 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 Ñāṇamoli (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.
- Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
- Harvey, Peter (2007). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
- Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-520-4.
- Piyadassi Thera (trans.) (1999). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (SN 56.11). Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.piya.html.
- Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary (PED). Chipstead: Pali Text Society. A general on-line search engine for the PED is available at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/. Retrieved 2008-01-03, the entry for "pabbajita" is available at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.2:1:1639.pali.
- Sri Lanka Buddha Jayanti Tipitaka Series [SLTP] (n.d.-a). Ahara vaggo (SN 12.2) [in Pali]. Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "MettaNet - Lanka" at http://www.metta.lk/tipitaka/2Sutta-Pitaka/3Samyutta-Nikaya/Samyutta2/12-Abhisamaya-Samyutta/02-Aharavaggo-p.html.
- Sri Lanka Buddha Jayanti Tipitaka Series [SLTP] (n.d.-b). Dhammacakkappavattana vaggo (SN 55.2) [in Pali]. Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "MettaNet - Lanka" at http://www.metta.lk/tipitaka/2Sutta-Pitaka/3Samyutta-Nikaya/Samyutta5/55-Sacca-Samyutta/02-Dhammacakkappavattanavaggo-p.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997). Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View) (SN 12.15). Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.015.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1998). Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka (excerpt) (MN 36). Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036x.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2005). Acela Sutta: To the Clothless Ascetic (SN 12.17). Retrieved 2008-01-03 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.017.than.html.