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Debating the Middle Way - A Review

On Thu, 26 September, 2019 - 20:50
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Dhivan Thomas Jones

Debating the Middle Way

From Western Buddhist Review on Wed, 25 Sep, 2019 - 18:16
Debating the Middle Way

Here we present a review by Arnold Tilley of a new book by Robert Ellis, founder of the Middle Way Society:

Robert Ellis 

The Buddha’s Middle Way, London: Equinox, 2019, 320pp., £23 pb

review by Arnold Tilley

Much of the content of Ellis’s book concerns the Buddha’s Middle Way, yet seen as an instance of a purported universal Middle Way ‘which springs from the structural needs of human beings (and possibly other organisms)’ (p.281). Ellis’s formula for this universal Middle Way is expressed by a metalanguage of five sub-principles – scepticism, integration, agnosticism, provisionality, and incrementality – that are terms describing the application of our judgement in experiential situations. A constraining term, ‘absolutisation’, is also employed to target metaphysical claims that have gone wayward, i.e. are not judgements made in accord with the universal Middle Way. Although the Buddha’s Middle Way is held by Ellis to be our first major source of the universal Middle Way, in the final section of the book, he sets out alternative sources to the Buddha’s Middle Way, in philosophical, scientific and political domains.  Ellis’s book is a radical approach to our understanding of the Buddha’s Middle Way; yet, in essence, his core strategy, I believe, is to make explicit, via the five sub-principles, a universal Middle Way, of which the Buddha’s Middle Way is just one of many instantiations.  If you are a traditionalist Buddhist, you may find Ellis’s approach, at the very least, idiosyncratic and challenging; but, you might, if you are a secular-leaning, progressive Buddhist, or even a non-Buddhist, find the TARDIS-like nature of his book a suggestively expansive read.

Section 1 deals with Gautama’s early life in the palace, followed by his ‘going forth’ into the forest, which are seen as ‘oppositions in human life’ (p.32), as extremes of a life of sensual indulgence and asceticism. The journey from palace to forest can be seen as one of opening up, an expansion of one’s experiential judgement. Both palace and forest represent absolutisations, i.e. fixed delusions, or metaphysical positions. The more ‘adequate third option’ (p.33) was the Buddha’s recollection of his jhāna experience under the rose-apple tree – ‘the gateway to the recognition of the Middle Way’ (p.30). What a traditionalist Buddhist might find unsettling, however, is that Ellis regards the Buddha’s early life, awakening and ministry as an archetypal story – the Buddha as a Jungian archetype of the Self, who discovers the universal Middle Way. Ellis also questions the importance of the historical Buddha, even to the point of hypothesizing that the historical Buddha’s life is a ‘complete hoax’ (p.237), all the significance, for Ellis, apparently residing in the ‘universal insights’ contained in the Pali Canon. Such ‘free-floating’ insights, however, surely require an anchor, in a person. By contrast, far from thinking the historical Buddha a hoax, the Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich finds the Pali texts to be the ‘coherent’ and likely ‘work of one genius’.[1]  

In the 2nd section, we are cautioned against absolutising the Buddha’s Awakening; rather, it should be seen as a ‘highly integrated and transformative experience’ (p.54). In his First Address, the Buddha equates the Middle Way with avoiding the extremes of sensual indulgence (palace) and asceticism (forest). Individual psychological, social and political integration are the fruit of following the Middle Way.

In section 3, in communicating the Middle Way, the Buddha favours metaphorical over literal language. This is linked to use of the right hemisphere of the brain, which allows more information, in an open feedback loop, to inform meaning. Concrete similes embody the five key elements (plus ‘absolutisation’) of the universal Middle Way – of lute strings (provisionality and integration), raft (scepticism and provisionality), poisoned arrow (absolutisation), the second arrow (absolutisation), the ocean (incrementality) the blind men and the elephant (agnosticism), the snake (scepticism, integration and agnostic courage), and the wet piece of wood (integration) – all of them illustrative of the Buddha’s well-integrated mind.

The Buddha’s Middle Way, in section 4, is criticised as out of date in its restricted range of absolutes to be avoided, i.e. eternalism and nihilism. Instead, Ellis emphasizes that the universal Middle Way is a ‘principle of judgement’ or a method, navigating between ‘any opposed pair of positive and negative absolutes’ (p.162). This wider application of the Middle Way steers us in the direction of universal, embodied experience, prior to the karma-rebirth world-view of the Buddha’s contemporaries.

In section 5 the Buddha’s Middle Way is equated with the Eightfold (or Threefold) Path.  Ellis argues that Buddhist tradition, instead of interpreting the Eightfold Path incrementally, absolutises it, dividing it into mundane and supramundane, lay and monastic, aspects. Rather than start with Right View, Ellis suggests Meditation as the way into the Eightfold Path, with particular emphasis on practising the brahma-vihāras, to expand the possibilities for greater integration, and increase awareness of the universality of the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path.

Interpreting the Buddha’s teachings, in section 6, Ellis argues for conditionality to be confined to our judgements, as opposed to being a theory about the universe. The three marks of existence – dukkhaanicca, and anattā – are reinterpreted as ‘prompts to provisionality’ (p.206). According to Ellis, our desires or cravings are forms of energy and are value-neutral. Karma and rebirth are seen as sources of absolutisation. The Buddha’s authority is re-cast as a Jungian archetype, symbolizing integration. Dharma, or as Ellis prefers it, the ‘Middle Way’, is defined as the ‘most helpful way of responding to conditions’ (p.226). Ellis points to the gap between monastics and lay Buddhists, whereby enlightenment is seen as the preserve of monks, and merit-making confined to lay people. Instead of faith Ellis prefers ‘confidence’ in the Middle Way, and going for refuge is more about commitment than a shelter from suffering.

Traditionally, the Dharma is seen as an objective truth or law or the teachings of the Buddha, rather than as a judgemental ‘method’, (p.52). Consistent with this, Ellis (p.1) likens the Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way to Newton’s discovery of the Law of Gravity – i.e. both are objective discoveries. Ellis’s overall modus operandi, however, is toward the experiential and the subjective; yet, his emphasis on ‘experiential judgement’ in the Buddha’s life and teaching, seems too narrow an approach to what we understand by a religion; e.g. in Smart’s seven-dimensional scheme, the ‘experiential and emotional’ is but one dimension.[2] To be charitable to Ellis, though, it may be that he conceives of Buddhism more as a philosophical ‘way of life’, in Hadot’s sense,[3] than as a religion; hence, the stress placed on practical ‘experiential judgement’ may be justifiable.

Religions, if we are to count Buddhism as a religion, however, do value truth; one immediately thinks here of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. But, does Ellis, in some sense, think of himself as inhabiting a post-truth world? Or, as having moved, like Stephen Batchelor, from metaphysical ‘Truths’ to pragmatic ‘Tasks’? (p.62). His redefinition of knowledge, from a Platonic ‘justified true belief’ to ‘justified general belief’ (p.46), jettisons truth, as it is found, .e.g. in a correspondence theory of truth. But, are there not irrefragable, common-sensical truths? For instance, the Stoic, Epictetus, held that to assert, at high noon, under a blazing sun in a cloudless sky, that ‘it is night time’ is perverse; the truth of ‘it is day time’ is beyond dispute. To say one merely has a general belief doesn’t seem strong enough here.[4] But, Ellis might well respond to the Stoic example by applying a Pyrrhonian scepticism to our judgements; that neither our sense-perceptions, nor our views, theories and beliefs tell us the truth or lie; so we shouldn’t rely on them, and, instead, be without views, attaining aphasia (speechlessness) and then ataraxia (freedom from disturbance).[5] But, if confronted with the actuality of Epictetus’s example, in the clear light of day, then I think, and so might the Buddha, that the sceptics would be reduced to ‘eel-wriggling’. Ellis’s dismissal of, e.g. a correspondence notion of  truth stems, I think, from his anti-realist subjectivist tendency (possibly influenced by Don Cupitt, a former tutor of Ellis). His interpretation of the Buddha’s epistemology sounds similar to a Nietzschean perspectivism, i.e. in terms of ‘integrating as many perspectives as possible’ (p.68), and, for Ellis, perhaps there are no facts, but only interpretations. It is worth noting, by contrast, however, that in an Indian context, veda means ‘knowledge’; in a Vedic context, ‘sacred knowledge’, and this influenced the Buddhist view of Dharmma, as existing ‘independently of its being cognized’,[6] i.e. objectively.

Most traditional Buddhists, I imagine, would baulk at Ellis’s understanding of the Buddha’s Awakening or Enlightenment, in terms of degrees of integration. Ellis’s section on the ‘Buddha’s Metaphors’ includes the Ocean metaphor, shelving gradually – an apt image for an incremental approach to Awakening, though Harvey adds to this gradualism that ‘insights may then come suddenly’.[7] The question of whether enlightenment occurs gradually or suddenly was debated in eighth century Tibet, and the gradualist side won. A discourse using the simile of a hen sitting on her eggs seems to back up the gradualist view; the eggs are incubated, gradually, over time by the mother hen, yet when the chicks break through the shells with the sharp tips of their claws, this might be construed as ‘sudden penetration to final knowledge’ (p.132).[8] In Rinzai Zen, it is held that kenshōs are sudden, beyond conceptual thinking, but also accepted that they can only be realized after ‘some degree of gradual practice’.[9]

Science would appear to support Ellis’s incremental approach to integrative experience. The principle that ‘nature makes no leaps’,[10] applies, too, in the spooky domain of quantum mechanics, where it was formerly held that quantum leaps were instantaneous; but, as a naturalistic endeavour science’s default position is to reject discontinuities in nature. Ellis, likewise, does not accept ‘sudden’, instantaneous accounts of enlightenment, which he would regard as absolutisations of the integrative psychic process. But, as he later refers to the possibility of unknown parts of the universe as being potentially outside the supposed universality of the domain of conditionality – we only have ‘our limited embodied standpoint’ (p.142) – so too, here, we might also conceive of other possible worlds ­– perhaps a planet populated by Rinzai ‘suddeners’ – where nature does make leaps, and sudden ‘discontinuities’ do occur.

Turning now to the Buddha’s Middle Way, understood as the avoidance of hedonism and asceticism, Ellis writes that ‘there is nothing here that limits the Middle Way to the avoidance of only these particular two poles’ (p.148). But, here, at the very source for our understanding of the Buddha’s Middle Way, the Buddha’s First Address, Ellis deviates from, and in my view misunderstands, the true Universal Middle Way of the Buddha; Ellis’s Universal Middle Way complicates and obscures the Buddha’s simple expression of the Middle Way with the unnecessary multiplication of these two poles and the addition of his five sub-principles. If we apply Ockham’s Razor then the Buddha’s visionary First Address[11] should be limited to its functioning simply as his foundational roadmap, as setting out the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism, here outlined in broad brushstrokes – rather like the central white lines on a road. Along with the other pair of extremes, eternalism and nihilism – like cautionary double yellow lines, at both sides of the road – they represent fundamental parameters which orient the universal human condition, guiding our life and speculative afterlife existential choices within a normative, meditative and philosophical framework, i.e. the Eightfold Path and Conditionality. For the Buddha – a safe and proficient driver – observing the Middle Way between these parameters led to ‘direct knowledge’ (p.148).  

I have already referred to the correspondence theory of truth (the other two main theories of truth are the coherence theory and the pragmatic theory). However, more pertinent to the Buddha’s ‘intimate’ ‘direct knowledge’ is the ‘assimilation theory of truth’ – objective, but not public – described by Thomas Kasulis, in his book Intimacy or Integrity.[12]  Basically, the assimilation theory concerns expert knowledge, i.e. ‘only a master can certify the skill or insight of a disciple and only an established master can certify a new master’ (p.79). This relates to stream-entry. It is said that, during his First Address, the Buddha recognized and affirmed Kondañña’s experiential insight into the Four Noble Truths – such insight is described as gaining the stainless Dharma-eye. Ellis, however, questions whether we can make sense of the idea of a stream-entrant (p.240).

For Ellis, ‘direct knowledge’ – if it is meant as ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’, (i.e. insightful knowledge), as expressed in one of the positive links of the Spiral Path – is ‘dubious metaphysics’ (p.198). But, in his First Address, I don’t think that the Buddha was theorizing about the universe (p.196) in metaphysical terms; he just sketches a Middle Way route, applicable to all road users; a general direction to be taken, within boundaries. Perhaps, practising the Middle Way, within, and limited to, the fundamental two pairs of parameters, is more akin to a skilful know-how, like driving a car, than an ‘absolutised’ propositional know-that; although, knowing the safest way to drive from A to B does involve knowledge-that, e.g. knowing the Highway Code.

In the Simile of The Raft – simply and potently interpreted as the inevitability of severing one’s external adherence to the Eightfold Path, on attaining nirvāṇa (or a sufficiently well-integrated mind (Ellis)) – Ellis again complicates matters by measuring the simile by, and reducing it to, his principle of provisionality, i.e. that considering ‘alternative options’ (p.102) to discarding the raft should be entertained; and, so, the truth and power of the simile is weakened in irrelevant fabrication and over-literalisation, e.g. one might keep the raft ‘just in case there is another river’ to cross (p.103). This connects with our previous discussion about the nature – sudden or gradual – of enlightenment. If there is a totally well-integrated mind, then a proliferation of alternative possibilities is needless; that is, if sudden enlightenment is a distinct possibility. Acting without the need for explicit reminders of, or reliance on, the Teachings, or having internalized the Teachings to the point of their becoming spontaneous to our way of being, are comparable to a road without markings, and driving Codeless. Does the way of the Buddha, here, begin to resemble, in externals at least, the antinomian Way of Daoism?

I think Ellis is right to point out that conditionality, as expressed in ‘traditional formulae’ (p.199), e.g. the twelve nidānas (reactive mind), or the Spiral Path (creative mind), can become ‘rigidified’ (p.197) or, perhaps, merely learned by rote;[13] but I disagree with him that the graphic depiction of the twelve nidānas, in the Tibetan Wheel of Life, is no longer in the most ‘helpful form’ (p.198) to communicate universal insight. It is arguably, to some people, a valuable and useful teaching aid, and mnemonic device, in concrete, pictorial, non-intellectual, aesthetic form, that would readily appeal to those who have a predominantly visual learning style (which is perhaps why YouTube has an animated version), and who may be illiterate; to such people it may represent an artistic illustration of the universal in the particular.

Ellis, at times, can tend towards a reductionist position. For example, when he is discussing ‘desire’, he concludes that there is only one sort of desire and this is equated with ‘energy flowing through our brain and nervous system’ (p.210). This physicalist understanding of desire can be contrasted with a more nuanced Epicurean philosophical distinction between three sorts of desire, namely; natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, and vain and empty.[14]

Also, when Ellis adopts Ian McGilchrist’s ‘brain lateralisation’ approach, he appears to slide, sometimes in the space of a single sentence, between a folk psychological use of language and physiologically-based expressions (e.g. pp.131, 137, 173, 188, 209, 214, 262). For example, Ellis writes: ‘That means that it is the left hemisphere that is the source of our impatience …’ (p.266). But, obviously, all sorts of reasons and causes may be the ‘source of our impatience’ that are not directly sourceable to the left hemisphere of the brain; I may, for instance, become impatient because of an external factor, such as my train being late.

Ellis’s formulaic metalanguage (by contrast, the Buddha, I imagine, spoke a fluent metta-language!) – the five sub-principles, plus ‘absolutisation’ – is comprised of nouns, abstract nouns, and smacks of a confected metaphysics. When compared to the rich, everyday concrete imagery of the Buddha’s simple metaphors, it seems more like an x-ray image, an attempt to capture perhaps, a supposed hidden essence, the bones, of Ellis’s universal Middle Way, beneath the flesh and blood of the Buddha’s Middle Way. Moreover, structurally or formally, as it occurs throughout the book, I would liken Ellis’s purported universal Middle Way to Plato’s Forms, and the Buddha’s (and alternative sources of the) Middle Way, to imperfect copies in the sensory world; or, perhaps better, compare Ellis’s universal Middle Way and its relation to the alternative sources, including the Buddha’s Middle Way, to the Hindu religion, which is sometimes described as a ‘polymorphic monotheism’ (one God, many forms). No doubt, Ellis would reject the metaphysically realist, Platonic/Divine connotations, here; but, I merely indicate a possible structural congruence.  

It may be, however, that the discoverer and pioneer of the Middle Way, the truly Universal Middle Way – the Buddha – is without peer, and that all the subsequent commentaries and various writings, including Ellis’s book, on the Buddha’s Middle Way, since Siddhartha Gautama’s time are, to paraphrase Whitehead on Plato, merely a ‘series of footnotes’ to the Buddha.[15]

Arnold Tilley lives and works on the Fylde Coast of the UK. When not playing table tennis, he studies philosophy with the Open University.

[1] Gombrich, R.F. (2006),  Theravada Buddhism, Oxford: Routledge, p.21 (see also Dhivan Thomas Jones,  ‘Did the Buddha Exist?  Contemporary scholarly debate about the historical Buddha’,, 14 July 2019).

[2] Keown, D. (2000), Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, p.4ff.

[3] Hadot, P. (1995), Philosophy as a Way of Life, Oxford: Blackwell.

[4] Sellars, J. (2014), Stoicism, Oxford: Routledge, pp.69–70.

[5] Beckwith, C. (2015),  Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia,  Princeton University Press, p.23.

[6] Gombrich, R.F. op.cit. p.33.

[7] Harvey, P. (2013),  An Introduction to Buddhism (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, p.49.

[8] from ‘Development’: Aṅguttara-nikāya 7: 71: trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012), Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Boston: Wisdom.

[9] Harvey, P., op.cit. p.371.

[10] see Ball, P., ‘Quantum Leaps, Long Assumed to be Instantaneous, Take Time’,, 5 June 2019.

[11] The quotation from Ellis, above, refers to a passage from the Saṃyutta-nikāya, 42: 12, in trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Boston: Wisdom, p.1350, which records a conversation between the Buddha and Rasiya, the headman. It reiterates the Buddha’s First Address, almost verbatim, with just an additional reference to the Eightfold Path.

[12] Kasulis, T.P. (2002), Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, University of Hawai’i Press.

[13] See the Upanisā Sutta, Saṃyutta-nikāya, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Boston: Wisdom, (in this short discourse, the apparently rigid categories of the Spiral Path are dissolved, and unfold in flowing, watery imagery, i.e. from rain to gullies to ponds to lakes to streams to rivers to the great ocean – a journey, perhaps, from faith to tranquillity).

[14] O’Keefe, T. (2014), Epicureanism, Oxon: Routledge, p.124.

[15] Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Process and Reality (1979), Free Press, p.39: ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’

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