Western Buddhist Review

Debating the Middle Way

On Wed, 25 September, 2019 - 18:16
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

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’, www.dhivan.net, 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’, https://www.quantamagazine.org/quantum-leaps-long-assumed-to-be-instantaneous-take-time-20190605/, 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.’

Log in or register to respond

Responses

Robert M Ellis's picture

There are so many serious misunderstandings of my book here that I feel compelled to respond. This is not about arguing my case in full, but simply about ensuring that my case is understood in the first place without being totally misread. Most of these mistakes evidently come from conflating my approach to one that is more familiar to the reviewer, or from failing to notice clarifications elsewhere in the book that directly contradict the interpretations he makes.

1. (para 2 & 12) The Palace and the Forest are not presented as “extremes of a life of sensual indulgence and asceticism” in my book, rather these are examples of positive and negative absolutisations in the Buddha’s context.

2. (para 2) This is a complete misrepresentation: “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’”. I do not put forward any hypothesis that the Buddha’s life is a ‘complete hoax’. The actual sentence I wrote on p.237 is “If it was unexpectedly revealed by conclusive historical evidence that the historical Buddha had been a complete hoax, would this make the slightest difference to your confidence in practising the Middle Way? If your confidence was in the content of the insights that the Buddha offered… then the answer would obviously be ‘no’.” This is about the irrelevance of historical claims, not about any attempt to justify even a hypothesis that his life actually was a hoax - a totally different point. 

3. (para 5) “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.” No, again this is a complete misrepresentation. My argument is that the way the Buddhist tradition has represented the Buddha’s Middle Way is restricted in that way, not the Buddha’s Middle Way itself.

4. (para 8) “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.” What I actually wrote on p.1 was “The Buddha did not create the Middle Way, any more than Newton created gravity”. The comparison is not that they were “objective discoveries” (I would never use ‘objective’ in that God’s eye view sense), but that whatever it was that they discovered in each case is open to everyone and not created by their discovery.

5. (para 8) “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.” I not use the term ‘subjective’ in that absolute sense opposed to ‘objective’ at all, and simply do not accept the dichotomy (which for me is a crucial aspect of the Middle Way) - so there is nothing ‘subjective’ about my approach, and the experiential is just as much ‘objective’ as it is ‘subjective’. Experientialism certainly doesn’t limit my understanding of religion to one of Smart’s dimensions: indeed, my book deals extensively with the narrative, ritual, ethical, doctrinal and social elements of Buddhism, as well as the experiential. Strangely enough, all these dimensions of religion are a matter of human experience!

6. (para 8) “it may be that he conceives of Buddhism more as a philosophical ‘way of life’, in Hadot’s sense,[3] than as a religion”. Again I do not accept this false dichotomy at all. Buddhism is both a philosophy and a religion.

7. (para 9) “does Ellis, in some sense, think of himself as inhabiting a post-truth world?” No, he doesn’t. He just thinks of truth as an archetype, not as a thing we can possess. That isn’t a denial of truth, but an application of agnosticism. It certainly doesn’t imply that we had the truth before and then lost it, nor that we have ceased to be concerned with it, nor that we should cease to be inspired by it.

8. (para 9) “His redefinition of knowledge, from a Platonic ‘justified true belief’ to ‘justified general belief’” Nowhere do I give such a redefinition of knowledge. Rather, I accept ‘justified true belief’ as a definition of knowledge and recognise that we do not have any knowledge in that sense.

9 (para 9) Nowhere do I suggest we should “be without views”: rather I think we should be provisional in our views.

10. (para 9) “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.” I am not an anti-realist or a subjectivist, and I get thoroughly tired of being lumped into such categories by people who wilfully refuse to accept the sincerity of a quest for the Middle Way beyond such categories as subjectivism and objectivism. Nor am I a Nietzschean. Nor do I believe that there are no facts - only that it is unhelpful to make absolute factual claims. The fact that I was a student of Don Cupitt does not mean that I agree with him about everything!

11. (para 10/11) The principle of incrementality has nothing to do with gradual v sudden enlightenment. The latter is an example of discontinuity of conditions, not of absolutizing discontinuity. The difference between these is fully explained on p.119.

12. (para 11) “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’” This again is an egregious interpretation and definitely not the intended implication of what I wrote. The “limited embodied standpoint” is simply a phenomenal experience, recognised through comparisons of that experience at different times.

13. (para 12) “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.” This is a bit rich, to put it mildly. I’m accused of unnecessarily complicating the Buddha’s Middle Way by comparison with the endless complexity of what Buddhist scholasticism makes of it! On the contrary, I simplify the Middle Way at the same time as making it universal, by suggesting that it is merely the navigation between any positive or negative absolute. The five principles are not some sort of metaphysical infrastructure, as seems to be assumed, but just an analysis to try to break down the implications of the Middle Way in experience.

14. (para 14) I agree that seeing the Middle Way as a route rather than a metaphysical claim is the best interpretation of the Buddha. But it’s presented here as though I would disagree with that.

15. (para 15) Again, the ‘complexity’ is entirely in the mind of the beholder, and as far as I’m concerned I’m simplifying by relating enlightenment-talk to ordinary experience. It seems that anything different from the reviewer’s usual beliefs is seen as necessarily complex.

16. (para 16) If the twelve nidanas are useful for teaching some people, but not everyone, they are not the most helpful universal approach. I am falsely portrayed as disagreeing here.

17. (para 17) “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…” This is completely unfair. I make it totally clear that I am not a physicalist nor a reductionist of any kind, and I object strongly to being straw-manned into these pigeon-holes. Talking about only one kind of desire is a way of dismantling a false traditional Buddhist division between two sorts. Talking about the brain and nervous system does not imply that this way of describing things is the whole story: it is merely another angle on our experience (of energy, in this case).  

18. (para 18) I use neither “a folk psychological use of language” nor “physiologically-based expressions” because, as should be clear, the whole book is experiential in approach. I do not accept the crashing false dichotomies on which this distinction is based. Of course my train being late may cause impatience, but that doesn’t prevent that impatience being channelled through the left hemisphere (or its ‘internal’ experiential correlates).

19. (para 19) The penultimate paragraph goes into the most bizarre misinterpretations yet. I’m accused of ‘confected metaphysics’ and the Middle Way is likened to Plato’s Forms, when I have made it clear that the whole point of the Middle Way in my book is to avoid metaphysical claims. Tilley obviously cannot take this seriously (perhaps he is incapable of doing so?) and just relapses straight back into his accustomed philosophical assumptions, rather than attempting to understand and engage with my argument.

It is, of course, extremely disappointing to be so comprehensively misunderstood. I can only come back to the plea that the Middle Way deserves to be taken seriously in its own right, not automatically lumped into the bunch of false dichotomies that scholars and analytic philosophers are accustomed to stuffing everything into that crosses their path. Do I have the right to think differently about things or not? If I do, is it not worth a bit more effort to try to understand what I am on about, before jumping to such egregious conclusions?

 

tarni's picture

I find it disappointing that what was headlined as ‘Debating the Middle Way’ – my review of Robert Ellis’s book - has descended into point and counter-point skirmishing.  But, I will address his points, one by one.

1. I do in fact refer, in para. 1, to ‘absolutisation’.  Also, in para. 2, I wrote that ‘Both palace and forest represent absolutisations …’, and in para. 5, I wrote about the Universal Middle Way, as ‘navigating between “any opposed pair of positive and negative absolutes.”’

2. And, just for the record, the rest of my sentence, after ‘complete hoax’, reads: ‘… all the significance for Ellis, apparently residing in the ‘universal insights’ contained in the Pali Canon’.  I did interpret ‘complete hoax’ as a supposition, but this whole passage did strike me as puzzling, as possibly containing a submerged contradiction.  I now regard this passage as a flawed incoherent thought experiment, as a test of confidence … in what? - a logical possibility, but a coherent logical possibility?  I would claim that, rather like a square circle, an insight without a person, is an incoherent notion.  Because, it seems to me, for insights to be recorded historically, which they have been in the case of the Buddha, then that does - does it not? - entail a living person who embodied these insights, whereas if we suppose the Buddha’s life to have been a complete hoax, who never lived, then he cannot have had any insights at all; hence, my point about ‘free-floating insights’ needing to be anchored in a person, i.e. to be the insights of the historical Buddha.  So, whereas Ellis experimentally sunders historical person from universal insights - a logically possible disembodiment; I join them together, coherently, in the embodied person of the Buddha.

3. I concede this point, an oversight on my part.

4. It seems to me that pairing the Buddha’s Middle Way with Newton’s Gravity, in the same sentence, does lend the Middle Way, by this association, to an interpretation of objectivity.

5. I have no issue with using the words - currently extant and widely used - ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, when appropriate, and with regard to Newton, I would say that the discoveries of mathematical physics are more objective than, say, our day-to-day, ephemeral subjective experiences.

6. I did write, “more as a philosophical ‘way of life’”.

7. On p 62 there does seem to be some preference for Stephen Batchelor’s ‘tasks’ over ‘truths’, in terms of this being ‘a far more helpful approach’.

8. There is, on p 46., an ‘avoidance’ of the term ‘knowledge’, and what appears to be a re-statement of knowledge from ‘justified true belief’ to ‘justified general belief(s)’ (my emphasis) in connection with the Buddha’s insights.  So, if this does not imply a redefinition of knowledge, what’s going on here?  An implication of truth dropping out of the picture - i.e. justification and belief are retained, from the traditional definition of knowledge, but ‘true’ is replaced by ‘general’ - is that the Buddha’s insights are neither true, nor do they amount to knowledge, but are merely justified general beliefs.

9. ‘without views’ was part of a paraphrased quotation from Beckwith.

10. As in point 5 above.

11. In section 3f, ‘Incrementality: the Ocean’, I understood the Ocean to be a metaphor for ‘gradual training, gradual practice, and gradual progress’ (p 118), towards enlightenment (in Ellis’s terms, ‘integration’)  In para. 10, I make the point that the Ocean metaphor, ‘shelving gradually - [is] an apt image for an incremental approach to Awakening’.

12. The phrase ‘our limited, embodied standpoint’ was employed by Ellis in connection with conditionality, on p 142, i.e. from this standpoint ‘we cannot be sure that everything is conditioned.’  I just applied his words to the possibility of worlds in which sudden enlightenment might occur.


13. Here we come to the point in my review where I do not go along with Ellis’s position that: ‘there is nothing here that limits the Middle Way to the avoidance of only these particular two poles’.  I think his abstract metalanguage complicates and obscures matters, when all is simple, transparently so, at the point of the Buddha’s First Address.

14. If the First Address is based on the Buddha’s direct knowledge, then Ellis does term this ‘dubious metaphysics’ (p 198); but, yes, the Middle Way as an expression of this direct knowledge, is a route the Buddha recommends.

15. I think this is a gross over-simplification of my para. 15

16. The reference is to the Tibetan Wheel of Life, and I was disputing the apparent claim that it was no longer in the most ‘helpful form’.

17. I did write, ‘tend’ towards a reductionist position.  It seems to me that, e.g. if we take a philosophical (Epicurean) position on ‘desire’, then this would, in Ellis’s view, be reducible to a physicalist understanding i.e. ‘energy’.

18. I did actually write that my train being late was an ‘external factor’ not ‘directly sourceable to the left hemisphere’, and folk psychological language does slide into physiologically-based expressions; there are plenty of examples of this ‘sliding’, that I reference.

19. Yes, I do refer to Plato, and also to Hinduism – but, only as possible structural or formal ‘congruences’, and I explicitly emphasize this, and seek to downplay the metaphysical/divine connotations.

Robert M Ellis's picture

Hi Arnold,

Addressing things point by point can indeed quickly become tiresome. I only did so because I found this review such a dog’s breakfast of serious misreading, and wanted to point out the misreadings for the benefit of others. From your response it seems that you concede nothing except on point 3, and are only interested in defending your assumptions, rather than actually re-considering whether I might have been misrepresented. Why are you bothering to do this? Do I not even have the right to clarify what I meant and it be accepted as what I meant?

You stress the qualifying and provisional language (‘more’, ‘tends’ etc) which you used when classifying my work in relation to positions that it explicitly rejects - and yes, I do generally appreciate such marks of provisionality and incrementality. In this case, however, it was the fact that you insist on interpreting the book in these terms at all that shows that you have so much missed the point of what it had to communicate, and qualifications do little to ameliorate this. Qualifications are also irrelevant where absolutes are concerned, because absolutes do not admit of qualification. For example, either a position is reductionist (i.e. assumes that a particular account of ‘reality’ is the whole story) or it is not: it can’t ‘tend’ towards reductionism. If you had even a glimmer of understanding of the Middle Way as a sincere and even-handed attempt to avoid absolutes, or had read the book with any care or charity, you would not even waste time accusing me of ‘tending’ towards reductionism: you would be debating the Middle Way (as the title suggests) instead. Imposing a framework of absolutes on someone who is sincerely attempting to chart the Middle Way is not ‘debating the Middle Way’ in any sense. 

A serious review normally aims to convey a book’s key ideas or message accurately, without straw manning, and then of course also evaluates it. My strong objection to this review is that it does not complete the first stage: it starts off with straw men and continues with them throughout. If you had recognised what I was trying to do to some degree, and then taken issue with the limitations of how I have tried to do it, that would be fair enough. But instead you have just imposed the implacable dogmas of absolute interpretation without quarter.

Best wishes,

Robert

tarni's picture

Dear Robert

With regard to point 3, of my reply to your first reply, I got it wrong, and for that oversight, please accept my sincerest apology.

My review (I think ‘dog’s breakfast’ is a little harsh), I admit, did take on an unconventional form; indeed, possibly a hybrid form, a cross between a review and an essay: a rev-say(?), but, some might say, more -say than rev-!  I found myself engaging more with the bits of your book, particularly relating to epistemological questions of truth and knowledge, that are of philosophical interest to me; but I now realize that this resulted in a somewhat slanted and self-indulgent rev-say, with a more narrow focus than the scope a conventional review would normally assume.  

As for ‘tending’, the sentence I wrote was: ‘Ellis, at times, can tend towards a reductionist position.’  And, then I go on to give an example.  So, what I in-tended to convey here, was that for vast swathes of your book you did not adopt a reductionist position, just, at times, there were a few lapses from your prevailing non-reductionist prose.

I would also like to say that, for the most part, I found your book a very stimulating and provocative read, which greatly helped to clarify my own position on the Buddha’s Middle Way.

Yours sincerely

Arnold