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The Price of Liberation

An Eminent Buddhist Scholar Asks: How "Middle" was the Buddha's Middle Way?
by Peter Masefield


Peter Masefield

It is always intriguing to wonder what the founder of what was to become, sometime after his death, a major world religion, might think were he to witness the way in which his original teachings had come to be understood, and practiced, by much later generations with different cultural backgrounds in other parts of the globe.

In the case of Christianity, one may wonder what Jesus might have thought, had his second coming, so eagerly anticipated by the early Church, actually materialized. What would the man who upturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple make of the opulence of the Vatican, or Muhammad of the present-day ayatollahs in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Or what might the Buddha, a man who rejected the household life in favor of the life of a recluse living in the jungle on the fringe of society, make of the fact that the essentially monastic movement that he founded had become, at least as practiced in the West in the late twentieth century, an essentially lay movement amongst those whose domestic responsibilities ensured that their adherence to the path could be at best a halfhearted, and part-time, affair?

In the Buddha's own day, for instance, when asked by Sariputta, the Buddha's chief disciple, whether he had been diligent in matters spiritual, his lay brahmin* follower Dhananjani complained:

How could I be diligent, good Sariputta, when there are my parents to support, my wife and children to support, my slaves, servants, and work people to support, when there are services to perform for friends and acquaintances, services to perform for kith and kin, services to perform for guests, rites to perform for the ancestors, rites to perform for the gods, duties to perform for the king—and this body too must be satisfied and looked after!

to which Sariputta replies:

What do you think about this, Dhananjani? Suppose someone failed to live the holy life because of a need to support his parents, his wife and children, his slaves, servants and work people, because there were services to perform for friends and acquaintances, services to perform for kith and kin, services to perform for guests, rites to perform for the ancestors, rites to perform for the gods, duties to perform for the king, as well as having a body that had to be looked after. Because of this failure, the guardians of Niraya Hell might drag him off to their hell. Would he gain anything by saying: "I failed to live the holy life because of a need to support my parents and so forth"?

to which Dhananjani finally responds:

No, good Sariputta, for the guardians of Niraya Hell would hurl him wailing into Niraya Hell itself. (M II 186f)
This is not to say that lay-followers of the Buddha were unknown in his day, nor to say that there were not certain persons who, though attaining liberation, opted to remain householders to no apparent detriment, but it has to be conceded that the practices advocated by the Buddha were those intended almost exclusively for those who had removed themselves from the household circle in favor of a nomadic life of asceticism in the jungles of northern India. Indeed, on one occasion, when Anathapindika, a lay-supporter whose generosity to the Buddha and his monastic followers had known no bounds, was informed, on his deathbed, by the Buddha's chief disciple Sariputta, that he should train himself not to grasp after objects of the world and the feelings to which such grasping gives rise, Anathapindika, somewhat justifiably, retorted:

Although the Teacher and the monks who were developing their minds visited me for a long time, I have never yet heard esoteric talk such as this,

to which Sariputta replies:

Esoteric talk such as this, householder, does not occur for householders clad in white. It is for those that have gone forth, householder, that esoteric talk such as this occurs. (M III 2600)
Let us, therefore, without further ado, take a fresh look at what was really going on in the jungles of northern India in the fifth century B.C.E., and to what extent the practices of modern lay Buddhists in the West reflect the original ideals.

As is well known, the Buddha is said to have taught a "middle way"—a middle way between, on the one hand, addiction to sense-pleasures and, on the other, addiction to self-mortification. Why he should have done so begins to make better sense when viewed against the background of his own life experiences before becoming enlightened.

Tradition has it that the Buddha was the son of a local chieftain in northern India. When a soothsayer summoned to forecast the child's future predicted that he would become a universal monarch were he to remain a layman, but a Buddha were he to renounce the world and go forth, his father, hoping his son would remain a layman and subsequently succeed him, shielded the child from all life's ills, surrounding him with every possible luxury.

One day, however, the Buddha-to-be managed to sneak out of the palace without the guards noticing, where he encountered four signs: a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and a religious recluse. Quick to realize that he, too, was subject to sickness, old age, and death, he soon after abandoned his wife and first-born for the solitary life of an ascetic in the jungle, where he practiced a life of severe self-mortification for six years, hoping to find a solution to the problem of man's mortality which had so shocked him. At times he went about naked, flouting life's decencies, eating one meal a day, then once every second day, until he was one to eat only once a fortnight. And when he did so, he ate potherbs or millet or wild rice or grass or cowdung. At other times he wore coarse hempen cloths, or rags taken from the dust-heap. He plucked out the hair of his head and beard, lay on a bed of thorns. The dust and dirt that accumulated on his body fell off in lumps, as he sat up all night in the open, both in the times of snowfall and the hot months of summer, and over the years his body became so emaciated that his skin clung to his skeleton, and he almost died before realizing that this was not the way to the goal he was seeking any more than his former life of luxury had been. (M I 77ff)

He was, of course, not alone in opting for such austerities. Rather, it is clear that such practices were common amongst the religious drop-outs of his day, such as the Jains, who had similarly rejected the luxurious, opulent lifestyle of the small religious elite that continually increased its wealth and consolidated its power by officiating at ever more elaborate sacrificial rituals paid for by the laity. The fact is that by the time of the Buddha large numbers of such ascetics were to be found living on the fringe of a society which largely despised them.

That the Buddha finally abandoned these practices in favor of a middle way between the above two extremes did not mean that the middle way that he advocated was not austere—it was just less austere than those earlier practices to which he had once been committed. Indeed, the nomadic lifestyle that the Buddha advocated for his monastic community, once he had become enlightened, was no easy one: with nothing but a ragged robe for protection from biting insects, cold nights, and monsoon rain, and with a diet consisting of—when lucky—mere discarded scraps and leftovers, his fellow monks were obliged to lead a fiercely austere lifestyle, isolated from society in the depths of the jungle, where they would sleep little, if at all. Monastic rules dictated every moment of waking life: monks were obliged, except when discussing the Buddha's teachings, to maintain the "ariyan** silence," whilst they were also told how they should walk, stand, or sit, how they should urinate or defecate, and when and how they should sleep. It was not even open to the monk to decide when he should eat—and when he did so eat, he was obliged to mix up everything he had managed to receive in his almsbowl into an unpalatable mass, and then consume same in small lumps, all the time noting, as he did so, that he was only eating in order to sustain his body until liberation was achieved.

It comes as little surprise that those practicing such an existence were not envied by their contemporaries. Nor were they even admired:

Monks, this is the meanest of callings, this of an almsman. A term of abuse in the world is this, to say 'You scrap-gatherer! With bowl in hand you roam about'. (It 89)
It was held by many in the Buddha's society that those who adopted such a lifestyle had done so through fear of kings or robbers, through debt or having lost their relatives or means of livelihood (M II 66, It 89) and perhaps for this reason alone the Satanic figure of Mara*** had no difficulty in causing house-holders to revile, abuse, vex, and annoy monks by persuading such householders that:

These shaveling recluses are menials, black, the offscourings of our kinsman's feet. They say "We are meditatives" . . . and with their shoulders drooping, with their faces cast down, as if drugged, they meditate. (M I 334)
Nor does it seem that much effort was required for certain religious rivals to put it about that a female wanderer had been slain by the Buddha's disciples following numerous sexual adventures in the depths of the Jeta Grove. Pulling her body out of the ditch in which it had been buried, they paraded it about the streets of Savatthi rousing the people's indignation, saying:

Behold, brothers, the deed of the Sakyan sons! Shameless are these recluses! The Sakyan sons are wicked, evildoers, liars, no livers of the holy life. (Ud 431)
So bad, it seems, was their reputation that in some quarters it was most unwise to tread. Alms were gathered only with the greatest of difficulty in Mathura (A III 256); the men of Sunaparanta were deemed by the Buddha to be hot-headed, fierce, and likely not only to abuse and revile his monks but also even to strike them, beat them, and slay them (S IV 611); whilst the borderlands were so perilous that none of the Buddha's followers, whether monastic or lay, would dare venture there. (D III 263, 287; A IV 225) That these were no mere isolated incidents can be seen from the frequently recurring passages in which the Buddha advises his monks to endure abuse from outsiders. Of himself he says:

As an elephant, in battlefield, withstands the arrows shot from a bow, even so shall I endure abuse. (Dhp 320)
Why anyone in their right mind should have willingly elected to join him in following such a lifestyle, and endure similar hardships, is perhaps difficult to fathom. Indeed, it is well known that the Buddha, immediately following his enlightenment, initially hesitated whether he should bother to share his discovery with anyone at all, reflecting that:

This Dhamma, won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand . . . But this is a generation delighting in sensual pleasure . . . And if I were to teach Dhamma and others were not to understand me, this would be a weariness to me, this would be a vexation to me, (Vin I 3f)
whereupon Brahma Sahampati (a deva [demigod] from the Brahmaloka) intervened, pointing out to the Buddha that there were some beings with little dust in their eyes who would profit from him teaching them.

However, it must be stressed that although such beings may have had little dust in their eyes, they were still hemmed in by sense-pleasures, and thus in bondage to the Satanic figure of Mara. Any rescue would require great skillfulness if Mara's devious tactics were to be countered, which skillfulness was precisely the reason why the Buddha had, prior to his enlightenment, spent many hundreds of thousands of rebirths attaining all the various perfections that would eventually qualify him for the task now in hand.

The manner in which the Buddha rescued such beings took the form, in the main, of what is known as the "progressive talk," which started with the Buddha descending to the then-current spiritual level of his hearer, and then gradually steering him into a state of consciousness in which he too could now experience what the Buddha had himself discovered on the night of his enlightenment. As the texts have it:

Then the Lord talked a progressive talk, commencing with talk on almsgiving, talk on [mundane] morality, talk on [rebirth in] heaven. He made visible the peril, the vanity, the defilement of the pleasures of the senses and the advantage in renouncing them. And when the Lord knew that the heart of the individual concerned was ready . . . and uplifted [out of the sensual sphere], then did he make visible to him that teaching that the Buddhas have themselves discovered, viz. suffering, its uprising, its cessation and the path,
whereupon the convert would proclaim:

It is wonderful, Lord! It is wonderful, Lord! It is as if, Lord, one might set upright what had been upturned, or might reveal what was hidden, or might point out the path to one who had gone astray, or might bring an oil-lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes might see material shapes. (Ud 48)
This newly acquired vision had a number of profound effects. With his brain now washed of attachment to sense-pleasures, he may be considered to have undergone a spiritual rebirth, subsequent to which he is no longer slave to Mara and his bait in the form of sense-pleasures. A good many of such converts, though not all, elected at this point to take refuge in the Buddha and to go forth into the homeless life of a monk.

With this rebirth, old values, once dearly held in common with the world, are now rejected in favor of a completely new set. Former attachment to the pleasures of the senses in all their various forms is now renounced in favor of the cessation of phenomenal existence altogether:

Sights, sounds, tastes, odors, things touched, and objects of the mind are, without exception, pleasing, delightful and charming—(at least) so long as they continue to exist;

These are considered a source of happiness by the world with its gods—and when they cease this is by them considered suffering.

The cessation of phenomenal existence is seen as a source of happiness by [us]
ariyans—this [insight] of those who can see is the reverse of that of the whole world:

What others say is a source of happiness, that [we]
ariyans say is suffering, what others say is suffering, that [we] ariyans know as a source of happiness. Behold this doctrine, hard to understand, wherein the ignorant are bewildered. (S IV 127)
It is clear that things could not go on as they had hitherto for those who had undergone such a radical and profound change in their personality, identity, and outlook. It was now incumbent upon them to take the Buddha's advice and renounce their former way of life, his converts invariably reflecting that:

The household life is confined and dusty, going forth is in the open; it is not easy for one who lives in a house to live the holy life wholly fulfilled, wholly pure, polished like a conch-shell. Suppose now that I, having cut off hair and beard, having put on saffron robes, should go forth from home into homelessness? (M I 179)
whereupon they would then cut off hair and beard and go forth into homelessness, as soon as they had disposed of their wealth and relatives:

Now, sir, I had four wives, young girls, and I went and spoke to them thus: "Sisters, I have embraced the five rules of training in the holy life. Who wishes may enjoy the wealth of this place, or may do deeds of merit, or may go to her own relations and family; or is there some man you desire to whom I may give you?" And when I stopped speaking, the eldest wife said to me: "Sir, give me to such and such a man!" Then I had that man sent for, and, taking my wife by the left hand and holding the waterpot in my right, I cleansed that man [by an act of dedication]. Yet I was not a whit discomfited at parting with my wife. (A IV 210)

* member of the highest caste of Hindu society
** noble
*** the personification of evil and temptation

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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue