The Self and the Middle Way

I’ve just been introduced to a wonderful concept, a very different view of the Middle Way by Vietnemese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, Beyond the Self: Teachings of the Middle Way.

So many people interpret the Buddha’s teachings of the Middle Way as walking between two extremes, of finding a middle ground between points of view. However, Thay talks about how we need to throw out all duality in order to truly understand the Middle Way. We do not walk between two extremes, but instead we throw out the concept of the extremes. We let go of dualistic points of view, and in doing so we are further able to release notions of the self in order to fully integrate with the world.

This has resonated so deeply with me, as for the past couple of months I have been exploring the release of the self and integration with the natural world as a result. To walk the middle way, we must, as Thay suggests “throw out” instead of letting go – as letting go still concedes to a dualistic nature of existence, and a self that is separate from nature. If we throw out all these ideas we are left with nothing but possibility.

The idea of the Middle Way, of changing the way that you think by throwing out dualities, has some other very interesting concepts to chew on. What happens if you throw out anger and joy? What happens when you throw out pain and bliss? Walking the Middle Way is not about never getting angry, or upset, or joyful, or blissful. It is about releasing ideas of opposites, and seeing the potential that is created in doing so.

How does this work then? If we throw out ideas of birth and death, we are simply left with manifestation of existence in all its forms. This reaffirms my belief that life does not begin when we are born, nor stop when we die: we simply change form, decomposing into the soil, molecules breaking down, chemical reactions occurring. We are released into the air through the plants growing around us, released into the water table, we fall as rain or snow, we are in the wind. There is no beginning and no end. When the conditions are right we manifest in different forms, whether that be human, water molecule, etc. When we strike a match, the flame does not come out of nowhere: the right chemical reaction must occur. When the flame is blown out, it does not disappear into nothingness, but simply ceases in that manifestation. When the conditions are right, it can appear again. As Thay puts it – clouds cannot die.

For me, this is the concept of reincarnation, exquisitely explained.

With regards to the self, we can take this further, realising that there is no separate self. We are beings that, like everything else on this planet, require the existence of other things in order to manifest. We are entirely co-dependent, there is nothing on this planet that can exist without other things. A cloud needs water and other elements in order to be. Humans needs water, food, shelter, oxygen and a host of other things in order to exist. Everything is interconnected. We cannot separate one thing from another – it is simply impossible. When we realise the interdependence of existence, we see that there really can be no separate sense of self – we are made up of millions of other human and non-human elements.

Thay goes further into describing all these other elements as having their own vitality, their own purpose, their own consciousness. Each thing is equally important in the manifestation of all existence.

For me, this is animism, exquisitely explained.

It is so wonderful when concepts that you hold so dear to your heart, concepts that you regularly meditate over, are expressed within a different religious path so eloquently. It shows a shared human experience, and a shared global manifestation of consciousness.

Thay is currently in hospital, aged 88 having suffered a brain haemorrhage. He is making progress, and we all wish him the best in his recovery, should that happen. Whatever may happen, we wish him peace and love. His teachings have made him a true hero of our time.

16 thoughts on “The Self and the Middle Way

  1. There are some things in life that clearly have to be let go and released to move on. It seems that relinquishing the idea of separateness is different from these actions. To me, however, throwing out is something we do with rubbish, perhaps because we use throwing out as synonymous with throwing away. Of course if one thinks of duality as a rubbish concept, as it were, then . . . Maybe there are subtle distinctions here. I found these ideas are worthy of deep thought, though.

    It is to be celebrated that you have found explanations that resonate so deeply with your soul and understanding. Thay is a wise teacher even it one does not share his specific religious/spiritual frame of expression.

    There are nuanced understandings presented here that need sitting with. Will copy this off to read in hard copy to meditate on. Thank you for sharing these concepts and understandings, Jo. Your postings are always insightful, refreshing, challenging as the case may be. I for one appreciate this and enjoy your use of language, writing and presentation style.

  2. I did also want to flag the difference between Thay’s concept of the Middle Way from a Buddhist perspective and the Via Media as I grew up with it as an Anglican. While both avoid extremes, the latter seems to have a different understanding, it feels wishy-washy in comparison, the avoidance of extremes feeling neither this nor that rather than a path that challenges. A stand that does not take one. My understanding of the Via Media is of course from my experience and study, including seminary. The Buddhist Middle Way is in no way a cop out. More to ponder.

  3. However, Thay talks about how we need to throw out all duality in order to truly understand the Middle Way. We do not walk between two extremes, but instead we throw out the concept of the extremes. We let go of dualistic points of view, and in doing so we are further able to release notions of the self in order to fully integrate with the world.</i"

    What I don't understand here is that the process of 'throwing out' described here seems within itself to be a dualistic, or at least highly polarized concept: the undesired gets thrown out, the desired is allowed to better manifest. If desire is itself to be thrown out, then it becomes an undesired. To me, the simple relinquishing seems more natural as it seems more conducive to the non-polarized state you describe later in your post, as an explanation for your sense of animism.

    Much of what you write in this post, however, strikes a chord of resonance with me, and resembles much of what is written in a blog I recently pointed my own readers to.

    I hope this Buddhist concept continues to inspire you!

    • It’s more akin, say, to sitting in a room and having all the walls removed – does that make more sense? It’s not just getting rid of bad things, but getting rid of all concepts – the Zen mind, if you will, only expressed very differently to what I have previously come across… x

      • In a way, I see what you are saying; but at least to my mind’s eye and logic, it is still involving a polarized duality … in the example you just gave, the having walls (concepts) would be the undesired, and the not having them – the Zen mind, as you describe it – would be the desired. It might be semantics, or just that we view this from different perspectives and see it differently. Either way, I’m happy you found a fresh look at such an old concept!

      • Yes indeed – I’m not saying the walls are undesired – they just might stop our minds expanding, if you see what I mean. It is so lovely to be able to see something from a different point of view, a fresh breath of awen on an old idea! x

      • Out of curiosity, what would happen if one were to reverse the process described here? In other words, rather than ‘toss out’ the undesired, just surrender to and embrace the desired and undesired all at once? I’m going to stick with the idea of polarities here, and use the example of two sides of the same coin: at what point does one side become the other? And does too much contemplation of this distract one from the reality that it is all one coin? Nature, which is what we are all connected to and a part of, is all things, including various polarities; but is at the same time within itself not a polarized entity. The same can be applied to our own selves / psyches – we are capable of any and all things: if the removal of the undesired within us is aimed at achieving greater contact with the desired; then the goal cannot at the same time be to achieve greater contact with our own total potential, as some of that potential is labeled as undesired and tossed aside.

  4. I think it was Joanna Macey who made the interesting and paradoxical point, that to be enlightened and protect our planet, one must be truly sellfish! Not in the small egocentric way, but really selfish. A truly selfish person would no sooner cut down areas of forest than they would cut off their leg. Such a view also makes spirituality and conservation seem hedonistic and not ascetic.

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