The Middle Path of Life

Talks on the Practice of Insight Meditation


ISBN: 0-931892-22-8, 96 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, paper, $9.95

The Middle Path of Life is recommended for anyone who wants to get to know themselves: experienced meditators and those just becoming interested in insight or vipassana meditation, the systematic practice of mindfulness in daily life.

The Middle Path described by Dhiravamsa is neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence, but rather a way of total balance. To develop insight, to meditate, is to be aware of what is going on here and now, and to live fully in the present, without being swayed by the past or the future.

The purpose of meditating is to "see" who we are, honestly, and to learn how to "think from the heart." What we call the "heart" is just being, with no idea of center. When we see what kind of person we are, our particular qualities and weaknesses, we can open up to whatever is actually happening.

True wisdom springs from meditation, not from the explosive energy of suppressed conflict, but from the nourishing flow of continuous insight. The mind becomes still, naturally. While the body may grow old, the free mind with clear insight is always young as it follows the middle path, the path of true freedom.

Table of Contents

The Middle Path of Life
The Urgency of Radical Change
Meditation: The Technique for Changing Personality
The Problem of Living
Karma and Meditation
This Matter of Sanity
The Search for Immortality
Aloneness and Relationship
Basic Meditation


The middle path of life is a large subject to consider, because it is not easy to define it or to assert a principle or formula for it. Usually we look for something very definite, or for something which is clearly said or named, so that we can follow. You may be disappointed to find that this middle path of life has no clear definition, and in a way it can have no definition at all.

You may remember that the Buddha, soon after enlightenment, was thinking of giving his first sermon to people who could understand his teaching. Firstly he thought of the two teachers under whom he had studied and practiced, fulfilling all the spiritual attainments, but whom he had left, realizing that he had still not reached enlightenment. He thought they would understand what he was going to say, but then in his insight he saw that they had already died. Then he saw in his mind the five ascetics with whom he had practiced self-mortification, and whom he had left because he realized that their extreme asceticism was not the way. He felt they would understand, so he went and gave the sermon to them at Benares.

In his first sermon, the Buddha mentioned the two extreme practices. The first is self-mortification, believing that by tormenting the body, fasting, lying on thorns or nails, depriving and wearing out the physical form, one will realize Nirvana. The other extreme is self-indulgence and hedonism, believing that happiness is the primary goal of life (this can often be seen in modern spiritual movements which aim for states of bliss).

The Buddha taught the middle path which lies beyond these two extremes. This is the Buddhist way of life, which is called the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thought, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, right contemplation. These practices are the foundation of the Buddha's teaching.

We can see that the two extremes are prevalent in our present world. Many people advocate the material way of life, thinking that through material support all happiness must come - but it is not so. We get more and more comfort and pleasure, but we are still not happy because we are not free. Our problems may increase, because when sense desires are continually gratified and the body is richly fed, the mind becomes poorer and more disturbed - it has more thirst, more craving and clinging. With an unstable mind, we go to extremes. When there is no balance in the mind, then there is no balance in life, and this we can see clearly.

The other extreme concerns a "spiritual" life, in which people may drop away from the material world, refusing to face what is arising in their lives. They may give up their work and responsibilities, renouncing the world without insight into what it is that really needs to be renounced. In fact the world cannot be renounced, because the world means human relationships and life situations which reappear in different forms. If we turn our face away from these, it is the ego rejecting the natural path provided. Even those who go into the forest or become sannyasis need to accept material things to support their life, and monks living in a monastery exist within a community. Those who insist on rarefied conditions and resist what is being given to them by life are usually being driven by spiritual ambition. They may become famous teachers, but will still be bound by their own self-importance and desire for power. Their work may appear more profound and valuable than the materiali! st, but in fact they are developing an equally superficial side of life, limited by what might be called spiritual materialism.

It is not very easy to practice the middle path of life, but that does not mean that it is difficult for us to begin. We have to see the extremes we are practicing in life, and to watch ourselves,, attending to all our activities. The middle path is the way of balance, neither to the left nor the right, neither to the wrong nor the correct, but we shall not have this balance through trying to grasp it. It will come when the extremes are properly looked at and dissolved. The mind is always wanting to grasp something in order to stay with it and not let it go, but in doing that it is not open, and for the middle path it needs to be open. As soon as we are closed to any event, any situation, we fall asleep psychologically. In sleep we feel comfortable and secure, but there is no freedom. You might say that of course there is freedom, because you can do what you think is right, but that is like the freedom of prisoners to decorate their prisons - they are still living in prison. I! t is essential to look at the mind and how it creates things to reassure itself.

The middle path is not just the path between two poles, but is beyond them. In the ultimate sense we can say that the middle path of life has no concept of what is right or what is wrong, what is good or what is bad. When we have concepts we try to justify our behavior by them. Our concepts impose upon us so that we don't really look into the action in order to see it as it is. Usually things are judged according to a standard or an authority, whether religious, political, social, legal, parental or personal, which is secondhand. But if we look for ourselves, without denying all authorities but understanding things at first-hand, we shall have the basis for a balanced way of life.

Copyright 1988

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