Aristotle and the Middle Way

We are not certain when the teacher Siddhatta Gautama actually lived. Most scholastic opinion would now seem to confirm he lived most of his life in the fifth century BCE. His disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as best they could. Shortly after the Buddha died, the Pali texts tell us that the monks held a council to establish a means of preserving his doctrines and teachings. They did not have the capability to preserve a literary record of his life, but the practice of yoga had cultivated phenomenally good memories in the adherents to the faith. They developed ways of memorising the discourses of the Buddha and the detailed rules of their Order. As the Buddha himself had probably done, they set some of his teachings in verses and may have even sung them. They used many techniques to reinforce the learnings. To an outsider the material might seem formulaic and repetitive, but these are merely devices to aid their memorisation.

We understand from the tales of Gautama’s childhood that he led a sheltered existence. The legend tells that his parents kept him ensconced on their royal estate. They contrived to shelter him from encountering the suffering of humankind. But, from sheer accident he was able to observe in the world outside his cloistered environment, human suffering, decay and death. He was greatly troubled by this.

When he determined to leave his privileged surrounds and go out and engage the world, he first attempted to find a way to enlightenment through ascetism. He wandered widely over the Gangetic Plain seeking out sages and teachers who might show him the way to achieve Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana). [Nibbana originally meant, “extinction” – this was because the adepts had come to learn that enduring well-being could only come from the extinction of self which results in liberation and the cessation of suffering.]

Eventually he teamed up with five Bhikkhu (mendicant monks). Despite undergoing the rigours of deprivation and discomfort that had been recommended by the various masters from whom they had received instruction, Gautama seemed unable to attain enlightenment. Finally, in desperation, he separated from his companions. From all accounts, at this stage he was emaciated and dangerously ill.

He remembered how as a child his father had taken him to a local event and left him in the charge of his nurses. After a time his nurses had themselves been inveigled to go and watch the proceedings. They had left him sitting under the shade of a rose-apple tree. The young boy, without instruction instinctively composed himself and sat in the asana position. (This is the correct position for yogic meditation with straight back and crossed legs.) Here, without previous instruction, he entered into a meditative trance (jhana).

He now came to believe that meditation provided the gateway to Nibbana. He thus gave up the way of ascetism. For the first time for many months he resumed eating normally. When his previous companions, the five bikkhus saw him thus indulging himself, they walked away in disgust believing that he had abandonned his quest.

But of course this was not the case. To begin with Gautama began the practice of mindfulness. He began to notice his thoughts, feelings and sensations without identifying with them. He became the intent observer of all his actions, behaviours and thoughts. He had become convinced that the solution to the problem of suffering lay within himself. He found out for himself, a concept that many other sages had discovered, that the essential essence of his being did not lie in his body or his thoughts but in the capacity to observe his body and thoughts. This faculty is called in Eastern traditions “The Witness”. (In the book I co-authored with Dr Phil Harker, this faculty is called “The Watcher”. The notion is elaborated on in Chapter 5 of that book.)

Once his health was restored Guatama set off along the Neranjara River towards Uruvela. Presently he came to a pleasant grove near the river and close to a village where he might seek alms. Here, he determined, he would make his effort to seek enlightenment. And this, I suppose, is the most legendary part of the Buddha chronicle. He sat down, as legend would have it, under the bodhi tree and took up the asana position and vowed to himself he would not move until he had attained Nibbana.

And there, it is recorded, that Gautama achieved enlightenment in a single night. Once he had achieved this exalted state he was now a Buddha.

Soon after, he preached his first sermon. His first audience, who subsequently became his first disciples, were his former companions, the five Bikkhu. He extolled to them the benefits of the “Middle Way”. Those who had entered the enlightened state, he said, should avoid the two extremes of sensual pleasure on the one hand, and excessive mortification on the other,. He then explained the Four Noble Truths and how they were advanced by following the Eightfold Path.(If you desire to understand these precepts, virtually every standard Buddhist text outlines them.) But underpinning it all was the exhortation to pursue the Middle Way. The sage would neither seek undue ascetism nor undue hedonism. A wise man does not subject himself to mortification nor allows himself to be seduced by the pleasures of the flesh.

The Buddha thus preached that happiness cannot be found in a life devoted to caring for sensual gratification. But surprisingly enough, the Buddha also taught us that a life devoted to self-denial, self-deprecation or self blame and guilt is equally foolish and misdirected. The Middle Way is the way of balance, sanity, inner-strength, purity and restraint, steadfastness and moderation.

The text of the Buddha’s first sermon has been preserved as the Dhammacakkappavattana – Sutta. In this are outlined the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which is the essential teachings of the Buddhist doctrine.

Aristotle lived about a hundred years later than the Buddha. This was during the period the writer on religion and spirituality, Karen Armstrong, has called the “Axial Age”. During this period there was a huge transformation in thinking in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and in Asia.

Interestingly, an important part of Aristotle’s philosophy, mirrored the beliefs of the Buddha. Aristotle worked off the general principle that we should all lead temperate lives. He proposed that moderation is good and that excess ought to be avoided in passions and actions. In such arenas where the principle is appropriately applied, Aristotle suggests there is a golden mean between an excess of a certain behaviour on the one hand, and a defect, or shortage on the other hand.
He preached, “Fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly, with regards to actions there is also excess, defect, and the intermediate.”

These concepts are very congruent with the Buddha’s Middle Way and have a lot of resonance with the Eightfold Path.

As Karen Armstrong points out (not referencing this particular instance) it is indeed surprising how much similar thinking emanated around this time through the more philosophically advanced societies. No doubt in the cold light of day, most of us would acknowledge that temperance and moderation are desirable attributes. But in many of the societies of the Axial Age there were adherents to both ascetism and hedonism. It is intriguing that a philosopher in ancient Greece and a sage from ancient India might come to a similar conclusion. Might it not be because they both had come to understand the true nature of what it is to be human and therefore what contributes to a life of consequence and well-being?

As you can see from my last two blogs, I have found the life of Aristotle and his beliefs quite fascinating. But I won’t labour the issue and next week I will comment on something quite different.

7 Replies to “Aristotle and the Middle Way”

  1. I am starting to understand more of the discussions i had with Dr Phil Harker 2 months ago.

  2. Father Ted.

    Hang in there.

    Your experiences and recollections are very valuable.


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