The Middle Way: Investigating Reality

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel explains the truth of dependent arising, the middle way between existence and nonexistence.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel30 June 2014
Photo by Schicka.

The Madhyamika, or Middle Way teachings, lie at the heart of all the Buddha’s teachings. The Middle Way, when fully understood, refers to the unshakeable wisdom and confidence of buddha- hood. We might associate it with those moments of insight we encounter when everything extraneous to natural being falls away, revealing a fathomless, uncontrived brilliance. The Middle Way also describes the path of insight, through which we question the many unexamined assumptions that bind us to false certitudes and spiritual vagueness. The Middle Way is not a dogma to adhere to but a process of direct investigation that moves us toward sanity as we navigate life.

At the core of the Middle Way, we find pratitya- samutpada (pra-tee-tya-sam-ut-pada), a Sanskrit term often translated as “dependent arising.” The teachings on pratityasamutpada challenge us to find anything that stands on its own, independent of other elements. Can you find anything—either in the realm of consciousness or of matter—that does not come into existence, express itself, and fall away contingent upon other elements?

To illustrate pratityasamutpada, the Buddha used the example of two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other. If someone were to knock over one bundle, the other would naturally fall to the ground. Everything stands by virtue of support. In the sutras the Buddha said, “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.”

The teachings of dependent arising have deep implications. Since everything arises in dependence upon other factors, we can’t identify where one thing ends and another begins. We can’t find the edges of anything, and we begin to see that the world resists definition. This doesn’t mean our perceptions or thoughts are muddled. It’s just that, as much as we attempt to reach definitive conclusions about our selves, others, and our world, life continuously bursts from the seams of our beliefs and ideas. Because all things rely upon the ever-shifting nature of other elements, they will always remain uncapturable, beyond our ability to fathom them.

We may wonder how, and even if, we can function without definitive truths. But capturing truth is not the function of discernment. Discernment describes an ability to perceive, be aware of, or take in our world. Do we ever actually “arrive” anywhere when it comes to knowing? We wake up each morning not knowing what the day will bring; our world keeps changing—and we change right along with it.

That life resists objectification is called emptiness in the Middle Way tradition. In other words, because life is open to interpretation and always a work in progress—because everything leans—we will never find anything that possesses its own independent identity. As the great Middle Way scholar Nagarjuna said, “Whatever arises interdependently, that is explained to be emptiness. That being a dependent designation is itself the Middle Way.”

The Middle Way helps us understand who we are in relationship to our world. Because everything leans, we can never be right or in total command. This protects us from fundamentalism and eternal- ism. Yet because we are a part of the great nature of interdependence, everything we do influences life—everything matters. This protects us from meaninglessness and nihilism. The Middle Way describes the open mind that is free of clinging to views—the insight that can bear the fathomless and unknowable nature of things yet responds clearly and compassionately to life.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has been a student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche for almost forty years. Founder of the non-profit The Middle Way Initiative, she is also the host and creator of the Open Question podcast and the author of The Power of an Open Question and The Logic of Faith.