Conduct and observance

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Middle Way

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I have been engaged for the past year and more in an attempt to read the comprehensive works of Dogen. This is a fairly massive undertaking; it has immersed me in the world of Buddhist theory and terminology, and colored a great deal of how I am thinking and what I am writing.

At this time in my life, my practice is to get up at about 5 a.m., make a tiny but stunningly powerful cup of espresso, and read a few pages of the Shobogenzo before I sit. This ritual is consistent enough that it helps form a foundation for the day that follows. In some senses, the coffee, the reading, and the sitting form a post around which everything else in life rotates.

One of the things that has repeatedly struck me over the course of this effort is how consistent the effort is to interpret Dogen's work as a work of theory, and explain it in the context of Buddhist theory and terminology. This stands in stark contrast to my experience of Dogen's teaching as an effort to communicate practice. To me, almost everything Dogen speaks of is about practice of one kind or another. It may sound theoretical, but it repeatedly points us back to the active effort of questioning just what is going on here. The apparent density of ideas can be thinned out rather quickly if we are able to intimate the practice they refer to.

This brings me to today's subject, which is the subject of the "Middle Way."

The Buddha advised that the paths which suggested men go to extremes and push against the limits to attain spiritual mastery were flawed. Supposedly his insight was that a Middle Way was possible, a way in which effort was more balanced.

A good friend of mine who is also a regular reader of this blog once pointed out to me, with what I think was entirely justifiable cynicism, that Buddha himself certainly pushed to the limits in a pretty extreme manner before attaining enlightenment. I mean, just how many years did he sit under that tree? ...Most of us already know that sitting anywhere for more than 30 or 40 minutes represents a fairly major effort. In our ordinary state, sitting still in an office chair for five minutes is more than most of us can expect to be comfortable with.

The point of the Gurdjieff work is to undertake efforts in a more balanced manner. In this, we might argue, he was consistent with Buddha's insights. But we don't call it the Middle Way, we call it the Fourth Way.

In contemporary Buddhism and in Buddhism in general, the Middle Way is understood to be a way of moderation, and the tenets of Buddhist behavior emphasize reasonableness, moderation, and an effort to take a balanced approach to every undertaking. As with other practices, there are an enormous amount of external rituals and behaviors that delineate the requirements for the practitioner.

Everything ends up this way. No matter what the suggestion of the master is, the practice becomes external, because that is the only way we know how to understand things.

What, however, if the Middle Way was an inner practice?

This question can be carefully examined in light of Gurdjieff's enneagram and the multiplications that accompany it. The diagram contains detailed information about more than one Way within the iterations of 142857.

A long-term study of this subject may offer suggestions about what the Middle Way is when understood in terms of inner practice. I believe that this meaning is quite specific and not amenable to subjective interpretation.

One of the other surprising things to me about Dogen is that there are many passages in his Shobogenzo that intimate quite direct relationships between his own teaching and the teachings in the enneagram. At first I thought I was reading these inferences into the text because of my familiarity with Gurdjieff, but enough instances of this have arisen that I no longer think of it as coincidence. The school that Dogen learned from understood either the enneagram itself, or at the very least most of the basic principles contained within it.

The Middle Way is not a way of behaving in life. The Middle Way lies within the organism.

As we grow older, and our efforts deepen, everything slowly becomes much more inner. An inversion begins to take place. This is the same process as "thinning out" the density of Dogen's ideas: while retaining the ideas, as well as an appreciation of their structure and value, we learn to search deep inside ourselves.

There we discover that all of the ideas stem from one root source, just as everything real emanates from one single point that does not exist in space or in time as we currently understand it.

In the birth and growth of this understanding, it becomes more possible to abandon what we know and to stand naked in front of this moment: willing to receive it, hesitant to judge it, ready to respond to it.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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