by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
One of the most central teachings of the Buddha was the Middle Way, the path between pushing too hard and being too lax. It is a very subtle aspect of practice, how do we find Right Effort.
The following is a famous story from the Buddhist Scriptures of how the Buddha taught a disciple on how to find the Middle Way.
Bhikkhu Sona was from a wealthy family, he had given up this life to follow the Buddha. As a forest dwelling monk he lived alone in his little meditation house in the woods arduously practicing meditation and punctuating this with periods of walking meditation. It was said that we was so zealous that flecks of blood could be seen on the walking track that he used from the broken skin on his feet.
One day Sona realised that despite his great efforts he was getting nowhere and thought that maybe the monk’s life was not after all for him. He thought that perhaps it would be better to return to his old life as a businessman where he could at least practice charity to the poor.
At that moment the Buddha walked by and seeing in Sona’s heart came and sat beside him. The Buddha asked him if he had been contemplating giving up this life as his efforts seemed to be fruitless?
Sona replied that it was so.
The Buddha reminded Sona that before he joined the order he had been known as a great musician and was especially fond of playing the lute. The Buddha then asked Sona if, when tuning a lute, if he over-tightened the strings would it be possible to play a melody?
Sona replied that it would not be possible.
The Buddha now asked if he slackened the strings until they were loose would he then be able to play a melody?
Sona replied again that it would not be possible.
The Buddha asked if the strings were tuned not too tight and not too loose then would it be possible to play?
Sona replied that now it would be possible.
The Buddha pointed out that his Way also required a consistent effort that avoided the two extremes of punishing striving and lethargy and that a middle way must be walked.
With this Bikkhu Sona resolved to stay and practice as the Buddha advised.
(Zen Gateway-The Middle Way)
One of the difficulties is that each of us is different so what is the Middle Way for one person is not the right path for another. It is human to want simple answers, how much we should meditate, how much we should practice, what we should let go of and what is right effort. The practice of meditation brings up the subtle nature of the Middle Way. We are instructed to neither grasp after our thoughts nor push them away. We need to bring full awareness to our thoughts and feelings and keep making the effort to bring ourselves back to just sitting, just facing the wall. We notice our overactive mind, full of plans and fantasies, fears and desires. It takes discipline to keep bringing our minds back to just facing the wall. This is not an easy or simple practice. We can mistakenly try to obliterate our thoughts, finding ways to blank our minds and this can give us a sense of stillness and some momentary peace which is very fragile. The real practice of meditation is the work of continuously letting go of our thoughts but not forcing them to disappear. The practice of patience is the real ground of meditation. We need to be open and to keep allowing all difficult thoughts and feelings to arise and then accepting the normal reality of their unrequested and frequent reappearance. We need to trust the process of meditation and that all our difficulties will eventually wash away if we do not cling to them.
One way of looking at the Middle Way is that we need to keep making the hard effort of letting things go again and again and we need the soft openness to accept what is actually unfolding right now. We are trying not to judge whatever arises in our mind. This practice is teaching us to stop struggling with our inner and outer experience and instead learn to find a place of openness and peaceful acceptance.
Meditation and life keep bringing up thoughts and feeling that seem to require some resolution. We feel we need to solve our fears and worries; lose our restlessness and anxiety. Yet the practice of the Middle Way is to relax with these feelings, doing the very hard practice of staying in the middle and not rejecting or grasping the conditions flowing through our hearts and minds. The real practice of the Middle Way is making the choice to realize that whenever we start getting caught up in our strong and habitual patterns such as worry, despair, doubt—we can open our hearts to a sense of openness and spaciousness that allows us to see the whole drama of our life with compassion and kindness. We will lose our sense of following the Middle Way by getting caught up with harsh judgements about our own failings and the world’s failings. We need to keep making the effort of letting go of all passing conditions and trusting the Dharma and trusting the inherent purity of the Dharma body which embraces the whole world, including ourselves.