After the Nikāya Budda’s awakening, he was not content to sit quietly in the forest for the rest of his life. He went looking for people to share the transforming practice with, and his five former companions in the ascetic work were the first. He caught up with them in the Deer Park near Benares (modern-day Varanasi). They became convinced that he truly had seen something different than the usual, and for several days he guided them, until at least three of the five had it. He talked, pointing toward the unsayable, until they changed.
To suggest that he merely turned up, gave them a ‘sermon’ and that immediately Kondañña awoke to the uncreated dimension, is typical of the usual historical process of making a mythical hero, but real relationships rarely happen like that.
It’s likely that, even if we accept that such a comprehensive teaching could happen in that period (the middle way, the eightfold way of life, the four ennobling realities, the twelve tasks – that’s an impressive list), much of it would have achieved articulation in the interactions with the five; that is, in dialogue. That’s how genuine teaching relationships go – the teacher hones, with the student, the articulation of that which is known but which doesn’t yet have words.
So, what does the Nikāya Buddha teach, in the Conveying of the Nature of Reality Sutta that you and I can apply? The middle way, which is stated here as neither sensory indulgence, nor suppressing the self.
The usual formula is expressed as neither indulging the senses, nor ‘mortifying’ the body. That would be applicable to the five ascetics, but only an extremely small proportion of modern Western householders are mortifying the body. However, many practitioners do ask whether they should be enjoying the senses, so it’s worth noting that it is not healthy to suppress our natural responsivity, or life of impulse. So, where to from there?
What is so special, here, is that the eightfold way of life is directly tied to the middle way. When I place indulging my impulses over on one side, and suppressing them over on the other, then in the middle I am interactional, but I’m not engaging from ‘reactivity.’ Reactivity is exactly what the middle way is free from.
For instance: I am going to die. The understanding of this fact profoundly impacts me. Do I rush out and fill my bucket, acquiring experiences hungrily before I go? No, that keeps me on the surface. I am swirled around, to no deepening benefit. Do I stop all activity, not engage with life in its natural movement, in its unfolding? Likewise, there’s no joy, no growth, no innate responsivity, no freedom in that.
A devatā asks the Nikāya Buddha: “But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?”
“When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
– Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha.
I’m struck with how it is paradoxical: it is appropriate living, because it stays with the dependently-arisen (no room to move, either to indulgence, or to suppression); and, yet, this is maximum freedom, precisely because we are unconditioned. That is, not conditioned by reactivity, not enslaved by past structures. Yet, this is not without order and beauty; nor without peace, gladness and joy.
That is the beauty of Kondañña’s insight: “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.” This itself was the realisation of the middle way. It isn’t conceivable, because it is exceeds concepts; nevertheless, our bodies feel it. And, we must speak of it to each other, just as the Nikāya Buddha couldn’t keep quiet about it. It’s too valuable to suppress.
Speaking about the Chinese text The Heart Sutra, Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi commented:
“Here we see the Middle Way of the Buddha Dharma. Conceptual dyads are useful in communication but they become invidious when, for example, truth and falsehood become fixed positions that differ from person to person. Misunderstandings turn into anger, and worse. Thus it is not the forms of the world, it is not our perceptions of the forms, that are obstacles. It is the fact that we take them as ultimate verities.”
– The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective.
The Nikāya Buddha teaches a method of meditation based on gladness, tranquillity and joy. Both indulgence and suppression produce an inflexible heart-mind, making insight harder to arise. No doubt, in those several days, the teacher helped them steady their minds, so that they could see their subjectivity with greater subtlety. He must have used words freshly, to by-pass their usual dualistic perceptions, so that they could arrive at the middle way, which is not a position. It’s ‘This’ that you have now, in its dependently-arisen and implicitly-ordered immediacy. It exceeds our concepts of ‘yes’ (indulge) and ‘no’ (suppress). It is ever-fresh.