I’ve touched down again. Grounded, centered even when I’m not either of those things.
These last years I’ve been up and down, spun around, shit on, spit out, misled by myself and others, distracted, enamored, disgusted, excited, lackluster, and branded a hermit and a heretic.
I’ve gone through the process and been shat out the other side. I’m at peace with myself for the first time in my life. I’m at peace with my degree of understanding and my even greater degree of no understanding.
For five years, I practiced Buddhism to a T. I was the picturesque “good Buddhist” for the most part, with the occasional growing pains here and there. Now that I’ve crawled back out into my world again, I’ve been assaulted by insights.
Here’s one: the traditional Middle Way isn’t so in the middle anymore. Buddhism was formulated to be the Middle Way between extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism. It isn’t that anymore.
That’s because, in the West, we have a hedonism and materialism that dwarfs what was present in Siddhartha’s day. Middle class Americans live in more comfort than a lot of royal families did. And with all of our products and services on tap, it’s so easy to accumulate things.
I mean, Buddha didn’t even have Amazon Prime or Netflix 😀 People were so miserable in ancient India that the thought of being reborn in this world scared the living shit out of them. For most Westerners, rebirth is a comforting idea.
So, the scales have shifted. In Siddhartha’s day, it was like this: -1 (Asceticism) 0 (Buddhism) 1 (Hedonism). Now it’s: -1 (Asceticism) 0 (Buddhism) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 (Hedonism).
As the range grows, the median switches places. Instead of resting at 0, Buddhism needs to move to 4 to continue being the Middle Way, at least in the modern West.
As the world grows more worldly, Buddhism (and all contemplative religions) have to let some of that worldliness in or risk becoming one of the things it criticizes; extreme asceticism.
I think that Buddhist asceticism (firmly keeping the precepts, diligently practicing a certain method, and sticking with a certain Right View) is important, maybe even vital, but only temporarily so.
After awhile, the Western Buddhist has to come back down to earth and pick up where they left off before they started practicing. When these two worlds meet, these two extremes, they even each other out and provide a ground ripe for insight.
The real work, the real enlightenment, is outside the temple walls. It’s when a socially awkward—and formerly celibate—monastic disrobes for the first time before someone she or he is attracted to; it’s when someone who was originally dogmatic about Right Action kills a bug and reflects on the dissonance that follows; It’s when someone who was once terrified of conflict and then, through Buddhist practice, learns to better circumvent conflict gets into a heated argument; it’s when someone attached to peace goes out into the woods and screams at the fucking heavens.
This is the good stuff. The human stuff. This is the shit that sages are made out of. Not piety, obedience, or the desire to better oneself. It’s the perspective that does it; perspective that comes from living on both sides of the tracks.
This collision between worlds creates another world with a balanced, clear worldview that’s neither entirely Buddhist nor entirely worldly.
This is when someone truly starts walking the Middle Way because, even though traditional Buddhism was created to be a Middle Way between extremes, even it is too extreme in light of modern life.