Discovering the Middle Path
By Rev. Ken Kawawata

December 8 is Bodhi Day, the day Shakyamuni Buddha attained awakening about 2500 years ago. It is said that when Buddha saw the Morning Star early on that morning, he awoke to the truth; the Buddha attained enlightenment and became the "enlightened one." I think that, in essence, he awoke to the "middle path." In other words, he found a path, or way of living his life, that gave him a state of peace and calm in his life.

He realized that neither living a life of extreme pleasure, which he had done as Prince Siddhartha, nor living a life of extreme asceticism, which he did for 6 years prior to his awakening, could lead him to find peace of mind. As Siddhartha, his life in the castle was a life of extreme pleasure; he lived in a world of real comfort and pleasure before he renounced his life in the castle as the prince. In a similar way, we are living in a world today that puts emphasis on comfort and pleasure. Therefore, I think that we are also living in a world of pleasure. This is due to our own desires and values. We think that a materialistically fulfilled life is a life of comfort without anxiety. But is this really true?

Buddha renounced his life of pleasure when he was 29 years old, then he lived a life of asceticism, and dedicated himself to extreme practices such as fasting for extended periods of time. However, he found he could not attain awakening by these practices of asceticism, even after six years of effort. This life of asceticism was the other side of his extreme life of pleasure. This extreme lifestyle almost killed him.

After attaining awakening, he said that people who want to live in peace should avoid these two kinds of extreme lifestyles. He found the lifestyle of the middle path and he started to live this way. The teachings of the middle path were taught by the Eightfold Path, which is made up of right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. This is why Buddhism is often referred to as "the middle path."

This idea of the middle path is very important in our lives. For example, we take aspirin for headache. Aspirin or other pain-relief medicines are beneficial for us, but if we take too much, what will happen? We might develop another problem such as a stomach ulcer. We have to take the proper amount of medicine. If we don’t take enough, the medicine will not work, but if we take too much, the medicine becomes a poison and causes other problems. In the worst case scenario, it could even kill us. Therefore, just taking the right amount of medicine is like living the middle way of Buddhism. Just as we want medicine to help us feel better, we want a good result in our lives as well.

In a similar way, thoughts and ideologies operate the same way. If these are too extreme, they can lead to death or injury of innocent people and destroy our society and country just like too much amount of medicine. After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we’ve heard many people patriotically say and sing "God Bless America." However, I think that people who live in other countries sometimes may feel and hear only our "American ego" from this phrase. They may feel that we Americans are concerned only about our own benefit and that we don’t care about others. If it is true that America’s only concern is for itself, then I think that the God of "God Bless America" is not a real god. That god is actually simply an extension of the human ego. The name of God is being used only for our self-interest.

Today in America, nationalism and patriotic pride is for our country is encouraged by shouting or reciting "God Bless America." Of course we love our country, America. We should be proud of our country. However, just like taking too much aspirin, we have to realize that sometimes extreme nationalism and patriotism can become dangerous thoughts for our lives and for our country. If nationalism and patriotism are overly promoted and people think that this country is the best in the world, the tendency is to also look down on other countries. And, when two countries both look down on each other, this can lead to the start of war. As a result, both countries will suffer tremendous losses.

This is what happened to Germany and Japan in World War II. The leaders of those countries roused extreme pride in their own people by using nationalistic and racist ideas. They engaged in war. When the war ended, the defeat of Germany and Japan was like their own self-destruction and death. We have to learn from this past. Recently, on the news, there are constant reports that say America might start attacking Iraq next month. But I hope that it won’t happen. The United Nations has sent weapons inspectors to Iraq. If you reflect on this happening in our daily lives, the story might go something like this. You have a gun in your home but you think your next door neighbor might also have a gun, and you don’t feel safe for your life. You might think that if something happens, you may be shot by your next door neighbor, and so you want to find out whether he has a gun or not. You go next door and search for your neighbor’s gun. If you find one, you take it away from him without thinking of his privacy or pride. But then you also keep your gun. This is how America’s talk and actions are seen from the Iraqi’s point of view.

In this age, it is not an option to resolve problems by power or arms. Peace will never come by using arms. Thinking of using force already makes any peace and harmony impossible. We all know this contradiction. Though our Congress agreed and decided to support the possibility of going to war, as human beings, we ourselves cannot justify war or killing.

We need to be calm and to possess Right View. With this right view, we can see our real selves, our real human nature, and more deeply understand events in our own country and in the world. Right view isn’t taking the extreme sides at either end of the spectrum. The Buddhist understanding of Right View is to know our own ignorance and humbly seek the middle path. Living life on the middle path leads us to peace of mind and to world peace.

Thank you.

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