Life is a continuum of subtle distinctions. Categories and names are abstractions for identities that actually do not exist. When I look across America’s spiritual landscape, two extremes stand out, two almost opposite Ways of life.

One way is Americanism, for lack of a better term. It objectifies that unique cultural blend of Golden Rule, Manifest Destiny, work ethic, populism, Puritanism, materialism, consumerism and optimism that uniquely characterizes American popular culture. At its worst, it becomes the mindless materialism of the heavily coiffed dowager on her way to the church of her choice in her Cadillac wearing a gold-plated “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet or the sullen Goth teenager, resentful of being born into the richest moment of the richest nation in history. At its best, it rises to the uniquely American liberal intellectual tradition that envisions nations of educated, free, self-determined people living in democracies. Unfortunately, people being what they are, the former is far more common than the latter. Americanism is not a spiritual creed it is a polyglot of 300 years of history. It can be Humanism, but it can also be an unthinking nihilism. It does not have a cohesive philosophy, ethic or world view.

Another way is Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is actually a modern phenomenon, arising in both America and the Middle East in the mid-Nineteenth Century. At its heart is the belief that some chosen text reflects absolute objective reality. All other explanations of the universe are wrong; their adherents misinformed, even evil. Fundamentalism is a natural outgrowth of the Abrahamic Religions, which start with what the assumption of divinely inspired texts. The great irony of the beginning of the Twenty-first Century is that just as World Peace was becoming a real possibility, the world’s two great Fundamentalisms, American and Islamic, found each other and became locked in lethal embrace. At their root, they are the same thing with the same agendas for their societies. The historical truth of Fundamentalism, and natural result of its view of reality, is that it ultimately begins to oppress or butcher those who do not share their beliefs.

The first Way is ultimately unsatisfying. It leads to the malaise that makes America the world’s largest consumer of anti-depressants and degrading entertainment. The second Way, in many respects the first’s opposite, is immoral. The two propositions that one’s group is the exclusive owner of Truth and that one’s group has the prerogative to mold everyone in their society to fit that Truth are immoral. Their pursuit leads to greater immoralities.

In light of the events of 9/11/2004, Islamic Fundamentalism’s response to the U.S. exporting Americanism to the Arab World, the need for a third Way – the need for a Middle Way – has become extreme. In fact, it has existed for 2,500 years.

Epistemology and Theory of Cognition

I make no claim to be even moderately knowledgeable on Buddhism.That said, any generalization on this way of life is difficult. The tradition is more than 2,500 years old, founded by a sage who asserted that Truth is revealed to the individual mediated by his own efforts, has no scripture, has no authoritative hierarchy, and has evolved manifesting itself differently in the cultures into which it has spread.

Buddhism's first principles are based on perception. Thus, unlike Christianity which has fought a 1,000 year rear-guard action with Western science, Buddhism accepts the primacy of what is empirically experienced. What makes the tradition unique is the conclusions it draws from experience.

The starting point for Buddhist epistemology and metaphysics is the simple immediate observation that everything is composed of other things. Everything around us came into being at some point in the past and will go out of existence at some point in the future. Everything that exists was caused; everything that exists is the the result of a chain of events and objects stretching into the unknowable past. This is true of perceptions of the self. Our concept of ourselves is the accretion of our experiences over time. Our concept of ourself is ourself. We are very different persons at ages 5, 15, and 50. The perceptions that make up our experience arise as objects and events in the world around us . They are perceived by us after a chain of causes and effects in the external world, followed by a chain of stimuli beginning with our five senses and ending with conscious perception in our brain. The perception is eminent for a moment, then recedes into memory. As it does, it morphs over time, being changed by other memories, sometimes combining with them, and sometimes is forgotten.

In the context, one empirical fact becomes apparent. No perceived entity that has any absolute existence on its own. Nor is it necessary to postulate one to apprehend and appreciate the world around us. There is no reason to believe in a god or the Self other by act of faith originating in the desire to feel good. Yet, such an act contributes nothing to understanding the universe or ourselves. As Emerson pointed out, religious faith is usually determined capriciously by one's parents or the culture into which one happens to be born. It is not Nature that is random; faith is random and has little or nothing to do with reality.

From this realization cascades the rest of Buddhism. Since nothing has absolute existence, yearning for things, perceived or faith-based, is not a useful thing to do. Yearning and unbalanced desire just makes one unhappy. This is the basis of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth Life tells us that life is challenge, followed by eventual death. The Second Noble Truth is that our yearning and desire for things as they are or as we wish they would be will make us miserable. The Third Noble Truth is that since the yearning and desire is something within us, we can control them. The Fourth Noble Truth is that by letting go of desire for things that cannot continue to exist and have no independent reality, we come to our own awareness of the flow of Nature. We find peace.

From this empirical fact also comes Buddhist ethics. Everything alive is also part of the universal causal flow. All sentient beings are susceptible to pain and suffering. All sentient beings wish to avoid these malaises. Insofar as we are all the products of and embedded in a web of caused events, insofar as we all come into being and go back into nothingness in the conjunction and dissolution of other substances and events, the Buddhist will say that there is an “interconnectedness of all beings”. Our actions affect our surroundings and other sentient beings in ways we cannot fully know or predict. As a result, Buddhist ethics require sensitivity and awareness that these effects are occurring.

When an individual commits an evil act, two things result. If he has any conscience at all, the act disturbs his own movement towards inner harmony and peace. In fact, the results of the evil act can only be transient. The only real happiness that can be achieved is found within oneself. That happiness is now further away. Secondly, because of the interconnectedness of all beings, the evil radiates out from the perpetrator. It has the effect of poisoning the environment in which he lives. He has increased the poison in his world; it will certainly come back to him in ways he does not anticipate. This is the conceptual basis of Buddhist “Karma”.


The Middle Way is not an Abrahamic Religion.  As such, it is properly classified as a pagan tradition.  Most pagan traditions tend to eschew sacred texts divinely inspired by a single god and infallibly transmitted to humans.  This is historically a good thing: pagan traditions tend to be non-dogmatic, adapting and absorbing the cultures, traditions and religions with which they come in contact.  The result is that religious wars, the most intractable and bloody of all, tend not to occur.  From its founding roughly 500 years before Christ, The Middle Way spread across Asia, splintering into dozens if not hundreds of sects, each with its own style of practice.  As is characteristic with pagan diasporas, as The Middle Way entered new cultures, it evolved by absorbing many of the influences of the new host.  Likewise, the hosting cultures assimilated many of the characteristics of the new tradition.  While there were inevitable cultural frictions in areas where it was initially introduced, pagan traditions generally lack the notions of Zion or Crusade or Jihad.  Thus, the Middle Way evolved though dozens of separate, parallel traditions without the conflict that so characterizes Christianity and Islam.  This remarkable historical fact distinguishes The Middle Way from all the other so-called world religions.

Gotama Siddhartha taught the tenets of The Middle Way in the 5th or 6th Century B.C.  Its basic concepts are remarkably simple.  There is no belief in “God”.  While some sects retain belief in immortal beings from their local cultures, there is no omniscient supreme being.  Thus, practitioners do not pray: there is no one to pray to.  The Middle Way requires no belief in an eternal, unchanging “soul”.  Sects have varying interpretations on how one’s present actions influence the future, some superficially resembling the Christian myth of a soul’s salvation.  This is “karma”.  However, there is no fundamental notion that the identity of an individual is wrapped up in an eternal soul.  Gotama taught a practice for achieving happiness in the world, eternal gods and souls are not necessary.

The Four Noble Truths

The starting point for the Middle Way is four assertions known as “The Four Noble Truths”.  It is said that the Truths are not “noble”, those who understand them fully are noble.  The Noble Truths are actually quite simple:

The First Noble Truth simply states that life is hard.  Birth is traumatizing; death is lethal.  The interim contains continuous challenge, emotional, spiritual and physical.  People struggle to make good lives for themselves and the ones they love.  Others work to leave legacies, to make a difference in peoples’ lives and in the world.  Despite this, in deep moments alone, the noble among us face the inescapable fact that despite our best efforts, life eventually takes its own unpleasant path.  All our efforts, successful and otherwise, pass away.  We enter life alone and leave it alone; all the products of our efforts are erased in time.  This awareness causes discomfort, occasionally, spiritual crisis.  The Middle Way calls this awareness of the human condition and our reaction to it the “Truth of Suffering”.

People cope with this fact in various ways.  Some fabricate elaborate metaphysical mythologies called “religion” to find comfort.  These religions rely on the invention of an immortal soul and an all-powerful god to defy the ultimate aloneness of the First Noble Truth.  Others turn to careers and avocations to forget the state in which they live.  Still others turn to drugs, both legal and illegal, to ignore the human condition in a haze of chemicals.  In aggregate, these solutions implement two strategies: lie to oneself about the true nature of the human condition or just live as if it did not exist.  The Middle Way offers an alternative.

The Second Noble Truth states that the reason for our discomfort with the human condition is craving and clinging.  The First Noble Truth does not necessarily result in suffering.  It is our desire for it to be untrue, our craving for and clinging to another answer, either in religions, careers, other people, material things or even drugs, that creates the suffering.  Some of us cling to a god who, despite his habitual interventions in human affairs millennia ago, has gone disquietingly silent in recorded times.  Others cling to careers that isolate us from families we love, or to people who ultimately leave us and die, or to material things that must necessarily decay, or to drugs that poison us.  This philosophical angst, this suffering, arises from clinging to solutions that by their nature will fail us.  The Middle Way calls our reaction to the First Noble Truth “Origin of Suffering”.

The Third Noble Truth states that since this angst arises within us in reaction to Truth, we have power over it and can end it.  Suffering is not an objective truth; it arises from our inadequate attempts to avoid or deny the Truth of the human condition.  If one can embrace the human condition, become part of it, the angst will stop.  The Third Noble Truth calls this possibility of escape – without lies or denial – the “Cessation of Suffering”.

Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth describes the path to the cessation of suffering.  The Middle Way is a path between the hopeless hedonism of Americanism and the religious bigotry of Fundamentalism.  Unlike Americanism, it is structured and has a 2,500-year non-dogmatic philosophical tradition.  Unlike Fundamentalism, it is based on experience – no belief in metaphysical myth and infallible texts of dubious pedigree is required. 

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is the vehicle for describing the ethics and behavior that lead to the Cessation of Suffering.  Its eight elements aggregate into three categories:

Path Element
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
Right Understanding
Right Thought

The Middle Way is based on experience. No external god can grant Cessation of Suffering. No dogma, prayer, chant or baptism can bestow salvation. Only living life properly, giving due consideration to each element of the Eightfold Path can lead to Peace. The categories and elements are circular. Exercising Discipline in life enhances the Meditation experience. The Meditation experience is the primary source of Knowledge or Insight. Greater Knowledge reinforces and perfects Discipline - and so the cycle continues.

The Five Precepts

The Middle Way does not have prescriptive scriptures; it does not have dogma. Over the millennia, however, traditions based on writings attributed to Gotama are generally accepted. The Dhammapada is an anthology of Gotama's sayings that is probably the most widely read and loved Middle Way scripture. In the Dhammapada, verse 246:

"Whoever destroys living beings,
speaks false words, who in the world
takes that which is not given to him,
or goes too with another's wife,
or takes distilled, fermented drinks --
whatever man indulges thus
extirpates the roots of himself
even here in this very world."

From this verse, tradition has extracted the five basic commitments for lay people living the principles of the Middle Way. These fall under "Discipline" in the Eightfold Path, Right Speech and Right Action:

I undertake to refrain from killing living creatures.
I undertake to refrain from taking what is not given.
I undertake to refrain from wrong conduct in sexual pleasures.
I undertake from false speech.
I undertake to refrain from distilled and fermented intoxicants.

The Middle Way has no "commandments". The Five Precepts are the basic guidance for a good life.