"One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and speak a few reasonable words." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Path to Wisdom: Moderation

“If you tighten the string too much, it will snap; if you leave it too slack, it will not play. To learn is to change. The path to enlightenment is in the middle way. It is the line between all opposite extremes.” 
Since I was fairly young, I have been intrigued by religions of the world; Buddhism in particular. It started out simply with an early childhood enchantment of the jovial, round-bellied statues found in Chinese restaurants. Then as I entered my early teen years I had a friend whose mother would say "I swear to Buddha" on a regular basis. I found this comical and added the phrase to my personal slang vocabulary for a few years (before I decided it was disrespectful and cut it out).

It was a combination of these two things that made my ears perk up when I was briefly taught about the Buddhist faith in a Geography or World History class somewhere along the line. What was taught in school was woefully inadequate to quench my curiosity, but my youth combined with the as of yet nonexistent internet did quench it for a time.

Through the years, I have been attracted to Buddha quotes and have done little bits of research along the way on many eastern religions and their teachings. While I find some of the mystical mumbo-jumbo abhorrent and don’t have any belief or attraction to the doctrine of reincarnation or idol worship, I have found them all to contain a great deal of universal truth in other aspects.

One of these universal truths can be found in the account of the beginnings of Buddhism. I don’t know how much anyone knows about it, but I will attempt to give a very brief and somewhat superficial history as follows.

Siddhartha Gautama was born into royalty in India somewhere between 400 BCE and 600 BCE. His father was King Śuddhodana, who wished his son to become a great warrior king, like himself. So, he raised Siddhartha in a palace shielded from religious teachings and from all knowledge of human suffering.

But at age 29, Siddhartha felt a longing to leave the palace to visit his subjects. His father was very much against the idea, but decided to indulge his son by arranging to have all the old and infirm hidden from his eyes during the visit. But despite his father’s wishes, Siddhartha managed to observe an old man while he was outside the palace and asked his charioteer why the man looked so strange. The charioteer answered by explaining to him about the process of ageing, which Siddhartha had been sheltered from up until that point.

Siddhartha was so intrigued by this that he arranged other visits to the city. In these subsequent visits, he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These examples of suffering depressed him but awakened in him a sense of compassion. He initially strove to overcome ageing, sickness, and death by escaping the palace and living the life of an ascetic (a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals).

After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing and almost drowned; causing Siddhartha to reconsider his path. Then, he heard an old musician on a passing boat teaching his pupils about the strings on their lutes, “If you tighten the string too much, it will snap; if you leave it too slack, it will not play.”

He realized with these words that he had been following the wrong path. The extreme life of an ascetic did not bring full, lasting enlightenment or liberation any more than the opposite extreme of self-indulgence and ease in the palace had. Neither was the path of wisdom.

He immediately left his ascetic life of self-mortification and meditated at length about The Middle Way – the line between all opposite extremes. This lengthy meditation was the source of Siddhartha’s awakening. He thereafter became known as the “Buddha” which means “awakened one” or “the enlightened one” and he began traveling around teaching others how to obtain enlightenment through The Middle Way.

I am not a Buddhist, but I feel the truth in the middle way. I agree that pleasure-seeking and the accompanying blindness to suffering is NOT the way to wisdom or enlightenment. Without suffering, sickness, ageing and death, we would never know compassion. And I also agree that self-denial will not fully overcome these faults to bring wisdom or enlightenment. If you really stop to think about it, it's plain to see that all the good stuff - freedom, peace, health, intelligence, etc. - is never in the extreme, it's always somewhere in the middle.

In my religion, we say, “Moderation in all things.” And I sincerely believe being moderate is indeed the path to wisdom and a full life.

If you are more of a visual person, here is a depiction of Siddhartha's discovery of The Middle Way from the movie The Little Buddha. Yes, that's Keanu Reeves you see; he plays Siddhartha.

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