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This thought occurred to me after reading the following question and top answer: How to refute the idea that Buddhism might be actually "too extreme"?

The questioner thinks the logical conclusion of Buddhism is to abandon all worldly goods, including the family, resulting in the elimination of the human race.

Let's say if this is the appropriate thing to do, and everybody in the world does that, then the world, in 100 years or 200 years, will not have human beings any more (because if no marriage and no children, then there will be no new life on earth, while the existing people pass away). I can't say that it will be "good" if on earth, there is no more human beings, but lions, wolves, foxes, rabbits, and other animals remain on earth.

The answerer stated this is taking Buddhism to the extreme, and rather Buddhism is to avoid extremes and to take the middle path.

Did Buddha teach "self-sacrifice"? No, he taught middle-way: by looking after ourselves we look after others, by looking after others we look after ourselves.

However, this is exactly what Aristotle said in his definition of virtue. He defines virtue as the mean between extremes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mean_(philosophy)#Aristotle

His constant phrase is, "… is the Middle state between …". His psychology of the soul and its virtues is based on the golden mean between the extremes

Is there any essential difference between Aristotle's definition of virtue and what Buddhism teaches? It seems there is only a difference in details, how specifically Buddhism teaches to seek the middle way, but the overarching principle is the same. Or are there extremes in Buddhism's teaching?

  • That Wikipedia page is a peculiar mish mash of not clearly connected ideas. For example, as far as I'm aware, Aristotle never used the word "golden" in the context of the mean. It certainly doesn't show up in one of the more popular translations of Nichomachean Ethics. Given that the page has that simple thing wrong, along with the general ramming together of things unconnected, I'd hesitate to trust it on very much. – tkp Feb 4 '15 at 16:58
  • I've read the Nichomachean Ethics. The page's description is accurate as far as my question is concerned. – yters Feb 16 '15 at 18:21
  • just out of interest, where in NE is the adjective "golden" used in the context of the mean? – tkp Feb 16 '15 at 18:43
  • It's not used it NE as far as I know. – yters Mar 6 '15 at 17:38
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However, this is exactly what Aristotle said in his definition of virtue.

Yes the ancient Greeks did have "nothing in excess" as part of their cultural heritage.

Buddhists might agree with some of the other 'wise' sayings on the page linked above, especially for example, "You should not desire the impossible".

But the ethics are not the same. Greek ethics are typically about being a good citizen, for example:

  • A "middle way" between cowardice and recklessness, so, being prudent and brave as a soldier
  • Being a just (justice) member of the jury
  • Being a political hero; etc.

The Greeks are into aesthetics too: they talk about "the beautiful".

Is there any essential difference between Aristotle's definition of virtue and what Buddhism teaches?

You would do yourself a disservice to assume that, having read Aristotle, you have a handle on Buddhist Dhamma too.

Some essential differences include that they don't have the same goal, nor the same method/mechanism, not at all the same logic, nor the same experimental proof, nor the same practitioners.

Or are there extremes in Buddhism's teaching?

Yes, I think there are many; so many that I cannot hope to pick "the best" example, so let me instead pick one example more-or-less at random.

The Itivuttaka starts with, "This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "Abandon one quality, monks, and I guarantee you non-return. Which one quality? Abandon greed as the one quality, and I guarantee you non-return.""

In several ways, this is an "extreme":

  • It's said by "the Blessed One"
  • It's "abandon" one quality, not "see if you can't try to live without it quite a lot of the time"
  • It's "I guarantee you", not "I'm pretty sure"
  • It's "greed", not "thinking about it"
  • It's "non-return", not "not too much of a return"

I'm not sure of the definition of the "middle way" you quoted (not sure whether it's a good definition: maybe you're quoting out of context).

Some more canonical definitions of the Buddhist "middle way" are as follows:

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion:

"There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

"And what is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

Cutting Off the Causes of Suffering:

The Buddha calls this path the middle way (majjhima patipada). It is the middle way because it steers clear of two extremes, two misguided attempts to gain release from suffering. One is the extreme of indulgence in sense pleasures, the attempt to extinguish dissatisfaction by gratifying desire. This approach gives pleasure, but the enjoyment won is gross, transitory, and devoid of deep contentment. The Buddha recognized that sensual desire can exercise a tight grip over the minds of human beings, and he was keenly aware of how ardently attached people become to the pleasures of the senses. But he also knew that this pleasure is far inferior to the happiness that arises from renunciation, and therefore he repeatedly taught that the way to the Ultimate eventually requires the relinquishment of sensual desire. Thus the Buddha describes the indulgence in sense pleasures as "low, common, worldly, ignoble, not leading to the goal."

The other extreme is the practice of self-mortification, the attempt to gain liberation by afflicting the body. This approach may stem from a genuine aspiration for deliverance, but it works within the compass of a wrong assumption that renders the energy expended barren of results. The error is taking the body to be the cause of bondage, when the real source of trouble lies in the mind — the mind obsessed by greed, aversion, and delusion. To rid the mind of these defilements the affliction of the body is not only useless but self-defeating, for it is the impairment of a necessary instrument. Thus the Buddha describes this second extreme as "painful, ignoble, not leading to the goal."[2]

Aloof from these two extreme approaches is the Noble Eightfold Path, called the middle way, not in the sense that it effects a compromise between the extremes, but in the sense that it transcends them both by avoiding the errors that each involves. The path avoids the extreme of sense indulgence by its recognition of the futility of desire and its stress on renunciation. Desire and sensuality, far from being means to happiness, are springs of suffering to be abandoned as the requisite of deliverance. But the practice of renunciation does not entail the tormenting of the body. It consists in mental training, and for this the body must be fit, a sturdy support for the inward work. Thus the body is to be looked after well, kept in good health, while the mental faculties are trained to generate the liberating wisdom. That is the middle way, the Noble Eightfold Path, which "gives rise to vision, gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana."

Glossary

paṭipadā: Road, path, way; the means of reaching a goal or destination. The "Middle way" (majjhima-paṭipadā) taught by the Buddha; the path of practice described in the fourth noble truth (dukkhanirodhagāminī-paṭīpadā).

Wikipedia adds that "In Mahayana Buddhism, the Middle Way refers to the insight into emptiness that transcends opposite statements about existence." Wikipedia's footnote to this sentence references the Kaccayanagotta Sutta.

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Archie Bahm's Philosophy of the Buddha takes a different approach. Here's a blog article that covers this.

A key paragraph from the article (itself a quote from Bahm):

His historical [...] insight, that happiness can be found only in the middle way, appears to agree with other [...] Golden Mean philosophies in advising avoidance of extremes. [...] however, Gotama’s insight focused upon one kind of mean, one which, if achieved, would automatically resolve the difficulties relative to all other pairs of extremes: his middle way is a way between desiring too much and desiring too much stopping of such desiring.

So pain is caused by our tendency to desire, and this tendency can attach to anything, including attempts to overcome desire! So desire often wins not because it resits us, but because it corrupts our attempts from within.

This may explain Buddhism's iconoclastic tendencies. If desire is the problem, and Buddhism can become an object of desire, then to this extent, Buddhism itself must be fought. This may also explain attitudes towards the self...

The Middle Way navigates between this tendency, and since the opposite of desire (wanting things to be other than the way they are) is acceptance of all -- including our failures to accept -- The Middle Way can be equated with acceptance. The key is to grok what "Middle" implies. Thinking of backing off an extreme when you catch yourself clinging to one pole of a duality (desire/no-desire, spiritual/material, religious/profane, philosophical/worldly) is a good way to think of The Middle Way/Acceptance.

And of course, it's all about your INNER attitude and not surface acts.

This differs from the way I understood Aristotle and other "Golden Mean" philosophers.

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As much as I love Plato/Socrates, I have never acquired taste for Aristotle. It's difficult to judge Aristotle's perspective based on one sentence which is not even a quote.

I have read that Aristotle's ethics is considered "virtue ethics", which supposedly means he thought the right action to come from a set of "virtues" a person needs to develop, the moderation being one of them.

If this accurately describes Aristotle's position, then Buddhist ethic is different, perhaps being closer to what's known as Consequentialism or Teleological ethics, that is ethics based on results, not on "virtues" predefined upfront.

In other words, in Buddhism the middle way is a characteristic of the path, not its method. Buddha did not teach us to do all things half-way, but rather to pay attention to all factors and all effects of an action, not just the primary one. When one does this, the factors necessarily have to be balanced against each other, which usually results in a best compromise solution, which is what's referred to as "the middle way".

While Aristotle seems to define his golden mean as the middle between the extremes, which seems a bit simplistic, although I will give a benefit of doubt to a brilliant guy whose doctrine I did not have a chance to study.

Let's not forget that Buddhism goes far beyond ethics. While most ethical theories assume person's value system to be static, Buddhism sets one on a path of personal transformation, which involves development of what in modern discourse can be called "emotional intelligence" as well as reevaluation of one's preconceptions, all the way to the most fundamental ones like e.g. "entity". This can be seen as an extreme in Buddhist teaching, extreme commitment to go all the way until Enlightenment, not holding back any valuables that ego is made of.

  • Aristotle was a student of Plato; IMO they would both agree with, "be a good person in order to have a good life". Saying "the middle between the extremes" would be simplistic; instead I expect they'd agree with "in proper proportion". IMO he didn't like to try to predefine it, saying that 'right' is rather what well-educated gentlemen would agree it is. And something of an aesthetic judgement, equating 'the good' with 'the beautiful'. You could try to say more about what Buddhism (unlike Aristotleianism) is, but they might have little in common, except that they were both men. – ChrisW Oct 25 '14 at 3:23
  • Somehow I happen to like Robert Pirsig's opinion that Aristotle took Plato's teaching and turned it upside down. Plato would indeed start with "the good" as an ideal principle and leave the embodiment up to an individual, while Aristotle's heresy would be to reify "the right" as something objective that can be discovered through study. These are two different perspectives. And the Buddha's is third, to look at consequences, because (as was later shown by Madhyamikas) the acts in and of themselves are not inherently good or bad. – Andrei Volkov Oct 25 '14 at 16:52
  • I like Pirsig's book: including his "monkey trap" description of attachment, "value rigidity". Phaedrus' contempt of Aristotle is risible, his eventual catatonia I find sad. Phaedrus disliked Aristotle for making analytic/academic lists: I fear the same could be said against Buddhism. Instead of such analysis it's tempting to pursue a monad like "ἀρετή", as Phaedrus did; but one result of that was semi-inscrutable, i.e. "the way that can be named is not the eternal way..."; let's acknowledge that the Buddha did a good job at naming his way, in detail: his doctrine is not very "like Aristotle". – ChrisW Oct 25 '14 at 23:17
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A difference between Aristoles definition of virtue as the middle between two extreme attitudes (Ethic. Nic. II,1) and Buddhas teaching the middle way between indulgence and asceticism (First teaching at Sarnath):

Aristotle speaks about Ethics, Buddha recommends a way of personal life. The ethics of Aristotle aims at virtues necessary for living in a polity and participating in public affairs. The way of live recommended by Buddha aims at improving the personal situation of individuals by a radical change of view.

But from a more general point of view both the definition of Aristotle and the advice of Buddha recommend avoiding the extremes: Look out for the middle course in between Scylla and Charybdis. However, this advice is not far from what everyday common sense of the parent generation teaches the young generation from time immemorial.

Later on, Buddha used the principle of the middle way as a heuristics to deal with more general philosophical alternatives. But to the best of my knowledge, he did not apply it to ethics. That's specific to Aristotle.

  • IMO, to contrast ethics with personal life is a characteristically western approach. Why is the West so bent on seeking objective laws, I suppose it's a Christian bias? Ethics in its broad sense is a question of right action, "what should I do?", "what would be the right thing to do?", "what principle should I base my choices on?". In this sense Buddhism is all about ethics. – Andrei Volkov Oct 25 '14 at 16:16
  • @andrei: Yes, ethics deals with questions of right action and right attitude. Ethics presupposes at least two persons: You and me. Because the subject of ethics are principles as well as rules for living together. In my opinion, early Buddhism instead has a strong focus on acquiring knowledge, teaching how things "really" are and how I can improve my personal life. - In Europe speculating and pondering about general rules of natural phaenomena is already the subject of Ionian philosophers of nature like Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, who lived long before the period of christianity. – Jo Wehler Oct 25 '14 at 18:45
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The words are indeed an expression of middle path. Just cause Aristotle wasn't a Buddhist doesn't change that. Do not however, mistake them to be equivalent.

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