I am battling with understanding the concept of the middle path. Having read the many articles available, the concept escapes me especially with a view of self and no-self.

My understanding is that in Buddhism neither is where you want to be as it is an extreme. There must be balance.

If i work with an example, it leaves me nowhere. I do not see the middle path. If i have a weapon pointed to my head, i only see 2 outcomes. Death or survival. If i take the view of self, i would fear the outcome. If i take the view of no-self, i realize all is impermanent and have no fear.

Where is the middle path in this?

Secondly, what roles do intent and motivation play? For example, given the same example, if i am motivated to survive, is that not a play on self? If i have no intention of survival, is that not a play on no-self?

Again, where is the middle path in this?

  • I wonder if you've been reading about and then asking about something called Madhyamaka ... if so, that school (and that use of the word 'middle') is one I didn't know about and didn't touch on in my answer.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 22:03
  • it depends on what sort of buddhism or med. you want to practice. good question !
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 23:17
  • @ChrisW - I may have. I am reading everything that makes sense to me. Some are covered in mysticism, others language should shrouded in poetry it escapes me from practical application.
    – Motivated
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 6:44
  • It's hard to get a word in with all the answers, but according to 'Buddhism: A History' by Reat, the middle way suggests a kind of conceptual mid-point on most issues. [x] is true, [x] is also not true, [x] is not not true, etc. I think the basic idea is to avoid absolutist thinking and recognize every philosophical position is multi-faceted, with many correct 'sides'. In practice this leads us to avoid absolutist thinking, and extreme behavior.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 1:37

7 Answers 7


The middle path is not that which is in between two paths, rather it is usually a different path that does not take extreme viewpoints.

One definition of the middle path comes in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta where the Buddha defines the middle path in terms of practice. Here, one takes neither the path of enjoying sensual pleasures in a nihilistic and hedonistic way, nor self-mortification through extreme asceticism. Instead, comes the Noble Eightfold Path, which really isn't about allowing or prohibiting sensual pleasures but covers much more.

Another definition of the middle path comes in the Acela Sutta where the Buddha defines the middle path in terms of philosophy. Here, one neither takes viewpoints of eternalism (there is an eternal self) nor annihilationism (there is no self at all and no existence), but rather takes a very different viewpoint, which is of dependent origination.

This idea is also similar to what is described as false dilemma in western philosophy, where you think that the solution must either be black or white, and nothing else. In reality, there could be more solutions than simply two extreme viewpoints. Wikipedia has the example of "either you are for, or against us". In reality, you could take other stands.

For e.g. in your example, you think you have two choices - either not defend yourself and take the bullet, or defend yourself and maybe even kill the attacker. But there could be a different solution, e.g. you could try to negotiate with the attacker and try to convince him that he could do better than to commit murder. In this way, you could actually help your attacker by providing him with the means to reform and improve himself.

And by the way, the Buddha doesn't teach that there is no self. A self definitely exists. It is just that the self is not permanent or absolute, and arises due to the inter-working of the senses, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Anatta means "not self" (not "no self") as in "all phenomena is not self". This again lies in the middle path (of dependent origination), rather than taking the extreme views (there is an eternal self vs. there is absolutely no self and no existence). I discuss this also in another answer.

The mistaken view is that because there is no self, it is ok to allow the attacker to kill you without any other alternatives. This is based on the extreme view of annihilationism, which is mentioned above.

  • Thanks ruben2020. Do you mind if i drop you an email as i am utterly confused by the terminology and its meanings especially when reading multiple sources that appear to interpret them in different ways. My email is motivatedgorilla AT gmail DOT com
    – Motivated
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 17:29
  • Yes, sure. I'm not sure whether you can see my email address from the profile page.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 17:52
  • @ruben2020 The email address on your profile page can't be seen by others. If you want to publish your contact details you can do that in the large, multi-line "About me" textarea on your profile. Alternatively could send an email to Motivate's email address (published in the previous comment above).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 18:34
  • @ruben2020 - As mentioned by ChrisW, i can't see your email address. If you drop me an email, i'll reply. Thanks ruben2020 and ChrisW.
    – Motivated
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 6:01
  • I tend to follow the hindu concept of self much more emphatically. The self is the ether of awareness in which all things subject to cause and effect are constructed. It's singular identity within us is a sham save for the karmic leftovers at this husk's death. But for those resultants we'd blend back into the ether as one. as long as we have those however we are subject to rebirth.
    – Kauvasara
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 1:47

I am battling with understanding the concept of the middle path.

I agree with ruben2020's answer, including with the statement that the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta has the original/classic way in which the phrase "middle way" is used. The same dilemma (i.e. the same two, specific extremes) is described in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search, in which the two extremes are described as,

  • living luxuriously, straying from his exertion, backsliding into abundance
  • performance of austerities

Neither of those extremes were conducive to the Buddha's enlightenment.

Having read the many articles available, the concept escapes me especially with a view of self and no-self. My understanding is that in Buddhism neither is where you want to be as it is an extreme. There must be balance.

What would you think of advice such as, "Try not to be too selfish?"

That might be pretty radical advice but at least in theory I think not too difficult to understand.

There are supposed to be three aspects to Buddhism, i.e.

  • Virtue/behaviour aka sīla
  • Mind/concentration
  • Wisdom/views

An example of virtuous behaviour is dāna (generosity).

Sila is sometimes seen as a basis or foundation, e.g. without practicing enough virtue you can't concentrate or find peace in meditation, and can't find wisdom or have 'right view' i.e. see things properly.

Something else that might bring 'balance'; there are rules (aka 'precepts') of virtue for example,

I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing

Or for example here is what the Dhammapada says,

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

I suspect that you should be as non-violent towards yourself as you are towards other people.

Might that result in 'balance'?

If i work with an example, it leaves me nowhere. I do not see the middle path. If i have a weapon pointed to my head, i only see 2 outcomes. Death or survival. If i take the view of self, i would fear the outcome. If i take the view of no-self, i realize all is impermanent and have no fear.

I see several possible ways to reply.

  1. You're thinking "If" but you presumably don't in fact have a weapon pointed to your head. That idea of a weapon is no more than a fantasy.
  2. The Buddha said that that there various questions which he wasn't going to answer ... and that not-answering is because his intention is to teach liberation from dukkha; however questions about the self lead towards a thicket of views and not away from dukkha
  3. That the skhandas are fairly impermanent: each thought is here one second, and gone the next.
  4. Saying that the self does or doesn't exist might be wrong, in the same way as saying that a tree does or doesn't exist might be wrong. More correct might be to say that it exists, but it's impermanent, and it's conditioned (not independent), also that it's a mental construct (who says exactly where the boundaries of 'tree' or 'self' are, where do they begin and end). Another way of putting it is that things exist but their existence is empty (suññatā)
  5. There are other emotions/emotions which you can (or should) cultivate, other than fear and no-fear: including equanimity, loving-kindness, etc.

Secondly, what roles do intent and motivation play?

Maybe a large role: because intention is related to karma or karma is driven by intention.

However karma is a complicated and/or confused subject.

  • You raise valid points. I don't disagree nor agree as i am learning. Do you mind if i dropped you an email? My email is motivatedgorilla AT gmail DOT com
    – Motivated
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 17:43
  • If this answer is unclear somehow, wouldn't it be better to say so in a comment so that I can try to improve this answer? And/or if you have further questions you could ask a separate, new question. And/or you can review other, pre-existing topics on this site if you haven't already, including ones which are tagged self, middle-way, anatman, etc.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 17:54
  • The reason i would like to drop an email is not because not answer needs improving but rather a way for me to converse with you with possibly better direction of a path to learning. I haven't found a teacher that simplifies the process of explaining and i have found this with online articles as well. They assume some level of knowledge which i for one do not posses yet.
    – Motivated
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 6:03
  • 2
    I'm sorry I'm reluctant to have a private email conversation: that's partly because I'm unqualified, and I hope that you'll get better answers to your questions if you post them on the site, where people other than me can see and reply to them.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 10:12

Assuming your main question is what is the middle path?

There paths can be viewed as:

  • Seeking pleasures to satisfy the sense bases
  • Seeking pain as means to eradicate past fabrication
  • Neither seek pleasure or pain but live peacefully with oneself and others (Middle path)

In the middle path comprises morality, mastery over the mind and wisdom.

  • 1st you give up hurting others, hence establish in morality. (In many cases this is in seeking excessive worldly pleasures.)
  • 2nd you develop mastery over the mind where you mind is devoid of clinging and craving, mindful on arising and passing of phenomena and focused on a wholesome object (like arising and passing of phenomena)
  • 3rd you develop wisdom by seeing: 3 characteristics, some understanding or karmic formations (any metal volition gives a subtle sensation of what the sensation would be when the results ripens), 4 Noble Truths, Dependent Origination

When you are under attack this environment is conditioned by perhaps past Karma. At this point you are agitated as you are under attack. Loosing the balance of you mind will hamper your cause of action to get out of the situation. The best is to use a clever tactic or flee. If not perhaps attack but without hatred. (I guess in martial arts this is what is advocated.). Try keeping your calm by watching your breath and sensations. You can use the sensation you experience in such a situation to eradicate your past stock of Karma. When the situation was created your past karma is bearing fruit. If you do not create new karma by reacting to the sensation you experience in the situation you are not creating new karma which might bring about similar situations in the future. Also try some Metta towards them. This way you are handling the situation within the path.

See @ChisW's and @ruben2020's answer to compliment.


The problem yo are referring to , is the problem of physical survival of an Individual or a Group, in the presence of a threat . Vajrayana Buddhism studies this problem and justifies the use of violence for Self-preservation or preservation of the Religious Organization .
Buddhist Philosophy in India has evolved over the years and taken many forms . The three main variants are (1) Hinayana (2) Mahayana (3) Vajrayana. Finally , around 10th to 12th century AD , Buddhism merged with Hinduism in India.Hinayana form is the oldest and has spread to other parts of the world .Hinduism had to accept all the three variants of Buddhism...You can get more details of this in the works of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
The Vajryana form probably developed after 7th cenury A.D. ,when Islam spread to India. North India was at that time predominantly Buddhist . Buddhism had Govt. support and so they were not concerned nor discussing about the survival problem.. Buddhists , in those areas which fell to Muslim invaders ,were forcibly converted to Islam or else were massacred .This forced the Buddhists to change their philosophy with regard to self-preservation. This change also helped them to get the support of Hindu Kingdoms of South India --to fight against Islam. Vajrayana philosophy is a middle path between Hinayana Buddhism and Islam.


Many traditional Buddhist interpretations of the Middle Way tend to focus on the specific extremes avoided by the Buddha's teachings in specific circumstances, rather than trying to identify the general principle behind those specific examples. The Middle Way between eternalism and nihilism is situated in the debates about karma and rebirth in the Buddha's context.

The Middle Way between asceticism and indulgence is a specific ethical issue. The Middle Way between existence and non-existence responds to a specific metaphysical dualism. However, what all of these have in common is a dialectical process of judgement as outlined in MN 26 and 36, in the story of Siddhartha's 'going forth' from the Palace and then the further dissatisfaction with the teachings of Alara Kalama, Udaka Ramaputta, and ascetic practice. It is the absolutisation of the claims in each case that form the extremes, whether positive or negative: the Palace thought it had all the final answers, but didn't, as did both the religious teachers and the ascetics.

Thus the most universal (and thus practical) formulation of the Middle Way is the avoidance of all absolutisations, whether positive or negative, not just the ones specifically mentioned in the Pali Canon that happened to be a problem for the Buddha in his context.

For more information see this Middle Way Society page

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2424
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 22:16

To answer it in a middle way notion with words of Buddhas disciples, actually walking and teaching the middle way, and not just defending their usuall habits as bing a compromiss between knowing the right and possessing capability of letting go in certain hypocritical ways as following.

So it comes from people knowing and having right mastered situations of having a gun on the head in ways of Dhamma as well and not just ideas and opinions about it:

In his very first sermon, the Buddha introduced his path of practice as a middle way that avoids two extremes: a commitment to sensual pleasures related to sensual desires, and a commitment to self-affliction. On the surface, this statement makes the path sound like a middling way, at a bland halfway point on the continuum between pleasure and pain. But if you read further in the Canon on the middle way, you realize that its middleness is much more complex than that.

To begin with, there are times when the Buddha recommends pursuing pleasant practice; and other times where he recommends painful practice. There are also times where he talks of the middleness of his middle way in different terms entirely. When discussing one of the more advanced stages of the first factor of the path, right view, he describes it as a perspective that avoids questions requiring an either/or response, where both the either and the or entangle you in issues that distract you from the task of putting an end to suffering and stress. This aspect of the path is middle in the sense that it cuts right through the middle of such questions and throws both alternatives off to the side... read further for righ understanding: The Middles of the Middle Way

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]


When I walk, I walk, When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep.

Whether one thinks of a self or thinks of a no-self, there is still a self that thinks. There is still a self that doesn't think.

In your example, there is extremes. If one is dying, yet one think of survival, that is extreme. If one is dying, one should be thinking of dying. If one is surviving, one should be thinking of surviving. Thus the middle path.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .