The ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism

nagarjuna buddhism tibetan
Nagarjuna as depicted in Tibetan Buddhism

In Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, our True Nature (also known as Buddha nature, Reality, Mind, Ground, Knowledge, Awareness, etc.) is said to be beyond all concepts and all definitions. Typically this is expanded upon as follows:

Mind/True Nature is beyond all concepts or philosophical notions:
1. It cannot be said to ‘exist’
2. It cannot be said to ‘not exist’
3. It cannot be said to ‘both exist and not exist’
4. It cannot be said to ‘neither exist or not exist’

As far as I’m aware, the first Buddhist commentator to put it in these terms was Nagarjuna, who wrote a much more comprehensive analysis along these lines in around 200 years BCE in his text Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mula-madhamaka-karika). Since Nagarjuna, countless other Buddhist schools including most of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, have also adopted this phrasing in order to help steer themselves away from the danger or wrong/false conceptual views.

If we adopt this understanding, we are safeguarded against wrong views and the suffering that results from that. Many philosophical or spiritual systems fall into one of more of these traps. For example, by positing some kind of True Nature that definitely exists (ie. point 1), we can fall into the trap of eternalism in which we (the ego) cling to a concept of (belief in) an eternal permanent essence or self. Or we can go to the opposite extreme and say there is no essence of Mind or True Nature (point 2), which is nihilism, saying that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

…we can fall into the trap of Eternalism in which we cling to a concept of an eternal permanent essence or self…Or we can go to the opposite extreme of Nihilism and say there is no True Nature…that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

However, the analysis does not stop there. It goes on to warn about those who cling to the concept that ‘our True Nature/Mind is beyond both existence and non-existence’ (point 3). This is really a belief in a type of transcendence, which is really just believing in another type of existent permanent self, and so we have unwittingly fallen back into eternalism again.

Lastly Nagarjuna says you also cannot cling to the view that the true nature is ‘none of the above’. Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Nagarjuna called this the ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism, or Madhamaka, and a new Madhamaka school of Buddhism was founded upon this work. Note this is different from the middle way of the original Buddha whose middle way between extreme asceticism/self-mortification and addiction to indulging in sense pleasures.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

The purpose of this exposition is to allow us to see how we cling to concepts and then remove these false views/beliefs. Like all Buddhist teachings, when the job of the teaching is done, in this case when the false beliefs have been seen for what they are, we should also let go of the teaching and not rest on this either: ‘The essence of mind is beyond all concepts and definitions’.

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9 thoughts on “The ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism

  1. Hi Tom,

    I was wondering what your views are on the relationship between enlightenment and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. My understanding – which I suppose is the commonsense view – is that while awakening does not eliminate emotions and thoughts per se, it takes away their “stickiness”.

    So while an awakened “person” does experience momentary fear – triggered by some outward circumstance – he won’t feel the nagging psychological fear that we call “anxiety”. Likewise, there could be sadness due to some event, but it won’t take the form of the prolonged dark hopeless mood generally described as “depression”.

    I always thought that the underlying default psychological state of an awakened “individual” is one of effortless tranquility. However, lately I have come across teachings that seem to imply that awakening does not quite eliminate such conditions and one could very well be awakened and clinically depressed! To me that sounds a bit incredulous, given the association of spirituality and inner well-being which is not only made in the traditional teachings, but also in the writings of modern masters like Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj. Moreover, but also makes enlightenment seem somewhat pointless – if it does not remove inner suffering, then how is it even relevant to our lives.

    Your thoughts ?

    Regards

    Amit

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    1. Hi Amit, thanks for your question which is very relevant to this topic. As you say, if this teaching does not remove inner suffering, then how is it relevant? There can be an initial insight into Freedom being already here and present, and with that much suffering can fall away. The core belief being exposed and seen through in this insight-realisation is the belief in a separate doer-entity, although there may be a few other pivotal insights for some seekers. However, quite often, various deeply ingrained habitual psychological tendencies (vasanas in Sanskrit) can still continue under the force of habit. This means that if you had a tendency towards depression, to use your example, this tendency may still continue post-insight. Similarly if you had a tendency towards anger or suppressing your emotions, or even for something like eating chocolate, these tendencies may all continue post-insight/realisation.

      This is where a second aspect of the teaching comes, in, namely that of purification. If a teaching does not address the addictive vasanas (tendencies) that may continue after realisation, then it is, in my view, an incomplete teaching. The essence of purification is habit modification, and it can take various forms depending on the psychological make-up of the seeker.

      I go into a bit more details in my article ‘Roadmap to Enlightenment’ and into even more details in the teachings I share in my online and in-person meetings. The most common form is some kind of surrender or letting go practice, but there are other methods too.

      I have also found that of the people who have woken-up through what I am sharing, quite a few of them have seen a counsellor or psychologist alongside interacting with me, and that has helped them clear up a few ‘sticky issues’ and allowed this Freedom that already is to become directly apparent.

      In summary, there are 2 aspects of the teaching: insight and purification. Purification can help things to be seen clearly (ie. insight to take place), and insight can in turn facilitate purification and removal of addictive tendencies that may continue to generate suffering after insight has taken place.

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  2. Yes, though I am wary of this ‘beyond.’

    ‘The essence of mind is beyond all concepts and definitions’.

    The implication is that there is something ‘the essence of mind’ that is beyond… etc. Or that there are some things that are ‘merely’ concepts and definitions, and these must be left behind in favour of other things that are ‘real’ and constitutive of ‘reality’ in a superior, or more real, way. This can give people an aversion to ‘concepts and definitions’ and is judgmental with regard to a hierarchy of realities. It may be a translation problem, because the essence of mind cannot be ‘beyond’ these things any more then any others: this would be a duality. Everything is constitutive of here. So long as ‘the essence of mind’ is gone looking for ‘beyond’ anything, then, well, separation. There is no ‘beyond’, so where would ‘the essence of mind’ then be?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point idqinternational, and one I agree with. Thanks for taking the time to clarify it and point out a potential pitfall about how I expressed it in the post above.

      Like

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