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’.