I’d now like to talk about the mythological Buddhist layman, Vimalakirti, who is considered an embodiment of a life based on the second middle way, which became important with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism a half century or so after Buddha’s death.
The first middle way, which is carefully articulated in the Pali Canon lays out the ideal life of a Buddhist meditation practitioner as a mid-point between indulgence and austerity:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is an addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is an addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
Extreme spiritual austerities were highly valued in Buddha’s time and during his six-year spiritual quest, he practiced many forms of self-mortification which including activities like starving himself. However, these activities did not help him get any closer to liberation.
After he did attain enlightenment he taught about a middle way, but this middle way seems severely austere by 21st century American standards, although it was not during the time in which he lived.
This early middle way was passed on from generation to generation and adhered to by serious meditators, predominately monks, nuns, and priests. It included celibacy, wearing discarded rags sewed together as clothing, staying away from money, and not eating after noon, all to aid practitioners in letting go of attachment to the world.
It is true that lay people were not expected to do these things but starting in India and continuing into China and Japan, there was the sense that when householders reached a certain age, they too could take up this way of life.
We can assume the celibacy mandate was violated frequently over the centuries, as it was in Christianity. Nevertheless, it endured until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s in Japan when both clerical meat eating and marriage were de-criminalized. Even my own teacher could never rise to a high rank within the Soto Zen lineage, because he had married.
However, this middle way is radically different than the middle way which developed 500 years later in early Mahayana Buddhism. It is personified by Vimalakirti, who had extensive wealth, as well as a wife and children.
This middle way, which was articulated clearly by the Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna, is called the empty middle way, or the non-dual middle way. Its basic teaching is that the division that we make between good and bad, up and down, or any polarities, is incorrect and somewhat arbitrary, since all life is a flow of interbeing. Even the so-called “middle” is empty of a separate fixed identity, and consequently it includes all life within it.
While this teaching has been emphasized for the last 2000 years in Mahayana circles, the first middle way has carried such force that there are only a handful of examples after Vimalakirti of monks orlay people who are considered exemplary in their manifestation of this.
Nevertheless, there are many Zen stories which point to the importance of living from the empty middle. There is, for example, the encounter between Yumen and one of his monks:
“A student of the way asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?”
Yunmen replied, “Dried shit stick.”
And there is the equally well-known story of one monk berating another one for violating the rule about not touching women by carrying a nun on his shoulders across a flooding stream. His fellow monk replied “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when we left the stream.”
So, the teaching is there even though exemplars of it are few and far between. Vimalakirti is the first and only scriptural example of someone living and teaching from this empty middle. Since I have encouraged people I have ordained over the last twenty years to make their families and their careers part and parcel of their Zen practice, I find Vimalakirti’s life and teaching of special significance.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher