Every religion offers something of distinction that others do not. Similarly, every major philosophical school or movement has survived through time because of at least one unique feature. Christianity offers salvation through the blood of God’s son, the ultimate sacrifice to erase sin and ensure the path to heaven to anyone who believes. Judaism offers a covenant between God and his chosen people. Islam offers the culminated perfection of a faith in a single God that has existed since humans became aware of their own peril. The Abrahamic religions offer helpful, albeit simplistic parallels, in that they lay claim to a particularity that others cannot.
The Buddha’s “Middle Way” is such a singular hallmark. The Buddha offered an answer contrary to the extremes of asceticism and sensual indulgence. He was not the only one to offer alternatives. Other figures provided salvific assertations contrary to the prevailing thought of the time. The Middle Way can be seen as radical skepticism. Like the Eightfold Path, the Middle Way is a concept that is brought to life as a habit, a practice, a way of life, and is not merely an intellectual conclusion to be reached and then tucked away.
Yet, in spite of being borne from an attitude of extreme skepticism, the concept Middle Way has been co-opted by a variety of Buddhist traditions and remains a vital aspect of the practice. The multiple meanings of the Middle Way are evidence of a tendency in Buddhist thought of setting up two opposing, usually contradictory assertions then taking no position of certainty; taking the Middle Way is an active repudiation of certitude in its many forms.
One school to place supreme importance on a notion of the Middle Way is the Madhyamaka. The Madhyamakas do not make the ascetic/indulgent dichotomy a focus of their philosophy. Instead, the Middle Way of the Madhyamakas is the middle way between all opposites. Rejecting opposites is the central exercise of Madhyamika thought. Because Dependent Origination is such a central concept in Madhyamika thought, the conditioned and dependent nature of things is taken as a given. Conditioned things have no inherent essence (self-nature, or Svabhava) that exists separately from anything else. Nagarjuna’s eight negations express the school’s particular conception of the Middle Way. By employing his eight negations, he argues against creation, destruction, externity, one-ness, plurality, arriving, and departing.
The Yogachara school is less concerned with the practice of refuting assertions. Its approach to the Middle Way is framed by its epistemology, which posits reality as the result of mental processes. The Middle Way in Yogachara is between the existence and non-existence of things. Similarly informed by Interdependent Origination, this postulation understands all phenomena to be conditionally arisen. By not accepting the existence of things and not declaiming their non-existence, Yogachara philosophy forges a middle path. The Middle Way, or uniting force, in Yogachara is the mental process, which is, true to the influence of Interdependent Origination, characterized by conditioned arising.
Following the insights of Nagarjuna and revolutionary prose of the Lotus Sutra, the Tendai school emphasizes the nexus of the conventional and the transcendent. Shunyata, as the defining trait of existence, permeates all. But we perceive conventional things to exist. These Two Truths do not conflict. Just as Dukkha provides the conditions for Nirvana, conventionality can illuminate the immanent emptiness of all things.