Finding That Precious Middle Way

Shan Tao's White Path and Two Rivers

This is kind of an impromptu post. I spent the night watching videos on Youtube. Of course, you can’t just watch one video on Youtube, you start seeing related videos, links etc. So, by the end of the night, I watched, among other things, a Girls’ Generation concert in Japan from earlier this year, and I saw the raw video footage of Qaddafi’s capture and death. When you think about it, it’s really amazing that both things can exist in the same world.

But in a way, it’s not. Shakyamuni Buddha taught that this is the world we live in: there are things that make us very happy, give us joy, or are entertaining, while there are also things that are very scary, vulgar or disturbing.

We’d like to live in a world where we only have one and not the other. But we can’t. The wonderful things in life come with the cost of having to endure the terrible things in life. On the other hand, the terrible things in this world are only one part of life and have to end some time.

The Buddha was neither positive, nor pessimistic. He saw the whole picture. He taught people that the only lasting peace was to go beyond these two extremes, and this later become known as the Middle Way.

The painting above illustrates a treatise by Shan-dao, a 7th century Buddhist monk in China who was a famous advocate of the Pure Land path in Buddhism. He uses the analogy of two rivers: a river of fire and a river of water. Between the two rivers is a narrow, white path. A voice on this shore encourages him to cross or he will die, while on the other shore is another voice encouraging him to come.

The river of fire was anger, while the river of water is greed, according to Shan-dao. The encouraging voice on this shore is Shakyamuni Buddha, while the voice at the other shore is Amitabha Buddha calling from the Pure Land. I admit I see the river of water also as joy, pleasure and all the things we like. We can immerse ourselves so much in the pleasures of life, we may eventually drown. Likewise, the river of fire is all the things we hate about this world, and it too can consume us with anger, revulsion and pessimism.

Either way, the best course is to follow the white path and go beyond the two.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. I don’t like repeating myself of course, but it happens sometimes. I wrote something similar a year ago, but tonight it seems to take on additional meaning.

P.P.S. It’s late and I am really sleepy now. :p

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Finding That Precious Middle Way

  1. Very well written (especially concerning Qaddafi’s death: anger by the Libyan people -or anyone towards injustice – is one thing while the hatred – killing him – is, IMHO, can never justified).

  2. You talking about rivers, reminds me of “sanzu no kawa”. My dad passed away 2 years ago. I miss him terribly. I have a small Butsudan for him in my humble abode. I have forgotten what happens to the people who die. They have to cross sanzu no kawa, that’s all I know. Do you know what happens?

  3. Hi Everyone,

    I was surprised to such response to this post, especially consider it was kind of off the cuff and written in about 20 minutes. I guess that’s something to consider when writing future posts. :)

    @Ono no Komachi: I am sorry to hear about your loss. I actually don’t know much about the Sanzu no Kawa, so I did a little research today and it seems to be similar to the River Styx in Western culture: the dead must cross the river to move on, and some cross more easily than others.

    It seems like a uniquely Japanese tradition, and Jizo Bodhisattva is frequently associated with it, because he is said to help people cross more easily, especially children who died young.

    I did write a post about funerals a while back, and it touches on some concepts:

    1) In Mahayana Buddhist tradition (Tibet to Japan), the person’s presence may linger up to 49 days before moving to their next life.

    2) Memorials are frequently observed up to the 49th day, to help the deceased onto their next life.

    3) As with Buddhism in general, one’s conduct in this life greatly affects what happens in the next life. It’s like planting seeds in a field that take a while to grow. People often scatter a mix of good seeds and bad, and what they plant grows up to become sweet fruit or bitter fruit. So Buddhism encourages people to scatter more of the “good” seeds and less of the “bad” seeds. It will make one’s life more enjoyable in the long-run, but also prevent more of the bitter fruit from growing. :)

    Hope that helps

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