Against a Life of Moderation

Radical ethics and Graeme Wood's misunderstanding of the Buddhist Middle Way

Last Sunday, Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire, his death an act of protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza. This self-immolation provoked much conversation, as was its intent, and one entry into that discourse comes from Graeme Wood at The Atlantic. His claim is that self-immolation is bad as a form of protest, because it is ineffective and socially contagious, and also, if the act is to be carried out, it should only be in service of a particularly acute and worthy cause, and Aaron Bushnell’s was not.

Many have attacked the main thrust of Wood’s argument, but I’m not not interested in doing so here. Rather, what I do want to explore is one point he makes in his essay that is both factually wrong and wrong in a way that speaks to the ethical perspective I write about and apply to contemporary social and political issues.

Wood frames his case by citing the most famous example of self-immolation: “In 1963, the monk Thich Quang Duc soaked himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire to protest the government of the Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem.” You’ve probably seen the photograph. Wood proceeds to discuss Bushnell within a Buddhist context, noting that he “described himself as an anarchist, and generally eschewed what Buddhists might call ‘the middle way,’ a life of mindful moderation, in favor of extreme spiritual and political practice.”

The problem with this line is that Wood is simply wrong about what Buddhists mean by the Middle Way. This matters, even if you aren’t a Buddhist, not just because we should try to be accurate in our understanding of ideas, but also because the Middle Way is an important philosophical insight regarding the nature of an ethical life. Here especially, Wood’s misrepresentation of the Middle Way has an ideological and political root, and one genuine social and political progress depends upon avoiding.

By his characterization, it is something like the common mischaracterization of Aristotle’s “golden mean”: That the virtuous act is found in the middle between extremes. That’s not what Aristotle meant, of course, and instead advised us to use our wisdom to identify not the middle between two non-virtuous poles, but the correct position between them, and with “correct” varying based on the particulars of the situation. Sometimes anger is the wrong response, but sometimes not getting angry is a sign of lack of virtue or understanding.

Likewise, Buddhism’s Middle Way is not a call for us to always stake out a moderate position, and so to avoid radicalism in our spiritual practice. Instead, the term originates in the story of the Buddha’s quest for awakening. At the time, there were quite a lot of wandering mendicants and ascetics seeking enlightenment, and with diverse methods. A popular one was self-mortification. You effectively starved yourself as a way to turn away from desire and craving, to abandon this worldly body for spiritual pursuits. The Buddha tried that and it made him miserable without bringing him any closer to finding an end to suffering, the goal he had set himself at the start of his quest. 

Next to the self-mortifiers, plenty of people then, as now, saw the path out of suffering as one of extreme self-indulgence and hedonism. The Buddha rejected that, as well. Instead, he mapped out a Middle Way that did not depend upon starving oneself, but also recognized the causes of suffering in the very sort of craving the hedonists embraced. As it’s put in an early Buddhist text, “[T]hese two extremes should not be cultivated… What two? Indulgence in sensual pleasures, which is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And indulgence in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless. Avoiding these two extremes, the [Buddha] woke up by understanding the middle way of practice...” Rather than focusing the quest out of suffering on destroying the body, or on giving in to our craving for pleasure, the Buddha offered a new, but still radical focus: the intentional, careful, and diligent cultivation of a perspective on, and understanding of, ourselves and the world such that we could set aside the craving, aversion, and ignorance that are in fact the source of our suffering.

The term was also applied to the Buddha’s approach of not taking a position on specific metaphysical questions, such as whether the cosmos is eternal or infinite, or whether the soul and body are the same thing. Because his goal was the end of suffering, and because achieving that goal is demanding and time-consuming, he again counseled focusing instead on what, from that radical perspective, was relevant to accomplishing that.

Later, “Middle Way” took on a third meaning, in the branch of Buddhist philosophy known as the Mahayana. Here it meant an understanding of “emptiness,” or the notion that all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature. By focusing on this (again, quite radical and extreme) idea, and by coming to understand it, awakening could be achieved.

None of these three approaches to the Middle Way are “a life of mindful moderation,” as Wood puts it. None are rejections the extreme, because all of them, by the standards of the day, were extreme. The Eightfold Path, the practice at the heart of Buddhism is such a stark departure, and a demanding one, from the way most people live that there’s little way to avoid describing it as the sort of “extreme spiritual ... practice” Wood tells us Buddhism rejects. Buddhism is far from moderate.

Instead, the Middle Way is a radical and extreme focus on what matters, in both one’s internal perspective and outward spiritual and ethical persuits.

Put another way, if Wood is right in his characterization of the Middle Way, then the Buddha was a bad Buddhist, and so were most of the major figures in the history of Buddhism. The Buddha did not set himself on fire, but he did take on the radical lifestyle of a wandering mendicant, owning nothing but a robe and an alms bowl, and begging for his food. And while he didn’t engage directly in explicit political discussion or participation, he did, quite radically, refuse to accept the natural superiority of the brahmin class, and thus the basis of the Indian caste system. I feel safe in assuming his Indian contemporaries found that quite politically extreme.

Whether Aaron Bushnell was right to take his own life, whether it was wise from the perspective of his cause to do so in such a public and shocking manner, and whether that cause was just, are questions worth answering. What we can say with certainty, however, is that Buddhism, as a comprehensive ethic for how to live well, do good, and find happiness, isn’t a moderate position or lifestyle. And the fact that it isn’t tells us something important about the need to be radical—extreme, even—in the standards we set for ourselves, and the demands we make for a better, more peaceful and compassionate world.

I’ve been writing an ongoing series setting out the core ideas of Buddhist philosophy and ethics, if you’d like to learn more, and get a sense of Buddhism’s radicalism, start here, then read this, and finally this.

And make sure you’re subscribed to my list to get future installments.

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