Interpreting Buddhist Teachings
Robert M. Ellis [+]
Middle Way Society
This section explores the implications of using the Middle Way as the starting point for interpreting the other teachings in Buddhism – ones that have often been interpreted without it, and given unhelpful priority over it. Conditionality teachings can reflect the ontological obsession, and thus be a placeholder for provisionality. However, they can also offer helpful ways of interpreting phenomenal relationships. In terms of the Middle Way, dukkha implies the inadequacy of closed feedback loops, anicca the need for a wider temporal perspective, and anatta the need for agnosticism about metaphysical claims. Buddhist confusion about whether there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of desire can be resolved by an integration model in which it is the association of desires with absolutisations that makes them impossible to integrate. Karmic claims can only avoid absolutisation if they are general and provisional rather than top-down deductions. Rebirth can symbolise closed feedback loops but cannot be an object of belief. The recorded historical Buddha has a degree of credibility rather than absolute authority. As an image he also has a function similar to that of the God archetype. It is most helpful to interpret the Buddha-image as an archetype of the Middle Way itself. The ambiguities between three senses of ‘dharma’ are very likely to lead Buddhists to take it absolutely as ‘truth’ and to discourage provisionality: so it may be better to avoid the term. The discontinuity between monastic and lay Buddhism reflects the absolutisation of enlightenment, maintains power structures and does little to address group biases. Commitment is necessary to spiritual practice, but in Buddhism it too often takes an absolutised form as belief in the Buddha’s enlightenment. The Refuges could be helpfully interpreted as commitments to the Middle Way, its potential and supporting community.