*THE MIDDLE PRACTICE*
by Sayagyi U Chit Tin
"Kamesu brahmacariyava Metteya" ti Bhagava
"vitatanho sada sato
Sankhaya nibbuto bhikkhu tassa no santi injita.
So ubh' antam abbhinnaya majjhe manta na lippati
Tam brumi mahapariso ti so idha sibbanim accaga" ti.
"The bhikkhu who lives the holy life amidst sensual
pleasures, Mettaya," said the Blessed One, "with craving
gone, always mindful, quenched after consideration --
for him, there are no commotions.
"That thinker, knowing both ends, does not cling to the
middle. Him I call a great man. He has gone beyond the
Sutta-nipata vv 1041-1042
The Buddha began his first discourse by saying that the way to
Nibbana, the end of all suffering, was the middle practice (majjhima
patipada). This discourse was very appropriate for the five ascetics to
whom he was speaking. They had known him as the prince who gave up all the
comforts of life as a layman in order to search for the ultimate truth.
They had helped him when he tried extreme ascetic practices. In his
description of these practices, the Buddha said that he had tried all
sorts of extremes of heat and cold, he ate so little he fell down in a
faint, and he even stopped his breath.
The Buddha's control over his own mind, even before his Awakening,
was so complete that these extremes did not disturb his thoughts. He
realized, however, that with the body so disturbed, it would be impossible
to reach his goal. He decided to follow a moderate approach, eating enough
to keep his body going comfortably. The five ascetics did not understand.
They thought he had given up and returned to a life of luxury. They
decided to leave him, and so, the Buddha was alone when he reached his
He taught these same five ascetics first because they had been so
helpful to him. As always, his discourse is perfectly suited to his
audience. He begins by telling them that a person who has gone forth from
lay life should avoid two extremes. One extreme is connected with sensual
desire and means one is attached to the sensual pleasures of a life of
luxury which is inferior, vulgar, associated with the ordinary man,
ignoble, and associated with what is unprofitable. The other extreme is
being attached to exhausting oneself, which is misery, ignoble, and
associated with what is unprofitable.
The middle practice, he said, produces vision, produces knowledge,
leads to tranquillity, personal knowledge, to perfect Awakening, to
Nibbana. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, which we can sum up in the three
aspects of morality, concentration, and wisdom.
The Buddha specifically mentions this moderate approach as
appropriate for those who have renounced lay life. But what about
laypeople? Can they also follow the middle practice? The answer is to be
found in a discourse which the Buddha gave to a village chieftain named
Rasiya asked the Buddha if it was true that the Buddha categorically
disapproved of and condemned all ascetics who led severe lives, that he
censured all asceticism. The Buddha says that he has been misrepresented
and in his discourse he makes clear that there is a difference between
saying that extreme ascetic practices are to be censured and saying that
everything done by the person who follows them is to be censured.
Of particular interest to us, however, is what the Buddha has to say
concerning those who have not given up sensual pleasures. He included
this, no doubt, because a discussion of the ascetic practices without any
mention of the other extreme would have been incomplete, and this other
extreme was more pertinent to Rasiya as a layman.
The Buddha begins with the same instructions he gave in the first
part of his discourse, which we have already mentioned, but here, instead
of continuing with the Four Noble Truths, he shows what is to be censured
and what is to be praised concerning those who either practise extreme
asceticism or lead lives surrounded by sensual pleasures.
The Buddha says the following actions are to be censured in those
who enjoy sensual pleasures:
(1) seeking possessions through violent means which are immoral
(2) not making oneself happy and satisfied,
(3) not doing meritorious deeds,
(4) enjoying the use of one's possessions, even if they are acquired
without using immoral, violent means, while being addicted to,
infatuated with, and bound to them, not seeing the danger (in
this), and not knowing how to escape.
The opposite of these wrong actions is praiseworthy. That is to say,
in this context, the Buddha gives the following actions as the proper
measure of lay life:
(1) Possessions -- or we might say "earning one's living" -- should
be sought through moral, non-violent means. This, of course, is
given in more detail by the Buddha in many other discourses. If
a layperson practises the precepts of not killing, not stealing,
and not lying, then right livelihood will be attained.
(2) We should work for our own happiness and satisfaction. One of
the most important motivations for all people is the pursuit of
happiness. It is often assumed that trying to be happy is
selfish and entails neglecting others, but if we have a fuller
understanding of human nature we come to realize that not only
must we find happiness ourselves before we can help others, but
that harming others will make us unhappy.
(3) We should do meritorious deeds. This aspect can be summed up by
generosity. As will be seen in the last point, it is important
to work for true happiness which goes beyond material
possessions. In order to do this, we should be generous with the
goal of attaining Nibbana.
(4) We should enjoy the use of our possessions without being
addicted to, infatuated with, or bound to them. We should see
the danger in this and know how to escape. As laypeople, we do
not have to be blinded by greed. We can live moral lives,
remembering that the highest happiness is in ending the
suffering that inevitably accompanies conditioned existence. We
can be aware of the danger of being slaves of our possessions.
The happiness associated with them is short-lived. If we crave
for them, we will be unhappy when we do not get what we want. We
will be unhappy when we obtain what we do not want. In this way,
we can be aware of the danger in being attached to possessions.
Knowing the way to escape from this danger means understanding the
Buddha's Teachings. This is only possible through putting them into
practice. It is possible for those who live surrounded by the pleasures of
the senses to do more than lead moral lives, share their possessions, and
do meritorious actions. If we do not go further, we will only be making
sure that in future lives we will have good fortune, but there is only one
way to escape the possibility that some wrong action of ours will bring us
great suffering, and that is to develop our concentration and then use
this concentration to develop insight into the true nature of conditioned
existence. This insight will lead to experiencing the true happiness of
the ultimate goal, Nibbana.
If we could always do good, it would be possible to have eternal
happiness in life after life, but for most of us, our actions are a
combination of good and bad actions. This is clearly shown in this
discourse by the Buddha, for he tells Rasiya that there are three types of
people who enjoy pleasures:
(1) those who seek possessions through violent means which are
(2) those who seek possessions through both violent and non-violent
means which are either moral or immoral, and
(3) those who seek possessions only through non-violent, moral
Most of us come under the second, mixed category. In fact, it is
only those who have passed beyond the stage of the ordinary individual and
who are firmly established in at least the first of the four stages of
Awakening who are assured of not doing actions that may lead to the lower
worlds of great suffering. Even those who have reached the highest stage
of Arahatship may experience the physically painful results of past bad
The better our control is over our mind, the better we will be able
to understand not only the difference between good and wrong actions, but
even more important, the truth concerning our existence, our world. This
is why Sayagyi U Ba Khin dedicated so much of his time and energy to
practising and teaching Buddhist meditation to others. He chose one of the
many methods taught by the Buddha that enables us to concentrate our
minds, to control our minds and make them stay on a given object. Sayagyi
taught the development of the mind through mindfulness of the breath
(Anapana). Once a good level of concentration is reached, the students
then develop their understanding by gaining insight (Vipassana) into the
reality of suffering and its origin by observing the physical sensations
within the body and appreciating their ever-changing, unsatisfactory
nature. At the same time, an appreciation of the ever-changing nature of
the accompanying mental states is also gained.
Laypeople may not be able to renounce the pleasures of family life
and of owning many possessions, but it is possible to set aside periods
each day to work on their concentration and insight. Ten-day retreats can
be made from time to time in order to lessen the day-to-day distractions
of lay life and make more progress on the path to true happiness. In this
way, students of Buddhist meditation are able to practise the Noble
Eightfold Path which leads to Awakening, to the end of all ignorance. This
Path, as we have seen, is the middle practice, the moderate path that
avoids the two extremes of being submerged in deceptive, temporary sensual
pleasures or being tormented by exaggerated ascetic practices.
In his discourse to Rasiya, the Buddha goes on to explain that those
who leave lay life in order to follow exhausting practices can attain
praiseworthy states and states which are to be censured. Their motivation
in torturing themselves comes from their belief that by doing so they will
be assured of attaining a profitable mental state (kusala-dhamma) and will
see for themselves a truly distinctive, noble knowledge and vision (ariya-
nana-dassana-visesa) through transcending the human mental state (uttara-
manussa-dhamma). The method they use is to be censured. If they attain
either of these goals, that is praiseworthy.
In other discourses, the Buddha says that some ascetics who practise
severe austerities can be reborn in heavenly worlds. This is possible
if they are able to make skilful mental states increase and unskilful
mental states decrease, but such practices cannot lead to the complete
destruction of suffering. Exaggerated effort, unbalanced effort, will
not lead to the ultimate goal. The Buddha discovered that uninterrupted
thought and uninterrupted investigating for too long a time makes the body
weary, and if the body is weary, the mind will be agitated. When the mind
is agitated, it is not concentrated. Progress towards Nibbana can only be
made when the mind is steady, calm, one-pointed, and concentrated.
In the West today, we do not see people renouncing lay life and
undergoing severe ascetic practices, but many people do have the mistaken
idea that if they subject themselves to physical and mental suffering,
this will in some way purify them. Special diets or fasting, going without
sleep, or adopting painful physical postures are some of the exaggerations
attempted with regard to the body. Indulging thoughts of self-reproach and
guilt, or entertaining thoughts of doubt about the method of work or about
one's own ability, are examples of mental torture.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin instructed his students to avoid all self torture.
He used the term "zestful ease" to describe the right approach. This means
that the student should work directly on developing concentration and
insight as long as the mind is able to remain steady, calm, and one-
pointed. When the student finds that the work is physically tiring, then
he or she should give the body rest. In this way, it will be possible to
continue the effort to maintain a calm mind at all times.
It is very important that we correctly understand what is meant by
the middle way, the moderate practice. The English expression "the golden
mean" expresses the idea very well. It is defined as meaning, "the way
of wisdom and safety between extremes; sufficiency without excess;
moderation." It is all too easy, however, to incorrectly identify the
extremes and in this way to come up with a medium path that is still a
wrong path. We could take any of the basic five moral precepts and say
that we will not go to extremes but only break them with moderation. This,
of course, would be entirely wrong.
In the first sermon and in the discourse to Rasiya, the Buddha
identifies the middle practice as being the Noble Eightfold Path. In other
discourses, we find explanations which expand on this and make it plain
that this path includes all efforts which lead to the goal of the
cessation of suffering. In the first sermon, it is clear that the Noble
Eightfold Path is for understanding the Four Noble Truths.
In the discourse to Rasiya, the Buddha explains that three things
are instantaneous, not subject to decay, immediate, invite one to come and
see, lead onwards, and are to be experienced by the wise for themselves.
 These three things are the elimination of the three roots which are
present when unwholesome deeds are done: desire (raga), hatred (dosa),
and delusion (moha).
Venerable Sariputta identifies the middle practice in similar terms.
The middle practice is the Noble Eightfold Path and it gets rid of greed
(lobha) and hatred (dosa). Its qualities of producing vision and
knowledge, and leading to tranquillity, personal knowledge, perfect
Awakening, and Nibbana, are the antithesis of ignorance. Venerable
Sariputta goes on to identify other pairs in place of greed and hatred. In
leading to Nibbana, the path eliminates anger (kodha) and enmity
(upanaho), hypocrisy (makkho) and malice (paasa), envy (issa) and
selfishness (macchera), deceit (maya) and treachery (satheyya),
stubbornness (thambha) and impetuosity (sarambha), arrogance (mana) and
pride (atimano), conceit (mada) and indolence (pamada).
In several other discourses, the middle practice is identified with
the understanding of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada). In
answer to questions put by bhikkhus and laymen, the Buddha explains that
to adopt wrong beliefs is to go to extremes which will make progress
impossible. These wrong beliefs include those based on existence or non-
existence, those based on an enduring self or a self that need not be
responsible for its actions, or those based on the dogma that the body and
life principle are the same or that they are different. The middle
practice is to observe the conditioned nature of existence in order to
understand the arising of suffering and its cessation.
One Sutta is particularly appropriate in connection with the middle
practice and dependent origination. The verses with which we began were
given by the Buddha in answer to questions posed by Tissa Metteyya: "Who
is contented here in the world? For whom are there no agitations? What
thinker, knowing both extremes, does not cling to the middle? Whom do you
call a great man? Who has gone beyond the seamstress here?"
A group of elders discussed these questions and offered a number of
explanations for the two extremes and the middle way. The first
bhikkhu to give an explanation said that the two extremes are contact
(phassa) and the arising of contact (phassa-samudaya). The middle is the
cessation of contact (phassa-nirodha). Other bhikkhus said that the
following were to be included: the past (atita) and future (anagata) as
extremes, the present (paccuppanna) as the middle; pleasure (sukha) and
pain (dukkha) as extremes, neither pleasure nor pain (adukkha-m-asukha) as
the middle; mind (nama) and body (rupa) as extremes, consciousness
(vinnana) as the middle; the six internal senses (cha ajjhattikani
ayatanani) and six external objects of the senses (cha bahirani ayatanani)
as extremes, consciousness as the middle; the individuality made up of the
five aggregates (sakkaya) and the arising of that individuality (sakkaya-
samudaya) as extremes, the cessation of that individuality (sakkaya-
nirodha) as the middle.
All the bhikkhus identified the seamstress as desire (tanha),
because it truly sews one to rebirth in various lives. In so far as a
person knows the knowable and comprehends the comprehensible, knowing the
knowable and comprehending the comprehensible, to that extent a person is
one who puts an end to suffering in the present existence.
When the bhikkhus asked the Buddha which answer was the best, he
replied that all the answers were correct, but he himself would give the
answer of the first bhikkhu.
These answers are of special interest to students of Vipassana
meditation. The goal is clearly stated: it is the end of suffering. This
must be done through understanding in order to escape from the binding
power of desire. In the twelve links of dependent origination, the Buddha
explained the arising and cessation of suffering. The terms given by the
Buddha and bhikkhus can be related to these links whose arising leads to
suffering and whose cessation leads to liberation.
The two extremes in the explanation preferred by the Buddha are
contact and the arising of contact. Contact arises dependent on the six
senses. Contact ceases when sensations (vedana) cease, and sensations are
the basis for the arising of craving, which is identified here as the very
thing that binds us to continued suffering.
The other explanations are very close to this one. Dependent
origination takes place in the past, present, and future, but it is only
in the present that we can do something about cutting through the bonds
that tie us to continued suffering. Reacting to pleasant and painful
sensations gives rise to desire and hatred. Sensations which are neither
pleasant nor painful are associated with ignorance. All three types of
these sensations are impermanent, so we should not cling to any of
them. They arise through contact, and when contact ceases, they cease
as well. The entity of mind and body (nama-rupa) arises because of
consciousness. Once this is correctly understood, there will be no more
attachment to these. The combination of the various aggregates which is
wrongly considered to be a lasting self (sakkaya) must also be correctly
understood as arising and vanishing.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin selected the method which is most appropriate for
laypeople in developing insight. Contact between the senses and stimuli
result in sensations. If these sensations are observed to be continually
arising and ceasing, as being impermanent (anicca), it is possible to stop
desire from arising. Experiencing the arising and ceasing that is taking
place within our own minds and bodies will lead to true knowledge. The
physical sensations in the body are the only ones arising that are
immediately experienced as pleasant, painful, or neutral. Therefore, they
enable us to develop equanimity by letting go attachment to the pleasant
sensations, aversion to the painful sensations, and we can overcome our
lack of understanding by seeing the impermanence of the neutral
As the student of Buddhist meditation makes progress in the control
of the mind and understanding of impermanence, the moderate approach will
have to be fine-tuned. At first, it may be necessary to struggle just to
follow the moral precepts and practise meditation regularly. The
temptation at times to make an exhausting forced effort will have to be
resisted. With time, the student will develop good habits and become
established in the practice.
Once established, times will come when boredom sets in, or
complacency. Then it will be necessary to summon up more effort. Finer and
finer distinctions will need to be made in keeping the attention properly
balanced as it carries on with the essential task of observing what is
happening in the body and mind.
It is important to always remember that the goal is the end of all
suffering. This is what is meant when the Buddha says in his answer to
Tissa Metteyya that the liberated person does not cling to the middle.
Practising meditation is the way to make progress on the path leading to
Nibbana. Once the goal is reached, the path is no longer clung to. This
does not mean that we should underestimate the importance of the path, but
we should be careful not to be attached to past experiences. When the
breathing becomes more subtle or when sensations become very subtle, we
must not be disappointed. We should rather continue our observation in
order to come to the cessation of all these results of past volitional
Sayagyi U Chit Tin
 The translation is based on K.R. Norman's GD II vv. 1041-1042.
 BD IV 15-19, KS V 356-360.
 MLS I 103-108.
 KS IV 234-244.
 DB I 224.
 GS V 132.
 MLS I 108.
 MLS I 150.
 Adapted from a Latin poem by Horace (Odes II x 5): //aurea
 //Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language//
 These qualities are those of the Dhamma. One quality, "not subject to
decay" (nijjara) is not included in other passages (see, for example, MLS
I 47), and another, "it is well taught by the Blessed One," is not
 A synonym of //lobha//.
 Desire is eliminated by the person who is filled with passion
(ratta), hatred by the evil person (duttha), and delusion by the
bewildered person (muha).
 KS II 12f., 17-19, 44, 52f., 53; III 113f.
 Sn v. 1040; this translation is based on K.R. Norman's in GD.
 GS III 284-286.
 MLS I 366.
 MLS II 179
 KS II 67.
Worldwide Contact Addresses
in the Tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin
*AUSTRIA*: International Meditation Centre, A-9064 St. Michael/Gurk 6,
Austria;Tel: +43 4224 2820, Fax: +43 4224 28204
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*GERMANY*: Sayagyi U Ba Khin Gesellschaft, Christaweg 16, 79114 Freiburg,
Germany, Tel: +49 761 465 42, Fax: +49 761 465 92
*JAPAN*: Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, Komatsuri-Cho 923,
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*THE NETHERLANDS*: Sayagyi U Ba Khin Stichting, Oudegracht 124, 3511 AW
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Tel: +31 30 311 445, Fax: +31 30 340 612
*SINGAPORE*: Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Association, 9 Penang Road #07-12,
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Published by the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, United Kingdom
Address as above, registered charity no. 280134
TITLE OF WORK: The Middle Practice
AUTHOR: Sayagyi U Chit Tin
AUTHOR'S ADDRESS: n/a
PUBLISHER'S ADDRESS: International Meditation Centre, Splatts House,
Heddington, Calne, Wiltshire SN11 OPE, England
COPYRIGHT HOLDER: The Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K.
DATE OF PUBLICATION:
RIGHTS & RESTRICTIONS: See paragraph below.
DATE OF DHARMANET DISTRIBUTION: 17 February 1995
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