The long journey of the Middle Way

As one of the world’s oldest belief systems, Buddhism has touched everyone from warrior kings to film stars

Jet Odrerir
October 10, 2009
The long journey of the Middle Way
Helpful friends: the Beatles visit India in 1968. Photo: Paul Saltzman

From the Mediterranean to the Pacific, many different versions of a spiritual quest for the protection of a real or mythical central figure have been recorded over the past 4,000 years, but up until comparatively recently Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism and more were a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Now they are not only known, but also embraced around the world.

Four thousand years ago the world’s population was only about 35m. There were no institutionalised religions, no religious texts and each band of people would have had their own stories and traditions that reflected how they saw the world coming into existence and the ways for people in the tribe to behave. Their very isolation prevented the proliferation of those beliefs, which travelled with merchants down the trade routes between countries and continents.  

Buddhism originated in northern India about 2,500 years ago and has its origins in the experience of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, who was said to have been “awakened” at the age of 35. The name Buddhism comes from the word “budhi”, which means “to wake up”, thus it is the philosophy of awakening. Buddha is therefore not a god but the state that adherents are trying to achieve.

Hinduism had been India’s dominant religion for many centuries by the time Siddhartha Gautama was born and so it’s no surprise that many of the moral teachings practiced by Hindus became part of the Buddha’s teachings. For instance, Hinduism teaches that all living things are in a constant state of life, death and rebirth, but what the Buddha taught was that a person could elevate themselves out of the wheel of life and into nirvana. Both emphasise compassion and non-violence towards all living beings and believe in spiritual practices such as meditation, concentration and cultivation of certain bhavas or states of mind.

Buddhism has been described as a pragmatic religion. It does not indulge in metaphysical speculation, there is no theology, no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha. It takes a straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based on wishful thinking. Everything the Buddha taught was based on his observation of the way things are and can be verified by our observations.

He had many followers and after his death they carried on his teachings throughout India, but the first big expansion came with King Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty, who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 273BC to 232BC. One of India’s greatest emperors, he reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests. 

Wheel of life: after conquering India, King Ashoka adopted Buddhism and sent missionaries to southeast Asia in the third century BC

A warrior king, Ashoka was a serial invader whose bloodthirsty ways came to an abrupt halt after he conquered the state of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the what is now Orissa. It was a war too far. Sickened by the barbarism, bloodshed and havoc he had caused he is said to have cried out in despair and sought mental refuge in the ways of the Buddha. 

He then sent missionaries out in every direction to teach the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in an effort to make up for his past. He also built many hospitals for people and animals throughout his empire. The Ashoka Chakra – the Wheel of Life – is his symbol at the centre of India’s flag.

As a result Buddhism began to spread south from its place of origin in northern India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, IndoChina and other southeast Asian countries. It also moved west through the empire Alexander the Great had built all the way to the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean.

A century later Greek-speaking Buddhist monks could be found in the Indo-Greek kingdom and there developed the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara – modern-day Pakistan. Menander I Soter “The Saviour” was one of the rulers of the Indo-Greek kingdom from about 165BC to 130BC and is one of the first historical westerners documented to have converted to Buddhism.

During the next 400 years, Buddhism spread throughout Asia developing into many different schools of thought that were unique to the different countries and regions. The three main schools of thought and meditation are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, along with a Zen in Japan. It was a fortunate development, because Buddhism all but died out in the Middle East and India after the rise of Islam and the Muslim incursions into India in the 11th century.

For the next several centuries the gulf between east and west grew and Europe lost touch with many  religions in Asia, not least because the intolerance of the Christian church in Europe ensured that it was well nigh impossible for any other religious ideas to take root. 

Then Europe embarked on a wave of Asian colonisation from about the beginning in the 16th century. There were no illusions that this was a cultural exchange. Spice, precious metals, gems and slaves were what the conquerors were after and their attendant Catholic missionaries set about converting the vanquished to the “one God, the one religion”.

The Portuguese established a seaborne empire of coastal trading posts and although they made little in the way of a cultural impact, they created a powerful network of trading partners. It was a commercial model envied and subsequently followed by other who built ports, trading posts and forged colonial alliances.

When 19th-century missionaries translated and read ancient Sanskrit and Pali documents in India, they began to call Buddhism the “Christianity of the East”.

The Buddha’s words quickly spread to Europe and on to the Americas. Today, some of the oldest universities in America have departments of oriental studies. During the second half of that “century of western enlightenment”, Chinese immigrants settled in Hawaii and California, taking with them a number of Mahayana Buddhist practices and built numerous temples. The Japanese Buddhist immigrants who arrived later not only built temples but also invited Japanese monks who belonged to the various Mahayana Buddhist sects to join them. Buddhist activities remained largely confined to these immigrant communities.

At the end of the 19th century, two outstanding Buddhist spokesmen, Dharmapala from Sri Lanka and Soyen Shaku, a Zen master from Japan, attended the world parliament of religions in Chicago, Illinois. Their inspiring speeches on Buddhism so impressed their audiences that Theravada and Zen Buddhism quickly established bases in the United States. During this period, the Theosophical Society, which teaches the unity of all religions, also helped to spread some elements of Buddhist teachings in America. 

Before the beginning of the 20th century the study of Buddhism was confined mainly to scholars and there was not much in the way of practicing the teachings. Change, though, was in the wind and more and more Europeans went east to learn more by acquiring and experiencing monastic life. In addition, Buddhist organisations were founded in Europe’s major cities. One of them, the Buddhist Society of London, was established in 1924 and is the oldest and one of the largest in Europe. Organisations like it helped the growth of interest in Buddhism through their meditation sessions, lectures and the spread of Buddhist literature.

It was not until the second half of the 20th century, though, that Buddhist ideas reached a wider section of American society. Servicemen returning from east Asia after the second world war and Korean war arrived with an interest in Asian culture, which included Nichiren Shoshu and Zen Buddhism. The latter gained considerable popularity in the 1960s among literary and artistic groups in America, which helped to popularise Buddhism. The influx of Tibetan refugees in 1959 also introduced Vajrayana Buddhism, which gained a substantial following and a groundswell of new departments of Buddhist studies were established in American universities.

The 1950s saw the gradual acceptance of eastern philosophies that ran counter to the western  “office job and a new TV” ambition for “the good life” to be realised.  As Allen Ginsberg, the poet and anti-materialist philosopher said: “One interesting thing is that from the very beginning in the Beat Generation movement there was a strong Buddhist element. I think it’s one of the more glorious of our achievements.”

In the wild, unhinged 1960s it seemed as if everyone was looking for a new way to look at life and the proliferation of their beliefs spread like cerebral wildfire. Most Chinese follow a combination of Chinese folk religion, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism; India has such a cavalcade of religions and sects that have been truly liberating to follow. The Sixties also swung to the East as rock stars including the Beatles and their fans sought enlightenment in India through meditation. Tina Turner became a Buddhist in the 1960s and credited the strength she received from meditation to help her leave Ike, her abusive husband.

Buddhism lost many of its glittering followers in the 1970s and 1980s through a combination of self-indulgence, ego and conflicting beliefs such as Islam, but regained its celebrity status in the 1990s up to today. Richard Gere is probably currently the most vocal Buddhist in pop culture today with his steadfast support for the liberation of Tibet, but Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous. “I like Buddhism because it’s a whole way of being and living,” he told Sports Illustrated. “It’s based on discipline, respect and personal responsibility.”

“What is characteristic of western Buddhism in its present phase of development is the focus on Buddhist practice, especially the practice of meditation. In this phase it is not the academic study of Buddhist texts and doctrines that dominates or the attempt to interpret the Dhamma through the prism of western thought, but the appropriation of Buddhism as a practice that can bring deep transformations in one’s innermost being as well as in the conduct of everyday life,” said American Buddhist Bhikkhu Bodhi during a conference in Sri Lanka in 2000.

It has been a long road, but the West seems to be catching up with the East and completing the cycle of understanding.

Defining image: one of 600 representations of the Buddha at Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: Daniele Mattioli


1. Life means suffering.

To live means to suffer, because human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical and psychological suffering. Although there are also positive experiences, life in its totality is imperfect because our world is transient. This means we are never able to keep what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we and our loved ones will pass away too.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

The end of suffering can be attained through Nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.

4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The path to end suffering is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Ignorance and illusion disappear as progress is made on the path.

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