The Middle Way is a Buddhist term with rich connotations. Most simply, it implies a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one's impulses and behavior, close to Aristotle's idea of the "golden mean" whereby "every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice."
While the word middle denotes balance, however, the Middle Way should not be confused with passivity or a kind of middle-of-the-road compromise. To tread the Middle Way rather implies ongoing effort.
In the broadest sense, the Middle Way refers to the correct view of life that the Buddha teaches, and to the actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others. Thus, Buddhism itself is sometimes referred to as "the Middle Way," indicating a transcendence and reconciliation of the extremes of opposing views.
All these ideas are exemplified by Shakyamuni's own life, as conveyed to us by legend. Born a prince, Shakyamuni enjoyed every physical comfort and pleasure. However, dissatisfied with the pursuit of fleeting pleasures, he set out in search of a deeper, more enduring truth. He entered a period of extreme ascetic practice, depriving himself of food and sleep, bringing himself to the verge of physical collapse. Sensing the futility of this path, however, he began meditating with the profound determination to realize the truth of human existence, which had eluded him as much in a life of asceticism as in a life of luxury. It was then that Shakyamuni awakened to the true nature of life--its eternity, its deep wellspring of unbounded vitality and wisdom.
Later, in order to guide his followers toward this same Middle Way, he taught the eightfold path: eight principles, such as right conduct, right speech, etc., by which individuals can govern their behavior and develop true self-knowledge.
Since then, at various points in the history of Buddhism, Buddhist scholars have attempted to clarify and define the true nature of life. Around the third century, Nagarjuna's theory of the non-substantial nature of the universe explained that there is no permanent "thing" behind the constantly changing phenomena of life, no fixed basis to reality. For Nagarjuna, this view was the Middle Way, the ultimate perspective on life.
Nagarjuna's ideas were further developed by T'ien-t'ai (Chi-i) in sixth-century China. All phenomena, he stated, are the manifestations of a single entity--life itself. This entity of life, which T'ien-t'ai called the Middle Way, exhibits two aspects--a physical aspect and a non-substantial aspect. Ignoring or emphasizing either gives us a distorted picture of life. We cannot, for example, realistically conceptualize a person lacking either a physical or a mental/spiritual aspect. T'ien-t'ai thus clarified the indivisible interrelationship between the physical and the spiritual. From this viewpoint stem the Buddhist principles of the inseparability of the body and the mind and of the self and the environment.
Nichiren (1222-1282), in turn, gave concrete, practical form to these often quite abstract arguments. Based on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren defined the Middle Way as Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and taught that by reciting this phrase one can harmonize and energize the physical and spiritual aspects of one's life, and awaken to the deepest truth of one's existence.
From this perspective, life--the vital energy and wisdom that permeates the cosmos and manifests as all phenomena--is an entity that transcends and harmonizes apparent contradictions between the physical and the mental, even between life and death. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda takes the same view when he states that it is life that gives rise to DNA, not the other way around.
According to Buddhism, individuals and societies as a whole have a tendency toward either a predominantly material or spiritual view of life. The negative effects of the materialism that pervades the modern industrialized world are apparent at every level of society, from environmental destruction to spiritual impoverishment. Simply rejecting materialism out of hand, however, amounts to idealism or escapism and undermines our ability to respond constructively to life's challenges.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm titled his volume on the 20th century The Age of Extremes. Indeed, the violence and grotesque imbalances of that era drive home the need to find new ways of peacefully reconciling apparent opposites. What is most essential, if humanity is to find a middle way toward a creative global society in the 21st century, is a new appreciation and reverence for the inviolable sanctity of life.