As walking the Middle Path is a supreme spiritual balancing act,
to master it is to become supremely spiritually skilful.
From the Sona Sutta, Venerable Sona was practising seated meditation practice after doing walking meditation – which he did till his soles split and bled, when he reflected upon the fact that despite much persistent practice, his mind was still not free from suffering due to attachment. He then considered giving up his quest for enlightenment – by returning to his lay life to enjoy his family’s wealth, and to create merits with it. Reading his thoughts from afar, the Buddha immediately manifested before him to offer advice. The Buddha asked Sona if he was skilled at playing the vina (a stringed musical instrument), to which Sona replied positively. The Buddha then asked if the vina is playable and in tune if its strings were strung too tautly or loosely. To that, Sona replied negatively. The Buddha next asked if it would be alright if the strings were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned right on pitch. To that, Sona replied yes.
The Buddha remarked that in the same way, Sona’s over-aroused persistence led to restlessness, while overly slack persistence would lead to laziness. ‘Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom], and there pick up your theme [of Dharma practice].’ Sona endeavoured accordingly and soon realised Arahantship (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). The vina analogy has since become the classic example of what the Middle Path means – as a moderate way of living that avoids two extremes in terms of indulgence in sensual pleasures and self-mortification. Prior to becoming the Buddha, the ascetic Gautama realised the Middle Path when he realised the futility of both indulging in pleasures as a Prince, and practising austerities (extreme asceticism, which hopes to transcend pain permanently) when he renounced the palace.
Beyond physical extremes being unfruitful for furthering spirituality, it is also detrimental towards the cultivation of compassion and wisdom to sustain extreme states of mind. In fact, physical extremes in living are possible only if one first entertains mental extremes. Sensual indulgence and self-mortification above would pertain to extremes of attachment (greed) and aversion (hatred) respectively. Dual sides of the same coin, both arise from delusion (ignorance). Some examples of having extreme deluded thinking would be sustaining beliefs of nihilism and eternalism. The first refers to the wrong view that there is no afterlife and thus no karmic consequences for this life. The latter refers to the equally wrong opposite view that there is only one unchanging form of heavenly or hellish existence hereafter. Indeed, it is from such extreme delusions that extremes of greed and hatred arise and condition physical extremes of dissatisfaction.
The whole of the Dharma path is to practise
staying and advancing on the Middle Path.