Birth in the heavens might be supremely hedonistic.
Birth in the hells might be supremely ascetic.
Birth in the Pure Lands is supremely the Middle Way.
In India at the time the Buddha’s time, there was a belief that the purpose of life was to enjoy as much sensual pleasure as possible. Sensual pleasures are of course enjoyed through the sense faculties. This ability to experience pleasure through the senses gives rise to the five desires [for wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep]. In this hedonistic view, failing to fulfill the five desires results in unhappiness. In reality, however much we may crave and pursue pleasure, we can never completely satisfy the five desires. Therefore the result of constantly pursuing pleasure is vexation, not happiness and joy. Furthermore, this behavior ultimately causes conflict with others, producing more vexation. The sutras describe this kind of conduct as that of ordinary beings, not sages or saints.
Also prevalent in India at the time was the opposite view, that to become pure, one needs to undergo extreme pain and suffering – the more pain, the purer one becomes. Some ascetics had themselves buried in the earth up to their necks; others would immerse themselves underwater for long periods of time, or hang upside down from a tree. Even today, in mainland China I saw one person who wore a very heavy coat in summer but very little in winter in order to inflict suffering on his body. In Taiwan I saw another person staring directly into the sun for hours. I asked him, “Why are you doing this?” He said that by staring at the sun he was burning off bad karma. If such people think they can gain liberation through [extreme] asceticism, then a furry dog running around on hot summer days can get liberated too.
Shakyamuni Buddha said that if following the path means suffering, the fruit will inevitably be more suffering. Inflicting suffering and pain on oneself will not result in liberation. Furthermore, the pains that ascetics inflict on themselves are not necessarily connected to the vexations they are trying to eliminate, and inflicting pain on one’s body does not necessarily ease mental suffering. The Buddha therefore taught that the Noble Eightfold Path is the Middle Way between the opposing extremes of hedonism and asceticism. One needs the basic necessities of life in order to practice, but on the other hand, one should not merely pursue pleasure for its own sake. So if one is guided by the Noble Eightfold Path, one will naturally practice the Middle Way.
Things Pertaining To Bodhi: The Thirty-Seven Aids To Enlightenment
Chan Master Sheng Yen
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