Jay Garfield’s article on info-buddhism.com, “Buddhism in the West” is a fascinating account of the history of transmissions of Buddhism from India to Tibet, from India to China, and finally, from all Asian countries where Buddhism is practiced to the West.
I found the following excerpt from Garfield’s article, specifically on the Middle Way, very instructive:
And in the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta the very first teaching that Śākyamuni Buddha gave upon gaining awakening … Śākyamuni Buddha said “I teach you a path by the middle. It is not a path of annihilation, and it’s not a path of permanence.” And the path of annihilation when we think about the personal continuum is the path that says that continuum is cut; that there is no identity and no continuity between successive stages of the individual. And the extreme of permanence is the extreme that suggests that there is something that persists unchanged through transformation, a self that is the basis of that transformation. The Path of the Middle is the path that says that even though the continuum is constantly changing the continuation is never terminated. (Jay L. Garfield, Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Smith College)
I’ve also been reading “What the Buddha Taught“, by Walpol Rahula, a Sri Lanka Theravada monk, his classic treatise on the Buddhism of the Pali canon. (It’s only 65 pages and downloadable as a PDF). In this passage he defines anatta or non-self:
“It must be repeated here that according to Buddhist philosophy there is no permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that consciousness should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter. This point has to be particularly emphasized, because a wrong notion that consciousness is a sort of Self or Soul that continues as a permanent substance through life, has persisted from the earliest time to present day” — Walpola Rahula, “What the Buddha Taught”.
So the idea of non-self or anatta is that consciousness is not separate from, or different from, matter. There is no “soul” or “spirit” in the Western Christian sense that is separate from “body.” Consciousness is not separate from body; consciousness is part of body; it is matter.
If consciousness is matter, then it is subject to the same physical laws as all other matter; it is compounded, impermanent and ever-changing. Thus ends the mind/body dualism of Descartes and the Western world. So according to this interpretation, the early Buddhists were not interested in an etherial “emptiness”, but were actually materialists; everything is matter and thus everything matters.
We find these two concepts, matter and consciousness as a continuous stream, being put together in the next excerpt from “What the Buddha Taught”:
‘O Brahmana, it is just like a nmountain river, flowing far and swift, taking everything with it; there is no moment, no instant, no second when it stops flowing, but it goes on flowing and continuing. So Brahmana, is human life, like a mountain river.’ As the Buddha told Ratthapala: ‘The world is in continuous flux and is impermanent.’ One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called ‘I’.
We have an ordinary consciousness that is conditioned by the five skandhas, or matter/energy, but that consciousness is not an “eternal soul.” There is no eternal soul and no eternal structure to the universe. There is only matter, subject to the physical laws of the universe, and that’s all that matters.