The concept of the Middle Way, which is known as Madhyamāpratipad in Sanskrit and Umai Lam (དབུ་མའི་ལམ་) in Choekey, is a hallmark of the Buddhist spiritual tradition. The Buddha is said to have adopted the middle way between two or more extremes to reach the state of perfect enlightenment and ever since his time, his followers considered the middle way approach as the effective and correct path to ultimate freedom and happiness. The concept of middle way, however, means different practical and philosophical applications in different contexts.
In the context of spiritual conduct or engagement, the Buddha is said to have abandoned the extreme of self-indulgence (འདོད་པ་བསོད་སྙོམས་ཀྱི་མཐའ་) and the extreme of self-mortification (དཀའ་ཚེགས་ངལ་དུབ་ཀྱི་མཐའ་) in order to reach enlightenment. He first lived a royal life of self-indulgence and decadence as a much protected and pampered prince. He realized that this extreme of sensual gratification and indulgence in pleasures did not help one in seeking lasting happiness. He then renounced his princely luxuries to take up six years of spirituality with physical torture, which thoroughly debilitated him. He realized that this extreme of obsession with physical mortification did not help one in seeking lasting happiness and freedom from dissatisfaction. Eschewing these two extremes, he followed the middle way of conduct or practice (སྤྱོད་པའི་དབུ་མ་), which is encapsulated in his Noble Eightfold Path. Like playing a lute with strings neither too tight nor too loose, he adopted a spiritual approach, which is balanced and creates the right psycho-somatic conditions for enlightenment.
In his moral and existential theory, the Buddha argued that one must eschew both fatalistic eternalism (རྟག་པར་ལྟ་བ་) and materialist nihilism (ཆད་པར་ལྟ་བ་) and follow a middle way of the karmic law of cause and effect. Life and existence are results of one’s karma or actions, the core of which is one’s intention or state of the mind. Karma is impermanent and subject to change. Thus, our existence is not predetermined and fixed. However, despite its impermanent nature, karma is infallible bringing about its result either in this life or future lifetimes. Similarly, the person who commits a karmic action is an impermanent cluster of psycho-physical constituents. There is no static soul, self or person which continues from one moment to other. Nevertheless, the continuum of consciousness sustains, like a river, from one moment to the other and from life to life. Thus, the future moments of the same continuum experience of the results of the karmic action committed by the earlier moments. In this way, the Buddha’s existential philosophy rejects both eternalism, in which action and its doer are seen as static absolute entities, and nihilism, which denies the workings of karma and continuum of consciousness across lifetimes, and maintains a philosophical middle way.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism and particularly in the Mādhyamika (དབུ་མ་པ་) tradition, the philosophical concept of middle way becomes synonymous with interdependence (རྟེན་འབྲེལ་) and emptiness (སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་). If properly examined, all phenomena lack independent self existence. They do not really exist as they appear. Yet, things appear empirically due to the combination of causes and conditions. Thus, this school eschews the eternalism of seeing things as absolute, independent entities and the nihilism of negating their illusory interdependent existence. To view existence is eternalism and non-existence is nihilism. Existence and non-existence are both extremes as are being and non-being, is and not, self and non-self, permanence and impermanence, purity and impurity, etc. The middle way view (དབུ་མའི་ལྟ་བ་) involves dropping all polar fixations and conceptual constructions and resting in the non-conceptual state of emptiness.
Nāgarjuna and his Mādhyamika followers, thus, propounded the middle way beyond the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism (རྟག་ཆད་མཐའ་གཉིས་)and the four extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither (ཡོད་མེད་གཉིས་གཉིས་མིན་གྱི་མཐའ་བཞི་). He also expounded at the beginning of his main text on emptiness the middle way free from eight extremes of elaboration (སྤྲོས་པའི་མཐའ་བརྒྱད་) of creation, cessation, eternity and annihilation, coming and going, and singularity and plurality. The ultimate middle way eschews even abiding in the middle of the extremes and transcends all conceptual elaborations. It is in this sense of emptiness free from all conceptual fabrications that middle way is mostly commonly understood in Bhutan and the Himalayas.
Furthermore, the Himalayan Buddhist masters expound the union of the two truths as middle way of the ground (གཞི་དབུ་མ་བདེན་གཉིས་ཟུང་འཇུག་), the union of the two accumulations as the middle way of the path (ལམ་དབུ་མ་ཚོགས་གཉིས་ཟུང་འཇུག་), and the union of two bodies as middle way of fruition (འབྲས་བུ་དབུ་མ་སྐུ་གཉིས་ཟུང་འཇུག་), and such theories, which are beyond the scope of this short introduction.