A weekend bonus: I cleaned up the updates from last week, adding a few stray thoughts and front matter. It’s now an official project, ‘The Essence of the Middle Way,’ with a parallel reading of the Kantian and the Madhyamaka traditions. I am excerpting the beginning of the essay here, but if you want to read the whole piece, go to its page on Medium:
If you like it, I would much appreciate if you clapped for the essay on Medium and shared it in your circles. More feedback I get about this project and its individual components, the better.
The Middle of the World
Once upon a time, a demon terrorized the world. His name is unimportant for our story, but just for the record, he went by Hiranyakasipu. But in the first of many contradictions in this story, he too was a devotee of the creator, spending years seeking divine favor. Pleased with his tapas, Brahma appeared in front of Hiranyakasipu:
B: ‘ask and you shall receive’
HK: ‘make me immortal’
B: ‘That’s a bit much. Make me a better offer’
HK: ‘If I am to be killed, make it that whoever kills me is neither man nor beast, neither inside nor outside, neither day nor night.’
Hiranyakasipu felt pleased with himself: where would the universe find a killer straddling so many worlds? How does one stand in the middle of all middles?
Vishnu knew better. He took the form of a half-lion, half-man. As Narasimha, Vishnu stood at the door of Hiranyakasipu’s palace, taunting that despoiler of worlds. The easily provoked Hiranyakasipu stormed into the courtyard, and in his anger, didn’t even notice the sun slipping into the horizon, day turning into dusk. Narasimha continued his insults.
‘Enough is enough!’ said HK.
Grabbing a pillar with his bare hands, he rushed at Narasimha. It was dusk. They were at the door to the palace. With his lions paws, Narasimha swatted the pillar aside and grabbed Hiranyakasipu. Placing the demon on his human thighs, the avatar tore open Hiranyakasipu’s chest and belly, scattering the entrails on either side of the threshold.
The demon lay dead in the middle of the world.
The History of the Middle Way
The Middle Way has a long history. Too powerful a weapon for everyday use, it’s indispensable in times of transition, when one era is being replaced by another. Aren’t we in such a time, when the anthropocene stares at cusp of the abyss? How might the Middle Way part the ocean for us?
Here’s a specific version of this challenge: how can we think the middle, the in-between space between human and non-human, between society and nature, between the globe and the planet?
We can build our raft by learning from previous efforts at reconciling the impossible, watching our predecessors pilot their ships between assertion and denial. The Middle Way is uniquely revolutionary: it simultaneously dislodges an existing regime while constituting a new one step by step, like replacing the wings, the tail and the nose of a plane while flying it, so that an F-16 is replaced by an F-35 in mid-flight. Because of its gradual character, a middle way revolution may appear to be conservative, but that’s just a sign of its subversiveness.