Buddhism: The Middle Way to Enlightenment

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  • 0:01 Middle Way & Dharma
  • 0:54 Wealthy Prince
  • 1:45 Asceticism
  • 2:50 Bodhi Tree & Meditation
  • 3:46 Eightfold Path
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

This lesson will explore the term 'Middle Way' as an alternate name for Buddhism. In doing so, it will highlight Siddhartha Gautama as the founder of Buddhism, while also detailing his belief in the Eightfold Path.

Middle Way & Dharma

Having a strong hold on much of Asia, Buddhism is also known as the Middle Way. In today's lesson, we're going to explore the meaning behind this alternate name for the Buddhist faith.

In order to understand the connotations behind the Middle Way, we'll need to take a look at the founding of the faith. For this we turn to the life of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, known to history as Buddha. As we do this, keep in mind that much of his life has become the stuff of myth. Since there really was nothing written about him until centuries after his death, it's very hard to tell fact from fiction, and scholars often contradict one another when it comes to both the big and little details of his life.

However, despite this nebulous beginning, Buddha's teachings, known collectively as Dharma, have captured much of the Asian continent.

Wealthy Prince

Believed to be born sometime around 560 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama led a very wealthy and sheltered life. As the son of a ruler, he was confined to the palace and showered with all that money could buy.

Legend tells us his father worked to create for him a life free from suffering. However, even surrounded by such opulence, Gautama was still not satisfied and desired to experience life outside his royal existence. With that, he left his gilded cage in order to experience the 'real world,' and what he saw changed him forever.

Coming face to face with the suffering of the world and seeing things like the sick, the elderly, and the dead, he began to grapple with questions like, 'Why must humans suffer?' and 'Why is there pain in the world?'


With these questions rolling over in his mind, Siddhartha Gautama also came across a man living a life of asceticism, or severe self-discipline. Believing the appearance of this man to be a sign sent to him, Gautama decided to trade in his wealthy life for that of an ascetic. Perhaps this would give him the answers he sought.

Many scholars also feel this turn toward asceticism was his attempt to avoid the suffering of sickness, pain, and death. Some even teach that he became so fanatical he'd only eat one grain of rice per day.

However, as time went on and as he wasted away to nothing, Gautama thought better of this idea, coming to the awareness that this sort of life would kill him way before it enlightened him or answered his questions. So what could help? He had been born into wealth and had been privy to every worldly pleasure, yet it wasn't enough. He tried deprivation of every kind, even to the point of starvation, but it too hadn't done the trick.

Bodhi Tree & Meditation

Realizing that extreme self-deprivation wasn't the answer but also knowing neither was a life of extravagance, Gautama turned to meditation.

One day while sitting under a tree, known as the Bodhi Tree or Tree of Wisdom, Gautama entered into deep meditation. In his transcendent state, he believed himself to have been made aware of the fact that true happiness or contentment can only be found in a life of moderation in which one chooses to walk a middle path between extreme indulgence and self-deprivation. With this, the Middle Way was conceived.

To state it very simply, the Middle Way is a balanced or moderate approach to life. To Buddha, this was the key to one's happiness. In short, pleasure was fleeting; asceticism was awful, so moderation, or the middle of the two, must be where it's at!

Eightfold Path

However, Buddha didn't teach that a person should just roll over and play dead or live a life of hum-drum existence. On the contrary, a person needs to actively seek to live justly while also seeking a life of moderation!

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