One of the most popular metaphors we find across human thought is balance, the idea that we should not do too much, nor too little. Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China were both advocates of balance in all things, and the Jains, following Mahavira, argue that we should not be one-sided. The Buddha tried living in a palace with every luxury, and then he tried doing without everything in the jungle, but neither worked. In other words, the Buddha tried being a Jain, but he found that Jain practices are not non-one-sided enough. There are Buddhist images and statues which portray the Buddha obtaining enlightenment while still severely emaciated, but these are not the typical popular portrayal of the Buddha as neither too thin nor too fat, in line with the idea of moderation between extremes.
Gautama Siddhartha is never depicted as fat, though many Americans and others wrongly believe that the Buddha was fat because of the popular “Laughing Buddha”, the happy fat monk and good luck saint who supposedly lived around 900 CE. Known as Budai in China and Hotei in Japan, his name means ‘Cloth Sack’, and he is often shown holding a sack, and orange, or a ball of butter up in the air. He loved playing with children and giving them gifts from his bag, just like the sort of people Nancy Reagan warned us about in the 80s. In one Zen koan story, a monk approached Budai as he was giving out candy and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?”, a common koan question, and Budai dropped his bag to the ground. The monk then asked, “How does one realize this?”, and Budai picks up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and wandered off.
Budai is extremely popular in Chinese culture, and it is believed that he brings good luck and fortune to lay people and shop owners. Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck, which is why the gold paint or red die on the belly of Budai statues in restaurants is often word away. People saw Budai in the Chinatowns of America and Europe, and assumed this Buddhist monk to be the Buddha himself. Yes, but only in the way that all of us are the original Buddha, Budai and the entire cosmos. When people think that the Buddha is fat, this is somewhat like confusing Friar Tuck with Jesus. Jesus is also depicted as skinny, not as a fat Franciscan brewing beer.
The Middle Way is what Buddha taught those who first listened to him, including ascetics, after he himself had practiced asceticism. He realized that a mind without hate, greed and confusion can see and experience so much more of the world, but that we must be both dispassionate and compassionate at the same time. Unlike Mahavira, Buddha thought we should grow our passions, the seeds in you into fruits, growing causes into effects, without allowing them to become too inflamed and out of control, neither burning them all off nor allowing them to grow out of control. Rather than try to escape our attachments, individuality and perspective entirely for unmotivated omniscience, we should pragmatically engage with whatever side of the elephant we find ourselves on with the wisdom that there is always more than one side.
One of the great scholars of Buddhism as philosophy is David Kalupahana, who studied with Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke, who studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, my favorite modern European philosopher. For many years, Kalupahana was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, one of the foremost institutions in the comparison of Eastern and Western thought. Kalupahana argues that Buddha, like William James and Wittgenstein, was a pragmatist who sought a middle way between dogmatic absolutism and skeptical relativism. Our desires and conceptions are true and false, believable and doubtable, and so it is not about what we believe in itself but what we do with our beliefs in practice. Desires and conceptions are not bad in themselves, but tools that are used in ways that result in good and bad. Thus, we should grow the seeds in us wisely, without burning them off or growing them into too much fruit.
Buddha argued that there are many different views and schools, but that all of their theories are based on both reason and experience. The Nyaya logicians had argued before the Buddha that there are four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, testimony and comparison. We experience things and experience others telling us about their experiences, and we reason about what is true beyond our and others experiences, making comparisons between different things and their different possibilities.
Some schools, like the Nyaya, believed that reason is central and yogic insight unnecessary, but other schools, like the Jains, believe that yogic insight acquired through practices is necessary. Thus, both the Nyaya and the Jains believe in both reason and experience, but the Nyaya believe that reason is essential and experience is a helpful, while the Jains believe that experience is essential and reason is helpful. In the early modern European philosophical tradition, these two positions were known as Rationalism and Empiricism, the first major schism, with Descartes and Kant on the side of reason as universal and Locke and Hume on the side of experience as complex.
The Buddha argued that siding with the Rationalist Nyaya or the Empiricist Jains are each an overstatement (adhivuttipada in Pali, similar to the Jain anekantavada in Sanskrit), as we should not have too much faith in reason nor too much faith in experience. We must believe and doubt our perceptions as well as our reflections, maintaining awareness of the situation. Too much faith in one side of things blinds us because there are different positions we can take and things change. What if we trust our reasoning, and deny counterexamples in our experiences, including the testimony of others? What if we trust our experiences, such that we deny our reasoning, including comparisons we can make between how we do things and how we could do things better? In one early text found in the Majjhima-Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses), Buddha is recorded as saying:
Even if I know something on the basis of best faith, that may be empty, hollow, and confused, while what I do not know on the best faith may be factual, true and not otherwise. It is not proper for an intelligent person, safeguarding the truth, to come categorically to the conclusion in this matter that such alone is true and whatever else is false.