The First Order of Business in the Middle Way Teachings – Clearing Away Wrong Views

For practical purposes, it’s helpful to know that there are two distinct teachings offered in what has come down to us as The Middle Way. One is negation-only, while the other negates and then affirms some aspect of truth…


These each have different functions, and it can be helpful to know this – to clearly identify what kind of teaching we are reading or listening to, and see if it matches what we need at any particular time in our life. There is a reason for each, as we will see.

Perhaps someone hearing the teachings on anatta receive all they need from this, and they are liberated from self grasping and realize freedom and great compassion. Other teachings have come down to us, based on those very liberating insights of the Buddha. Why was this so? Why not just keep the language of the original teachings? One reason could be that the realized sages that followed the Buddha, out of their wisdom and compassion found and developed other ways to guide their students. At their best, they explain the meaning of the teachings with greater accuracy and precision.

In terms of the history of Buddhist wisdom teachings then, anatta, or no-self in the Pali Canon was followed by the Prajna Paramita, including the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra. These were then followed by the Middle Way, Great Perfection, Mahamudra and the teachings on Buddha Nature. Each subsequent teaching explains more clearly what came before, chronologically, and so, for example, the learning about the Middle Way and practicing according to those instructions makes what is taught in the Heart Sutra easier to understand, and to practice.

This Middle Way, in its two aspects, looks back, to the earlier Prajna Paramita and anatta teachings, and then, even in one discourse when it begins to use affirmative language, speaking of clear light, spaciousness, freedom, and joy, it looks forward, to the subsequent teachings, of Mahamudra, Dzogchen and those on Buddha Nature, and the Vajrayana View, the basis of Buddhist Tantra.

Where am I? You are here. Prasangika / Svatantrika, Madhyamaka / Maha Madhyamaka, Rangtong / Shentong Madhyamaka

It helps to know there are different views within Traditions, and that each approach will order the teachings in their own way, stating their view as the pinnacle, encompassing and surpassing all others. These are matters of debate, and for the philosophically minded.

Practically speaking, I find it more useful to consider all these teachings in terms of their function:

Jamgon Kontrul said that the teachings that just negate, such as the Prasangika approach, are the best for removing wrong view, while those that negate and then affirm, speak of our true nature.

The teachers and lineages who would speak of both aspects, for the sake of clarity, sometimes distinguish Madhyamaka, from Maha Madhyamaka, Middle Way from the Great Middle Way, or Rangtong (empty of self) and Shentong Madhyamaka (‘empty of other’ or, as Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche expressed it, ‘empty of the habitual negativities and obscurations that cloud the beauty of our inherent nature’).

We do need both, it seems, and organically, in this sequence too.

If we were to try to affirm something about ourselves, without clearing away the residue and habit of our wrong views – what Lama Zopa said, as ordinary beings, we project onto everything, all the time, there will be conflict; the view will be obscured, or else we will reify those experiences, as we have so often in the past. To get beyond this tendency, and the even the very subtle remainder of ego grasping, practicing the deconstruction through analysis of what we think of as self that is offered in the Middle Way is most effective. Then all that follows becomes clear.

At that point, the second aspect of the Middle Way teachings, affirming some aspect of truth can be taken up, with less danger of grasping, and making the same old samsaric mistakes of mind. These speak of non-duality, freedom, clear light, being unimpeded, and lead naturally to what’s referred to as the Third Turning of the Wheel, on Buddha Nature.

Examples of Middle Way teaching

Lama Lodro Rinpoche taught the practice in this way:

Look from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet for whatever you are called by name, for ‘I’, ‘me’…

{Investigate… look thoroughly…then,}

You can see it’s not there. It’s a concept….

When you don’t find it, stop looking. You found it (the point of this meditation) already… stay with that…

Look one time each session, then, when you come to the point that you realize there’s nothing there, then stay there. Don’t analyze further…

Ringu Tulku expressed it like this:

The main method here is to cut through all your concepts, to cut through all your projections, so therefore, there is no affirmation.

If there is any statement, ‘This is it’ – then, with logic, through reason, you say, ‘No’.

In this approach, it’s seen that, whatever you say is a concept. So in this way, you let go, you cut off, you dissolve all your concepts…

And in the modern classic Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso says that, after analysis,

‘We will confine ourselves to refuting all views, but not asserting any counter argument establishing any views of our own. This  amounts to a complete destruction of all conceptual views of the nature of reality…


The aim of the Prasangika is to silence completely the conceptual mind, allowing the mind to rest in absolute freedom from concepts…

This is the first delineated method of Middle Way practice, bringing the mind, via a precise and thoroughgoing analysis, to the point of ‘a non-affirming negation’. This insight should be well established first, before moving on to other meditations.

This first aspect of Middle Way practice leads to the cessation of grasping and believing in, and taking to be true all concepts about ourselves, and others, objects, places, and events. We settle down. Then what is true is revealed. It is implicit. Going step by step, we can realize this.