Several centuries ago, a prince known as Siddhartha made his way to a place near Bodh Gaya in India where he found a suitable site for meditation. On the full moon of the fourth month of the lunar calendar he sat beneath a Bodhi Tree and vowed not to rise from his position until he had attained consummate enlightenment. Also known as Buddha, Siddhartha finally reached a state of nirvana under that tree. Since that fateful day stamped in spiritual history, the Buddha’s teachings have endured over generations.
Three Buddhist perspectives strike my mind as exceptional; each revolves around the competing forces of temporal versus permanent existence, of physical versus mental steadiness. The first stresses the inevitability of hedonism in human existence: We are a species governed by desires, appearances and fleeting activities. The second perspective appears diametrically opposed to the first: the world — and everything in it — is ultimately eternal and permanent. These conflicting perspectives mirror Platonic dualism, except Buddha went further than Socrates’ pupil and posited a third perspective, that of the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the essence of life that transcends and encompasses these two opposites: It is an indivisible relationship between body and spirit.
I believe that we can apply The Middle Way at both the global and local level.
During my winter break in Amman, Jordan, my family spent time in areas just 100 miles away from territory belonging to the Islamic State group, also known as Daesh in Arabic. The Middle Way tells us that it is crucial for policymakers and intelligence organizations to combat Daesh through a gray lens — one that delicately balances emotional outcry and intellectualization of conflict. What do I mean by this?
Sometimes it is appropriate to fight terrorism with hedonistic impulses. Take, for instance, the burning of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. Prior to his torturous immolation, approximately one-third of Jordanians held varying degrees of sympathy for the Daesh cause. Many Jordanians were tied to Sunni tribes in Western Iraq who had suffered at the cruel hands of Saddam Hussein and in the carnage of the Iraq War. In spite of these sympathies, after the pilot was burned alive, the Royal Hashemite Court executed a hyper-emotional propaganda campaign that successfully incited a national rally-around-the-flag effect. A picture of King Abdullah donning special forces attire popped up on Instagram, with a caption elaborating the monarch’s desire to personally strike Syrian territory. A series of heavy air campaigns subsequently destroyed Daesh strongholds. The result of this public retaliation was a severe turn in Jordanian public opinion: Now a full 98 percent of surveyed Jordanians oppose Daesh. In this case, emotional backlash proved tremendously successful.
But in other situations, defeating Daesh also involves resisting the temptations of emotivism. If we were to act on raw impulses alone, the result would be unchecked CIA drone strikes, barbaric calls for vengeful bloodshed and supposedly adept politicians pushing for an immigration embargo on Muslim refugees. We would see rampant Islamophobia at play and cries for a resurgence of dangerous “enhanced interrogation” programs. Politicians need to understand the importance of meticulously navigating gray space. We must intellectualize this problem in the form of, for instance, algorithms predicting Daesh recruitment success based on an individual’s geographic region, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and gender.
A black-and-white outlook on Daesh will backfire. Pragmatism and honesty — especially with regards to our nation’s mistakes in Iraq — will do much more good than a Superman, “save the world” approach.
So, on a global level, the Middle Way bridges political fury and rational thinking to create a stronger path to defeating Daesh.
On a local level, we Yalies should heed the Middle Way as we conduct our lives as students, friends and citizens of this University. One example of unchecked hedonism comes in the form of excessive binge drinking, abusive Adderall use and nonconsensual sexual behavior. On the flip side, sometimes we over-intellectualize our problems to our own detriment. For example, instead of responding compassionately to the grievances aired by students of color last semester, many were keen to focus exclusively on the issue of free speech. These two extremes — one dominated by pernicious desires, the other by dispassionate abstraction — should be rejected in favor of a Middle Way.
From the deserts of Daesh territory to our own neo-Gothic campus, the Middle Way can be counted on to provide an answer to problems both large and small.
Isaac Amend is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .