I have always been intrigued by paradox. A paradox is defined as a statement or proposition that seems contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. One must have some degree of comfort and acceptance of paradox in order to study the Dharma. This is because Buddhism is teeming with ideas and propositions that seem to fly in the face of “conventional wisdom.” I would like to list some of these. I am sure this is not an exhaustive list and you may think of many more examples.
Before I give you my list of Buddhist paradoxes I would like to share a real life example how our intuition about things can be misleading at best and even painful at worst. I used to be an avid downhill skier. I took up skiing relatively late in life at the ripe old age of 30. As my skills increased I ventured on to steeper and steeper terrain.
When making a “controlled” turn on a steep slope one must lean down the hill in order to allow the ski edges to grab the snow and slow the descent. Of course, when you are on a double black diamond run fear is telling you to lean into the hill, certainly not down the hill. Every time I listened to my fear and intuition I would have a “garage sale.” That is a ski term for leaving one’s poles and skies scattered all over the mountain. It took me quite a while to overcome my natural tendency to find safety and security and just trust my skies.
So, here is my list of Buddhist paradoxes in no particular order:
- Being a goal oriented person I want to “succeed” at meditation and attain liberation and enlightenment as soon as possible. Of course, the only way to achieve success in Buddhism is by not pursuing success
- We are taught happiness comes from outside of ourselves in pursuing worldly concerns. Buddhism, however, teaches that happiness can only be found within and worldly concern are actually the source of suffering.
- We feel happiness comes from taking whatever we want and can get and by being self-centered. Whereas, in truth, happiness can only be derived by giving and being concerned about others.
- We want to avoid suffering and adversity at all costs. Buddhism teaches that that through learning to handle adversity we can develop all the good qualities and make true progress on the path.
- We love our friends and hate our enemies. Buddhism tells us friends are nice but they can’t bring us to enlightenment. It is really our enemies who we should cherish as a “precious jewel.”
- We think that we can control our environment and all the people in it. The harder we try the more we suffer.
- If we can’t control the environment in which we live and the people in it then, at least, we can control ourselves. Think about it. Can we control birth, aging, sickness and death? And what about our minds? Can you make it to 10 when you are meditating on the breath?
- We deeply believe that ourselves and everything that we contact has an intrinsic essence or inherent nature. This is the supreme paradox of the Buddha’s teachings. In actual fact, we are dependent on a myriad of causes and conditions. This ignorance is the root cause of all the suffering in the world.
- OK. Maybe we’re not inherently existent. But at least we’re self sufficient and substantially existent. I just know there’s got to be a controller or CEO of me somewhere. Sorry, wrong again.
- Certainly there has to be something in the universe that is solid and unchanging. Yes. The law that states everything changes and is empty of inherent existence.
- We celebrate birth and mourn death. Perhaps that too is a paradox. Birth is the beginning of aging, sickness and death. Whereas, death can be the glorious moment in our life when we can take refuge in the Three Jewels and ultimately escape cyclic existence.
I hope you found this list of paradoxes useful and can think of some of your own. The Dharma forces us to think out of the box and question many of the “truths” that we have whole heartedly believed since beginning less time.