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Paradox and the Dhamma
Paradox and the Dhamma is an article and talk about the paradoxes that have arisen due to the changing intent of Dhamma practice. Often modern Buddhism is presented as a religion that is prone to confusion and failure with conflicting goals. This is a quote from a (recently deceased) internationally recognized Buddhist master:
“Thus we arrive at the paradoxical truth of the Buddha way: the only possible free choice we can make is to choose to work for the freedom of all humankind, indeed of all sentient beings. Failure may be inevitable, but recognizing that is the first step in becoming free.”
As pointed out by this teacher the Bodhisattva ideal is a significant paradoxical doctrine of modern Buddhism. This altruistic, but confused and paradoxical notion, states that it is the highest form of Buddhist practice is to delay individual awakening until all beings are awakened, or to seek awakening for the sole benefit of “all sentient beings.” This is often presented as an unattainable goal as “un-awakened beings are endless” that is predetermined to failure. It also confuses the individual process of directly self-awakening.
Engaging in the dhamma and taking true refuge in the dhamma does not begin with recognizing the paradox of attempting to “save all sentient beings” but with the realistic and achievable goal of individual awakening. Engaging in the Dhamma begins to disentangle one from the difficulties and distraction of self-identity reinforced by constant social interaction.
The Buddha often said “As an un-awakened bodhisattva I had the thought that renunciation and seclusion is good but, being an un-awakened bodhisattva my heart did not leap at renunciation, I did not grow confident or steadfast in the Dhamma, I did not see renunciation bringing peace.
“Then the thought occurred to me that I have yet to understand the drawback of self-indulgence through sensual pleasures. I have yet to understand the reward of renunciation. That is why my heart does not engage fully with the path and renunciation.
“Then the thought occurred to me if having understood the drawback of sensual pleasures (leading to distraction and suffering, Right View) I pursued the path my heart would leap at renunciation and I would develop freedom, release and lasting peace and happiness.”
The Buddha spoke of being a Boddhisattva prior to his awakening and describes the confused and paradoxical quality of mind of an “un-awakened Bodhisattva.” He certainly did not delay his awakening until ”all sentient beings” awakened and he never presented himself as a savior. He awakened, through his own efforts and through his own inquiry into impermanence, not-self, and dukkha. He did not teach a salvific religion. He taught an Eightfold Path that any human being could engage with and become “rightly self-awakened” as he awakened.
An awakened human being is of far more benefit to all humanity than an un-awakened Bodhisattva, as the Buddha’s own awakening shows.
The Eightfold Path does not begin by recognizing the futility of “saving all sentient beings” or any other confused or paradoxical teaching. The Eightfold Path presents the real possibility to awaken by taking responsibility for what one is responsible for and can realistically achieve. Once awakened the confusion and distraction of constantly providing satisfaction for the confused views of an ego-personality, including somehow developing the ability to save all beings, is abandoned, and useful and effective social engagement rooted in wisdom develops.
There is no paradox in the Buddha’s original and direct teachings. Paradoxical Buddhist teachings developed well after the Buddha’s death and teaching career. The only failure that can be attributed to Dhamma practice is to become distracted by later-developed “Buddhist teachings” that are confusing and paradoxical.
In the Satthusasana Sutta the Buddha is asked by Upali, then a follower of Nigantha Nataputa, a contemporary of the Buddha’s, if he would give a brief teaching of the Dhamma that having heard he would “dwell secluded, heedful, ardent, and resolute.” (in his understanding) Upali is asking how to determine a useful and effective teaching from a doctrine that would lead to more confusion.
The Buddha responded “be mindful of those qualities of mind and doctrines that do not lead to complete disenchantment or dispassion. Be mindful of those qualities of mind and doctrines that do not develop cessation and calm. Be mindful of those qualities of mind and doctrines that do not develop direct knowledge (of The Four Noble Truths) or to self-awakening or to unbinding from self-referential views. When mindful in this manner you will know ‘this is not the Buddha’s dhamma, this is not his teaching.’
“When you are mindful of the qualities of mind and the doctrine that develops complete disenchantment and dispassion, when you are mindful of the qualities of mind and the doctrine that develops cessation and calm, when you are mindful of the qualities of mind and the doctrine that develops direct knowledge (of The Four Noble Truths) and to self-awakening, to unbinding, then you will know ‘this is the Buddha’s Dhamma, this the Buddha’s teaching.”
Upali would become a monk in the Buddha’s sangha and awaken as the result of direct knowledge gained through wholehearted engagement with the Eightfold Path. Having understood the importance of discerning the Buddha’s teachings and a useful method of distinguishing the Dhamma from other Dharma’s he would become an Arahant, an awakened human being.
At the First Buddhist Council, shortly after the Buddha’s death, Upali, along with Ananda, would recall and recite the Buddha’s teachings (Ananda the Sutta’s, the doctrine, and Upali the Vinaya, the discipline) and establish the Dhamma in a manner that continues in usefulness and authenticity today.
The First Noble Truth describes the truth of suffering which includes confusion and seeming paradox in the impermanent phenomenal world. Confusing and paradoxical “dharma’s” arise by adapting and accommodating the Buddha’s direct teachings to fit a confused and paradoxical doctrine. This confused doctrine is often then used to continue to establish a self-referential view and a self-referential “Buddhism.”
This is understandable as it was the initial confusion and seeming paradox of the world, and the unsatisfactory nature of human life, that caused Siddartha Gotama to leave his life of luxury and spend six arduous years seeking understanding. Many of the “spiritual” practices he mastered during those six years he rejected precisely because they were confusing and paradoxical.
The Buddha awakened to the cause of all human unsatisfactoriness: ignorance. This is a very specific ignorance. Dependent Origination teaches very clearly that from ignorance (of The Four Noble Truths) through twelve observable and causative links, the unsatisfactory nature of life follows. He presented this first teaching as The Four Noble Truths. He would spend the next 45 years teaching, always in the context of developing understanding of these truths.
Developing the Buddha’s Eightfold Path does take Right Effort. A consistent Jhana meditation practice developed within the framework of the Eightfold Path brings lasting peace and happiness. Engaging whole-heartedly with the Eightfold Path does not begin with acknowledging the confusing and paradoxical of the dharma, but the understanding that through direct inquiry through the original teachings of the Buddha will bring understanding and release.
If a teaching presented as “Buddhism” seems confusing and/or paradoxical the lesson that the Buddha presented to Upali is useful. Does the teaching hold the possibility of developing understanding of The Four Noble Truths? Will it develop cessation of self-referential views or does it further establish self-referential views?
Remember that every teaching the Buddha presented was to develop understanding of the generally unsatisfactory nature of life that is caused by craving to continue to establish an ego-personality, and clinging to objects, events, views, and ideas that maintain the confusion and paradoxical nature of an ego-self. Every teaching the Buddha presented was presented in the context of The Four Noble Truths.
“I teach (understanding) suffering and the cessation of suffering. Nothing more.” (SN 22:45)
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.