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Paradoxes in Buddhism

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Feb 16, 2011 05:29 PM

Buddhism is full of paradoxes, and many of them are germane to Japanese nature writing. Here is an outline of some of those paradoxes.


If the goal of Buddhism is to have no desires, how does one act—would one starve?

  • “Preferences only.” An enlightened Buddhist does prefer some things over others—such as eating rather than starving. But a Buddhist is not attached to that preference and so is not troubled if s/he doesn’t obtain the preference. “Desire” = preference plus attachment.
  • “Free spontaneity.”  An enlightened Buddhist acts on her true nature, which responds spontaneously to changing circumstances. “If you’re hungry you eat; if you’re tired you sleep.”


What happens to emotions in enlightenment? Aren’t emotions a result of desires and dis-ease? Is an enlightened Buddhist devoid of all emotions?

  • “Dispassion” tradition. Emotions are a result of attachments. The goal is to have no desires.
  • “Free flow” tradition. Emotions themselves are not the problem. The problem is that we have desires and aversions about our emotions. If we don’t resist or hold onto the emotions, if we become one with them, they flow naturally through us. This does not disturb enlightenment. This is true at least for some emotions (e.g., joy or sorrow) but maybe not others (e.g., rage) because by nature they signify emotions and desires/aversions. The point is that you can have emotions and remain content and tranquil.

The bodhisattva paradox.

The bodhisattva is an advanced Buddhist who turns away from trying to achieve her own enlightenment and works on behalf of all those who suffer: “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” This is based on compassion: “he who hears the cries of all that suffer.” But wouldn’t such openness to massive suffering lead to desires and aversions—or numbness? Only by remaining content can one remain open to the suffering of others. Therefore true compassion involves contentment.

Reality and illusion

Is what we call reality an illusion? Doesn’t Buddhism say that it is illusion, but don’t they also talk of seeing things as they are? Tension: poets write about their experiences of reality, but in some sense reality is not quite real.

  • “Illusion”. Yes, reality is an illusion. A recognition of this fact helps you remain unattached to circumstances, enabling you to attain tranquility.
  • “Delusion.” No, the problem is delusion—a quality of our state of mind and consciousness. Reality is really there. We simply misinterpret it, in particular because

o   we falsely believe that we are a self separated from the rest of the world

o   we see life as made of individual things rather than a web of interrelationships

o   we think of things as unchanging rather than always in process.

These delusions distort reality in our minds and lead to desires and suffering. Enlightenment is a state in which those delusions are gone, along with desires and aversions. Then one sees reality as it really is. “Thusness.

Desiring enlightenment?

We are stuck in our deluded and attached state of mind. How can one break out that state unless one has desires? And if one does have desires, wouldn’t that keep one form obtaining enlightenment?

  • “Unattached preferences.”
  • “Free spontaneity.”
  • “Pulling the rug out.” You start out with intense desire, which establishes intense and full focus on achieving enlightenment. When this is firmly established, one jettisons the desire and enters a complete and total focus on the present, which is enlightenment.

What is the relationship between delusion and enlightenment?

The cause of suffering is delusion. Delusion arises out of dualistic thought, including the dualism involved in desiring enlightenment. How can you affirm the distinction between delusion and enlightenment (necessary to get you on the path) and deny that duality which keeps you deluded?

  • “Original enlightenment.” You are all Buddhas right now. The problem is that you think you have a problem. The goal is to recognize that you have always been Buddha. The process is one of subtraction: getting rid of that distinction between being deluded and being enlightened.
  • “Perfect and complete.” (This is not an alternative to original enlightenment, only a corollary to it.) Our delusions make us think that life can be better. This leads to desires and attachments. The goal (and the process) is to realize that this moment or any moment is perfect and complete as it is.

>> Note: “perfect and complete” is like a code word for ridding yourself of judgments or expectations, desires or aversions. One gives total attention to the present.





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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Feb 16, 2011 05:29 PM