Learning Buddhism: Getting Beyond Paradox And Confusion

As Zen Buddhist priest and best selling author Steven Hagen writes in Buddhism Is Not What You Think, at the entrance to many Buddhist temples in Japan are the guardians of the truth, Paradox and Confusion. They are so placed because it is well understood that along the path you will encounter these two.

The learning of Buddhism does not proceed down a purely rational path. Parts of it are highly rational to be sure, but it is not entirely so. This is most obviously seen given the emphasis placed on the fact that enlightenment can only be grasped through experience, through “no-mind”. Reason is required for a part of the journey however it must be abandoned at some point to complete the journey.


Also it does not proceed in a linear manner but rather an iterative manner. Let’s call it “Learning To See The Elephant.” We are all familiar with the blindfolded  men and the elephant story. Each feels a different part and so describes an elephant differently. From their individual perspectives, until they have had a chance to thoroughly examine the entire elephant, they cannot possibly know what an elephant actually looks like. Meanwhile, as they proceed from one part to another, their idea of “elephant” is constantly being revised.

Learning Buddhism is like this. Instead of an elephant, we must learn the nature of Eight Fold Path. At each step along the path, there will be times when it does not seem to make sense, just as an animal being a large flat sheet (elephant’s ear) does not make sense. Also there will be times when the blindfolded man at one end of the elephant will not agree with description of the elephant coming from the blindfolded man at the other end. The elephant offers us lessons in studying Buddhism

We can examine the entire elephant but we will still not fully understand until our blindfolds are removed and we “see”. Only with this “insight”, this knowing that is beyond thinking or words, do we truly come to understand just what an elephant is.

Thus we study the Eight Fold Path. Right View points the way, then we journey along the remaining seven steps and with each step our blindfold loosens until it falls away and – we see! And when we see we arrive back at Right View. Only this time instead of it being a direction it is a deep understanding. We no longer seek Right View but have Right View. Now we set out on the path again but this time with a different agenda. We are no longer seekers but lovers, happy to explore the territory again and again.

Let’s consider another reason Buddhism cannot be learned simply as a mental exercise. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the answer to all of the following physics questions was “No”.

Can an object exist as a particle and a wave at the same time?
Can an object move from one place to another without any time involved?
Can two objects exhibit identical changes at the same time regardless of the distance between them?
Can an object change its behavior or properties depending on whether it is being observed or not?

This “no” response was based on the “rigid frame” model of the physical universe, the clockwork reality of Newton and Copernicus.

Yet by the end of the twentieth century the answer to all of these questions is “Yes.” The difference is that the model of the universe as a “rigid frame” was demolished by Quantum Theory, a model of the universe as a field of potentials where the properties and behaviors of objects depend on conditions.

Richard Feynman, one of the leading researchers of Quantum Theory stated, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” The physicists knew they were involved in a process of discovery. They knew that they had to let go of the rigid frame mindset forever or they would never be able to understand what they were seeing.

Similarly, if you try to learn Buddhism with a purely Western philosophical mindset, you are using the same rigid frame approach as the physicists. You will never actually get to practicing Buddhism but instead you will forever be stuck niggling over details like two blindfolded men. A determination to fit Buddhism into a rigid frame is really a function of the ego as it seeks to find yet another way to remain in control.

Buddhism is both an art and a science. It is therefore best learned from a perspective of a middle way, through a process of practice, discovery and experience in addition to study and reflection, without attachment to either. One must return to Shunryu Suzuki’s “Beginners Mind,” proceeding then like an archeologist, unearthing a vast city long forgotten in the jungle as it slowly reveals its marvels and  majesty.

No matter how scholarly your approach to Buddhism may be, there is ultimately no final authority outside your own heart for the simple reason that the Buddha’s original words were never written down. It was 500 years after his death before his teachings were written down. To put that in perspective consider now, in the 21st century, putting down in writing for the first time the teachings of an individual who lived in 1500.

The teachings were first written in Pali, Sanskrit and Prakrit. Yet according to Thich Nhat Hanh in The Heart Of Buddha’s Teaching, the Buddha spoke none of these languages but instead a local dialect called Magadhi or Ardhamagadhi.

These writings were in turn translated to English and it was not always possible to find equivalent English words. The English version of the Four Noble Truths states, “The cause of suffering is desire” yet in many other sutras The Buddha states that we should desire to be good students of the dharma and good parents, employers or governors.

In his day it is likely he would have used different words to clarify the different meanings. So when we read, “The cause of suffering is desire” we must remind ourselves that Buddha’s original choice of words would have reflected the subtle meanings of his own language, culture and time.

Thus we cannot simply accept the written teachings literally but must use the Buddhist practices of loving-kindness, compassion, mindfulness and meditation to come to understand.

For all these reasons and more, there is no final authority on the Buddha’s teachings but what we have does provide us with a sufficient map. However only our own hearts journey through the real territory will enable us to finally arrive, to ride that elephant through the gates guarded by paradox and confusion, into the marvelous and majestic city of Nirvana.

Posted January 21, 2012 by Rick Bateman