on paradox

Following a period of practice – and it may be counted in years – it will happen that the body begins to find a balance, naturally. It is at this liminal place, as between dawn and day that the mind, gradually or suddenly, is set free.

In treading the heavily wooded path toward the numinous, distant as a crystal mountain, I have recently found myself returning to the use of paradox as a means of cutting through: to truth not far – nearer than near… This for myself but also in the spurring-on of others. Or, put the other way around and therefore paradoxically: Paradox seems to be using me.

This is nothing new, as a means along the Way; most wisdom traditions have a seam of it, especially those whose oral rather than transcribed teaching has lasted from a distant past into the common era.

PUM PUM PUM: means what? Answers what?

Thus, and in the most general of terms… In the west the Hellenistic schools, emerging from the age of myth, traced in marble the tradition of ‘free discussion’ – (including the using of paradox, a Greek word after all) – setting the scene for our more than two millennia of discovery by means of reason and logic. In northern Asia, and elsewhere, ‘thorough debate’ and ‘skilful means’ appear: sects of Tibetan Buddhism still have a prevalent and lively form of this. Further east, originating in the Chan/Zen discipline, the ‘mind-bursting’ kung-an/koan 公案 takes deep root; these being neither discussion nor debate but set as a case-study in the form of an apparently un-unravelable paradox. Tailored to fit a student’s progress, the paradox may be presented as a statement or question, as illustrative story, even as physical action. Then… some long season might pass, often in solitude, in an attempt to open the meditative mind enough to allow a response to shine through. Sometimes guidance is needed; so it is not that with kung-an there can be no conversation – student to teacher, novice to master – it is just that it occurs entirely personally, even intimately: word to word and mind to mind; with the further paradox that the response and its acceptance or rejection might happen in the instant of a moment, by way of a terse and sometimes yelled single syllable; or, as likely and more kindly, with a hand gentle to the shoulder, a dropped glance, encouragement to go further.

Nowadays, unlike discussion or debate, it would seem that paradoxical statements and questions as means of (self-) discovery have largely fallen away. This is a loss and at some point we must feel it. In Rinzai Zen, largely predicated upon the koan, it exists still, though even here periodically becoming stultified, over-set and over-ritualized, waiting for the next great teacher to bring it back to its flower of life.

In the west students mostly seem nonplussed at its use. Given a paradox they think: ‘What does he mean, “Where is your beginners’ mind: show it to me?” What does he mean?’ Their entire education has been predicated on Q & A: where every Q has an A, every query a theory, every equation a solution; any statement can be proven or not. All is rational. But throw in a paradox, even when there is little of immediate matter behind it, as: ‘This glass: half full, half empty?’, and there is generally a feeling that it’s too confusing, too difficult, easier to move onto something else. And should the paradox point to something altogether more substantial, to our interior selves – ‘What are you, really?’ – or spiritual nature – ‘Where were you before you were born?’ Well then… a wilderness-like silence swallows the room… Some few may open-up, it’s true, but they will open in a western way – which is to open behind a wall and on their own terms thank you very much. Thus the student is shifted sideways not forwards…

This cannot suffice.  Gets nowhere, actually.  Is not it.  Does not cut through.

Looking to the east – though replicable anywhere – and its tradition in spiritual training of both mind and/with body, the response comes differently.  However long it may take, howsoever much guidance needed, and finally… It is this:

Paradox set down, happens its revelation in the same moment.
Self realises self, realises selfless.

So we come to it softly, resolutely, mind at heart, knowing that the root of understanding grows from a very self-particular and self-wise-ing seed. There is self-discipline, self-reliance, there is self-obedience, there is taking of one-self in hand beyond any bond of duty.
There is none other and there is all other.
In stepping to the foot of the mountain we know its crystal peak, its silver crown of cloud where the diamond thunderbolt flies, the lightning sword cleaves, the fire-arrow and the pole-axing Word fall splintering in transcendence, when everything is changed…

When everything is changed, yet all is as it was, yet all is new, dawn into day…
Nearer than near.

Master Hui Hai, the Great Pearl, living late C8th, left us this:


©February 2016