You must have already come across some of these paradoxes in Buddhism. I am going to go through some of the typical paradoxes we encounter in Buddhism and I'll try to explain them or why we tend to deny or reject them and why they make sense, although they go against our common understanding of things. First I'll list these paradoxes and then I'll try to explain the first four or five. Tomorrow or later today or sometime, I promise, I will continue and write about the rest of the paradoxes.
Paradox No. 1
We sometimes try hard to attain the so called state of enlightenment, yet this state is the most ordinary state we experience many times a day.
Paradox No. 2
Zazen is useless, there is nothing we can gain in zazen, yet many authentic Buddhist masters considered zazen the essence of Buddhism and said there is no Buddhism without zazen.
Paradox No 3
There is a lot of philosophical talk in Buddhism, there are lots of books, where even the most excellent Buddhist monks failed to understand certain aspects of Buddhism, yet ultimately, there is nothing to understand intellectually. Intellectual understanding has to be transcended. In other words, although Buddhist philosophy is complex and intelligent, a true Buddhist leaves intellectual thought and becomes a simpleton.
Paradox No 4
The most excellent Buddhist masters spent years and years practicing zazen and studying Buddhist philosophy, yet the only time we can fulfil our Buddhist efforts is just now.
Paradox No 5
Although it is important to realize that our actions change the world so we have to act responsibly and thoughtfully, we are perfectly free and unlimited by our past actions in this very moment.
Paradox No 6
Although people interested in Buddhism hope to find perfect peace one day, the only way how to find perfect peace of mind is to stop trying to attain perfect peace of mind and just do something.
Paradox No 7
You look up to your master and hope to at least be similar to him or her, yet she is doing her best to convince you that you have been the Buddha since the very beginning.
Ad No 1
Somebody said that enlightenment is the very ordinary state of body and mind. Different teachers said more or less the same thing about it. Some of them were able to say it in a way that impressed you, some of them say it in a way that makes you fall asleep (boring cliches...), yet no matter if you are impressed or not, it is true, that enlightenment is your ordinary state. How to say it or how to explain this in a way that would not sound like repeating the same old truth over and over again? I think the danger or misunderstanding lies in this: If the highest state in Buddhism called enlightenment means the most ordinary state then there is absolutely nothing I should try to do or achieve in Buddhism and will just go back to my good old common lifestyle and thinking. But that's not what is meant by "ordinary" by those excellent Buddhist teachers. To go back to the market and buy wine is called enlightenment, final liberation or Buddha nature, but that is not exactly the state you always go shopping in your favorite supermarket. To become perfectly ordinary in Buddhism doesn't mean you go back to your materialistic frame of mind. So if enlightenment is just my ordinary self, I'll go back to the pub and kick somebody's ass. I'll spend all night watching porn just like Brad Warner, the famous Buddhist author, who praises porn and rock 'n' roll everywhere he goes. If that is ordinary, if that is the final liberation, I'll go to the bank and borrow a million, buy a boat and spend the rest of my life worrying how to pay for it. If ordinary means enlightenment, I'll throw out all my Buddhist books and stop practicing zazen and will spend my life arguing about soccer on Internet forums and dump all garbage in the woods. That is definitely not the ordinary state those excellent masters talked about. This kind of ordinary state is only laziness and stupidity. Take Brad Warner for example. There is a subtle difference between stupid and lazy consumption of porn in a polluted state of mind and something I would call thoughtful understanding of the complex issue called sex and finding a balanced way how to deal with your sex energy. Which is what Brad Warner is supporting, not getting lost in hedonism and materialism. There is a gigantic difference between cynically dirty and cheerfully mischievous. The way we should be ordinary in Buddhism, the way we go shopping is not lazy and materialistic and frustrated or restless, demanding and dissatisfied. The way old Zen masters went to the market was cheerful and content, caring and natural, spontaneous and wise. We must study carefully what ordinary in Buddhism means. We should try to understand this point very well, because if enlightenment in Buddhism is our ordinary state, that ordinary state might be something we haven't even noticed yet! So I am not saying it is something exotic, esoteric and special. But it it not our old lazy or restless self. It is the mind of a three year old kid who has just discovered a butterfly in the grass. It is the mind of an old philosophy professor who has put down the book and lighted his cigar with pleasure. It is the mind of a cyclist who has forgot his ambitions and decided to change gears before the steep uphill section of the race. It is the mind of a beginner who has no idea what zazen is and listens to instructions on how to sit zazen and tries to sit properly. The ordinary state in Buddhism is our perfect Buddha state, it is our original, natural caring about the universe and it is our complete freedom and satisfaction in the middle of everyday chores. It is saying hello to friends and putting dirty clothes into the washing machine. It is saying Oh well, when something goes wrong, without putting ourselves in the middle of the universe. It is sadness of the universe, the happiness of the universe, the fear of the universe, the complete satisfaction of the universe. It is not a stupid fellow saying I know everything. It is stupid wisdom and wise stupidity, it is an open window, it is a moment when everything is open. It is the moment we don't try to understand what doesn't have to be understood. It is the sun coming out of the clouds and going back behind the clouds. It is the flower in Buddha's hand and Mahakasyapa's smile. It is the beginning of Buddhism and the end of Buddhism. It is the most important thing in our lives and it is sitting right on our noses in this moment.
Ad No 2
The great goal of Buddhism, the noble goal of Buddhism is to learn that just doing something now is the best we can achieve. Usually we expect zazen to give us peace or wisdom or enlightenment or possibly all these things in one package. Four in one. But although we cannot deny that zazen gives an individual some individual benefits, if we consider zazen something that should satisfy one's individual needs, it is not the zazen of buddhas and ancestors. If we want to taste the zazen of Buddha Gautama or master Dogen, we have to try to enter the state of things beyond our individual self. In that realm there is nothing to gain as the whole universe loses and gains in each moment of zazen. If we realize that our zazen is satisfying, it is not really master Dogen's zazen. If we transcend the point where I am not interested in my zazen any more, there is the point in which all buddhas meet. We only practice shikantaza when we stop looking for our individual profit in zazen. We can only have the taste of Buddha's realization if we stop attaining realization for our separate self. Only when we are interested in the realization of the universe, can we practice the universal realization. We can have a little bit of personal profit from zazen, but if we let go of personal in zazen, the whole universe gains and loses, but for the universe, there is no difference between loss and gain. Then you are not interested in your own benefits. You don't stop practicing zazen just because you have had enough or you have achieved the nice, peaceful state. You only begin to practice zazen when you are not interested in your personal zazen any more. That's when shikantaza starts.
This sounds very difficult. You think most people experience nice states in zazen or struggle personally and almost nobody can practice zazen without a personal flavour to it. But in fact, moment after moment, when we think "I feel... I can't attain.... I have attained.... I am peaceful.... I am impatient..." even if we are practicing in the middle of our personal thoughts and delusion about ourselves, moment after moment we forget... we forget what we are and what we are doing individually and the shikantaza of zazen, our original state, the universal self, is practicing zazen together with the silly self. It's like I... Buddha.... I am .... forget... Buddha... Buddha appears over and over again and after some time, maybe after twenty minutes, you stop struggling and you give up and let Buddha take over and then you / Buddha practice peacefully. You give up your personal hopes or fears and let Buddha - your true self - practice. So some masters say that after twenty or thirty years of everyday zazen you will become familiar with your true self. But that doesn't mean that you are not essentially Buddha even at the beginning. Even if you practice zazen for the first time and you do it sincerely, trying to keep the right posture, you are expressing completely your Buddha nature and you have no reason to think that there is something special to look for in zazen. So for a beginner, it may be easier to just practice. A beginner is open to the situation. Whatever happens, she will experience it completely. Then later, the beginner is no longer a beginner and may think: Today I hope I'll feel peaceful after zazen. That's already... it is natural, but it is not why we practice zazen originally. Of course we realize zazen brings peace and balance to our everyday life, but we should not forget that it is the whole universe that brought peace to the whole universe, not just me or you. Zazen is the whole universe. So when we practice zazen, the limited self doesn't matter any more and there is nothing to get for the limited self. But the whole universe becomes itself. Whether it is gain or loss, I don't think the universe is interested in such categories.
Add No 3
A true Buddhist becomes a simpleton. That doesn't mean you try to understand something and then you fail to understand, then you give up and walk around saying I don't understand Buddhism. I mean there are moments of intellectual discussions when we ask or answer, when we try to understand something and sometimes we understand and sometimes we don't. But ultimately the most important thing is to not let intellectual thought take over our true self, our Buddhist experience. So a Chinese master made a circle in the air. Do you understand? It was his way how to make a step forward and leave the intellectual discussion. It is not giving up or saying: "I don't understand sutras". It means after some intellectual discussion it is necessary to return to the real state of things. Whether we understand or don't understand Buddhism intellectually, it is not as important as to be able to do something here and now. Some old Chinese masters were simple and only explained Buddhism in simple words and actions. Master Dogen was a genius. Whether you are a genius or a simple person doesn't matter, but whether you can express your Buddha nature in your everyday life, that matters very much. So if you want to make tea in the morning but are not able to do it, and instead open a book of sutras and look for solution there, that's a big problem. But if somebody cannot understand a sutra, but makes delicious tea in the morning, all sutra experts should visit such a person and learn from her. All sutras tell stories about somebody who can make nice tea in the morning. Only people who have made something real can talk about Buddhism without embarrassing themselves. Intellectuals who cannot appreciate real people who do real things have no room in Buddhism. All my words are ridiculous unless I actually do something in my real life. Only because I actually do practice zazen and do go to work and do have to deal with all kinds of problems in my life, only because such things do I feel bold enough to write something about Buddhism. There is a Zen teacher in Britain who hasn't published any books about Buddhism, who hasn't even posted his name in the website of his group, somebody I have never heard said or written anything about Buddhism, yet he is a great Buddhist teacher because he does something real, he goes and practices zazen with others and I am sure that he tries to answer questions about Buddhism. It is not important whether he writes a blog or a book or whether he can say something amazing about Buddhism. What is important is that he doesn't lie about himself and Buddhism and practices zazen with others and does his job in his everyday life. That's what I call excellent Buddhist teaching.
Ad No 4
How old are you? I am 46 but sometimes I forget how old I am. I think a few weeks ago I tried hard to remember how old I was and had to count the years on my fingers. I was born in 1967 so I must be 46. But whether I am really 46 I don't know. Maybe I am 146. So in the social world we deal with plans and duties that are connected to some days or time, but really we can only exist in this moment. So paradoxically you can only achieve 100 years of hard practice if you give up those 100 years you have already practiced. Only if you forget how old you are and how long you have practiced, be it one week or 300 years, only when you forget when you started and when you want to finish, then you can begin to practice. you can only begin to live your true life if you forget what you did before this moment. You can only be reborn now. The great thing about Buddhism is that it tells us that we are all naked babies, just born in this moment. So we don't have to worry. Even if they say, you know, you did such and such yesterday, the newly born baby doesn't care, it is busy doing something now. So even if you think you have practiced zazen for 30 years and it makes you a great Buddhist, it means nothing now and now you are a newly born baby and nobody can put you in prison even if you killed somebody yesterday. Of course, in the social world, you end up in prison, that's right, but in prison, nobody can prevent you from being reborn right here, right now. So the people who practice zazen in prison may experience the freedom of somebody who has no past and no future. A true Buddhist teacher points to the social reality, but also to the freedom and value of here and now. Even if you are 100 years old, you can become a Buddhist beginner and a great Buddha in the moment you first begin to practice. But somebody who says: I have been practicing zazen for 30 years so that makes me a 30 star Buddha, is a fool. It is important to practice zazen over and over again, for one year, ten years, fifty years, but after all what matters is that you begin to practice every day, not that you are aware of your years of practice. So you are not proud of your long experience. You are proud of the buddhas of the present moment who are willing to start zazen from scratch.
to be continued (I promise! -or you've been warned... )