Buddhism is riddled with paradoxical stories: aphorisms, koans, teachings that cannot make sense if we apply our western logic because our way of thinking insists on truth as a singularity, and especially, on truth as a noun.But neither changing truth from a noun to verb nor changing truth from the singular to plural can fully capture the nature of paradoxical logic. Either shift still points us in the direction of correlations, relationships of equivalencies. Paradoxes make multiple moves: the hope for equivalence is abandoned at the same time as the very space of meaning-making expands infinitely. This is something I learned first from deconstruction, from taking language apart and seeing how meaning always points away from itself, how it can never quite be fixed despite our best attempts. Understanding the slipperiness of truth using deconstruction led me to a cold and godless universe.
Paradox, in the buddhist sense, led me back to warm and godless universe.
But this is not what I really intended on writing about tonight and this attempt to summarize decades worth of training (mine) is proving frustrating. What I really wanted to say is quite simple:
There is a paradox that I only recently noticed. When I think on it, I suppose I would say that in some ways I have been grappling with it for many years. The teachings I know stress these two things simultaneously: first, “the path is the goal” and second, as Pema Chodron would put it, “start where you are.” Among other things, the first of these slogans reminds us that when it comes to one’s practice, there is “no final resting place” (as Adrienne Rich writes). The practice is ongoing and this, to me at least, implies a sense of duration. This aphorism reminds me to steer clear of the exhortations of contemporary US culture that change can be had quickly and easily. The path is not a pharmaceutical agent. It is also difficult and sometimes it is all you can do to just try to stay on your feet.
The second slogan points us to a slightly different outlook. Roughly translated, the insistence on starting at this very minute, in whatever mental or spiritual condition finds oneself, is that it is never too late to start waking up.
These two slogans exert differently inflected pressures on the practitioner (if I can even use the word “pressure” in any way at all). You can start where you are, but nevertheless it can be discouraging when you also realize just how unrealized one remains even after many years of practice. But then one can turn back around and lean on that first slogan, “the path is the goal”–because it implies patience as well as duration. I remind myself frequently that there is no end to practice for us humans. The in these last few statements signal the turnings and re-turnings of dharma. And maybe that is a helpful way to consider paradox. Motion, to and fro, back and again, around and around: para. Practicing to keep all of our senses awake, especially the senses that derive from and lead to the heart. And in that heart is something like truth: doxa.