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The Zen Paradox

(a short essay)

Eastern philosophies have always concerned themselves with paradox. From Buddhism, to Zen, to Taoism, to Hinduism, the perception of paradox lies outside of mere observation and encompasses almost a loose dogma in which paradox becomes a sort of “WWJD” for life’s dilemmas. Ethical questions are answered with contradictions, and absurdity becomes the basis for understanding reason. A question might be answered with a paradox or enigma to get the asker to un-think the initial question; a casual undoing of thought. One of the most well-known examples of this was when a monk asked Dongshan Shouchu – an ancient Chinese Zen teacher – what the Buddha was. Dongshan replied, “This flax weighs three pounds.” However, with the emphasis of paradox and contradiction in Eastern philosophy, these philosophies have become the embodiment of paradox themselves. Here is why:

Although several differences exist between these Eastern schools of philosophical thought, there is an underlying cement that binds them all together. This is the notion of “oneness.” Nearly every Eastern philosophy pushes this idea that individuality and separateness are illusions; that the universe – a word derived from the Old Latin “unus,” meaning ‘one’ – is a singular organism. As Alan Watts put it, “For ‘you’ is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.” Or Aleister Crowley, “The universe is the Practical Joke of the General at the expense of the Particular.”

Many Eastern philosophies pave a spiritual path to enlightenment. This is especially true in the case of Zen Buddhism. If one fully realizes the teachings of the creed, he or she can become “enlightened.” Enlightenment is to be one of the highest attainments of life’s journey. This sets up a very obvious dichotomy between the enlightened and the unenlightened.

Now here is the paradox: Why concern yourself with the individual enlightenment of people if you believe the universe and everything in it to be one? If everything in existence is the embodiment of one breath, one process that works as a whole and doesn’t contain individual pieces, doesn’t the preoccupation with getting the illusionary pieces of this whole realize their innate reality sound ridiculous? If everything is one, then getting people to realize this becomes arbitrary, because that would be to define people as individual, the very concept you attempt to dispel. Thus, all philosophies that teach the “oneness” of the universe contradict themselves by supposing that there are individuals that need to be taught.

Disclaimer: I do not intend to claim that Eastern philosophies are ‘wrong’ in their beliefs. As an old Taoist poet once said, “the conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.”