Paradoxes and enigmas

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A paradox is a thing or statements having two contradictory elements which make it appear strange, and an enigma is something mysterious or difficult to understand. While the Buddha’s behaviour and pronouncements were always consistent and clear, he occasionally said paradoxical and enigmatic things. Once someone asked him how he crossed the stream, i.e. attained enlightenment, and he replied, ‘Without hurrying and without delaying’ (S.I,1).

On another occasion a horse trainer mentioned to him that if, after a long period, a horse did not submit to training he would destroy it. He then asked the Buddha how he trained his monks. The Buddha described the methods he used and then the trainer asked, ‘And if the monk does not respond to the training what do you do?’ The Buddha replied, ‘I destroy him’ (A.II,112). In the first of these statements apparent paradox is being used because sometimes normal language is inadequate to transmit a subtle idea; in this case, there needs to be a balance between exertion and relaxation although it is difficult to describe just when to cease doing one and commence doing another. In the Buddha’s second statements, paradox (i.e. between his well-known teachings of respect for all life and his claim that he would ‘destroy’ someone) was clearly meant to grab the questioner’s attention by causing shock. Having done this, the Buddha then went on to explain to his questioner what he meant by ‘destroy.’ If a monk was undisciplined and continually refused to heed the Buddha’s advice, he would just ignore him which would be tantamount to being destroyed spiritually.

A few of the Buddha’s statements are very difficult to understand and in that sense are truly enigmatic. For example, once he said: ‘Cut down the forest but not the tree’ (Dhp.283), and on another occasion he commented: ‘It pours on the covered but not on the open. So open the covered and you won’t be poured on’ (Ud.56).