Buddhist Philosophy

Diving into Paradoxes and Metaphors

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It has been over two years since I started studying Buddhist Philosophy here in RYI. The first thing that caught my attention was the incredible frequency of paradoxes and metaphors in Buddhist Philosophy. This first encounter was overwhelming and worrying – I had no prior experience of such a linguistic style in all my previous education, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.  

There is an adage that goes, “If something can be solved, there is no need to worry, and if it cannot be solved, worry is of no use.” This was my mantra as I searched out the pragmatic side of having metaphors and paradoxes. To my surprise, I noticed that especially in Mahayana Buddhism, both paradoxes and metaphors are used to convey profoundly meaningful insights into both transcendental and mundane experiences. Moreover, they help to interpret the theories much in a more simplified way rather than making it more complex.  


Any form of experience – whether fear, desire, or the direct perception of emptiness – is difficult to communicate precisely through the medium of language. It is this difficulty of expressing experiences or feelings through the use of words that seems to me to motivate the turn to metaphor. Metaphors gesture towards an incident in which the receiver/listener can relate to his own past experience in order to ‘see feelingly’. For instance, desire is considered as one of the afflictive emotions and is frequently depicted using the metaphor of licking honey off the sharp edge of a blade.  

The metaphor here doesn’t just explain a particular type of suffering, in which one temporarily enjoys the taste of honey at the cost of pain from the cut of the blade, but it makes it vivid – you can almost feel your own tongue jerking back in response to the imagined cut. Abstract philosophical ideas such as the futility of desire are thus given sensorial form. Therefore, I learnt that the metaphors enable the listener to comprehend abstractions more directly and experientially. One comes to an understanding of philosophical ideas and experiences in a deeper, truer way.  

Likewise, paradoxes equally abound in Mahayana Buddhism, where they seem to me to depict something that is beyond conceptual understanding. I find these paradoxes mostly used as a rhetorical or linguistic tool in order to explain the nature of ultimate reality. It is indeed an extremely skilful way to explain something that cannot be explained through mere words. Take, for instance, the opening verse of Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

“Not ceasing, not arising, 
Not annihilated nor yet permanent, 
Not coming, not departing, 
Not different, not the same: 
The stilling of all thought, and perfect peace” 

In the verse above, the emptiness of dependent origination is pointed out via a series of paradoxes. One of the very interesting things that I noticed was that these paradoxes are immensely suited for contemplation – when my mind tries to make sense of these paradoxes, it fails and struggles in its habitual attempt to grasping everything dualistically. In the meantime, the paradoxes float like clouds beyond my conceptual reach, pointing to an ineffable something that is free from dualistic extremes.  

In the above verse, when I hear “not annihilated”, my mind tries to make sense of it and then thinks that since it is said not annihilated then it should be permanent. But when I hear “nor yet permanent” then, I realize that my mind has absolutely no basis at all to grasp and form any concepts. My mind’s conceptual way of working has stalled, and it is here that I arrive at a brief period of freedom from all concepts. It thus seems to me that the frequent contemplation of paradoxes has the power of gradually reducing our habitual tendencies of thinking dualistically and proliferating concepts. Paradox is a concept that eradicates other concepts, thereby stilling all thought in a moment of perfect peace as mentioned in the verse above.  

As I try to recall the teachings from Bodhicaryāvatāra, I mostly remember those ideas and theory which employed metaphors and paradoxes. Paradoxes and metaphors have helped me not only to understand complex ideas but also to better retain those teachings. Now, aware of the beneficial aspects of metaphors and paradoxes, coming across metaphors and paradoxes produces a sense of delight rather than worry – like that akin to meeting a trusted friend and mentor. I was almost drowned during my first encounter, but have now learned to swim with the words.  

~ Raj Kamal Thokar

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