SOUNDS OF SILENCE. «MYSTICAL» PARADOX IN THE ATTHAKAVAGGA
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You tell me that silence|
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gift
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say
This is not silence
this is another poem
and youwould hand it back to me.
(Cohen 1972: 3)
Paradox in the Atthakavagga
In this article I will attempt to
demonstrate how conceptual paradox has been used in Buddhism as a
means of liberation, illustrating my case using the Therav@da
Buddhist text, Atthakavagga, which is part of the Suttanip@ta
(see Gómez 1976). The Atthakavagga contains some of the oldest
materials in the Tipitaka (see Gómez 1976: 139, 152; Vetter
1990: 42-43; Burford 1992: 39). Its particular message is that one
should not hold any «views» (ditthi) or prefer any
one thing to another (see Gómez 1976: 140).1
Although the Atthakavagga emphasizes that «seeing» leads
to or even constitutes the goal, it warns against formulating that
vision into a view because attachment to views is based on desire. To
avoid suffering, one should not become attached even to the right
view (Burford 1992: 45-47). On the contrary, one should «abstain
from disputes, for their only aim is praise and profit (Sn 4:
828; also 4: 844)». And,
If any have taken up
a view (ditthi) and argue, saying, «Only this is true,»
then say to them, «There will be no opponent for you
here when a dispute has arisen.» (Sn 4: 832. This and
the following translation by K. R. Norman.)
said the Blessed One, «nothing has been grasped by (me) from
among the (doctrines), after consideration, (saying) 'I profess
this.' But looking among the (doctrines), not grasping, while
searching I saw inner peace.» (Sn 4: 837.)
Grace Burford has drawn attention to the fact that the teaching of the
Atthakavagga contains a paradox in that it endorses a view that views
are to be avoided. A similar paradox is at the very heart of Buddhism
in the sense that one cannot eliminate desire (tanh@/trshn@)
without thus desiring (Burford 1992: 48; see Pyysiäinen
From a logical point of view, the Buddhist
dilemma is the same as in the famous liar paradox of Epimenides:
Epimenides says that all Cretans are liars, but as he is a Cretan
himself he is lying and so ... From the point of view of Russell and
Whitehead's theory of logical types, these paradoxes result from the
fact that a class cannot be its own member. Buddhists form the class
of Buddhists, but a single Buddhist does not constitute that class,
for example. The concept of class is of a higher logical type than
the concept of member. Now, because Epimenides is a Cretan his
statement «all Cretans are liars» is apparently a member
of the class of «Cretan statements.» At the same time it
purports to be a description of this class. But a description of a
class cannot be a member of that class, and thus we have a paradox
(see Quine 1966; Watzlawick & Beavis & Jackson 1967:
Similarly, the statement «do not get
attached to views» can be understood to be both a member of the
class of «views» and a statement about that class, which
makes it logically incoherent. The Atthakavagga approaches views in a
purely negative manner, only explaining what one should not
do, and the ideal is expressed mostly by such terms as 'purity'
(suddhi) and 'calmness' (santi) which both receive
their meaning from what is not the case (Burford 1992: 40, 42). This,
however, can also be considered a view, which then leads to a
paradox, although this may not always have been consciously
recognized by the believers.
Paradox and Change
My suggestion now is that the paradox of
having a view that views should be abandoned can, in principle, be an
effective instrument of psychological change, and not just an
unfortunate logical error. To understand this, we can pay attention
to how paradoxes have been used in such psychotherapies based on
cybernetics and systems theory.2
In them, paradoxes and paradoxical tasks are the «mirror
images» of pathological situations known as «double
binds,» themselves a form of paradox (see Watzlawick 1990: 41).
Double binds occur in important human relationships when, for various
«pathological» reasons, the one who has authority over
the other communicates something and at the same time
metacommunicates that the message should not be understood as it
appears. The other person is now in a double bind in the sense that
whatever he or she does as a reaction to the message, it is always
wrong (see Bateson et al. 1956).
example of a double bind is the situation between a mother who cannot
accept her hostile feelings toward her child. To deny the situation,
she pretends to be extremely loving to the child. This pretending is
metacommunication concerning the mother's hostility which it is meant
to deny. Now, if the child accepts the real message that the mother
has hostile feelings, he or she will be scolded by the mother for
«being bad,» because the mother cannot accept the truth.
If, on the other hand, the child accepts the pretended loving as if
it were real and responds to it affectionately, the mother becomes
anxious and reproaches the child for «behaving stupidly.»
A child in a double bind is in danger of developing schizophrenia as
the only possible solution in a paradoxical situation, because he or
she cannot escape from the situation or comment on it as though from
outside. Bateson's group compared this to the situation of a Zen
novice whom the master threatens with a stick, saying: «If you
say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this
stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don't say
anything, I will strike you with it.» The difference between
this situation and that leading to schizophrenia is that the novice
is not absolutely dependent on the master and can thus endanger the
relationship by for instance taking the stick away from the master,
who might even accept this as an answer (Bateson et al. 1956:
In a typical double bind, the participants are
playing a game without end, because there are no rules for changing
the rules of the game, and a circulos vitiosus results (see
Watzlawick 1990: 28-42, 184). In such cases, attempts to solve a
problem become part of the problem. Consequently, what is needed is a
change in the ways people try to change the situation - a
metachange. This can often be done using paradoxes, like in the
exemplary case of a newly married couple treated like children by the
husband's parents. The harder the young couple tried to convince the
parents that they were perfectly capable of taking care of
themselves, the more stubbornly the parents treated them as helpless
children. Family therapists then gave the couple the paradoxical task
of acting as childish as possible toward the parents (a metachange),
with the result that the parents were soon fed up and reproached the
couple for acting like little children instead of being responsible
adults. Things then soon got better (see Watzlawick and Weakland &
I shall not
provide any detailed analysis of the Atthakavagga, but shall only
briefly comment on Gómez' conclusions regarding it. In his
opinion, what for the Buddhists are the «fundamental illusions
bondage» belong to the realm of language and conceptualization,
and consequently the Atthakavagga's central message is nondualism,
the cessation of that multiplicity and dispersion (papañca)
that arises with wrongly applied apperception (saññ@)
(Gómez 1976: 141-143, 154; see Vetter 1990: 45). From this
perspective, views are not only a representation of desire, but
desire is a representation (or a concomitant) of views and
differentiation (cf. Burford 1992: 43-44), which is the ultimate
cause of suffering.
If Gómez is right that the
Atthakavagga here represents a similar type of path theory as the
Mdhyamika and Zen (Gómez 1976: 153), then the Atthakavagga's
anti-views paradox could be interpreted as an instrument of
liberation, a «skilful means» (up@ya),
and not as an unfortunate failure to achieve logical coherence. If
the ideal is to dispense with attachments, including attachment to
this ideal, only a paradox can convey the message properly. The
Atthakavagga is not as explicit as Zen in its use of paradox and
emphasis on silence, but implicitly the roots of such an approach are
present in it. The mystical silence may then have been temporarily
overshadowed by the technical «language of liberation»
developed in the Abhidharma (see Gómez 1987: 447).
Zen texts, however, are clear about the fact that the way to liberation
cannot be based on solving the problem of suffering
intellectually, but on making it disappear (cf. Watzlawick and
Bavelas & Jackson 1967: 271). Hence, for example, the following
exhortation in the commentary on Mumonkan's first kïan:
«You meet a Buddha? You kill him!» Only a paradox can
fully express what is at stake in the idea of liberation, and Zen
legends make full use of it (cf. Sharf 1995).
In this perspective, the Buddhist paradoxes of wanting not to want, or having
a view that views should be avoided, can be understood both as
expressions of the belief that the Buddhist ideal escapes verbal
language and discursive thinking, and as an instrument of taking one
beyond the usual, discursive way of trying to solve a problem (which
only increases suffering in a vicious circle). All discursive
attempts to solve the problem of suffering soon become part of the
problem, leading to a game without end. The Atthakavagga's paradox is
a mirror image of the double bind caused by such messages as «you
should want not to want,» and can help one to realize that one
should change the very strategy of bringing about change. This does
not mean a new way of solving problems, but instead making problems
The condition of the one who has thus freed
himself of views is described in the Atthakavagga as
There are no ties for one who is devoid of
mental representations (saññ@).3
There are no illusions for one who is released through
But those who have grasped mental representations
and views wander in the world (loka), causing offence. (Sn
4: 847. Tr. by K. R. Norman, with «mental representations»
substituted for «perceptions» as a translation for
He has no (ordinary) mental representations of mental representations,
he has no deranged mental representations of mental
representations, he is not without mental representations,
he has no mental representations of what has disappeared.
For one who has attained such a state, form disappears, for
that which is named 'diversification' (papañcasankh@)
has its origin in mental representations. (Sn 4:874. Tr. by K.
R. Norman, with 'mental representations' substituted for
According to Gómez, these
passages testify to an emphasis on mystical silence4
in early Buddhism, in the sense that it is said that the ultimate
truth may be realized only in a nondiscursive, unspeakable experience
which brings peace of mind. That experience should not be
conceptualized into a «view» to be defended in disputes
whose only aim is «praise and profit» and which only
increase suffering (as the history of religions only too sadly
testifies). Whether there really have been such experiences or not,
this idea is nevertheless present in such texts as the
Atthakavagga. Conceptual paradox has been used to express what, on
the conceptual level, is at stake in Buddhist doctrine. How the early
Buddhists actually reacted to such paradoxes can never be determined.
I have only speculatively used certain family therapies to illustrate
what kinds of paradoxical situations are generally involved in human
For exact view, here is a pdf version of this article,|
paradox.pdf, size 170 kb.
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According to Tilmann Vetter (1990: 44), the Atthakavagga is not a
homogenous whole, as six of the sixteen Suttas do not propound
mysticism in the sense presented by Gómez.
Such therapies have their roots in the famous article »Toward a
Theory of Schizophrenia» by Gregory Bateson's research group
(Bateson et al. 1956.). Among therapies drawing from Bateson's
ideas have been Jay Haley's strategic therapy, Salvador Minuchin's
structural therapy and the systemic family therapy of Mara Selvini
Palazzoli and her group. See e.g. Haley 1977; Madaness & Haley
1977: 88-98; Minuchin 1974; Selvini Palazzoli et al.
I have used this translation in Pyysiäinen 1993. Later, I
realized that Gómez (1976: 144) has criticized the way of
as 'consciousness' or 'perception,' and translated it as
Elsewhere (Pyysiäinen 1996a) I have attempted to develop a
theory of mysticism that takes into account both mystical doctrine
and mystical experience, operating in a hermeneutical