Anyone who is accustomed to the view that contradictions cannot be true and cannot be accepted, and who reads texts in the Buddhist traditions, will be struck by the fact that these texts frequently contain contradictions. Just consider, for example:
Twenty years a pilgrim,Footing east and west.Back in Seiken,I've not moved an inch.(Seiken Chiju, Poem)1
Who says my poetry is poetry?My poetry is not poetry.Provided you understand my poetry as not poetryOnly then can we discourse together about poetry.(Ryōkan, Poem)2
What the realised one has described as the possession of distinctive features is itself thenon-possession of distinctive features.(Vajracchedika 5)3
The very same perfection of insight, Subhuti, which the realised one has preached is indeedperfectionless.(Vajracchedika 13b)4
Furthermore, Subhuti, any perfection of acceptance the realised one has is indeed a non-perfection.(Vajracchedika 14e)5
Everything is real and is not real,Both real and not real,Neither real nor not real.This is Lord Buddha's teaching.(MMK XVIII :8)6 [End Page 395]
Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth anddeath to be avoided. There is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realisethis are you free from birth and death.(Dōgen, Shōji)7
As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realisation, practice, birth anddeath, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without anabiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birthand death.(Dōgen, Shōji)8
Nothing (mu) is absolutely contradictory and self-identical. From this point, every being(u) is being and at the same time nothing.(Nishida, "Preface" to Collected Philosophical Papers)9
Some may argue that none of these contradictions is meant to be accepted as true, that each should, in fact, be interpreted in some other way. Others may argue that the contradictions are meant to be taken this way, but that this shows that the views espoused are some kind of irrational mysticism. The point of the present note is to examine the matter. We will argue that at least some contradictions found in the texts are indeed meant literally and to be accepted as true. We will also argue that this is not a mark of irrationality, but, indeed, a consequence of rationality itself. We will proceed by examining ways that contradictions may arise in Buddhist discourse.
Contradictions not Meant to be Taken Literally
Contradictions may sometimes be found in poetry in Buddhist traditions, for example in (1) and (2) above. In such contexts, it may be argued, plausibly, that they are not meant literally. They express something or other, but the poet no more means us to suppose that some contradiction is literally true than Shakespeare intends us to believe that Juliet is to be found by looking upwards at midday when Romeo tells us that she is the sun. The contradictions are just poetic license.
Consider the Seiken Chiju poem (1) above. The poet is not literally stating that he both traveled and did not travel. He is using the contradiction metaphorically to indicate that even though he has attained realization, the world he has realized is no different from the one about which he was ignorant; that although he has practiced long, in the context of all that is to be accomplished, that is as nothing; that while his steps may be conventionally real, they are ultimately empty; and perhaps more besides.
It might be suggested that contradictions in Buddhist discourse always function in this way: they are intended metaphorically or in some other nonliteral sense. But this cannot be maintained. Contradictions occur not just in Buddhist poetry, but in highly theoretical Buddhist texts in the middle of rigorous deductive arguments, for example those of Nāgārjuna (see 6 above). To suppose that they are metaphors just does not do justice to...