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Appreciating Paradox and Allegory

By George Wolfe


Anyone who enjoys poetic language should enjoy paradox. If you are like me, you’ll revel in the amusement paradoxes provide, and you’ll become intrigued with trying to resolve them. At the very least, they provoke us into probing ideas with a heightened degree of focus and criticism.

In studying the sacred writings of the great religions, I have found, to my delight, that they are rich with paradox and irony. This is especially true with Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian texts. Take for example the following passage from the Tao Te Ching (translated by G. Feng and J. English, Vintage 1997, chapter 22).

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain.

These lines express a philosophical view of life known as value inversion in which the values we normally see operating in the world are “inverted” or turned upside down. Christian scripture also contains examples of value inversion, as found in these well-known sayings attributed to Jesus:

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:11)
In the Kingdom of God many who are last shall be first, and the first, last. (Matt. 19:30)
He who finds his life shall lose it. He who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:39)

Another example of paradox is found in the Katha Upanishad (ca. 500 BCE) which comes from the Hindu religious tradition and includes some important themes found in the gospels. (S. Prabavananda and F. Manchester, The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal, New American Library, 1948, p. 4) 

Nachiketa learning from Yama, the God of death, in the ancient Upanishad story. – Photo: You Tube

Nachiketa learning from Yama, the God of death, in the ancient Upanishad story. – Photo: You Tube

In the Katha Upanishad we find the story of a boy named Nachiketa, “whose heart had received the truth taught in the scriptures,” and whose father had given him over to die. The son comes to accept his destiny when he says, “Like corn, a man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn, he springs up again in his season.” Nachiketa subsequently spends three nights in the house of the King of Death and afterwards receives three boons, the third of which is the secret of immortality.

In the gospels, Jesus, who is to be given over to die, similarly recognizes his destiny when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). He then spends three days in the tomb (the House of Death), after which he is said to have overcome death and been raised to life eternal.

Both the story of Nachiketa spending three days in the house of the King of Death and Christ spending three days in the tomb convey a similar paradoxical message: it is through death that we gain immortality. In this context, death can be physical, as in the sacrificial death exemplified by the assassination of great nonviolent historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who stood up against injustice. Their influence is still with us, even though they are gone. But death can also be expressed metaphorically through symbols in allegories that refer to the death of the ego, and to the personal sacrifice of time and effort a person makes in life to serve others.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, we find paradox expressed in riddles known as koans. Perhaps the best known koan is the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Another one of my favorite koans captures the dilemma of using words to express Ultimate Reality: “It cannot be expressed in words, yet, it cannot be expressed without words.” The art of writing poetry is inherently paradoxical, because in the process of writing, the poet is using words to evoke feelings that cannot be expressed in words.

I enjoy composing modern koans of my own using the language of science and philosophy. Consider the following examples:

What is the nature of that question, the answer to which can only be heard in the silence that precedes its asking?
If the Big Bang occurred 14 billion years ago and no one was around to hear it, did it make a sound?
Have you discovered who you were before you had a name?
“The Prophet Balaam and the Ass”  by Rembrandt van Rijn (1626) – Graphic: Wikipedia

“The Prophet Balaam and the Ass” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1626) – Graphic: Wikipedia

Many Jewish Hasidic tales also apply the concept of value inversion. A favorite Hasidic story of mind tells of a rabbi who was seated along the side of a street quietly watching people pass by. Soon an older man walks by at a hurried pace, clearly burdened and under stress by the load of goods he is carrying. Seeing his distress, the rabbi asks him: “Sir, what are you doing?”

The man, looking at the rabbi with some contempt, replies, “I am pursuing my livelihood!”

The rabbi responds: “How do you know it is out in front of you? Perhaps it is behind you, and all you need to do is be still.” The rabbi in this story may be alluding to Psalm 46:10, which says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Listen to your Divine inner voice so your livelihood can catch up with you?

Oftentime, people miss the humor inherent to paradoxical stories found in religious texts. The story in the Bible of Balaam and his stubborn donkey is a good example.

An Israelite named Balaam arose one morning to travel with the princes of Moab. But God had positioned an angel with a drawn sword to stand in his way. The angel was seen by the donkey, but not by Balaam. The donkey refused to pass by the angel, frustrating Balaam and causing him to strike the donkey. This happened three times until God caused the donkey to speak. Then Balaam’s “eyes were opened” so that he could see the angel blocking his path (Numbers 22-21-30). I can’t help but chuckle at the paradoxical humor in this story, where the truth is revealed to the hero of the story by a jackass!

The author of a New Testament epistle attributed to the apostle Peter appears to be aware of this paradox when he writes, “A dumb ass spoke to Balaam with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Peter 2:16).

Like many Zen and Taoist tales, the story teaches us not to make dismissive assumptions. We should never overlook the possible significance of anything or any creature, no matter how lowly. Insight can often come to us through the simplest and most mundane sources.

This reflection comes from Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality, published by Dignity Press.