The Paradox of Becoming-A Deep Study of the Buddha’s Teaching

Of all the skillful writings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, I think “The Paradox of Becoming” is probably his greatest, his magnum opus, though his “Wings to Awakening” certainly ranks right at the top as well.

(see: Wings to Awakening-An Anthology from the Pali Canon)

In this wonderful treatise, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has brings together all the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali canon that address the issue of becoming—the process that perpetuates conditioned being. The “Paradox of Becoming” shows, in the Buddha’s own words, how to find the limitless freedom that comes unbinding and untangling ourselves from that which arises and falls, begins and ends, comes and goes, lives and dies.

This is a major scholarly work—some 163 pages—so I’m only going to introduce it here, and then give a link for downloading a PDF of the full article. Far from being dry and theoretical, I found this in-depth study to be one that I have returned to again and again when I have had questions about my meditation practice or found myself stuck on some important concept I want to understand.

For the student who really wants to dig deeper into the Buddha’s teaching in order to practice more skillfully, “The Paradox of Becoming” is a treasure trove.

Here’s in the introduction, from the Preface:

The topic of becoming, although it features one major paradox, contains other paradoxes as well. Not the least of these is the fact that, although becoming is one of the most important concepts in the Buddha’s teachings, there is no full‐scale treatment of it in the English language. This book is an attempt to fill that lack.

The importance of becoming is evident from the role it plays in the Four Noble Truths, particularly in the second: Suffering and stress are caused by any form of craving that leads to becoming. Thus the end of suffering must involve the end of becoming. The central paradox of becoming is also evident in the second Noble Truth, where one of the three forms of craving leading to becoming is craving for non‐becoming—the ending of what has come to be. This poses a practical challenge for any attempt to put an end to becoming. Many writers have tried to resolve this paradox by defining non‐becoming in such a way that the desire for Unbinding (nibbana) would not fall into that category. However, the Buddha himself taught a strategic resolution to this paradox, in which the fourth Noble Truth—the path to the end of suffering—involves creating a type of becoming where the mind is so steady and alert that it can simply allow what has come into being to pass away of its own accord, thus avoiding the twin dangers of craving for becoming or for non‐becoming.

My first inkling that the resolution of the paradox of becoming was strategic—and paradoxical itself—rather than simply linguistic came from reading the following passage in The Autobiography of Phra Ajaan Lee. In this passage, Ajaan Lee is teaching meditation to a senior scholarly monk in Bangkok:

One day the Somdet said [to Ajaan Lee], … “There’s one thing I’m still doubtful about. To make the mind still and bring it down to its basic resting level (bhavanga): Isn’t this the essence of becoming and birth?“

“That’s what concentration is,“ I told him, “becoming and birth.”

“But the Dhamma we’re taught to practice is for the sake of doing away with becoming and birth. So what are we doing giving rise to more becoming and birth?“

“If you don’t make the mind take on becoming, it won’t give rise to knowledge, because knowledge has to come from becoming if it’s going to do away with becoming.”

This book is essentially an attempt to explore in detail the ways in which the Buddha’s own resolution of the paradox of becoming employs the very same strategy.

Here is the link for downloading the PDF:

The Paradox of Becoming


Look at this world:
Beings, afflicted with thick ignorance,
are unreleased
from delight in what has come to be.
All levels of becoming,
in any way,
are inconstant, stressful, subject to change.

Seeing this—as it has come to be—
with right discernment,
one abandons craving for becoming,
without delighting in non‐becoming.
From the total ending of craving
comes dispassion & cessation without remainder:


For the monk unbound,
through lack of clinging/sustenance,
there is no renewed becoming.
He has conquered Mara,
won the battle,
gone beyond all becomings—

Such. — Ud 3:10


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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