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Not ‘empty logic’, but empty of logic.

I shall stop here, save for some concluding remarks, though a lot more could be said. As we have seen, Nagarjuna is motivated by very good intentions: he wishes to help us achieve enlightenment or liberation, by freeing us from all obstacles to cognition of the “emptiness” underlying the phenomenal and conceptual world. For him, the principal obstacle is Reason: as he says, “if conceptualizations are permitted there will arise many, as well as great, errors”[1]. His strategy is therefore to invalidate for us our every logical tool.

From a practical point of view, we might well agree with and congratulate Nagarjuna. When one is engaged in meditation, it is appropriate to stop all thought, or at least to dissociate oneself from all imaginative and rational processes till they stop by themselves. One may also make one’s whole life a meditative process, and legitimately choose to altogether abstain from rumination and cogitation. There is no doubt in my mind that in such context thought is useless, and indeed a hindrance to progress, apart perhaps from some initial theoretical studies and reflections to put oneself on the right track, as well as a minimum of ongoing thought to deal with routine aspects of survival.

But that is not what is at issue, here. Our concern in this paper is with Nagarjuna’s theoretical discourse, his philosophical theses and claims to ‘logic’. We may well doubt these, in view of the underhanded means he is willing to use to achieve his ends, including ignoring, eclipsing or distorting relevant facts, diverting attention from controversies or lying outright, begging the questions (circular arguments), stealing concepts (using them even while undercutting them), contradicting himself, manipulating readers in every which way. However noble his motives may be, they cannot justify such methods of discourse.

One may legitimately ask whether Nagarjuna’s “Middle Way” corresponds to the Buddha’s original concept with the same name. The Buddha’s teaching is a practical one, eschewing the behavioral extremes, the fanaticism and asceticism, that religious desperation and enthusiasm tend to generate. Nagarjuna’s is not a teaching of equal moderation in theoretical issues, but an extremist position, one I would characterize as nihilistic. This has been made evident again and again in the above exposition.

When I picked up the book Empty Logic, earlier this year in Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, I was eager to learn more about Buddhism, and in particular about Nagarjuna and his Madhyamika school (having read many positive appraisals of them in other books, and some quotations). As a logician, I was especially pleased at the prospect that there might be a ‘logic of emptiness’, perhaps forms of reasoning still undiscovered in the West. Unfortunately, thanks to Cheng’s very competent presentation, I soon discovered that Nagarjuna work contains no new field of logic, but is basically empty of logic, a ferocious mauling of logic. What a disappointment!

Please note well that I have nowhere tried to deny[2] Buddhism’s thesis that ultimate reality cannot be accessed through rational means, but only through some fundamental change of cognitive paradigm. I nowhere claim to know what “emptiness” is, only what it is not. I remain open to such an idea, though I cannot claim to have achieved such deep levels of meditation that I can confirm it firsthand. I expected Nagarjuna to help me break through to such higher knowledge, not by attempting to destroy my lower knowledge but by proposing some evolutionary process.

Just as conceptual knowledge complements and improves on perceptual knowledge, without dismissing all perception, so may we expect meditative knowledge to correct the errors of and enlarge what came before it, without ignoring and belying all conception. I would not resist a fundamental rejection of logic, if some convincing means were used to this end; it is not attachment which prevents me. The way offered by Nagarjuna is unconvincing to anyone with high standards of knowledge; it is merely a malicious parody of logic. What revolts me here is the shameless sophistry engaged in by Nagarjuna, in his impossible attempts to give logical legitimacy to his anti-logical ideas. (See Appendix 1 for a list of fallacies he uses repeatedly.)

If someone sincerely believes that no words have true significance, would he write his skeptical words and expect others to understand them? If someone thinks or writes about motion, even to deny it, is he not thereby engaging in motion? If someone writes about causality, denying it so as to convince others to give up the idea, surely it shows that he himself believes in causality, in his ability to influence others and in their ability to choose a different cognitive path. Read his lips – if he did not believe in these things, why would he bother writing about anything? Like many Western skeptics, Nagarjuna does not take the trouble to harmonize his words and deeds, testing his thoughts on his own thinking; if knowingly indulged, this is hypocrisy. Like many religious apologists, Nagarjuna considers logic, not as a tool of research and discovery, but as a weapon of rhetoric in defense of preconceived ideas; if knowingly indulged, this is cheating.

It is legitimate to draw conclusions about someone on the basis of his arguments; this is not to be confused with ad hominem argumentation, which is judging the arguments with reference to the person making them. We might excuse Nagarjuna as a sloppy thinker, but it is evident that he has logical capabilities, so we must infer deceit. Occasional errors of logic are human – but such systematic misuse or selective use of logic is monstrous. He evidently takes people for fools, who will swallow whatever he dishes out. Worse still, he does not fear to intellectually incapacitate generations and generations of young people. Philosophy is a responsibility, like the medical profession. It should be an attempt to increase the mental health and efficacy of one’s fellow humans, not a pastime for dilettantes or jokers or a cruel con game.

All this makes one wonder whether Nagarjuna himself achieved the supreme consciousness he attempts to guide us towards. If he is already enlightened, where are the honesty and sincerity, the realism and healthiness, the compassion and loving-kindness, one would expect from such consciousness? If he is not yet enlightened, how can he claim firsthand knowledge that abandoning logic is the way to such consciousness? In the latter case, he would have done better to stick to meditation, rather than speak out prematurely.

The overall result of his philosophical action (at least, those aspects of it we have encountered here) is, counterproductively, to cast doubt on Buddhism itself. For if one respected figure claiming, or being claimed, to have achieved enlightenment is uncertain to have done so, why not the others? But, as with all hearsay evidence on esoteric claims, Buddhists have to rely on faith, anyway. Also, fortunately, Buddhism is a lot richer, has much more going for it, than the few philosophical ideas and arguments treated in the present essay.

And presumably the same can be said for Nagarjuna (I have not read all his work). If we view his arguments as serious logical discourse, we are bound to condemn him as above done. But perhaps we should view it all more generously as a guru’s tongue-in-cheek mimicry of logical discourse, intended purely as a koan for logically minded persons (like me) to mull over and go beyond. In that case, it is not the content of the discourse which counts for him, but its psychological effect. He wants us to ‘die’ of laughter.

The Heart Sutra states: form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. And the same is true for sensation, perception, conception and consciousness.

Hakuin comments: “Striking aside waves to look for water when the waves are water! Forms don’t hinder emptiness; emptiness is the tissue of form. Emptiness isn’t destruction of form; form is the flesh of emptiness… Form and emptiness are not-two. If you pass these strange apparitions without alarm, they self-destruct. Forms sensation perception conception are sparks in the eye.[3]

[1] Cheng, p. 37– quoting MT XVII:12a.

[2] To reject arguments offered in favor of a conclusion does not imply rejection of the conclusion concerned, since it might be reached by other arguments.

[3] Zen Words for the Heart, translated in by Norman Waddell (Shambhala: Boston, Mass., 1996). “The Heart Sutra was probably composed in India about 1500 years ago”, which means a few hundred years after Nagarjuna. The commentary is by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), a Japanese Zen master.

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