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© Avi Sion, 2002 All rights reserved.

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This essay is a critical review of some of the main arguments proposed by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 113-213 CE), founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school, one of the Mahayana streams, which strongly influenced Chinese (Ch’an), Korean (Sôn) and Japanese (Zen) Buddhism, as well as Tibetan Buddhism. Specifically, the text referred to here is Empty Logic Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991) by Hsueh-li Cheng, of Hawaii University (Hilo). The main source-texts of this school of thought, to which Cheng of course often refers, are the “three treatises” – the Middle Treatise, the Twelve Gate Treatise and the Hundred Treatise.[1]

The title Empty Logic was not intended pejoratively by its author, but simply to mean ‘logic of emptiness’, the term “emptiness” (Shunyata) referring to the Buddhist doctrine that (briefly put, very roughly) things have no abiding core, no essence, no fixed nature. Cheng’s work is a clear exposition of Madhyamika history and logical techniques, but it makes no attempt to criticize those techniques. All criticism of Madhyamika or Buddhist logic, here, is my own.

The present essay is not a religious tract and has no polemical intent. It is a work of philosophy, a fair-minded logical evaluation of certain propositions and arguments taken as philosophical positions open to discussion like any other. It examines and discusses a goodly array of Buddhist, and in particular Madhyamika, doctrines, but does not pretend to be an exhaustive treatment of all doctrines or of all aspects of those dealt with.

However, I do not attempt here to develop a historical perspective, or to list the various tendencies and their interrelations. Cheng’s book includes an interesting exposition of the development of Madhyamika philosophy, from Nagarjuna in the 2nd century CE through to the Yogachara school and on. However, he fails to investigate in sufficient detail the development of Buddhist philosophy prior to Nagarjuna, barely mentioning several centuries of earlier Theravada (Hinayana) philosophy and the early phases (starting 1st cent. CE, and before) of Mahayana reaction (e.g. the Mahasanghikas)[2]. To better understand Nagarjuna’s motives and goals, it would be well to be acquainted with this background[3].

My naming the present essay Buddhist Illogic should not be taken to imply that I consider all Buddhist philosophy or even all Madhyamika as illogical. It merely reflects my focus here on some of the (many) illogical arguments used in Nagarjuna’s discourse. Indeed, some of Nagarjuna’s arguments and beliefs have been refuted or rejected by other Buddhist philosophers. Buddhist philosophy is not monolithic, but a constellation of philosophies with as their common ground the (alleged) pronouncements of Buddhism’s founder. I do here challenge some underlying Buddhist doctrines, but only incidentally, not systematically.

I would have named this essay less pejoratively ‘Buddhist Logic’ if I had found some interesting new thought forms to report. Buddhism and Nagarjuna do indeed use valid as well as invalid forms of reasoning, but these forms (those I found so far) are all familiar to us today, and so not notable except for historical purposes (where we would try and determine whether Buddhist usage antedates usage in Greek or other writings). However, my main justification is that much of Buddhism itself, and particularly Nagarjuna’s version of it, cheerfully proclaims itself free of or beyond logic, or illogical and even anti-logical.

On a personal note, I want to stress my admiration for Buddhism in general, which has taught me much, both in the way of living skills and through its philosophical insights. So I cannot be accused of approaching this subject with any antagonistic prejudice. I read Empty Logic eager to learn from it, rather than to find fault with it. As a philosopher and logician I am however duty bound to analyze and judge philosophies dispassionately, and this is what I do here. Generally speaking, I have little interest in criticizing other people’s philosophical works, because I could write thick volumes doing so. Life is unfortunately too short for that, so I prefer to pass it developing a constructive statement. Nevertheless, one generally learns a lot through debate, and I can say that challenging Nagarjuna has helped me to clarify various philosophical problems and possible solutions.

Finally, let me say that the message of “Buddha” (the enlightened) Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), about “emptiness”, which as is well known is essentially non-verbal, should not be confused with Nagarjuna’s or any other writer’s attempted philosophical interpretation, explanation and justification of related ideas. Thus, to refute the latter does not necessarily deny the former.

[1] Here abbreviated to MT, TGT and HT, respectively. These texts are not all by Nagarjuna and no longer exist in the Sanskrit original, but in Chinese translation (by Kumarajiva, dating from 409 CE). Thus, the main verses of the first treatise (MT) were by Nagarjuna; its commentaries were by Pingala. The whole second treatise (TGT) was by Nagarjuna. The third treatise’s (HT) main verses were by Aryadeva and its commentaries were by Vasu. I shall be content to refer to Cheng, mentioning his occasional references these treatises; but, in view of Cheng’s evident competence, I shall barely distinguish between his say-so and his rare word-for-word quotations of Nagarjuna.

[2] Mahayana means ‘great vehicle’, Hinayana means ‘small vehicle’. The latter may be taken as a pejorative term coined by the Mahayanists, implying that their interpretation of Buddhism is superior. The alternative label, Theravada, is preferable. In my view, Mahayana was in many respects a more revolutionary than evolutionary development.

[3] A text I can recommend is Part I of The Diamond Sutra by Mu Soeng (Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2000). It is also very instructive to look at the development of Buddhism from a point of view of comparative religion. For instance, the Mahayana argument “that their sutras needed to be kept secret for five hundred years” (p. 24) is familiar to students of Judaism (a similar argument is used there, e.g. to explain the historically late appearance of the ‘Ashuri’ Hebrew script used in Torah scrolls, and in other contexts).

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