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BUDDHIST ILLOGIC

© Avi Sion, 2002 All rights reserved.

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BUDDHIST ILLOGIC

2. Neither real nor unreal.

But Nagarjuna also conceives ultimate reality (“emptiness”[1]) as a “middle way” [2] – so that the world of experience is neither to be regarded as real, nor to be regarded as unreal (“there is nothing, neither mental nor non-mental, which is real” and it “cannot be conceived as unreal,” reports Cheng). In this context, Nagarjuna is clearly relying on one of the above-mentioned logically impossible disjuncts, namely “neither A nor non-A” (be it said in passing). I want to now show why Nagarjuna’s statement seems superficially reasonable and true.

As I have often clarified and explained[3], knowledge has to be regarded or approached phenomenologically (that is the only consistent epistemological thesis). We have to start by acknowledging and observing appearances, as such, without initial judgment as to their reality or illusion. At first sight all appearances seem real enough. But after a while, we have to recognize that some appearances conflict with other appearances, and judge such appearances (i.e. one or more of those in conflict) as illusory. Since there is nothing in our ‘world’ but appearances, all remaining appearances not judged as illusions (i.e. so long as they are not logically invalidated by conflicts with other appearances) maintain their initial status as realities.

That is, the distinction between appearances as realities or illusions emerges within the world of appearances itself, merely classifying some this way and the rest that way. We have no concept of reality or illusion other than with reference to appearance. To use the category of reality with reference to something beyond appearance is concept stealing, a misuse of the concept, an extrapolation which ignores the concept’s actual genesis in the context of appearance. To apply the concept of illusion to all appearances, on the basis that some appearances are illusions, is an unjustified generalization ignoring how this concept arises with reference to a specific event (namely, inconsistency between certain appearances and resulting diminishment of their innate credibilities). Moreover, to claim that no appearances are real or that all are illusions is self-defeating, since such claim itself logically falls under the category of appearance.

The illusory exists even though it is not reality – it exists as appearance. The real is also apparent – some of it, at least. Therefore, appearance per se is neither to be understood as reality (since some appearances are illusory), nor can it be equated to illusion (since not all appearances have been or can be found illusory). Appearance is thus the common ground of realities and illusions, their common characteristic, the dialectical synthesis of those theses and antitheses. It is a genus, they are mutually exclusive species of it. (The difference between appearance and existence is another issue, I have dealt with elsewhere – briefly put, existence is a genus of appearance and non-appearance, the latter concepts being relative to that of consciousness whereas the former is assumed independent.)

None of these insights allows the conclusion that appearances are “neither real nor unreal” (granting that ‘unreal’ is understood to mean ‘non-real’). All we can say is that some appearances are real and some unreal. Formally, the correct logical relation between the three concepts is as follows. Deductively, appearance is implied by reality and illusion, but does not imply them; for reality and illusion are contradictory, so that they cannot both be true and they cannot both be false. Moreover, inductively, appearance implies reality, until and unless it is judged to be illusion (by virtue of some inconsistency being discovered).

More precisely, all appearances are initially classed as real. Any appearance found self-contradictory is (deductively) illusory, and its contradictory is consequently self-evident and (deductively) real. All remaining appearances remain classed as real, so long as uncontested. Those that are contested have to be evaluated dynamically. When one appearance is belied by another, they are both put in doubt by the conflict between them, and so both become initially problematic. Thereafter, their relative credibilities have to be tentatively weighed in the overall context of available empirical and rational knowledge – and repeatedly reassessed thereafter, as that context develops and evolves. On this basis, one of these appearances may be judged more credible than the other, so that the former is labeled probable (close to real) and the latter relatively improbable (close to illusory). In the limit, they may be characterized as respectively effectively (inductively) real or illusory. Thus, reality and illusion are the extremes (respectively, 100% and 0%) in a broad range of probabilities with many intermediate degrees (including problemacy at the mid-point).

To be still more precise, pure percepts (i.e. concrete appearances, phenomena) are never illusory. The value-judgment of ‘illusory’ properly concerns concepts (i.e. abstract appearances, ‘universals’) only. When we say of a percept that it was illusory, we just mean that we misinterpreted it. That is, what we initially considered as a pure percept, had in fact an admixture of concept, which as it turned out was erroneous. For example, I see certain shapes and colors in the distance and think ‘here comes a girl on a bike’, but as I get closer I realize that all I saw was a pile of rubbish by the roadside. The pure percept is the shapes and colors I see; the false interpretation is ‘girl on bike’, the truer interpretation is ‘pile of rubbish’. The initial percept has not changed, but my greater proximity has added perceptual details to it. My first impression was correct, only my initial judgment was wrong. I revise the latter concept, not through some superior means to knowledge, but simply by means of further perception and conception.

Strictly speaking, then, perception is never at issue; it is our conceptions that we evaluate. It is in practice, admittedly, often very difficult to isolate a percept from its interpretation, i.e. from conceptual appendages to it. Our perception of things is, indeed, to a great extent ‘eidetic’. This fact need not, however, cause us to reject any perception (as many Western philosophers, as well as Buddhists, quickly do), or even all conception. The conceptual ‘impurities’ in percepts are not necessarily wrong. We know them to have been wrong, when we discover a specific cause for complaint – namely, a logical or experiential contradiction. So long as we find no such specific fault with them, they may be considered right. This just means that we have to apply the rules of adduction[4] to our immediate interpretations of individual percepts, just as we do to complex theories relative to masses of percepts. These rules are universal: no judgment is exempt from the requirement of careful scrutiny and reevaluation.

Now, judging by Cheng’s account and certain quotations of Nagarjuna therein, we could interpret the latter as having been trying to say just what I have said. For instance, Cheng writes[5]: “What Nagarjuna wanted to deny is that empirical phenomena… are absolutely real…. However, [this] does not mean that nothing exists. It does not nullify anything in the world” (my italics). I interpret this non-nullification as an acknowledgment of appearance as the minimum basis of knowledge. Nagarjuna may have had difficulties developing an appropriate terminology (distinguishing existence, appearance and reality, as I do above), influenced no doubt by his penchant for paradoxical statements seeming to express and confirm Buddhist mystical doctrine.

But if that is what he meant, then he has not succeeded to arrive at a “middle way” (a denial of the Law of the Excluded Middle), but only at a “common way” (a granted common ground). As far as I am concerned, that is not a meager achievement – the philosophical discovery of phenomenology! But for him that would be trivial, if not counterproductive – for what he seeks is to deny ordinary consciousness and its inhibiting rationales, and to thereby leap into a different, higher consciousness capable of reaching transcendental truth or ultimate reality.

It is interesting to note that the Madhyamika school’s effective denial of reality to all appearance was not accepted by a later school of Mahayana philosophy, the Yogachara (7th-8th cent. CE). Cheng describes the latter’s position as follows[6]: “Every object, both mental and non-mental, may be logically or dialectically proven illusory. But in order to be illusory, there must be a certain thought that suffers from illusion. The very fact of illusion itself proves the existence and reality of a certain consciousness or mind. To say that everything mental and non-mental is unreal is intellectually suicidal. The reality of something should at least be admitted in order to make sense of talking about illusion” (italics mine). That is the tenor of the phenomenological argument I present above, although my final conclusion is clearly not like Yogachara’s, that everything is consciousness or mind (a type of Idealism), but leaves open the possibility of judging and classifying appearances as matter or mind with reference to various considerations.

The Madhyamika rejection of ‘dualism’ goes so far as to imply that “emptiness” is not to be found in nirvana, the antithesis of samsara (according to the earlier Buddhist viewpoint), but in ‘neither samsara nor nirvana’. In truth, similar statements may be found in the Pali Canon, i.e. in the much earlier Theravada schools, so that it is not a distinctly Mahayana construct. The difference is one of emphasis, such statements, relatively rare in the earlier period, are the norm and frequently repeated in the later period. An example may be found in the Dhammapada, a sutra dating from the 3rd cent. BCE[7], i.e. four or five hundred years before Nagarjuna. Here, samsara is likened to a stream or this shore of it, and nirvana to the further shore; and we are told to get beyond the two.

When you have crossed the stream of Samsara, you will reach Nirvana… He has reached the other shore, then he attains the supreme vision and all his fetters are broken. He for whom there is neither this nor the further shore, nor both….

Such a formula is legitimate if taken as a warning that pursuing nirvana (enlightenment and liberation) is an obstacle to achieving it, just a subtle form of samsara (ignorance and attachment); there is no contradiction in saying that the thought of nirvana as a goal of action keeps us in samsara – this is an ordinary causal statement. The formula is also logically acceptable if taken as a reminder that no word or concept – not even ‘samsara’ or ‘nirvana’ – can capture or transmit the full meanings intended (i.e. ‘not’ here should more precisely be stated as ‘not quite’). There is also no contradiction in saying that one who has attained nirvana does not need to leave the world of those locked in samsara, but can continue to exist and act in it though distinctively in a way free of attachment.

But it would be a contradiction in terms to speak of ‘emptiness’ as ‘neither samsara nor nirvana’, given that nirvana as a concept is originally defined as non-samsara; the truth cannot be a third alternative. At best, one could say that emptiness is a higher level of nirvana (in an enlarged sense), which is not to be confused with the lower level intended by the original term nirvana, nor of course with samsara. In that case, nirvana (in a generic sense of the term, meaning literally non-samsara) includes both a higher species and a lower one; and the statement ‘neither samsara nor lower-nirvana’ is then compatible with the statement ‘higher nirvana’. There is a big difference between rough, poetic, dramatic language, and literal interpretation thereof.



[1] Beyond consciousness of “Shunyata” is a more vivid awareness called “Mahamudra”, according to Chögyam Trungpa, in Illusion’s Game (Shambhala: Boston, 1994). But such refinements need not concern us here.

[2] See Cheng, pp. 38-39, on this topic.

He there refers to MT XIII:9a and XVIII:7.

[3] See my Future Logic, ch. 60-62, and later essays on the subject.

[4] Adduction treats all conceptual knowledge as hypothetical, to be tested repeatedly – in competition with all conceivable alternative hypotheses – with reference to all available logic and experience.

[5] P. 42.

[6] P. 25.

[7] London: Penguin, 1973. This is supposedly the date of composition, though the translator, Juan Mascaro, in his Introduction, states “compiled” at that time, thus seeming to imply an earlier composition. It is not clear in that commentary when the sutra is estimated to have been first written down. And if it was much later, say in the period of crystallization of Mahayana thought, say in 100 BCE to 100 CE, the latter may have influenced the monks who did the writing down. See ch. 26 (383-5) for the quotation.

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2016-08-23T11:10:27+00:00