Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS
Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought
Chapter 9. In Buddhist discourse
Opposition by some Western logicians to (one or more of) the laws of thought is mostly naïve symbolic games, without any profound epistemological or ontological reflection; of quite another caliber is the opposition to these laws found in some Buddhist literature. But we can, with a bit of effort of reflection, explain away the apparent antinomies in their discourse.
When Buddhist philosophers make statements of the form “not X and not notX”, they should not (or not always) be viewed as engaging in antinomy, or in rejection of the laws of thought. Rather, such statements are abridged expressions intending: “don’t look for X and don’t look for not X”, or “don’t think X and don’t think not X”, or “don’t say X and don’t say not X”, or “don’t attach to X and don’t attach to not X”, or the like.
When thus clarified, statements superficially of the form “neither X nor not X” (or similarly, in some cases, “both X and not X”) are seen to be quite in accord with logic. For the laws of thought do not deny that you cannot look for ‘X’ and for ‘not X’, or for that matter for ‘both X and not X’, or even ‘neither X nor not X’. Similarly, with regard to thinking this or that, or to claiming this or that, or to attaching to this or that, etc.
The laws of logic would only say that you cannot at once ‘look for X’ and ‘not look for X’, and so forth. It does not say you cannot at once ‘look for X’ and ‘look for not X’, and so forth. The latter situation merely asserts that the issue of X or not X ought to be left problematic. An unsolved problem is not an antinomy. The most we can say is that whereas Buddhism might be deemed to enjoin us to accept such uncertainty as final, Western logic would recommend pressing on to find a solution of sorts.
Thus, in some cases, the apparent contradictions and inclusions of middle terms in Buddhist philosophy (and similarly in some other texts) are merely verbal. They are due to inaccuracy in verbal expression, omitting significant implicit aspects of what is really meant. The reason for such verbal brevity is that the focus of such statements is heuristic, rather than existential. They are merely meant as “skillful means” (to the end of Realization), not as factual descriptions. That is to say, they are statements telling the subject how to proceed (cognitively, volitionally or in valuation), rather than telling him/her how things are.
To give an actual example from Buddhist literature, I quote the following passage from the Wake-up Sermon attributed to Bodhidharma:
“Mortals keep creating the mind, claiming it exists. And arhats keep negating the mind, claiming it doesn’t exist. But bodhisattvas and buddhas neither create nor negate the mind. This is what’s meant by the mind that neither exists nor doesn’t exist… called the Middle Way.”
When we face an unresolved contradiction or an unsolved problem of any sort, we are from the point of view of knowledge in front of a void. This ‘emptiness’ can be looked upon with anxiety, as a precipice, as a deficiency of means to deal with the challenges of life. Or it may be viewed as something pregnant with meaning, a welcome opportunity to dive fearlessly into infinity. The former attitude gives rise to Western science, the latter to Zen meditation.
Or again, consider the following quotation from Huang Po’s teaching:
“If only you will avoid concepts of existence and non-existence in regard to absolutely everything, you will then perceive the Dharma.” (P. 43.)
Here again, the meaning is clear. The Zen master is not here denying existence or non-existence or both; he is just telling us not to engage in judgments like ‘this exists’ or ‘this does not exist’ that are inherent to all conceptualization. He refers to such judgments as “dualism”, because they require a decision between two alternatives. Clearly, Huang Po’s statement is not a formally contradictory ontological proposition, but a prima facie coherent epistemological injunction not to be concerned with judging whether what one experiences is real or unreal.
Admittedly, some Buddhists do take such a statement as implying that existence does not exist, or that it both exists and does not exists, or neither exists nor does not exist. But as far as commonsense logic is concerned, existence does exist – i.e. whatever is, is (Aristotle’s law of identity). Any clear denial of this fundamental truth would just be self-contradictory – it would deliberately ignore the fact and implications of its own utterance (i.e. that a statement has been made, alleging a truth, by someone to someone, etc.)
More precisely, in the present context, we must acknowledge that whatever but appears, certainly exists – whether it is eventually judged to be real or illusory. On this basis, we can reasonably interpret Huang Po (at least in the citation above) as simply saying “do not ask whether some particular (or general) thing exists or not, or whether it is real or not, because such questioning diverts your attention from a much more important insight into the nature of being”.
It should be added that, even though I above admit that Huang Po’s position is prima facie coherent, it is not so coherent upon further scrutiny. He cannot strictly speaking utter a statement without using concepts and he cannot be understood by us without use of our conceptual faculty. All discourse is conceptual, even anti-conceptual discourse. That is, in the very act of preaching abstinence from concepts, he is in fact not practicing what he preaches.
This shows that even persons presumed to be enlightened need concepts to communicate, and also that such conceptuality does not apparently (judging by the claims of those who practice it) affect their being enlightened. So concepts cannot be intrinsically harmful to enlightenment, and the claim that they must be eschewed is internally inconsistent! This is not a game of words (as some might argue) – it is a logical insight that cannot be waved off. One can only at best argue against excessive conceptualization.
In any event, it must be understood that Buddhist anti-conceptual philosophy is aimed at psychological development: it is primarily a “way” or “path”. Its focus is how to react to ordinary experiences, so as to get to see the ultimate reality beyond them. It refers to the object (X or not X), not independently (as in most Western logic), but as an object of the Subject (i.e. sought out, thought of, claimed, or attached to by the subject-agent). The latter ‘subjectivity’ (i.e. dependence on the subject-agent) is very often left implicit, simply because it is so pervasive. Notwithstanding, there are contexts in which the intent is more ‘objective’ than that.
It should also be noticed that many of the contradictions or paradoxes that Buddhist philosophers produce in their discourse are due to their tendency to make apparently general statements that in the last analysis turn out to be less than all-inclusive. Even while believing that there is more to the world as a whole than what is commonly evident, they formulate their ideas about the phenomenal world as unqualified universal propositions. There are many examples of this tendency.
“All is unreal”, says the Dhammapada (v. 279). Calling all unreal or illusory is of course possible in imagination, i.e. verbally – by taking the predicate ‘unreal’ or ‘illusory’ from its original legitimate subjects of application and applying it to ‘all’ subjects. Implicit in this manipulation is an analogy – i.e. a statement that just as within the realm of appearance some items are found not real and labeled illusory, so we can project a larger realm in which the whole current realm of appearance would seem unreal.
This explains how people assimilate that oft-repeated Buddhist statement, i.e. why it seems thinkable and potentially plausible. But it does not constitute logical justification for it. The only possible justification would be to personally experience a realm beyond that of ordinary experience. Even then, the logically consistent way to make the statement would be “all ordinary experience is unreal” (because saying just “all” would of course logically have to include the extraordinary experience).
Another frequently found example is “existence is suffering.” This statement is true, all too true, about the world we commonly experience, i.e. the world of material and mental phenomena. If one is observant, one discerns that we are always feeling some unpleasantness in the background of our existence. No earthly happiness is ever complete, if only because it is tenuous. Even sexual pleasure or orgasm – which more and more of my contemporaries seem to regard as the ultimate ecstasy and goal of existence – is a pain of sorts.
Buddhism has displayed extreme wisdom in emphasizing the fact of suffering, because once we realize it we are by this very simple realization already well on the way to being freed of suffering. If one were visiting hell, one would not expect to experience heaven there; likewise, it is natural in this halfway world to experience some suffering. I used to suffer a lot at the sight of people getting away with injustices or other ugly acts; but lately I just tell myself: “well, I am in samsara and this is normal behavior in samsara – so long as I am here, I have to expect this kind of unpleasant experience and take it in stride!”
But the statement “existence is suffering” is wrongly formulated from the logical point of view, and for that reason it is bound to lead to paradoxes. For if we believe (as Buddhists do) that suffering can eventually be overcome (specifically, when nirvana is attained), then the truth of suffering must be formulated less universally as: “mundane existence is suffering”. The usual formulation of the first Noble Truth, “existence is suffering,” is not intended to be as all-inclusive as it seems – for suffering disappears according to the third Noble Truth when we become enlightened. Therefore, to make the former consistent with the latter, it has to be rephrased more restrictively.
Another example of the tendency to artificially refuse to count the experience of enlightenment as part of the world as a whole is the idea that enlightenment takes us “beyond good and evil”. This is logically incorrect – if we regard enlightenment as the summum bonum, the ultimate good (which we do, if we enjoin people to prefer it to all other pursuits).
The phrase “beyond good and bad” is intended to stress the practical problem that pursuing good is as much a form of attachment as avoiding evil. The pursuit of worldly good things is ultimately bad, because it just ties us to this world and subjects us to the bad in it. And indeed, even the pursuit of liberation from this world, i.e. of an otherworldly good, is problematic, in that it involves the wrong attitude, a grasping or clinging attitude that is not conducive to success. All this is true, but tends towards paradox.
To avoid confusion, we must simply rephrase our goal as “beyond pursuit of good and avoidance of evil”. That is to say, we must admit that nirvana is ‘good’ in the most accurate sense of the term, while what we call ‘good’ in the world of samsara (i.e. wealth position, power, sensual pleasure, etc.) is really not much better than what we call ‘bad’. Alternatively, we should distinguish good in an absolute sense (the good of nirvana) and good in a relative sense (the goods within samsara). Relative goods would then to be classified as not so good from the absolute point of view.
The result of this change of perspective is that, rather than view existence as fundamentally bad (due to suffering), we may now view it as fundamentally good (since nirvana underlies all samsaric existence). Our common view and manner of existence is just an error of sorts, causing us much suffering; if we but return to correct cognition and behavior, we will experience the natural good at the core of all things. Here, the illusory good and evil of the mundane are irrelevant, and we are fully immersed in the real good.
To conclude – Buddhist discourse often leads to paradox or contradiction because it insists on using terms in conventional ways and uttering generalities that apply to only part of the totality of experience (namely, the mundane part, to the exclusion of the supramundane part). To avoid the doctrinal problems such discursive practices cause, we must either clearly specify the terms used as having such and such conventional senses, or particularize statements that were formulated too generally (i.e. which did not explicitly take into consideration the data of enlightenment).
 I am of course over-generalizing a bit here, for emphasis. There are of course more savvy Western logicians and less savvy Oriental (including Buddhist) logicians. A case of the latter I have treated in some detail in past works is Nagarjuna.
 For example, the following is a recommendation to avoid making claims of truth or falsehood: “Neither affirm nor deny… and you are as good as a enlightened already.” Sutra of Supreme Wisdom, v. 30 – in Jean Eracle (my translation from French).
 P. 53. This passage is particularly clear in its explanation of “neither exists nor does not” as more precisely “is neither created nor negated”. Whereas the former is logically contradictory, the latter is in fact not so. What is advocated here is, simply put, non-interference.
 In truth, Huang Po is among them, since elsewhere he piously states: “from first to last not even the smallest grain of anything perceptible has ever existed or ever will exist” (p. 127). This is a denial of all appearance, even as such. Of course, such a position is untenable, for the existence of mere appearance is logically undeniable – else, what is he discussing? Before one can at all deny anything, one must be able to affirm something. Also, the act of denial is itself an existent.
 For a start, to claim a means as skillful is a kind of factual description.
 This is the usual translation of the Sanskrit term is dukkha. This connotes not only physical and emotional pain, but more broadly mental deficiencies and disturbances, lack of full satisfaction and contentment, unhappiness, absence of perfect peace of mind.
 If we are sufficiently attentive, we notice the pain involved in sexual feelings. Not just a pain due to frustration, but a component of physical pain in the very midst of the apparent pleasure.
 Or, using Jewish terminology: “I am in galut (exile, in Hebrew), and such unpleasantness is to be expected here”. Note in passing, the close analogy between the Buddhist concept of samsara and the kabbala concept of galut.
 We could read S. Suzuki as saying much the same thing, when he says: “Because we are not good right now, we want to be better, but when we attain the transcendental mind, we go beyond things as they are and as they should be. In the emptiness of our original mind they are one, and there we find perfect composure” (p.130).