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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought

Chapter 10. Calling what is not a spade a spade

Buddhism, no doubt since its inception, has a mix of logic and illogic in its discourse. Looking at its four main philosophical schools, Abhidharma, Prajnaparamita, Madhyamika and Yogacara, the most prone to discard the three laws of thought (i.e. Identity, Non-contradiction, Exclusion of the middle) was Madhyamika[1]. But this trend was started in the earlier Prajnaparamita, as examples from the Diamond Sutra[2] show.

We do, in this sutra, find samples of valid logical argument. For example, there is a well formed a fortiori argument in Section 12[3]: “wherever this sutra or even four lines of it are preached, that place will be respected by all beings… How much more [worthy of respect] the person who can memorize and recite this sutra…!” But we do also find plain antinomies, like “the Dharma… is neither graspable nor elusive” (said even though not graspable means elusive, and not elusive means graspable).

But the Diamond Sutra repeatedly uses a form of argument that, as a logician, I would class as a further twist in the panoply of Buddhist illogic. This states: “What is called X is not in fact X; therefore, it is called X” (or sometimes: “What is called X is truly not X; such is merely a name, which is why it is called X”).

There are over twenty samples of this argument in the said sutra. Here is one: “What the Tathagata has called the Prajnaparamita, the highest, transcendental wisdom, is not, in fact, the Prajnaparamita and therefore it is called Prajnaparamita.” Here is another: “… what are called beings are truly no beings. Such is merely a name. That is why the Tathagata has spoken of them as beings.”[4]

What I am questioning or contesting here regarding this sort of discourse is only the “therefore” or “which is why” conjunction[5]. I am not denying that one might call something by an inappropriate name, or even that words can never more than approximate what one really wants to say. But to say that one is naming something X because it is not X – this is surely absurd and untenable.

This is not merely ‘not calling a spade a spade’ – it is calling something a spade even while believing it not to be a spade! This is, at least on the surface, contrary to logic. If the label is not applicable, why apply it? Moreover, why boast about this unconscionable inversion, saying “therefore”?

To say that something “is not in fact or truly X” is to imply that the word X has a sense that the thing under consideration does not fit into; in such case, why call that very thing ‘X’ against all logic? Why not just call it ‘not X’ (or coin for it some other, more specific name) and avoid paradox!

Discourse like “such is merely a name” is self-defeating anyway, since in fact it uses names that do convey some meaning. The sentence suggests no words have any valid reference, yet relies on the effectiveness of the words it utilizes to communicate its various intentions. It is a statement that tries to exempt itself from the criticisms it levels at all statements as such.

In the examples given above, the argument depends on our understanding of words like ‘Prajnaparamita’ (i.e. perfection of wisdom) or ‘beings’ – and yet at the same time tries to invalidate any such understanding. It cannot therefore be said to communicate anything intelligible.

Without doubt, we cannot adequately express ultimate reality (or God) in words. But it remains true that we can verbally express the fact of ineffability (as just done in the preceding sentence). There is no need to devalue words as such to admit that they have their limits.

Moreover, it is very doubtful that such paradoxical statements (like “name this X because it is not X”) are psychologically expedient to attain enlightenment; they just cognitively confuse and incapacitate the rational mind. Rather than silence the inquiring mind, all they actually do is excite it with subconsciously unanswered questions. Such nonsensical statements are products of an unfortunate fashion that developed in Buddhism at a certain epoch[6].

That sort of intellectual perversity came to seem profound, as it does to some postmodern thinkers in the West today, precisely because a logical antinomy implies nothing – and that emptiness of meaning is (wrongly) equated with the Emptiness underlying all phenomena. The gaping hole in knowledge left by antinomy gives the illusion of being pregnant with meaning, whereas in fact it is just evidence of ignorance. Note this well.

It should be added that there is indeed a sort of structural paradox in the meditative act – but the Diamond Sutra’s habit of ‘calling not a spade a spade’ is not it. The paradox involved is that if we pursue enlightenment through meditation, we cannot hope to attain it, for then our ego (grasping at this transcendental value as at a worldly object) is sustained; yet, meditation is the best way to enlightenment. So we must ‘just do it’ – just sit and let our native enlightenment (our ‘Buddha nature’) shine forth eventually.

It should also be reminded that Buddhism is originally motivated by strong realism. It is essentially a striving towards Reality. In this perspective, the Buddhist notion of “suchness” may be considered as a commitment to the Law of Identity. The enlightened man is one who perceives things, in particular and in general, such as they really are.

This is brought out, for instance, in the following Zen exchange. A monk asked Li-shan: “What is the reason [of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West, i.e. from India to China]”, to which the Zen master replied “Just because things are such as they are”, and in D. T. Suzuki’s commentary that this refers to “Suchness” (Zen Doctrine of No-mind, p. 93).

[1] See my work Buddhist Illogic on this topic, as well as comments on Nagarjuna’s discourse in my Ruminations, Part I, chapter 5. I must stress that my concern, throughout those previous and the present critiques, is not to reject Buddhism as such, but to show that it can be harmonized with reason. I consider quite unnecessary and counterproductive, the attitude of many Buddhist philosophers, who seemingly consider Realization (i.e. enlightenment, liberation, wisdom) impossible without rejection of logic. My guiding principle throughout is that they are quite compatible, and indeed that reason is an essential means (together with morality and meditation) to that desirable end.

[2] Judging by its Sanskrit language, the centrality of the bodhisattva ideal and other emphases in it, this sutra is a Mahayana text. It is thought to have been composed and written in India about 350 C.E., though at least one authority suggests a date perhaps as early as 150 C.E. For comparison, Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika philosophy, was active circa 150-200 C.E.; thus this Prajnaparamita text was written during about the same period, if not much later.

[3] Mu Soeng, p. 111.

[4] In Mu Soeng: pp. 145 and 151, respectively. I spotted a similar argument in another Mahayana text: “And it is because for them [the boddhisattvas] training consists in not-training that they are said to be training” (my translation from a French translation) – found in chapter 2, v. 33 of the “Sutra of the words of the Buddha on the Supreme Wisdom” (see Eracle, p. 61).

[5] Assuming the translation in this edition is correct, of course (and it seems quite respectable; see p. ix of the Preface). My point is that no logician has ever formally validated such an argument; and in fact it is formally invalid, since the conclusion effectively contradicts a premise.

[6] Although not entirely absent in the earlier Abhidharma literature and the later Yogacara literature, they are not uncommon in some Prajnaparamita literature (including the Diamond Sutra) and rather common in Madhyamika literature.

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