"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism

with 15 comments

Buddhism is widely perceived as a mystical tradition that rejects logic and focuses on an inexpressible ultimate reality. It that correct?


1. Inexpressible Dharma

HakuinMy first exposure to Buddhism was through Paul Reps’s book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of koans, or riddle-like stories that exemplify points of practice. In some schools of Zen Buddhism, koans are taken by monks as objects of contemplation. These evocative stories can be quite straightforward, but often seem to be crafted to bewilder students with their provocative and paradoxical qualities. Consider this koan from the classical collection The Gateless Gate:

“Wukuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma: ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?'” (1)

On the surface there appears to be little to this story other than the obvious contradiction. Why does Wakuan describe the bearded image as beardless? Does he in fact believe that Bodhidharma does not possess a beard in some sense? Is he trying to provoke his audience by asking a question with a premise that is clearly false? Or is it a comment on the fact that this is a picture of a man with a beard, and not a man with a beard?

Other koans seem to have a kind of logic to them, but it is the logic of a poem or a dream.

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out,
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water! (2)

Like a poem, this little story beautifully renders a direct image of Chiyono’s experience. But at the risk of being pedantic, we can note that a comparison is implied between the water holding the moon and the mind holding an image. The nun’s experience of liberation is somehow like the evacuation of water from the bucket, suggesting that the ordinary mind and its images are vacated, leaving a clarity deeper than ordinary perception.

In Mahayana Buddhism this kind of clarity is described as emptiness. Most Mahayana schools identify the direct realization of emptiness as the central experience that liberates Buddhists from the otherwise-endless suffering of the mind, which is bound by appetites and fears to the ceaselessly-turning wheel of time.

In 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Soyen Shaku introduced Zen to an English-speaking audience. It was a major milestone in the transmission of Buddhism to the United States, and a first step in establishing Zen as one of the dominant Buddhist traditions that would flourish in the New World.

Soyen Shaku’s presentation was translated into English by his student D. T. Suzuki, who himself went on to write several books introducing Japanese Zen Buddhism, including the classic Zen and Japanese Culture. These works inspired young authors like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who incorporated Zen ideas into their writing and helped them to reach a wider audience. Kerouac’s notebooks clearly convey the seriousness with which he took his study, and the sincerity of his thinking about its implications. (3)

Zen is a unique tradition with deep roots in the native cultures in which it flourished, in this case China and Japan. It is distinctive for its enigmatic and poetic writing style. So reticent is Zen that the first manual of meditation was not written for several centuries after the school’s founding in China, despite the fact that the word “Zen” mean “meditation”, and Zen is the Meditation School. I know students who have spent an entire year in meditation, during which time the only instruction they were given by their Japanese teachers was “Just sit.”

The enigmatic style of Zen teaching is particularly striking in contrast with the Indian Buddhist schools from which it ultimately derives, which are frequently extremely verbose and scholastic. The earliest schools of Buddhism produced thousands of extant texts presenting techniques, practices, stories, precepts, and ethical teachings.

Zen came early to America, and the experience of Zen as a non-rational or even anti-rational tradition has taken hold in the popular imagination. Douglas Hofstadter’s widely-read Gödel, Escher, Bach, for example, discusses several koans, commenting that “[t]his type of paradox is quite characteristic of Zen. It is an attempt to ‘break the mind of logic.'” (4)

For those whose primary exposure to Buddhism has been through Zen, it can be tempting to speculate that Buddhism as a whole eschews rational analysis and logic. Some have mistakenly argued that Zen is rooted in a larger context of mystical “Eastern religions” that all reject logic as a veil obscuring the inexpressible final nature of the cosmos. This view has been popularized by books such as by Fritjof Capra’s facile The Tao of Physics, which falsely states that the religious teachings of Asia constitute one essential message, pointing to a world beyond words.

This view fails to account for the great diversity among various Buddhist traditions, which vary dramatically in style and content. That is to say nothing of the so-called “Eastern religions” as a whole, about which no generalization may safely be made. Consider, for example, that Sanskrit and Pali, the great literary languages of Indian Buddhism, are Indo-European languages, and have more in common with English, Greek, and Latin than they do with Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.


2. The Plot Thickens – Tibetan Scholasticism

Monks DebatingHaving based my own rudimentary concept of Buddhism on Zen, I was surprised when I began to study Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the teachings of the Dalai Lama. I remember the shock I felt when he stated that if a point of Buddhist doctrine conflicts with scientific findings, then the doctrine must be revised or discarded. In reference to the ancient cosmology of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, the Dalai Lama observed that “Buddha was not here to teach the distance between the Earth and the moon.”

The Dalai Lama follows the Gelukpa (dge-lugs-pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is on the far side of the analytical continuum from Zen. Perhaps more than any other school of Buddhism, the Gelukpas embrace rational analysis as the key to practice. The school’s founder Je Tsong Khapa (1357–1419) wrote thousands of pages of scholastic instructions and doxographical works analyzing countless points of practice (in addition to founding what would become the largest monasteries in the world, and mastering yogic practices of extraordinary difficulty). His colossal overview of Buddhist practice The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment is properly regarded as a masterpiece of world religious literature, and has been recently translated in its entirety into English by an excellent committee of scholars. (5)

As with Zen, the Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelukpas is oriented on the direct experience of emptiness, which is an experience that somehow transcends ordinary rational thought. However, the Gelukpas believe that logical analysis is key to generating that experience, which arises through the focused application of a kind of deconstructive analysis during meditation. Then, like a fire consuming fuel, the realization of emptiness consumes the conceptual mediation that serves as its base.

The tension between rational insight and the reason-transcending epiphany that is its final aim is a primary theme in Gelukpa doctrine. In one recent study of Gelukpa epistemology and logic, the scholar-practitioner Anne Klein observed:

Gelukbas [=Gelukpas] must remain cognizant of the fact that inexpressibility as an epithet of the ultimate is frequently mentioned in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts. As generations of scholars have noted, this description has in no way impeded a massive scholastic tradition that has grown up in an endeavor, presumably, to be informative about the ultimate truth. And in the Buddhist context … this is not really an irony. The Dalai Lama once remarked, having cited the importance this textual material has for realizing the inexpressible ultimate, “After all, it is not that inexpressible.” (6)

That line conveys a great deal of the Dalai Lama’s remarkable intelligence and wisdom, as well as his humor.

3. Indian Mahayana Buddhism and the Law of Contradiction

If we arrange Buddhist teachings on a continuum then, with Japanese Zen on one end, representing the apparent rejection of philosophy and logic, we might place the Gelukpa school on the other end, representing the acme of rational scholastic analysis. Yet both traditions are based on the same goal: the direct experience of emptiness, which somehow frees the mind from the grip of suffering through a surrender or transcendence of ordinary conceptual thought. The final realization may not be that inexpressible, but it is inexpressible, and even for the Gelukpas it cannot ultimately be described by logical terms.

NagarjunaThe doctrine of emptiness is relatively late in Buddhism. While the historical Buddha probably gave some teachings on the roughly comparable concept of selflessness around the sixth century BCE, emptiness became a core teaching much later, in the work of the earliest-known proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, the Indian philosopher-sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd Century CE). Zen and all of the Tibetan schools of Buddhism regard Nagarjuna as a central figure in their lineage.

In his great work Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Nagarjuna systematically analyzes several different aspects of ordinary perception and conceptual thought, such as our sense of agent and action, objects in motion, time, and so forth. For each category, Nagarjuna deconstructs the conceptual basis which we depend upon in order to think of things as … well, things.

Generally if I think of a table, I think it is a “thing” that has its own separate existence and identity, a solidity, persistence, and independence that we might describe as its “inherent existence.” This assumption about the nature of existence of any thing we might name underlies our perceptions and pervades the concepts by which we describe, imagine, and remember phenomena.

Nagarjuna argues that if we carefully examine the implications of our innate sense that things exist in and of themselves, that sense will lead us into contradiction. For example, Nagarjuna inquires “Is fire the same as the fuel it consumes, or are they different?”

If fire is different than the wood – that is, if fire has its own independent existence completely distinct from wood – then the fire could burn without wood. If it exists in and of itself, it would burn without relying on fuel. However, if fire is the same as the wood – if they are one and the same object – then you could never find wood without fire. Nor can they depend upon one another AND possess that quality of inherent existence, for if they exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, how can they exist independently?

Having considered and rejected all the possible ways that inherently-existing fire and inherently-existing wood might relate or not relate to one another, Nagarjuna concludes with this koan-like verse:

Fire is not dependent on fuel
Fire is not independent of fuel.
Fuel is not dependent on fire.
Fuel is not independent of fire. (7)

Now we approach the heart of our topic, for deep in this key argument, in which he establishes the crucial doctrine of emptiness that defines many Buddhist schools, we have an apparent statement of contradiction. Do Buddhists following Nagarjuna reject logic in the western sense?

For millennia, western logic has been based on the law of non-contradiction, described by Aristotle in his Metaphysics as “the most certain of all principles.” The law holds that a thing cannot be both X and not X. The sky cannot be dark and not dark at the same time, a box cannot weigh a hundred and twenty pounds and also not a hundred and twenty pounds. Yet Nagarjuna apparently states that fire is X and fire is not X. Does this constitute a rejection of one of the central tenets of classical logic?

Zen Buddhism and the Gelukpa school of the Tibetans offer two rather different ways of interpreting this kind of statement, based on on their substantially different frameworks. Generally speaking, the Zen position is to take this as a matter of contemplation, not analysis.

This verse of Nagarjuna’s does not differ much from Wukuan’s question “Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?” In that sense, it is not a thing to be reasoned, it is a point of practice. Holding the apparent contradiction firmly may generate a tension that propels the mind forward, past the concepts upon which the contradiction is based. Then, perhaps, the bottom will fall out of the pail. No more moon in the water!

The Chinese master Wu-men said “To have a Buddha view and a Dharma view is to be enclosed by two iron mountains.” Robert Aitken comments, “The Buddha view is that all is empty. The Dharma view is that all is karma. One is the First Principle, the other is the Second Principle. You are caught in principles. What is the way out? The eucalyptus trees stand motionless in the night air. Only a faraway rooster can be heard.” (8)

The Gelukpa approach is to analyze this apparent contradiction until it resolves into a coherent proposition. In their view, the statement only appears to be contradictory on the surface. Clearly Nagarjuna is not arguing that there is no such thing as fire. You could easily refute such a position by lighting his socks on fire.

Nagarjuna is making a deeper and more subtle argument, that the fire does not exist in the way that we usually think. Fire does not exist inherently, in and of itself. His teaching is not intended to refute fire, it is to refute our exaggerated sense of the substantiality of things, which is inextricably interwoven with the appetites and fears that turn the wheel of suffering.

By this reading, we could rewrite Nagarjuna’s verse as follows:


Fire is not [ultimately] dependent on fuel
Fire is not [ultimately] independent of fuel.
Fuel is not [ultimately] dependent on fire.
Fuel is not [ultimately] independent of fire.

In other words, fire and fuel exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, and they cannot be coherently posited as existing independently. Thus, there is no contradiction. (9)

One might argue that this is a cheap move on the Tibetans’ part, one that neuters the contradiction of Nagarjuna’s verse by reinterpreting it, resolving the koan and thus depriving it of its force. But Nagarjuna gives us clear evidence that this is what he has in mind. In the chapter “Examination of the Four Noble Truths,” he explains that he is not refuting existence, he is refuting independent existence.

“That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness. (10)

In other words, things should be though of not as independent objects, but as dynamic patterns that cannot be extricated from the webs of cause and effect in which they are expressed, and by virtue of which they gain their characteristics.

These are only two possible points of view with respect to logic and analysis, and it should be noted that these traditions are not monolithic. We have focused on doctrinal analysis made for the most part by educated monastic elites, but the picture of practice and its meaning changes dramatically when viewed from the perspective of the laity. For the great majority of lay Buddhists in Asia, Buddhism has served the same basic functions that most religious traditions serve, providing cosmological and ethical support that enables people to accept life’s sorrows and to give a sense of meaning to their experience.

Although the main aesthetic thrust of the tradition is poetic, not analytical, there is also a wonderful tradition of study and analysis in Japanese Zen, and its single-minded focus on non-rational epiphany should not be mistaken for anti-intellectualism. The learned scholar Okumura Shohaku once memorably protested to an group of students, “Sometimes I hear American students saying that they do not need to study. I do not know where they get this. This is totally wrong!”

The Gelukpas have long been criticized for intellectualism and are sometimes caricatured as Buddhists who do not meditate, or monks who would rather read about enlightenment than achieve it. One of the most interesting critics of the Gelukpa was the twentieth century savant Gendun Choephel, himself an unorthodox Gelukpa scholar and one of the great religious minds of his day. Choephel criticized the canonical Gelukpa interpretation of Nagarjuna in his gripping Ornament of the Thought of Nagarjuna. (11) He argued that the systematic insistence of the followers of Tsong Khapa on qualifying and limiting every statement made by Nagarjuna threatens to soften the impact of his teachings to the degree that it loses its transformative power.

Choephel argues for a less-qualified interpretation of emptiness that radically confronts every thought and perception, leaving no aspect of your life untouched. His willingness to critically engage his own tradition was highly unusual, and tragically contributed to making him a political target later in his life. But that fascinating story is best left for a future post.

Ultimately the image of Buddhism as a tradition that holds the power of reason side-by-side with reason’s limits presents us with a grand koan to which we must provide our own answers.

Update: I added a brief addendum.


1. Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Doubleday. p. 93
2. ibid., p. 34
3. Kerouac, Jack. Some of the Dharma. Penguin. 1999.
4. Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Basic Books. 1999. p. 249.
5. Cutler, Joshua et al. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; Volumes I-III. Snow Lion. 2000-4.
6. Klein, Anne C. Knowledge and Liberation. Snow Lion. 1998.
7. Garfield, Jay. Ocean of Reasoning; A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarikia. Snow Lion. 2006. pg. 258
8. Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier. North Point Press. 1991. pg. 289
9. Readers interested in formal logic are referred to the outstanding technical commentary “Is Buddhist Logic Non-Classical or Deviant?” in:
Tillemans, Tom J. Scripture, Logic, Language; Essays on Dharmakirti and his Tibetan Successors. Wisdom Publications. 1999. pp. 187-205
10. Garfield; op.cit. pg. 503
11. Lopez Jr, Donald S. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006.


Written by Mesocosm

June 3, 2011 at 12:59 am

15 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. exquisite breakdown. I am about to re-read it to try and retain the plethora of knowledge that was just dropped.


    June 4, 2011 at 12:13 am

  2. Where were you when Hashang Mahayana needed you? 😉 Very well done comparison; I expect I’ll be pointing people toward it frequently.

    Frater Pralixus

    October 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm

  3. There seems to be more contradiction in the reasoning of logic in Buddhism than the actual contradiction it attempts to reconcile.
    Fire is dependent on fuel, but fuel does not define the existence of fire. It IS possible for fire to be both dependent on fuel and independently existing. The dependence on something does not define the dependent object. It is a good way at looking at cause and effect and the relationship of the world, but the fundamental mistake is no longer creating a distinction between the object and that which it is dependent on.
    Reason cannot be forsaken. I understand it’s limits in applying it to one’s personal life, but if reason is abandoned, then the only common ground of communication between all men is abandoned.

    I feel it is deceptive and futile for Buddhism to assume apparent contradictions are the limits of reasoning when they could simply be explained more thoroughly with reason itself, thereby resolving the apparent contradiction without getting into the inexpressible.

    I am sympathetic to the concept of inexpressible ideas, but they are meant for personal experiences, not as a resolution to apparent logical contradictions.


    January 26, 2013 at 2:12 am

    • Hi Rock,

      Thanks for your interesting comments.

      The dialectical reasoning employed by Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Madhyamikas is one of the most elaborate and precise expressions of logic I’ve encountered. While I’ve offered only a cursory overview of the kinds of analyses they conduct in this short article, the tradition is extremely sensitive to category distinctions. These kinds of objections are not lost on them.

      For example, one of the standard textbooks on Buddhist logic in the Tibetan curriculum begins with an analysis of the following question: is a white shell white? The author, Purbuchok, concludes: no, the COLOR of a white shell is white.

      As a Madhyamika myself, I’d acknowledge your distinction between necessary and sufficient causes, and then point out that fuel qua wood is not dependent of fire, but fuel qua fuel IS dependent on fire. Otherwise it would not be fuel; it would be wood.

      On its face, this might seem to restrict this analysis to a very small class of phenomena. But it is only one case of dozens that he examines in the Mulamadhyamakakarika. In the larger context of his analyses – many of which are more easily generalizable – you get the sense of this kind of reasoning.

      Nagarjuna’s follower Chandrakirti took this approach and re-expressed it in a more abstract and general form in his Madhyamakavatara, or “Entrance to the Middle Way.” If it interests you, there are a number of excellent English translations and commentaries of this work available.


      January 26, 2013 at 10:43 am

  4. Hi again – I apologize if I seem to be the pedantic error-corrector. I think this post was great. Just wanted to say – it wasn’t DT Suzuki at the World Parliament in 1893, but Soyen Shaku. Small point. Otherwise great post.


    July 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

    • Thanks for the correction – my confusion stemmed from the fact that his speech was translated into English by D. T. Suzuki.


      July 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm

  5. I don’t follow the part about fuel and fire. When I first read the 4 lines, I assumed that Nagarjuna’s point was going to be that fire and fuel are dependent on each other in one sense, but also independent from each other in another sense. This would seem very sensible to me, as language is always ambiguous, so the same phrase can mean many different things, and two statements that seem contradictory when analyzed literally and logically can both be true if interpreted correctly.

    But then when I read your explanation I get very confused. You say “In other words, fire and fuel exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, and they cannot be coherently posited as existing independently. Thus, there is no contradiction.”

    If they are mutually dependent on each other and cannot be said to be independent, then it seems like you’re saying that 2 of the statements are true and the other 2 are false. Namely: “fire is not independent of fuel” and “fuel is not independent of fire” are true, and “fire is not dependent on fuel” and “fuel is not dependent on fire” are false.

    So, is he saying that fire and fuel are both dependent and independent in different ways? Or is he saying that they are dependent on each other, and not independent?


    November 24, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    • Hey Jeff, this is just one example drawn from a long work that uses many parallel critiques of what I would call the naive realist position. The logic of his critique is probably more clear within the larger context. But it’s worth emphasizing that Nagarjuna is not analyzing language, he’s analyzing concepts of existence and non-existence that he believes underlie any conceivable language or experience. In his view, all perceptions or concepts of any object whatsoever are permeated by a sense of inherent existence – i.e., things always appear to the mind as if they have their own independent existence.

      I give a line-by-line account of what the traditional gloss of this verse interprets Nagarjuna to mean in this verse, in the paragraph beginning with “If fire is different than the wood ….”

      In the portion that you focus on, when I take a second look at the verse, the main thing I’m trying to get across is that you can resolve the apparent contradiction of the tetralemma if you read it as a statement of modal logic. This closely follows the example of the Tibetan interpreter Tsong Khapa, who reads Nagarjuna as analyzing /ultimate/ existence in this critique, not existence in general. He reads this qualifying modal term “ultimate” into Nagarjuna’s writings in square brackets at every instance.

      If you read Nagarjuna in this way, than the surface contradiction is resolved. By this reading, he’s not saying “Fire is one thing; wood is another thing,” he’s saying “Fire and wood are not the same in an ontologically and epistemologically final sense; nor are fire and wood truly distinct in an ontologically and epistemologically final sense. They must be understood as finally existing in a relationship of mutual interrelationship, where one cannot be posited without the other.”

      Another key point here is that he is not really interested in fire and fuel, he’s interested in the concept of existence. He’s not trying to characterize fire and fuel, he’s arguing that one cannot coherently maintain a naive realist’s view of inherent existence without finding one’s self in contradiction, in this and countless other examples.


      November 24, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      • Ok, I think this helps me get the general idea being expressed. The point about objects appearing to exist but not really existing intrinsically is an important one, and one I think is very well supported by modern physics (and not just by quantum mechanics).

        I do see a lot of issues here as being connected to language, although maybe Wittgenstein has influenced me too much as I tend to believe that all of philosophy is secretly about language in one way or another.

        For example, it still seems to me that if one has a particular fixed notion of what words like “dependent” and independent” are supposed to mean, then attaching an adjective like “ultimate” to existence doesn’t help to resolve the conflicting statements. With or without that adjective, it gives rise to two True and two False statements. Whereas if you allow the meanings to vary from statement to statement, it opens things up nicely to a coherent interpretation. Although maybe the problem is that I’m not sure what the word ultimate adds? In the paragraph where you explain the traditional way of interpreting the tetralemma, you use the term “intrinsic existence” instead of “ultimate existence”. These mean the same to me–or is there an important distinction between intrinsic existence and ultimate existence?

        Another thing I see as tied up in language is your response to Rock. “fuel” and “wood” are two words that refer to the same thing (apparent object) in this case. And yet they have subtly different meanings because fuel implies that the wood is going to be used to make fire. So wood can exist without fire, but fuel cannot exist without fire, even though wood is fuel. It seems like the resolution here depends on a quirk about how the concepts of fuel and wood are related.


        November 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      • Yes, inherent existence and ultimate existence are exactly synonymous. Probably the easiest way to define inherent existence is to say it’s the opposite of its opposed term, dependent-arising. In technical terms, all phenomena whatsoever are dependent on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and being designated or registered by a valid conventional consciousness. The false appearance of inherent existence is that phenomena are self-subsistent, and are not thus dependent.

        I would say that instead on “language,” this branch of Buddhists tries to focus on “concepts,” which means not just abstract ideas, but mental and cognitive patterns that are the basis for thought and language. If you would like to say with Wittgenstein that language and concepts are inextricably bound, I have no particular problem with that, and I would want to avoid something like a nominalist theory of language, such as the one Wittgenstein critiques in “Investigations.” But consider that frogs have neurons in the visual cortex that fire if and only if they see a fly, or something very fly-like. Apparently the way we cognitively register objects (or at least certain kinds of objects) is at the bare level of sense impression, prior to conceptuality. I think that is deeper than language, in some sense.

        If we were really going to go into this topic, then one small verse from this single text couldn’t really support it. My intention in this post is to give a brief impression of how logical argumentation is used in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, but the tradition itself is very deep. Even by the time you get to Tsong Khapa, you’re dealing with commentaries of commentaries of commentaries, and this topic gets a lot more technical than that. If you want to get a fuller sense of what the heck is going on here, I can certainly recommend any of a large number of books, or we can talk about it further.

        For people who really want to get jiggy, there’s a whole world of Indo-Tibetan logic and epistemology, and it is deeply intertwined with this emptiness business. Buddhist epistemologists have constructed very complex theories of how conceptual thought works, and have some ideas about language, though language hasn’t assumed anything like the importance that it’s taken in Europe and the US in the last century or two.

        Personally I’m very interested in the question of how the appearance of inherent existence is connected to a separate but related process by which phenomena are related to other phenomena of a similar type. Tibetan epistemologists have a construct that they call “meaning generalities,” which is a kind of mental process that relates like objects. For example, when you see a leaf, a conceptual overlay of the category “leaf” is fused with that very visual perception, and by the time the image reaches your mind, the sense impression and the meaning generality are so fused, they’re impossible to fully distinguish. This seems related to this appearance of inherent existence business, but the technical details of how these parallel processes of mental engagement function is very complicated. I spent many years trying to get a handle on it.

        This goes much deeper into the mechanics of how the mind works, and the greatest scholars and luminaries of Tibet have been focused on these issues for about 1300 years now. Imagine if every president of the United States were passionately interested in Wittgenstein and absolutely committed to getting all the details right, and allocated funds accordingly, and you get some picture of what it was like in pre-1949 Tibet. It’s an amazing culture, and it’s mind-blowing to hear the Dalai Lama lecture on these topics. He knows as much about Nagarjuna as anyone in the world.

        I would like to address these points at greater length but I’m definitely feeling the constraints of doing so on line. One final point I would emphasize is that the point of all this is ultimately to support an experience of insight that is quite available to people, by which they are able to see through their desires and fears and relinquish some of the concepts and ideas that bind them to patterns of behavior which inexorably lead to suffering. The ideas are important, but what is key is the experience, and Nagarjuna is most concerned with supporting the process of inquiry that can lead to that moment of insight, when body and mind fall away, and you experience a profound re-organization of consciousness based on a deep perception of how things actually are.


        November 26, 2014 at 3:41 pm

  6. How is this reconciled with the law of identity as fire cannot ultimately exist and not exist whether dependently or independently ? Does emptiness exist ?

    Voo Chuk

    November 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    • The principle of identify is preserved because it’s the basis of Nagarjuna’s argument. What he says is, if you believe in inherent existence, then you must also maintain contradictory positions, that fire is both the same as fuel and not the same as fuel. It’s essentially a reductio ad absurum.

      Yes, emptiness exists, but like everything else, it does not exist inherently, it exists conventionally. That is, emptiness is also a dependent-arising.


      November 24, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      • Mesocosm, this is one of the most beautifully written columns of yours I’ve ever seen.

        Interestingly, we just last week heard the 2nd of two talks by Teisho Munnich, a local (Asheville, NC) Zen teacher, student of Katagiri Roshi. I’m generally more partial to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition myself (particularly dzogchen) but we were both quite taken by this teacher.

        We’re going up to her center, Great Tree Zen, in Alexander, NC tomorrow, for the first time. Very nice to come across this before going there. Will be part of a study group (yes, zen folks study!) looking at some writings by Dogen.



        November 24, 2014 at 6:48 pm

  7. Hi Don, thanks for your kind words! This one was fun to write, and it’s a topic of great interest to me. I’ve had great fortune in studying Dharma with some wonderful Zen teachers, including Shohaku Okumura, who memorably once said during a class on Genjo Koan, “Some Americans believe that Zen students don’t need to study. I don’t know where they get this idea – this is totally wrong!” 😉

    Madhyamaka is one of the great loves of my life – Yogacara is almost equally delightful. It’s wonderfully beautiful and profound.

    My primary teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center was also a student of Katagiri-Roshi.


    November 24, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    • Yes, it’s a very American thing to combine anti-intellectualism with meditation – and usually it’s people with advanced degrees (or advanced sclerosis of the intuitive faculty) who are most anti-intellectual!

      You may have also enjoyed this little story about – I think – Yasutani Roshi. It was in one of those follow up books Kapleau wrote after Three Pillars.

      Two Americans were visiting a Roshi in japan, and were horrified to see him bowing before the Buddha.

      “Why are you bowing?” they exclaimed. “Aren’t we supposed to kill the Buddha if we meet him on the road, aren’t we told to spit on all idols?”

      The Roshi smiled, and calmed replied, “If you wish to spit, then spit. I prefer to bow.”


      November 25, 2014 at 3:55 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: