Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism
Buddhism is widely perceived as a mystical tradition that rejects logic and focuses on an inexpressible ultimate reality. It that correct?
1. Inexpressible Dharma
My 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
Having 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.
The 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.