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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

The Mythology of Star Wars

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Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.

Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.

The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.

Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.

This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.

The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.

I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.

The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.

When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.

One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.

The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.

We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.

We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.

The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.

The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.

In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.

Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.

Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”

I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.

Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?

The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?

To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?

Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.


Written by Mesocosm

May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am

Nondualism as First Philosophy

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Western philosophy can no longer avoid the formidable challenge posed by nondual philosophy derived from India.


The philosophy of India has been known to the west for well over two hundred years. The first scholars to approach the topic in a serious way were philologists and comparative religions scholars of the German universities of the nineteenth century. Through that milieu the stamp of eastern thinking left its mark on our larger culture, through the far reach of Germany’s influence on philosophy, theology, religious studies, and psychology.

It is well known that the post-Kantian philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was profoundly influenced by the Upanishads, and their influence can be found all over his work, including his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation. Some of the sense of the Upanishads entered mainstream post-Kantian philosophical discourse through Schopenhauer and then through his admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, whose parable “How the ‘Real World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Twilight of the Idols bears a deep resemblance to eastern anti-metaphysical ideas.

In Integral Psychology Ken Wilber traces the route by which eastern ideas found their way into German experimental psychology. These ideas helped shape core constructs such as the unconscious and psychodynamics, and I would refer the interested reader to that book.

Apart form historical influence, we also find a deep philosophical affinity between post-Kantian Germany and the east. It was first pointed out to me by an Oxford student vacationing in Kathmandu that the basic arguments of Kant and the Tibetan exegete Je Tsong Khapa are extremely similar. Both of them are empirical realists and transcendental idealists.

In Kant, we find this duality embodied in his famous distinction between the appearing object, or phenomenon, and the thing-in-itself, or noumenon. The phenomenon that we perceive, Kant argued, always appears to consciousness having already been structured by categories that constitute the necessary conditions for any possible experience, like space, time, and causality. Of the thing in itself, we can neither know nor say anything.

This is remarkably similar to Je Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the central Buddhist doctrine of the Two Truths, which distinguishes between the conventional object of experience and the ultimate truth of that object. The conventional object is the appearing phenomenon, and like Kant’s phenomenon, when it appears to the mind it has already been structured by categories that are active in the mechanisms of perception. Drawing from the great Indian epistemologist Dharmakirti, Je Tsong Khapa argues that the object that appears to consciousness is always fused with its “meaning-generality,” or the conceptual framework by which we associate objects with comparable phenomena of their category. Whenever we see a leaf, for example, we perceive not just the image of the leaf, but also the concept of “leaf” by which we immediately recognize it as a leaf.

And as with Kant’s noumenon, Je Tsong Khapa affirms that the nature of the thing-in-itself, its ultimate truth, is, by virtue of its transcendental status, unknowable and ineffable. The ultimate truth of a phenmenon is its intrinsic nature, prior to its formulation by conceptual or perceptual terms.

Where Kant and Je Tsong Khapa part ways is that Kant believes the absolute truth of any phenomenon to be beyond human reach, while Je Tsong Khapa believes that ultimate truth can be directly perceived through yogic contemplation, and this direct perception has the power to liberate from suffering.

The German Romantic zeitgeist, then, bears deep affinities with several perennial themes of eastern nondualism. These ideas found their way from Germany into mainstream Liberal Protestant theology in the nineteenth century by way of Friedrich Schleiermacher. While not well-known today, Schleirmacher exerted a deep influence on the American Transcendentalists, and through them, on the whole of Protestant theology, especially in the United States.

Schleiermacher was a post-Kantian theologian who argued that the concept of the subject as something that is ultimately separate from its object is a mere concept. The sense of a non-specific and all-pervasive deity that you find in the Transcendentalists owes much, I believe, to his influence, though it was no doubt confirmed by their experiences. One can see the obvious similarity between this neo-Kantian Liberal Protestant doctrine and the deconstructive posture of Buddhism.

What we have here then is a high western culture that is receptive to and influenced by ideas from the east over the course of two centuries. Little wonder, then, that when Asian teachers began to arrive in the west in the early twentieth century, they found a receptive audience that welcomed them with enthusiasm and curiosity. I believe that a major reason that westerners have been receptive to philosophical and religious traditions such as Buddhism is because our own intuitions have been prepared for these teachings for more than two hundred years by constant cultural assimilation. These internalized ideas have come round again from the outside, through what James Joyce called a “commodius vicus of recirculation,” and are recognized as familiar and intuitive concepts when they re-arrive.

A lack of familiarity with intellectual history has led to a widespread inability to recognize this process, by which an estranged influence returned home from without. This failure lends itself to interpretive distortions of a rather serious nature — that will be the topic of a future post. For our current topic, the essential point here is that it is both inaccurate and misguided to regard eastern philosophy as a remote path from our western intellectual tradition. The two streams have been intertwined for a great stretch of modernity.

Nor can it be argued that the nondual traditions of India are irrational, mystical, or religious in their character, based on radical forms of experience and opposed to western logic. This idea holds no water, as a close analysis of the rational arguments of Buddhist philosophy will quickly show. To a large degree, this mistaken view comes from a problem of taxonomy. By various intellectual vicissitudes, relating largely to who studies what in which university department, Nagarjuna and Shankara are regarded as religious thinkers, while Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Berkeley are considered philosophers. This specious distinction does not withstand scrutiny, and I submit that any definition of “philosopher” that excludes Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, and Je Tsong Khapa also excludes Thales, Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato.

The question of whether or not Indian Buddhism rejects western logic, particularly the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle, has been dealt with at length in a previous post (see Reason and Its Limits).

We have good reason then, on the grounds of intellectual history, to engage seriously with eastern philosophy. Fortunately, this is now quite easy to accomplish. We have reached a critical mass of excellent translations of primary source material and commentaries, which are widely available and may be analyzed by philosophers who lack knowledge of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Classical Chinese, and other difficult languages.

I realized that we had crossed a threshold a few years ago when I saw an excellent translation of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen’s Treasury of Advice offered for sale by a homeless street vendor in downtown San Francisco. This material is everywhere.

The main tradition of scholarship from which I have most benefited is the work of the great Tibetologist P. Jeffrey Hopkins and his students, who have produced an integrated body of translations and exegetical work based on the Gelukpa tradition of scholarship. Reading a dozen of the books they have published through Snow Lion Press will give any careful reader an extremely good grasp of how the system hangs together.

The study of nondual philosophy is not only historically warranted and practically feasible at this date, it is also philosophically essential. I recently stumbled on a reminder to this effect when reading Jürgen Habermas’s introduction to his Theory of Communicative Action, in which he states that western philosophy has “withdrawn self-critically beyond itself” and abandoned its posture of attempting to articulate general claims about the world and its nature. “All attempts,” he claims, “at discovering ultimate foundations, in which the intentions of [Descartes’] First Philosophy live on, have broken down.”

Not so. The philosophical nondual traditions of India are alive and well, as religious constructs integrally tied to the soteriological project of meditation, and as potent philosophical arguments. There is no longer a legitimate basis for avoiding its challenge.

Although I have compared nondualism to Kantian post-idealism and German Romanticism, it would be a serious error to reduce the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna to a western analog. In recent years it has become common to interpret Buddhist philosophy through a phenomenological lens, such as the effort by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch to read Nagarjuna in this way (see The Embodied Mind). A worse example is Herbert Güenther’s Heideggerian reading of the Dzogchen tradition, which has fortunately already become anachronistic. Understanding by analogy is a dangerous practice, because comparisons both reveal and conceal. Nagarjuna is not a phenomemologist any more than Kant is a Buddhist, and their arguments must be assessed on their own terms.

Buddhist philosophy makes a case for an ultimate truth that may not be expressible, but can be sufficiently understood to serve as the ground for a subsequent logic, epistemology, and general model of the world. How that argument works is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that after centuries of fierce debate, the Hindus of the first millennium were unable to refute Nagarjuna’s arguments. Many of the great masters of Hindu Vedanta eventually integrated his core beliefs.

This is not to say, of course, that Buddhist philosophy is superior to Hindu philosophy – clearly Nagarjuna himself owed a great deal to the Upanishads. My point is simply that it has been the experience of many philosophers, myself included, that Nagarjuna’s fundamental position is unassailable.

Written by Mesocosm

June 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism

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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