Buddhist Dialectics, Logic and Emptiness

Buddhist Dialectics-01

An unfamiliar enquirer asked Buddha: “I do not ask about words – I do not ask about non-words.” The Buddha remained still and silent. The enquirer praised him and said: “The great benevolence and great mercy of the World-Honoured One have parted the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” After the enquirer took his leave, Ananda asked Buddha: “What did the enquirer realize so that he said you had enabled him to enter the Way?” Buddha replied: “He is like a fine horse that runs even at the shadow of a whip.” (Blue Cliff Record Case 65)

Nagarjuna developed the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) School of Mahayana Buddhism, which is premised upon the understanding that all in existence is non-substantial, or ‘empty’ of any inherent substantiality. The Hinayana School views the world as ‘empty’ (sunya) of greed, hatred, and delusion, and any notions of a ‘permanent self’ premised upon these taints (pudgalanairatnya) in the enlightened, or realised state, but nevertheless views the physical world as being ‘real’ and ‘substantial’. Nagarjuna dismissed this Hinayana conclusion by applying Buddhist logic to the problem. Nagarjuna explained that as all phenomena is dependent upon conditionality, it lacks any inherent and underlying substantiality. Nagarjuna referred to his approach as ‘prajna-paramita’, or the ‘liberating wisdom that carries one to the other shore’. Another name for this method is ‘sarvadharma-sunyata’, or ‘all dharmas are empty’.

Buddhist logic is derived from a thorough study of the Buddhist sutras and their commentaries, as well as through the interaction between a qualified master and a disciple. As the understanding of the Buddha’s teachings has varied from one person to another, and from one generation to the next, this had inevitably led to doctrinal interpretations that may be considered to be either ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’ in their conclusions. Nagarjuna’s powerful use of Buddhist logic reveals that the Hinayana teaching does not appear to conform to the internal logic of the very Buddhist teachings it claims to uphold and represent. Where the Hinayana view gains support is from empirical science which assumes a priori that the physical world is real, and that all true knowledge emerges from its accurate and exact measurement. The Mahayana view, by way of contrast, is more in keeping with complexity science, and appears to philosophically resemble the conclusions found within quantum physics (i.e. non-locality theory, etc).

In around the 2nd century CE, Nagarjuna studied the Buddhist Sutras (probably in Pali and Sanskrit), and the numerous associated commentaries. Nagarjuna perceived that the Buddha ‘remained silent’ when questioned about well-known and popular Metaphysical issues. The Buddha’s own explanation for this response is that Metaphysical questioning of this type falls under the category of ‘avyakrta’, or are of philosophically speculative questions, the answers to which are ‘inexpressible’. In other words, these Metaphysical questions are ‘empty’ of any perceivable answer. The Buddha taught that there are fourteen such Metaphysical questions that have no discernible answer – there are:

a) Whether the world is;

1) Eternal

2) Non-eternal

3) Both eternal and non-eternal

4) Neither eternal nor non-eternal

b) Whether the world is;

5) Finite

6) Infinite

7) Both finite and infinite

8) Neither finite nor infinite

Whether the Tathagata;

9) Exists after death

10) Is non-existent after death

11) Both existent and non-existent after death

12) Neither existent nor non-existent after death

Whether the atma (soul concept);

13) Is identical with the body

14) Non-identical with the body.

Three of the four categories related above are dealt with using four exact responses in the sutras, whilst the last category is dealt with using only two exact responses – but even the last category could easily be subjected to the Buddha’s four methods of dialectical analysis without suffering any loss of meaning or coherency. Nagarjuna’s genius lies in the fact that he appears to be the first Buddhist scholar in history to clearly perceive this enlightened dialectical method as utilised by the Buddha himself. From this analysis and clear thinking, Nagarjuna derived the concept of ‘prasanga’, which can be described in Latin as the dialectical method (and practice) of ‘reductio ad absurdum’, which in this context refers to the logical demonstration that if a particular argument is arbitrarily accepted as ‘true’ and ‘correct’, then only false and illogical results and consequences will inevitably follow.  Nagarjuna uses this method of Buddhist dialectics to demonstrate that the physical world cannot be ‘substantial’ in any true sense of the word, and that to assume that the physical world is substantial, is to make an untrue and illogical statement from the point of view of established Buddhist logic (as it exists in either the Hinayana or Mahayana Schools).

Nagarjuna termed the four alternatives of Buddhist dialectical logic as ‘catuskoti’, which is often presented by the Latin term of ‘tetra lemma’ (or ‘four propositions’). Nagarjuna’s dialectic can be expressed in the following manner:

1) Positive thesis 2) Negative counter-thesis = basic two alternatives

3) Positive and negative theses affirmed = third alternative

4) Positive and negative theses denied = fourth alternative

From this analysis it can be clearly demonstrated that a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to profound metaphysical questions is not a suitable method of answer, as this basic ‘either-or’ dichotomy lacks the necessary depth of understanding and dexterity of expression required to express the highest form of truth. Therefore the Buddha, as he denied the validity of viewpoints associated with ‘eternalism’ (sasvata-vada), and ‘nihilism’ (ucchedavada), refused to give any categorical answer to Metaphysical questions. His philosophical position is explained as being that of ‘madhyama pratipada’, or of the unwavering ‘middle’, or ‘central’ position. This is why the Buddha refused to be drawn into ‘yes’ or ‘no’ arguments, as he considered such speculations to be the product of ‘ditthivada’, or the ‘path of attachment to fixed views’. Nagarjuna did not invent the tetra lemma – as the Buddha taught this method hundreds of years before Nagarjuna – but he is responsible for lifting this method out of the sutras, and developing its use to a very high level. In many ways, Nagarjuna reasserted Buddhist logic, and through correct dialectical analysis, managed to put the Buddha’s original ideas back into the interpretation of Buddhist concepts. He referred to this realisation as ‘Madhyamaka’, which is the name of the school associated with him, and the prajna-paramita philosophy he developed. For Nagarjuna, not only is the world ‘empty’ of any substantiality, but the concept of ‘emptiness’ itself, (to be inaccordance with Buddhist dialectical logic), must also be ‘empty’ of its own ‘non-substantiality’.  Existence is:

1) Substantial (full)

2) Insubstantial (empty)

3) Both substantial and insubstantial (full and empty)

4) Neither substantial nor insubstantial (neither full nor empty).

Enlightenment appears to be the realisation of the exact mid-point between these four positions of logic, but is not limited to any of the propositions. Things are ‘empty’ because they are not ‘full’, but it can equally be said that things are ‘full’ because they are not ‘empty’ – but these statements are relative positions for the interpretation of ‘truth’. As the ordinary and deluded view is that a physical self exists within a substantial world – the ‘emptiness’ wisdom of Nagarjuna is used like a medicine to cure an illness – in this instance the illness of the illusion of substantiality. However, the notion of ‘emptiness’ must not be taken too far, or it becomes non-Buddhist ‘nihilism’ – or the exact opposite delusion to the world being real and self-existent. As the Heart Sutra states ‘Void is form, form is void’ this is Nagarjuna’s tetra lemma reduced to its bear bones. Many Buddhist schools (such as Chinese Ch’an) take a practical approach to this teaching, and advocate the ‘breaking-up’ of delusion (or obscuring thought) in the mind, so that the profound empty mind ground can be perceived. This does not mean that thoughts nolonger exist, but rather that they exist within a context that can be described as substantial insubstantiality.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.

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