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The Laws of Thought

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

28. Assaults on Logic


1.     Zen’s Anti-logic


Zen logic, as is well known, is no logic, but a sort of anti-logic, an antithesis of logic[1]. It thrives on paradox and even contradiction, at least apparent if not real. A major feature of Zen logic, though this may not be distinctive to Buddhist or even to Indian or Chinese logic, is its belief in the ‘tetralemma’ (or catuskoti). According to this viewpoint, not only a thesis alone (A and not not-A) or alternatively its antithesis alone (not-A and not A) may in fact be true, but there is a real possibility that both the thesis and its contradictory (A and not-A) are true, or neither the thesis nor its contradictory (not A and not not-A) are true – or even, eventually, that two or more of these four compounds are true together or all false together.

For example, the “two truths” doctrine, formulated by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (India, ca. 150-250 CE), which distinguishes the “relative truth” of conventional minds and the “absolute truth” of enlightened minds may be classified under the tetralemma category of “neither A nor not-A,” since relative truth is neither absolutely true nor untrue, but something in between. Again, the doctrine that “Nirvana and Samsara are one” may be classified under the tetralemma category of “both A and not-A,” since it proposes a mixture of opposites. These two doctrines are paradoxically considered as mutually supportive, but of course that is quite illogical: if truth is twofold, its two aspects cannot be one; you can’t have it both ways. In scientific Western thought[2], truth is one; if it is merely ‘relative’, it is simply untruth. Again, if two things are opposites, they cannot overlap.

Moreover, Buddhists argue that existents have no identity of their own, being merely aggregates, constantly in flux, and thoroughly dependent on causes and conditions. They apply this idea to mind as well as matter, and deny existence of the self or soul. Such claims are logically patently absurd. To deny the self or soul is to deny the existence of someone doing the denying[3]. If literally everything is aggregated, then the elements that are aggregated must also be aggregated, ad infinitum[4], in which case there is ultimately nothing to aggregate. There cannot be such a thing as aggregation without something non-aggregated to aggregate; the buck has to stop somewhere. Similarly, to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, which claims that literally everything is constantly in flux, we must ask: flux of what? Change must be change of something to something, with an least momentary stationary existence before and after the change. There cannot be such a thing as change without something static that changes or emerges from the change. The same applies to the Buddhist idea of interdependence, or co-dependence of everything[5]: one thing cannot depend on another if that other thing is as devoid of independent existence as itself. Dependence presupposes something more firmly rooted in being, which can be depended on. Simultaneous mutual dependence is unconscionable. Thus, Buddhist discourse is built on stolen concepts, ignoring their conceptual basis.[6]

Such Buddhist beliefs are contrary to the laws of thought discovered by Aristotle, namely the laws of identity, of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle. For Buddhists, all existents are ultimately “empty” of any nature. But the law of identity is that every existing thing has an identity, a specific nature (whatever that happens to in fact be[7]): it is not ‘just anything’ and it is not ‘nothing’. Every existent is something in particular, with features and behavior peculiar to it. Moreover, a fact is a fact: while it occurs, its constituents, its history and its causes and conditions, if any, are irrelevant to the fact of its existence: it just is. Moreover, identities, facts, are mostly objective givens, not products of mind; to claim otherwise is to affirm one’s claim itself to be imaginary and thus untrue. The law of contradiction is that an existent cannot at once have and not-have a particular identity; presence and absence are incompatible. The law of the excluded middle is that an existent cannot at once neither have nor not-have a particular identity; there is nothing besides presence or absence. These laws, properly understood, are absolute; they are not subject to any exceptions, under any circumstances whatsoever.

These laws – which have been foundational for Western logical thought and the source of its successes (although in today’s atmosphere of willful unreason many people do take a perverse pleasure in disowning them) – were never, it seems, very influential further East. The tetralemma was evidently freely used very early on in East Asia and the Far East, since it is so pervasive in later literature. The “reasoning” behind this irrational belief is that all ordinary human cognition is necessarily “dualistic.” According to its proponents, as soon as anything comes to mind, through perception or conception, its negation must also be considered, even if we tend to either ignore it or arbitrarily reject it. Thus, a positive is unthinkable without a corresponding negative. In one author’s words:

“In Buddhist logic, it is said that all concepts are based upon exclusion. As soon as we affirm something by saying ‘It is this,’ we automatically exclude so many other things it might have been. By imposing a conceptual limitation we fabricate an idea. The suggestion here is that it is just an idea – it is not an open experience.”[8]

But of course this ‘reasoning’ is quite fallacious. Knowledge starts with pure perception of positive phenomena; negatives are never pure percepts but are necessarily products of conception. Note well: positives come before negatives; and negatives are inconceivable without positives. I can cognize a positive through perception and therefore without any reference to its contradictory; but I cannot do the same with a negative. In the latter case, I must first have some idea however vague or hypothetical of the positive, before I can even think of, let alone check out, the negative. Thus, though exclusion is indeed eventually part of the knowing process, it is certainly not a primary act: it is only possible after the pure perception of some things and the subsequent imagination of their possible negation.

Some Buddhist philosophers go still further and, appealing to the notion of “emptiness” (shunyata), claim the ontological primacy of negation over affirmation. But here again the question they do not ask is: “negation of what?” If as they suggest there is nothing there at all, then even negatives have no foot to stand on. The negation of a nothing does not produce a something. What needs to be understood by such people is that the word ‘not’ is more akin to a verb than to a noun. It expresses the Subject’s mental act of rejection of a proposed object. It is therefore necessarily conceptual, and never perceptual. Moreover, such claims invariably ignore the positive existence of the claim, and of someone doing the claiming, and of someone receiving the claim. Such people imagine they can speak in a vacuum, without acknowledging the existential context of their speech. This is illogical.

If anything, it is the Buddhist proponents of “paraconsistent” logic who are dualistic and divorced from reality. They fail to take note of the actual order of knowledge development from positive percepts to negative concepts. Indeed, even at the level of perception, one precedes two. Contrary to what many philosophers imagine, we perceive a whole before we mentally divide it into parts. Here, the confusion involved is to conflate a given moment of perception and perception over time. In any given moment, what we happen to perceive is a whole and this is quickly and mostly automatically divided into parts by the conceptual faculty (note that the perception precedes the subdivision, and only the latter involves negation, i.e. saying ‘this part is not the same as that part’); but of course, over time, many such moments of perception, or more precisely their memories, are added together (again by the conceptual faculty) to form a larger whole. These two operations of the conceptual faculty – viz. conceptual dissection of a present perceptual whole and integration of many past percepts into a conceptual whole – should not be confused.

I did not, unfortunately, note down every use of such deviant logic that I came across over the years in Buddhist literature. But I do still remember one relatively early instance in the Dhammapada, traditionally attributed to the Buddha (India, ca. 563-483 BCE)[9], “He for whom there is neither this nor the further shore, nor both….” The tetralemma plays a very important role in the Madhyamika philosophy of Nagarjuna[10], regarded as a forerunner of Zen. As for later, specifically Zen writings, in China and then Japan, they are full of it. Consider, for instance, the words of the third patriarch of Zen, Seng Tsan (China, d. 606 CE):

What is, is not; what is not, is. If this is not yet clear to you, you’re still far from the inner truth. One thing is all, all things are one; know this and all’s whole and complete.” (Italics mine.)[11]

Eihei Dogen (1200-53 CE), who founded the Japanese Soto Zen sect, often seems (to me, at least) maddeningly obscure, if not insane, due to his frequent breaches of the laws of thought. He indulges without hesitation in self-contradictory statements, such as “There is sitting letting go of body-mind, which is not the same as sitting letting go of body-mind.” Likewise, the law of the excluded middle is no obstacle to his way of thinking. Consider, for instance, this statement: “Active buddhas are neither originally enlightened nor enlightened at some particular time, neither naturally enlightened, nor without enlightenment” – what are they, then, I ask? Or again: “practice-realization is neither existence nor beyond existence” – what’s left, I ask? Surely, if all logical possibilities are exhausted (as seems to be the intention, here), then there are no other possibilities! Dogen pays no attention to such obvious restrictions, making his discourse incomprehensible nonsense.[12]

Although Zen discourse is often antinomic, its favorite form seems to be “neither this nor that.” That is to say, although contradictions and exclusions of the middle are both viewed as possible and do occur in practice, the main emphasis is on denying any thesis whatever, and ‘logically’ enough also the contradictory of any thesis whatever. For ultimate reality is considered by Zen philosophers as essentially out of this world (even while in it) – therefore, whether phenomena point to the existence or to the non-existence of something, anything, is irrelevant. No proposition is true, because none is capable of describing reality as it really is. The phenomenal world is inherently paradoxical; only beyond it can all opposites be harmonized.[13]

This is the gist of the argument, however self-inconsistent and unconscionable it seems to us who are not enlightened. Of course, some sense can be made of it by thinking of ultimate reality as the ‘common ground’ of conflicting phenomena – and this sort of explanation is often used (for example, see the above quoted statement by Seng Tsan). So the ‘noumenon’ (i.e. that which is beyond the phenomenon) may be thought of as both transcendent and immanent. But a true Zen master would disdainfully reject all such philosophizing as misleading babble. Any resort to words as a means of rational description or explanation is regarded as useless when it comes to the “matter” of enlightenment. Consider for instance the following remarks in The Blue Cliff Record[14]:

“It’s wrong to say either that he had words or didn’t have words; nor will it do to say that his answer neither had nor didn’t have words. Chao Chou left behind all the permutations of logic. Why? If one discusses this matter, it is like sparks struck from a stone, like flashing lightning. Only if you set your eyes on it quickly can you see it. If you hesitate and vacillate you won’t avoid losing your body and life.”

All the above tends to the conclusion that Zen ‘logic’ is illogical. However, that judgment can be considerably mitigated, if we understand Zen ‘anti-dualistic’ discourse not as theoretical but as pragmatic. Its purpose is not to formulate a true philosophy, in the Western sense, but to push people to a transforming mystical experience. Thus, when a Zen advocate states: “This is neither true nor false” or “This is neither good nor bad” or “This is neither desirable nor repugnant” – his intent is really, respectively: “Do not think or say that this is true and do not think or say that it is false,” “Do not think or say that this is good and do not think or say that it is bad,” and “Do not think or say that this is desirable and do not think or say that it is repugnant.” For example, Seng Tsan says:

“When you assert that things are real, you miss their true reality. But to assert that things are void, also misses reality. The more you talk and think on this, the further from the truth you’ll be.” (Italics mine.)[15]

In other words, the Zen advocate is not really making logical, prescriptive or descriptive judgments, but advocating the suspension of all judgments, all discourse, in order to arrive at the ultimate “truth.” There is no great inconsistency in doing that. We may, of course, point out that in claiming to be free of concepts he is using concepts and that that is an inconsistency. However, he would reply that he is doing that only in order to communicate with us in our language, in an attempt to allude to things beyond its scope. He is able to function in both the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, whereas we are not – so he has to find some way to reach out to us. In that case, we can only criticize him for being rather gauche in his discourse. He should make it more precise, as just demonstrated. It would then be possible to speak of Zen logic, without inverted commas.

Nevertheless, although a statement like “neither claim it is nor claim it is not” is intended as a non-claim, it objectively definitely does contain a factual claim – viz. the claim that following this advice will facilitate or result in enlightenment (“the truth”); and such a claim is, of course, subject to assessment as true or false, whether the Zen advocate admits it or not.

I would say a very representative example of Zen logic is the koan of Te-shan (China, 9th century CE), the Zen master famous for presenting his students with the following predicament: whether they ‘uttered a word’ (i.e. showed some evidence through word or deed of their understanding of Zen) or not, they would get thirty blows. Another master, Lin-chi (the founder of the Rinzai sect), sent one of his own followers to him with specific instructions. He told him to ask Te-shan why someone who said a word would nevertheless get thirty blows; then, when Te-shan struck him, the student was to grab the stick and push Te-shan back with it. When the student did as instructed, Te-shan responded by simply walking away.[16]

What we have here is a logic of action, rather than words[17]. There is, to start with, a seemingly inescapable dilemma – whether you speak (rightly or wrongly) or abstain from speech, the result will be the same: you will be in error and punished by blows. There is, however, a logical possibility of escape – grab the stick as it comes down and push it back. This could be described as a martial arts response to the attempted physical blow. Logically, the dilemma has by this means been effectively dissolved. There seemed to be no way out, judging by Te-shan’s statement; but there was in fact a way out, perceived by Lin-chi. The opponent is neutralized, prevented from producing the threatened consequences (blows) to either antecedent (speech or silence).

Earlier in the present volume, in an attempt to more accurately depict the logic of a fortiori reasoning, I developed the notion of relative terms, say R1 and R2, such that more R1 and less R2 (and vice versa) are logically equivalent. This idea, I showed, can be extended to the special case of complements, say R and not-R. Although complements, taken as absolute terms, are mutually exclusive – if we take them as relative terms, they are compatible, indeed imply each other. That is, we can define R and not-R so largely that each includes the other, in the same continuum but in opposite directions, i.e. in such a way that more R is less not-R and less R is more not-R. This logical artifice of course changes the meaning of R and not-R, but it is useful for the development of a fortiori logic.

After I worked this idea out, it occurred to me that it could help explain Zen logic. It could be that Oriental philosophers who conceive of A and not-A as being compatible are really thinking in relative terms. Perhaps we in the West think of A and not-A in absolute terms, while they in the East think in relative terms. This may explain, at least in part, why the conjunction of A and not-A does not repel the Oriental mind to the same degree as it does the Western mind. Although, to be sure, this theory is somewhat belied by the fact that Orientals also accept the possibility of neither A nor not-A, which this theory cannot explain.

Needless to say, the said insight does not change the fact that A and not-A, taken in their absolute senses, are incompatible; the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction remains true and unassailable. Relative terms are logical artifacts that function consistently within that universal framework – they do not erase it. The law simply changes form, becoming a distinction between ‘more’ and ‘less’: What is more R is less (and not more) not-R, and what is less R is more (and not less) not-R. Moreover, it is interesting to note that when A and not-A are intended as relative terms, everything falls under both of them; there is no further possibility beyond them. That is to say, the law of the excluded middle also remains operative for relative terms, although it too is stated slightly differently.


2.     The Vanity of the Tetralemma


The most radical assault on reason consists in trying to put in doubt the laws of thought, for these are indeed the foundations of all rational discourse. First, the law of identity is denied by saying that things are never quite what they seem to be, or that what they are is closer to grey than black and white. This is, of course, an absurd remark, in that for itself it lays claim to utter certainty and clarity. Then, the laws of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle are denied by saying that things may both be and not-be, or neither be nor not-be. This is the ‘tetralemma’, the fourfold logic which is favored in Indian and Chinese philosophies, in religious mysticism, and which is increasingly referred to among some ‘scientists’. To grasp the vanity of the tetralemma, it is necessary to understand the nature of negation and the role of negation as one of the foundations of human logic.

The first thing to understand is that everything we experience is positive phenomenon. Everything we perceive through our senses, or remember or imagine in our minds, or even cognize through ‘intuition’ – all that has to have some sort of content to be at all perceived. Each sense organ is a window to a distinct type of positive phenomenon. We see the blue sky above, we hear birds sing, we smell the fresh air, we taste a fruit, we feel the earth’s texture and warmth, etc. Similarly, the images and sounds in our heads, whether they come from memory or are produced by imagination, are positive phenomena; and even the objects of intuition must have some content that we can cognize. Secondly, we must realize that many positive phenomena may appear together in space at a given moment. This is true for each phenomenal type. Thus, the blue sky may fill only part of our field of vision, being bounded by green trees and grey buildings; we may at once hear the sounds of birds and cars; and so on. Thirdly, many positive phenomena may at any given time share the space perceived by us. Thus, superimposed on visual phenomena like the sky may be other types of phenomena: the sound of birds in the trees, the smell of traffic in the streets, the feelings in our own body, and so on. We may even hallucinate, seeming to project objects of mental perception onto physical space. For example, the image of one’s eyeglasses may persist for a while after their removal. Fourthly, each positive phenomenon, whatever its type, varies in time, more or less quickly. Thus, the blue sky may turn red or dark, the sounds of birds or traffic may increase or decrease or even stop for a while, and so forth.

In order to express all these perceptual possibilities – differences in space and in time and in other respects, we need a concept of negation, or more precisely an act of negating. Without ‘negation’, we cannot make sense of the world in a rational manner – it is the very beginning of logical ordering of our experience. Thus, in a given visual field, where (say) blue sky and trees appear, to be able to say ‘the sky ends here, where the trees begin’ we need the idea of ‘negation’ – i.e. that on one side of some boundary sky is apparent and on the other side it is not, whereas on the first side of it trees are not apparent and on the other they are. Likewise, with regard to time, to be able to describe change, e.g. from blue sky to pink sky, we need the idea of ‘negation’ – i.e. that earlier on this part of the sky was blue and not pink, and later on it was pink and not blue. Again, we need the idea of ‘negation’ to express differences in other respects – e.g. to say that ‘the sounds of birds singing seem to emanate from the trees, rather than from buildings’. Thus, negation is one of the very first tools of logic, coming into play already at the level of sorting of experiences.

Moreover, negation continues to have a central role when we begin to deal with abstractions. Conceptual knowledge, which consists of terms and propositions based directly or indirectly on perceptual phenomena, relies for a start on our ability to cognize similarities between objects of perception: ‘this seems to resemble that somewhat’ – so we mentally project the idea of this and that ‘having something in common’, an abstract (i.e. non-phenomenal, not perceived by any means) common property, which we might choose to assign a name to. However, to take this conceptual process further, we must be able to negate – i.e. to say that ‘certain things other than this and that do not have the abstract common property which this and that seem to have’, or to say that ‘this and that do not have everything in common’. That is, we must be able to say not only that one thing resembles another in some way, but also that these or other things do not resemble each other in that way or in another way. Thus, negation is essential for making sense of information also at the conceptual level of consciousness.

Now, what is negation? To answer this question we first need to realize that there are no negative phenomena in the realm of experience. Everything we perceive is positive phenomenon – because if it was not we obviously would have nothing to perceive. We can only ‘perceive’ a negative state of affairs by first mentally defining some positive state of affairs that we should look for, and then look for it; if having looked for it assiduously we fail to find it, we then conclude inductively that it is ‘absent’, i.e. ‘not present’. Thus, positive phenomena come before negative ones, and not after. Existence logically precedes non-existence. Negative phenomena are ‘phenomena’ only metaphorically, by analogy to positive phenomena – in truth, negative phenomena are not: they do not exist. ‘Negation’ is not a concept in the sense of an abstraction from many particular experiences having a certain property in common. Negation is a tool of the thinking observer, as above described. It is an act, an intention of his.

To illustrate how confused some people – even some scientists – are with regard to negation, I offer you the following example drawn from Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution[18]. He describes an experiment by Daniel J. Simons, in which some people are asked to watch a brief video and observe how many times a certain event takes place in it; but at the end they are asked another question entirely, viz. whether they noticed the presence of a man dressed up as a gorilla in the course of the movie, and most of them admit they did not[19]. According to Dawkins, we may infer from this experiment how “eye witness testimony, ‘actual observation’, ‘a datum of experience’ – all are, or at least can be, hopelessly unreliable.”

But this is a wrong inference from the data at hand, because he confuses positive and negative experience. The people who watched the video were too busy looking for what they had been asked to observe to notice the gorilla. Later, when the video was shown them a second time, they did indeed spot the gorilla. There is no reason to expect us to actually experience everything which is presented to our senses. Our sensory experiences are always, necessarily, selective. The validity of sense-perception as such is not put in doubt by the limited scope of particular sense-perceptions. The proof is that it is through further sense-perception that we discover what we missed before. Non-perception of something does not constitute misperception, but merely incomplete perception. ‘I did not see X’ does not deductively imply ‘I saw the absence of X’, even though repetition of the former tends to inductively imply the latter.

A negative ‘phenomenon’ is not like a positive phenomenon, something that can directly be perceived or intuited. A negation is of necessity the product of indirect cognition, i.e. of an inductive (specifically, adductive) process. We mentally hypothesize that such and such a positive phenomenon is absent, and then test and confirm this hypothesis by repeatedly searching-for and not-finding the positive phenomenon[20]. If we were to at any time indeed find the positive phenomenon, the hypothesis of negation would immediately be rejected; for the reliability of a negation is far below that of a positive experience. We would not even formulate the negation, if we already had in the past or present perceived the positive phenomenon. And if we did formulate the negation, we would naturally retract our claim if we later came across the positive phenomenon. Therefore, the content of negative phenomena is necessarily always hypothetical, i.e. tentative to some degree; it is never firm and sure as with (experienced) positive phenomena.

Negative assertions, like positive assertions, can be right or wrong. If one looked diligently for a positive phenomenon and did not find it, then one can logically claim its negation. Such claim is necessarily inductive – it is valid only so long as the positive phenomenon is actively sought and not found. The moment the positive phenomenon is observed, the negation ceases to be justified. If one did not look for the positive phenomenon, or did not look with all due diligence, perhaps because of some distraction (as in the example cited above), then of course the claim of negation is open to doubt; certainly, it is inductively weak, and one is very likely to be proved wrong through some later observation.

How, then, is negation to be defined? We could well say that negation is defined by the laws of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle. That is, with regard to any term ‘X’ and its negation ‘not-X’, the relation between them is by definition the disjunction “Either X or not-X” – which is here taken to mean that these terms (X and not-X) cannot be both true and cannot be both false, i.e. they are exclusive and exhaustive. What do I mean here by ‘definition’? – is that an arbitrary act? No – it is ‘pointing to’ something evident; it is ‘intentional’. Here, it points to the instrument of rational discourse which we need, so as to order experience and produce consistent conceptual derivatives from it. The needed instrument has to be thus and thus constructed; another construct than this one would not do the job we need it to do for us. That is, the only conceivable way for us to logically order our knowledge is by means of negation defined by means of the laws of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle. Without this tool, analysis of experience is impossible.

Suppose now that someone comes along and nevertheless objects to the preceding assertion. Well, he says, how do you know that the dilemma “either X or not-X” is true? You just arbitrarily defined things that way, but it does not mean it is a fact! Could we not equally well claim the tetralemma “Either X or not-X or both or neither” to be true? The reply to that objection is very simple. Suppose I accept this criticism and agree to the tetralemma. Now, let me divide this fourfold disjunction, putting on the one side the single alternative ‘X’ and on the other side the triple alternative ‘not-X or both or neither’. I now again have a dilemma, viz. “either ‘X’ or ‘not-X or both or neither’.” Let me next define a new concept of negation on this basis, such that we get a disjunction of two alternatives instead of four. Let us call the complex second alternative ‘not-X or both or neither’ of this disjunction ‘NOT-X’ and call it ‘the super-negation of X’.

Thus, now, the objector and I agree that the disjunction “either X or NOT-X” is exclusive and exhaustive. We agree, presumably, that this new dilemma cannot in turn be opposed by a tetralemma of the form “Either X or NOT-X or both or neither” – for if such opposition was tried again it could surely be countered by another division and redefinition. We cannot reasonably repeat that process ad infinitum; to do so would be tantamount to blocking all rational thought forever. Having thus blocked all avenues to thought, the objector could not claim to have a better thought, or any thought at all. There is thus no profit in further objection. Thus, the tetralemma is merely a tease, for we were quite able to parry the blow. Having come to an agreement that the new disjunction “Either X or NOT-X” is logically unassailable, we must admit that the original disjunction “Either X or not-X” was logically sound from the first. For I can tell you that what I meant by not-X, or the ‘negation of X’, was from the beginning what is now intended by NOT-X, or the ‘super-negation of X’!

I was never interested in a relative, weak negation, but from the start sought an absolute, strong negation. For such utter negation, and nothing less radical, is the tool we all need to order experience and develop conceptual knowledge in a consistent and effective manner. In other words, whatever weaker version of negation someone tries to invent[21], we can still propose a strong version such that both the laws of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle are applicable without doubt to it. If such negation did not exist, it would have to be invented. No one can destroy it by denying it or diluting it. Those who try to are merely sophists who do not understand the source, nature and function of negation in human discourse. They think it is a matter of symbolic manipulation, and fail to realize that its role in human discourse is far more fundamental and complex than that. Negation is the indispensable instrument for any attempt at knowledge beyond pure perception.


Drawn from A Fortiori Logic (2013), Chapter 12.1 and Appendix 7.3.



[1]           I should reiterate here that though I repeatedly criticize Buddhism for its illogic, my purpose is not to totally discredit it. I greatly respect this philosophy of life, and am myself positively influenced by it daily. However, there is much in its philosophical discourse that needs to be revised. Its cavalier attitude to logic is simply untenable.

[2]           The 12th century CE Islamic philosopher Averroës (or Ibn Rushd) tried to introduce a similar notion of “double truth” (one for common people and one for the élite). Some Christian philosophers, possibly including Boethius, tried to follow suit. But such tendencies were ultimately rejected in both cultures, as it was realized that if religion was cut off from reason, it ultimately implied that religion is irrational and therefore untrue. More recently, most Christians have gradually adapted their beliefs to empirical science and history (though many still resist, e.g. with regard to Darwinism). Islam, on the other hand, is still firmly marooned in the Middle Ages.

[3]           This goes against Descartes’ phenomenological dictum: “I think, therefore I am,” which means that as of the moment one acknowledges the phenomenon of thought by venturing some proposition, one logically must acknowledge the existence of someone having that thought. ‘Consciousness’ presupposes some sort of subject and some sort of object, being a special relation between two things, the conscious one being called ‘subject’ and the one the subject is conscious of being called ‘object’. The difficulty of fathoming this relation, due to its ontological distinctiveness and therefore primacy, does not make it any the less real; there are a great many things we cannot fathom, but must take for granted. Knowledge must start with some irreducible primaries; it cannot be grounded in an infinity of definitions and proofs. To make a demand for endless grounding is to claim that demand as an irreducible primary; it is self-contradictory. Buddhists consider that what we call the self is simply the totality of our sensory and mental experiences at any given moment of time: for them, there is no one having those experiences – they just are, forming a changing bubble of manifest being (which they call ‘consciousness’); this bubble being particular gives the illusion of selfhood. But the question remains: who has this illusory idea of being a self? How can a non-self imagine that it is a self? They have no answer to such questions, and avoid to ask them, being dogmatically attached to the idea of no-self.

[4]           Moreover, how can a human mind go all the way to infinity and observe that aggregation continues there, before making such a bold claim?

[5]           Here again, how can a human mind know the dependence of literally all things on each other? To have such knowledge, of all things past, present and future throughout the universe and their exact relations to each other, is conceivable for God – but how can a mere mortal obtain it?

[6]           Although Buddhists claim that enlightenment brings about omniscience, such a claim is not empirically justified. For a start, Buddhism has made and still makes many claims about the physical world and the history of life and men that are rejected by modern science; e.g. that the world and life have existed forever. More specifically, consider the following blooper: Zen master Dogen, after attaining enlightenment in 1227-8, wrote in an essay dated 1231 that the Buddha was active about 2000 years before, whereas we know that he lived in circa the 6th-5th centuries BCE, i.e. some two to four hundred years later than Dogen thought. See:  Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation, Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2004), p. 31. Dogen claims having attained enlightenment in another essay (p. 13).

[7]           How the identity of things is to be known is the question the science of logic seeks to answer. The short answer is, of course, by means of our senses and our reason. That is, empirically and logically, inductively and deductively. Not all identities are necessarily knowable; but we must admit that some are, for otherwise we would be involved in self-contradiction (claiming knowledge and denying it at once).

[8]           See Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, “The Path of Mahamudra,” in The Best Buddhist Writing 2005, Ed. Melvin McLeod and the editors of the Shambhala Sun (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005), p. 98. Although he refers specifically to conception, the implication of such statements is usually taken to be that all affirmation implies negation, i.e. even affirmation based exclusively on perception. Note however, the contrary statement by Eleanor Rosch, in the same collection of essays, p. 114: “According to Buddhist teachings, while all of the interdependent past can be causally gathered into the microcosm of the moment of present experience, that does not mean that the basic mode of apprehending the present moment is somehow filtered or distorted or abstractly representational.” In other words, Buddhists do ultimately admit of unadulterated percepts (if only in the context of the enlightenment experience).

[9]           The Dhammapada was probably compiled in the third century BCE.

[10]          See my book Buddhist Illogic on this subject. It should not be thought that Nagarjuna’s perverse thought has had no equivalent in the West. For example, the Megaric school (founded by Euclides of Megara in 4th century BCE Greece) argued much like him that predication is either wrong (if the predicate “differs” from the subject) or useless (if the predicate is “the same as” the subject), ignoring the fact that such a statement is itself an act of predication. I have over the years spotted many such similarities between Eastern and Western philosophies. This is a topic that still needs extensive study, though there may already be good books on it that I am unaware of.

[11]          In his “Affirming Faith in Mind,” given in full in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Zen Merging of East and West (New York: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 184-189. It is hard for me to believe that illogic, the suppression of reason, is compatible with enlightenment, let alone conducive or essential to it—just as it is hard for me to believe that idolatry, the worship of inanimate objects, is compatible with enlightenment, let alone conducive or essential to it. Yet these are recurring theoretical teachings within Zen Buddhism. Even so, paradoxically, I do believe that Zen has much good to offer mankind on a practical level!

[12]          Beyond Thinking, pp. 51, 79, 80. I should additionally draw attention to the frequent use of tautology in some Buddhist texts, as if this was informative. For example, Dogen also enjoys tautologies like “sitting is sitting;” he also, I notice, takes pleasure in reversing statements, as in “sitting is buddha-dharma and buddha-dharma is sitting” (p. 51); and reshuffling terms, as in “zazen is invariably the intention to become buddha, and… zazen is invariably becoming buddha with intention” (p. 39). Such discourse may of course be informative, but I suspect the intention is more poetic.

[13]          The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, a Mahayana text some consider as dating from about 100 CE (although there is no mention of it till after Nagarjuna’s time, i.e. about a century later), is a veritable litany of antinomies.

[14]          Pi Yen Lu, a Chinese Ch’an Buddhist classic. These remarks were made by Yuan Wu K’e Ch’in (1063-1152), relative to Case 59 (p. 339). Boston, MA: Shambala, 2005. Tr. Thomas & J.C. Cleary.

[15]          The Blue Cliff Record. (I forgot to note the page number.)

[16]          See D. T. Suzuki, The Zen doctrine of no-mind (Boston, MA: Weiser, 1972), p. 87.

[17]          Notice that the student did not try to dissuade Te-shan, saying “if you try to hit me, I will grab the stick and push it.” Rather, he waited for Te-shan to actually strike and then grabbed the stick and pushed it.

[18]          New York: Free Press, 2009. Pp. 13-14.

[19]          The video can be seen at:

[20]          Not-finding is the non-occurrence of the positive act of finding. Objectively, note well, not-finding is itself a negative phenomenon, and not a positive one. But subjectively, something positive may occur within us – perhaps a sense of disappointment or continued relief. See more on this topic in my Ruminations, chapter 9.

[21]          There are people who say that the law of non-contradiction is logically necessary, but the law of the excluded middle is not. Clearly, this claim can be refuted in the same way. If they claim the three alternatives “Either X or not-X or ‘neither X nor not-X’” – we can again split the disjunction into two, with on one side “X” and on the other side “not-X or ‘neither X nor not-X’” – and then proceed as we did for the tetralemma. The same can be done if anyone accepts the law of the excluded middle but rejects the law of non-contradiction. All such attempts are fallacious nonsense.

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