Paradoxes and Their Resolutions

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

15. More Buddhist antinomic discourse


1.    The ‘I have no thesis’ thesis

a.         The Buddhist[1] philosopher Nagarjuna (India, c. 150-250 CE) attacked every thesis he regarded as rational by every means he regarded as logical, and declared his own discourse immune from scrutiny and criticism, by saying (according to one translation):


If I had a thesis, I would be at fault; since I alone have no thesis, I alone am without fault” (VV 29)[2].


The first aspect of Nagarjuna’s statement is a brazen claim to have no claim. This is of course self-contradictory. Every proposition that claims to be meaningful and true (whether about some experience or about abstraction, whether positive or negative) is an assertion, a claim. To pretend making no claim even as one plainly makes one is a breach of the law of identity: it is denying that a fact is a fact.

There is no logical way to deny or criticize the theses or methodologies of others without opening one’s own discourse to evaluation. All denial or criticism is discourse, and all discourse is subject to logical review. To pretend the logical possibility of dispensation is dishonest (and if such pretense implicitly is bad enough, it is all the more dishonest if made explicitly).

Nagarjuna’s discourse was, in fact (as I show in Buddhist Illogic), shock full of fallacious arguments, a mere parody of logic posing as logic. But he knew that people untrained in logic would fall for it, and he sealed their intellectual fate with the said eyewash claim. To neutralize further discussion, he misled them into believing he had simply shown up the logical absurdity of logic, and all doctrines based on it, but had himself posited no methodology or doctrine of his own.

Not only was his alleged refutation of reason full of errors of reasoning, but his concluding ‘no-claim claim’ was also a mockery of logic and sincerity. He, of course, just says ‘I make no claim’ – and he persistently denies that this statement constitutes a claim. I call that shameless psychological manipulation, motivated by one-upmanship. He cynically takes advantage of the credulity of some people, to dominate them intellectually.

The second aspect of Nagarjuna’s above statement can be viewed as a ‘soft’ version of the liar paradox, since he tells us: everyone but me is in error. Although such a statement is not in itself inconsistent (God could conceivably utter it truthfully) – it is logically open to doubt due to being self-exempting.

Effectively, it says: ‘I am the only human who has knowledge; I know everyone else is incapable of true knowledge’. Only a fool is tricked by such an unsubstantiated claim to privilege. Reason regards all people as technically within range of knowledge given enough effort, even if they do not all fulfill their potential equally. Reason demands that discourse be reasoned and fair – i.e. based on common general norms as to how truth and falsehood are to be determined.

If Nagarjuna were basing his criticism of ordinary human means to knowledge on a claim to have attained a ‘higher level’ of consciousness (i.e. Buddhist enlightenment or Biblical prophesy), we could not convincingly oppose him (being unable to prove or disprove such experiential claims). But he is not using such as claim as his basis – he is attempting to debunk reason through ordinary logical discourse. In that case, he is fair game for logic.

The statement of infallibility is then seen as manifest arrogance, a lack of respect for other thinkers. By saying ‘I alone am exempt from any criticism’ the author aggressively grants himself a special dispensation: he alone is endowed with the way to knowledge; everyone else is an idiot or a dishonest person. It is totalitarian, dictatorial speech.

Compare this dismissive ‘you all know nothing’, to the self-inclusive statement ‘I (or we) know nothing’. The latter – even though it implies ‘I know that I know nothing’ and is therefore self-inconsistent – is at least modest; so much so, that such admission is widely considered a mark of wisdom (and it is commendable, in modified form, i.e. as ‘I know close to nothing, very little’).

Self-exemption is a hidden form of self-inconsistency, because it resorts to a double standard. The one making such a claim presents superficially rational arguments against human experience and logic, but does not ask himself or tell us how he (an ordinary human) managed (using the very cognitive means he rejects) to attain such allegedly true knowledge. The author criticizes others, but does not equally well criticize himself.

This is a fallacious mode of thought often found among would-be skeptical philosophers. It comes in many subtle forms. It is wise to always be on the lookout for such practices, applying the reflexive test here demonstrated.

b.         Looking at Nagarjuna’s above statement in more detail, the following may be added.

To begin with, what is meant here by “having a thesis”? This refers to any explicit or even wordless belief, any clear or even vague opinion upheld (considered to constitute knowledge), any proposition one advocates or implicitly logically condones. The subject that Nagarjuna is here discussing is any outcome of human rational cognition, any belief, opinion or doctrine that one may arrive at, rightly or wrongly, by means of ordinary consciousness, i.e. through experience, negation, abstraction, hypothesizing, inductive or deductive argument.

And what is meant here by “being at fault”? This refers to making a mistake in the course of observation or reasoning, so that some thesis one has adhered to is in fact an illusion rather than a reality, false rather than true, erroneous instead of correct.

How do we know the status appropriate to a thesis? We know it (I suggest) by holistic application of the whole science of logic to the totality of the data of experience. Our concepts of cognitive right or wrong are themselves all constructed by logic and experience, without appeal to some extraordinary outside justification (like prophetic revelation or mystical realization, or simply the authority of some great personage or of a religious document or institution).

Now, Nagarjuna is evidently well aware of all that, but is intent on annulling the independent reliability of ordinary experience and reason. His strategy and tactics to this end, in all his discourse, as I have shown throughout my Buddhist Illogic, is to give the impression (however paradoxical) that logic may be invalidated by means of logic. And this twofold sentence of his, “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault; since I alone have no thesis, I alone am without fault”, fits neatly into his destructive philosophical programme.

On the surface, this sentence might be construed as a single argument:


If X (a proposition is proposed), then Y (an error is made)

but not X (no proposition)

therefore not Y (no error)


Although the above apodosis is logically invalid, since it denies the antecedent to deny the consequent, Nagarjuna is not above letting it pass without comment, knowing it will suffice to convince some people, although he is well aware that the logically trained will spot it and object. But for the latter audience, he reserves a more subtle form of manipulation.

It has to be seen that the purpose of this famous Verse 29 in Nagarjuna’s discourse is designed to make a show of logical consistency. He wants by means of it to give the impression that his anti-rational discourse is justifiable, that it has the stamp of approval of logic. Yes, he is actually attacking logic; but at the same time, he has to pretend to use it, because he knows this measure is required to convince people. For most people, a veneer of logic (i.e. mere rhetoric) suffices to put their reason’s critical faculty at rest. We shall now see how he goes about this task.

The first part of Nagarjuna’s statement, viz. “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault”, is not intended (as some have assumed) as a justification for his overall discourse. It is not placed here in his discourse as an argument with intrinsic force, which directly buttresses or proves his philosophy. It is certainly not an obvious logical principle, or axiom, which everyone would agree on without objection, from which his discourse can be inferred or even generalized. No – it is itself an inference and application from Nagarjuna’s main thesis, namely the claim that ‘All human knowledge based on ordinary experience and reason is necessarily erroneous’.

The latter underlying claim is his major premise in a (here tacit) productive eduction, i.e. one that deduces a particular hypothetical proposition from a more general categorical one[3]. This argument is formally valid, running as follows:


All X (opinions) are necessarily Y (erroneous);


If this is X (a proposition is proposed), then this is Y (an error is made).


In this way, the first part of Nagarjuna’s statement is made to seem something inferred, rather than an arbitrary claim. It is cunningly presented as an application of already admitted information, rather than as an isolated assertion. Granting the premise, the conclusion indeed logically follows (this is the veneer of logic) – but has the premise already been granted? No. Also note, once the conclusion is seemingly drawn, it can by generalization be used to reinforce the premise; although this is a circularity, it works psychologically.

Moreover, Nagarjuna manages through this implicit productive argument to pretend he is being consistent with himself: he is telling us, effectively: ‘See, I am not just attacking other people’s knowledge, but am prepared to apply the same stringent critique to my own!’ This virtuous declaration is of course dust in your eyes, because he is not here putting the broader principle in doubt but merely reaffirming it. He has nowhere established that ‘All propositions are false’. His is a pseudo-logical posture.

As the next part of his statement clarifies, he does not consider his discourse as falling under the critical rule he has formulated. The proposition “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault” is a counterfactual hypothetical; his own discourse is never made into an issue open to debate. It seems open-minded, but it is a foregone judgment. His intention is to ‘avert all arguments’ and place himself at the outset outside the fray. He seemingly at first admits and then vehemently denies that his own discourse is a product of ordinary consciousness. This convoluted avoidance of cognitive responsibility has fooled many a poor soul.

Moving on, now, to the second part of Nagarjuna’s statement, viz. “since I alone have no thesis, I alone am without fault”. As already pointed out, this can be viewed as the minor premise and conclusion of an invalid apodosis in which the first part of the statement is the major premise. But we could also more generously assume that Nagarjuna intended a valid apodosis, using as its tacit major premise the obvious proposition: ‘If one has no thesis, one cannot make a mistake’.

It can be correctly argued that this premise was left tacit simply because it is so obvious to and readily granted by everyone. It is indeed true that if one ventures no utterance, thought or even intention, if one holds no opinion, makes no claim to knowledge, if one remains inwardly and outwardly silent, one will never make any errors. For the status of truth or falsehood is only applicable to meaningful assertions.

A stone is never in error, because it has no thoughts. Likewise, a thoughtless person may by his or her ignorance, blindness or stupidity make many errors of living, but makes no error in the logical sense of having proposed an inappropriate proposition. All that is so obvious (and vacuous) no debating it is necessary. The following apodosis is thus implicit in Nagarjuna’s declaration:


If not X (no proposition is proposed), then Y (no error is made)

but not X (no proposition)

therefore not Y (no error)


This argument has a true major premise, as well as a valid form. This gives his discourse a veneer of logic again, helping him to persuade more victims. However, his minor premise remains well open to doubt, and decisively deniable! (As a consequence of which, his conclusion is of course also open to doubt.) He takes it for granted that he ‘has no thesis’ – but this claim is far from granted already. The tacit major premise acts as a smokescreen for the minor premise.

Moreover, note, although ‘being correct’ implies ‘not being at fault’, the reverse is not necessary. Nagarjuna suggests that his alleged faultlessness implies the correctness of his position, but it does not follow! Only if his criticism of all opposing theses was correct (which is by no stretch of the imagination true), and his thesis was not liable to similar criticism and was therefore the only leftover logical possibility, would such inference be drawn.

Nagarjuna does indeed ‘have a thesis’. His main thesis, the goal of his whole philosophical discourse, is as already mentioned the claim that ‘All human knowledge based on ordinary experience and reason is necessarily erroneous’. This, for a start, qualifies as a thesis – boy, it is a big skeptical thesis, full of negative implications. It is a principle of logic that to deny any thesis is to affirm an opposite thesis. His claim that his doctrine is not a thesis, in the minor premise here, is mere arbitrary assertion.

Furthermore, he ‘has a thesis’ every time he makes a specific assertion of any kind, including the assertion under scrutiny here, viz. “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault; since I alone have no thesis, I alone am without fault”. Note that Nagarjuna thinks that making a negative statement is somehow ‘not having a thesis’ – but the polarity of a statement does not diminish the need for justification; if anything, one can argue that on the contrary negative statements are harder to establish than positive ones!

And we should strictly include as ‘theses’ of his not only such explicit statements, but also all the implicit assumptions and suggestions within his discourse (like the implicit major premise and resulting apodosis we have just highlighted). It makes no difference whether these explicit, or unstated and unadmitted, items constitute information or logical method, content or process.

For all these elements of discourse, be they spoken or otherwise intended, in all fairness fit in our common understanding and definition as to what it means to ‘have a thesis’. For none of these categorical or hypothetical propositions (except perhaps ‘if silence, no error’) is self-evident. They did not arise ex nihilo in Nagarjuna’s mind, ready-made and self-justified.

They are all complex products of ordinary human cognition, based on experience and produced by reason (even if, in Nagarjuna’s case, the mind involved is deranged). They undeniably together form a specific philosophy, a theory of logic, an epistemology and ontology. The mere fact that we can (as here done) at all consider and debate them is proof that they are ‘theses’.

The law of identity (A is A) must be maintained: facts are facts and it is no use pretending otherwise. Nagarjuna may eternally refuse the predicate of “having a thesis”, but we confidently insist on it. His arguments have in no way succeeded in averting this just and true judgment. Consequently, his doctrine is self-contradictory. Not only does he ‘have a thesis’, but since his thesis is that ‘to have a thesis is to be in error’, he has (by its own terms) to be recognized as being in error.

Thus, to end it: Nagarjuna’s statement “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault; since I alone have no thesis, I alone am without fault” weaves a complicated web of deception. It misleads, by means of subtle ambiguities and superficial imitations of logic. Once its dishonesty is revealed, it should be decidedly rejected.

The mere historic fact that Nagarjuna is famous and admired by many does not justify hanging on to his doctrine ad nauseam, trying ex post facto to find ways to make it consistent with logic. Celebrity is not proof of some hidden truth – it is vanity. Most who do so are merely grasping for reflected glory. Anyway, attachment to authority is argument ad hominem. The religious and academic ‘groupies’ who gave him and perpetuate his authority are not logically competent, however numerous they be. It is a case of the blind leading the blind.

c.         Nagarjuna defends his ‘non-thesis’ idea in the next verse (VV 30), describing it as “a non-apprehension of non-things” (according to one translation[4]). Now, this is a very funny phrase. To the impressionable, it sounds very deep, pregnant with meaning. It seems to suggest this man has some privileged higher way of knowledge that goes beyond ordinary experience and reasoning.

But in truth, taken literally, we are all quite capable of “non-apprehension of non-things” and daily practice it, for the simple reason that non-things cannot be apprehended! Logically, this is all this phrase means, note well. What then is the old fox up to, here?

Nagarjuna is trying to project his ‘not having a thesis’ position as far as logically possible from our plebian ‘having a thesis’ – i.e. from ordinary consciousness, which consists in ‘the apprehension of things’. He has logically only three alternatives to choose from:

  • the ‘non-apprehension of things’ (unconsciousness);
  • the ‘apprehension of non-things’ (an otherworldly consciousness);
  • or the ‘non-apprehension of non-things’.

Having a marked taste for one-upmanship and dramatic extremes, Nagarjuna of course chose the third of these terms as his vehicle. Even though the obvious sense of this phrase is puerile, it has poetic breadth and appeal. It seems to imply ‘knowledge without consciousness’ and ‘consciousness of the unknowable’ all at once.

Thus, his ‘non-apprehension’ is a mix of apprehension and non-apprehension, or something else again. And likewise, his ‘non-things’ are things of some sort as well as non-things, or perhaps something quite other still.

In other words, the negative terms in the phrase “non-apprehension of non-things” are not intended by Nagarjuna nor received by his disciples and students as mere negations of the corresponding positive terms, but as paradoxical terms, which may (in accord with the tetralemma schema) be all at once positive or negative or both or neither.

It is (and isn’t) ‘apprehension/non-apprehension of things/non-things’ all in one.

Nagarjuna stands out in the history of world philosophy as the most unabashed opponent of the laws of thought. Not only does he freely use self-contradictory or middle-including propositions, but he even makes use of terms loaded with contradiction and inclusion of a middle.

Now, some people might say: ‘what is wrong with that?’ They will argue: ‘the real world is extremely subtle and we can only ever hope to express it in thought very approximately; Nagarjuna is only trying to take this uncertainty into consideration within his discourse; the laws of thought are just arbitrary demands, making us force our thoughts into prejudicial straightjackets’.

But logical laxity is not the proper attitude in the face of an extremely complex and hard to express real world. It is precisely because of the great difficulty of the cognitive task at hand that one is called upon to be very clear and careful. Avoiding checks and balances on our judgments does not increase their efficiency but makes them less reliable.

In the case under consideration, if Nagarjuna does indeed have some privileged form of otherworldly consciousness, he can just say so. The laws of thought in no way forbid him to posit such a claim. He does not need to beat about the bush, and pretend to have something unspeakable and not subject to peer review. He can and should be forthright, and defend his position in an equitable way like everyone else.

If he considers the terms ‘apprehension’ and ‘things’ to have some intrinsic logical flaw, he can argue his case openly; he does not need to engage in allusion, suggestion and fallacious argument. Most of us thinkers are open-minded and willing to correct our errors: if these terms are flawed, we are not attached to them; we are flexible, ready to modify or replace them as logically necessary in the light of new evidence and reasoning.

But Nagarjuna is like an accused, who when forced to appear in court refuses to admit his identity, or recognize the authority of the law and the judges, or plead guilty or not guilty, or argue the defense of his case. Worse still, in utter contempt of the court, he does not even admit his refusal to be a refusal – he calls it a ‘non-thesis’. Does that stop court proceedings or make the court declare him innocent? Surely not.

Nagarjuna misunderstands the nature of negation. He thinks that if one person says ‘X’ and another says ‘not X’, the onus of proof is on the first more than on the second. He considers that making a positive statement is more logically demanding than making a negative one. He imagines in his confusion that saying ‘no’ is equivalent to saying nothing, i.e. to not saying anything. Most logicians would disagree with him, and argue that any thesis put forward (even if only by insinuation) is equally in need of proof, whatever its polarity.

I would go further and say that, on the contrary, a negative statement is more demanding than a positive one. You can prove a positive statement easily enough, if you point to sufficient evidence in its favor. But how do you prove a negative statement? It is much more difficult, since negatives are not directly experienced but are only experienced by way of the absence of positives. A negative can ultimately only be proved indirectly, by inability to prove any contrary positive.

Thus, in fact, not only does Nagarjuna’s alleged self-limitation to negatives not exempt him from proofs, but on the contrary it increases the logical burden upon him. He is right in considering negatives as significantly different from positives, but he does not realize that the difference is to his disadvantage. He claims to have no epistemological or ontological basis, and yet to be able to reject offhand all theories of knowledge and reality. Such a grandiose fanciful claim surely requires much more justification than any other!

It should be stressed, incidentally, that Nagarjuna’s “non-apprehension of non-things” should not be interpreted (as some do) as a defense of non-verbal meditative experience or insight. That is not the thrust of his anti-rational philosophy, although its avowed Buddhist affiliation may lead one to suppose so.

If Nagarjuna were a man deeply absorbed in meditation, he would not be writing philosophy. If his intent were to promote meditation, he would simply teach methods of meditation and not stir up verbal disputes. No – this man has philosophical ambitions. Allegedly, these are meant to put into words some of the ‘reasoning’ that he considered the Buddha to have gone through before attaining enlightenment. Nagarjuna assumes from the start that this ‘reasoning’ is necessarily anti-logical, a rejection of reason.

But we must see that this assumption is just a prejudice of his distorted mind. He was a philosophical revolutionary – one who believed that reason has to be overturned, to be transcended. But it is more credible to be evolutionary – and to consider meditation as a way for us to keep moving, beyond the limits of discursive thought, without need to deny such thought within its applicable bounds.

To advocate respect for logic is not to foment endless babble, but rather to require that any thought arising be subjected to responsible cognitive evaluation. Logic is possible entirely without words, by means of silent intentions. Even in deep meditation, some sort of ‘reality check’ by means of logic occurs, and this need not involve any words. It is only by this means, no doubt, that a Buddha-to-be may steer himself well clear of common illusions and insane imaginings, towards to full realization.

Contrary to Nagarjuna’s belief, rationality and spirituality are not necessarily in conflict. Reason and meditation are potentially, to some extent, mutually beneficial. It is not thought as such, much less logic, but only excess of thought, particularly irrelevant chatter, which hinders meditative concentration and contemplation. A certain amount of appropriate thinking is often needed to initially position one’s mind for meditation.

d.         In fact, as I will now show, the sentence “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault”[5] is a formal impossibility. I earlier interpreted and symbolized it as “If X (a proposition is proposed), then Y (an error is made)”, giving the antecedent and consequent two separate symbols, X and Y. But now let us consider these constituents more closely.

What does “making an error” mean here? It is not an ordinary predicate. The consequent Y does not merely refer to some error in general, but specifically to an error in the antecedent X. Y tells us that X is wrong. Therefore, Y formally implies the negation of X, i.e. notX! Granting this, Nagarjuna’s sentence now reads: “If X, then not X”, i.e. “If X is true, then X is false” – a paradoxical hypothetical proposition, whose conclusion would be the categorical “X is false” (as earlier suggested).

However, that is not the end of the matter. If we now consider the meaning of X – viz. “a proposition is proposed” – we may fairly suppose it refers to just any proposition whatsoever. In that case, the proposition concerned might even be the negation of X; so that we may substitute notX for X throughout the hypothesis. So doing, we obtain “If notX, then not notX”, i.e. “If not X, then X”, or in other words “If X is false, then X is true”. This is also, of course, a paradoxical proposition, whose formal conclusion is “X is true”.

We thus – by means of a universal reading of “having a thesis”, as inclusive of “not having a thesis” – now have, not only a single paradox, but a double paradox! That is, our conclusion is not only that X is false, but that X is both true and false. The latter conclusion is of course contrary to the law of non-contradiction, as in the case of the liar paradox.

This means that Nagarjuna’s statement is a formal impossibility: it is a contradiction in terms; it is not only false, but meaningless. It does not constitute legitimate discourse at all, let alone a tenable philosophical position or theory. The words or symbols used in it are logically not even conceivable, so it is as if he is saying nothing. He seems to be saying something intelligible, but it is an illusion.

Now, it may be objected that Y does not necessarily mean that X is wrong, but could merely mean that X could be wrong. That is, “making an error” could be taken to mean that X is uncertain rather than definitely refuted. In that case, we would have the following two hypotheses: “If X, possibly not X” and “If not X, possibly X”; or in one sentence: “Whether X or not X is proposed, the outcome is uncertain”. Indeed, this more modal, ambiguous posture may well be considered as Nagarjuna’s exact intent (which some have interpreted as noncommittal ‘illocution’).

At first sight, due to the use of vague words or of symbols, this objection may seem credible and the contradictory conclusions involved apparently dissolved. But upon reflection, there is still an underlying conflict: to affirm X, or to deny it, is contrary to a position that neither affirms nor denies X. An assertoric statement (affirming or denying X) is incompatible with a problematic statement (saying X may or may not be true). One cannot at once claim to have knowledge (of X, or of not X) and claim to lack it (considering the truth or falsehood issue open). This is as much a contradiction as claiming the same thing (X) true and false.

Someone unacquainted with the logic of hypothetical propositions might now object that X, or notX, is only proposed hypothetically in the antecedent, and so may well be problematic in the consequent. But this is a logically untenable objection, due to the process of addition (described in the chapter on formal logic); i.e. due to the fact that “If X, then Y” implies “If X, then (X and Y)”. In the present case, this means: “If X is asserted, then X is both asserted and uncertain”. It suffices for the contradiction to occur conditionally, as here, for the condition to be disproved; therefore, our conclusion is quite formal: “X cannot be asserted”. QED.

Someone could here, finally, object that the certainty in the antecedent and the uncertainty in the consequent may not be simultaneous, and so not produce a logical conflict. Such objection would be valid, granting that a thought process separated the beginning and end of the hypothetical proposition. However, in the case under scrutiny, Nagarjuna is clearly stating that in the very act of “proposing something”, one would be “making an error”; i.e. the error is nothing other than the proposing, itself. So, no time separation can credibly be argued, and Nagarjuna’s thesis remains illogical.

Note that all the present discussion has concerned only the first part of verse 29, i.e. the major premise “If I had a thesis, I would be at fault”. We have found this hypothetical proposition logically faulty, irrespective of whether Nagarjuna admits or refuses to acknowledge that he “has a thesis”. So, let us now reconsider this minor premise of his, and his conclusion that he “is not at fault”.

We have here introduced a new twist in the analysis, when we realized that “If X, then Y” (understood as “If X, then not X”) implies “If not X, then Y” (since the latter is implied by “If not X, then X”, which is implied by the former by replacing X with notX). So, now we have a new major premise for Nagarjuna, namely “If not X, then Y”, meaning: “If I do not have a thesis, I will be at fault”.

Taking this implied major premise with Nagarjuna’s own minor premise, viz. “I have no thesis” – the conclusion is “I am at fault”. This conclusion is, note, the opposite of his (“I am not at fault”). Thus, even though Nagarjuna boasts his thinking is faultless, it is demonstrably faulty!

For – simply put, leaving aside all his rhetoric – all he is saying is: “no thesis is true”; it is just another version of the liar paradox. And his attempt to mitigate his statement, with the afterthought “except my thesis”, is logically merely an additional statement: a particular case that falls squarely under the general rule. Moreover, before an exception can be applied, the rule itself must be capable of consistent formulation – and this one clearly (as just shown) is not.

Note lastly, none of this refutation implies that silence is impossible or without value. If (as some commentators contend) Nagarjuna’s purpose was to promote cessation of discourse, he sure went about it the wrong way. He did not need to develop a controversial, anti-logical philosophy. It would have been enough for him to posit, as a psychological fact, that (inner and outer) silence is expedient for deep meditation.

2.    Calling what is not a spade a spade

Buddhism, no doubt since its inception, has a mix of logic and illogic in its discourse. Looking at its four main philosophical schools, Abhidharma, Prajnaparamita, Madhyamika and Yogacara, the most prone to discard the three laws of thought (i.e. Identity, Non-contradiction, Exclusion of the middle) was Madhyamika[6]. But this trend was started in the earlier Prajnaparamita, as examples from the Diamond Sutra[7] show.

We do, in this sutra, find samples of valid logical argument. For example, there is a well formed a fortiori argument in Section 12[8]: “wherever this sutra or even four lines of it are preached, that place will be respected by all beings… How much more [worthy of respect] the person who can memorize and recite this sutra…!” But we do also find plain antinomies, like “the Dharma… is neither graspable nor elusive” (said even though not graspable means elusive, and not elusive means graspable).

But the Diamond Sutra repeatedly uses a form of argument that, as a logician, I would class as a further twist in the panoply of Buddhist illogic. This states: “What is called X is not in fact X; therefore, it is called X” (or sometimes: “What is called X is truly not X; such is merely a name, which is why it is called X”).

There are over twenty samples of this argument in the said sutra. Here is one: “What the Tathagata has called the Prajnaparamita, the highest, transcendental wisdom, is not, in fact, the Prajnaparamita and therefore it is called Prajnaparamita.” Here is another: “… what are called beings are truly no beings. Such is merely a name. That is why the Tathagata has spoken of them as beings.”[9]

What I am questioning or contesting here regarding this sort of discourse is only the “therefore” or “which is why” conjunction[10]. I am not denying that one might call something by an inappropriate name, or even that words can never more than approximate what one really wants to say. But to say that one is naming something X because it is not X – this is surely absurd and untenable.

This is not merely ‘not calling a spade a spade’ – it is calling something a spade even while believing it not to be a spade! This is, at least on the surface, contrary to logic. If the label is not applicable, why apply it? Moreover, why boast about this unconscionable inversion, saying “therefore”?

To say that something “is not in fact or truly X” is to imply that the word X has a sense that the thing under consideration does not fit into; in such case, why call that very thing ‘X’ against all logic? Why not just call it ‘not X’ (or coin for it some other, more specific name) and avoid paradox!

Discourse like “such is merely a name” is self-defeating anyway, since in fact it uses names that do convey some meaning. The sentence suggests no words have any valid reference, yet relies on the effectiveness of the words it utilizes to communicate its various intentions. It is a statement that tries to exempt itself from the criticisms it levels at all statements as such.

In the examples given above, the argument depends on our understanding of words like ‘Prajnaparamita’ (i.e. perfection of wisdom) or ‘beings’ – and yet at the same time tries to invalidate any such understanding. It cannot therefore be said to communicate anything intelligible.

Without doubt, we cannot adequately express ultimate reality (or God) in words. But it remains true that we can verbally express the fact of ineffability (as just done in the preceding sentence). There is no need to devalue words as such to admit that they have their limits.

Moreover, it is very doubtful that such paradoxical statements (like “name this X because it is not X”) are psychologically expedient to attain enlightenment; they just cognitively confuse and incapacitate the rational mind. Rather than silence the inquiring mind, all they actually do is excite it with subconsciously unanswered questions. Such nonsensical statements are products of an unfortunate fashion that developed in Buddhism at a certain epoch[11].

That sort of intellectual perversity came to seem profound, as it does to some postmodern thinkers in the West today, precisely because a logical antinomy implies nothing – and that emptiness of meaning is (wrongly) equated with the Emptiness underlying all phenomena. The gaping hole in knowledge left by antinomy gives the illusion of being pregnant with meaning, whereas in fact it is just evidence of ignorance. Note this well.

It should be added that there is indeed a sort of structural paradox in the meditative act – but the Diamond Sutra’s habit of ‘calling not a spade a spade’ is not it. The paradox involved is that if we pursue enlightenment through meditation, we cannot hope to attain it, for then our ego (grasping at this transcendental value as at a worldly object) is sustained; yet, meditation is the best way to enlightenment. So we must ‘just do it’ – just sit and let our native enlightenment (our ‘Buddha nature’) shine forth eventually.

It should also be reminded that Buddhism is originally motivated by strong realism. It is essentially a striving towards Reality. In this perspective, the Buddhist notion of “suchness” may be considered as a commitment to the Law of Identity. The enlightened man is one who perceives things, in particular and in general, such as they really are.

This is brought out, for instance, in the following Zen exchange. A monk asked Li-shan: “What is the reason [of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West, i.e. from India to China]”, to which the Zen master replied “Just because things are such as they are”, and in D. T. Suzuki’s commentary that this refers to “Suchness” (Zen Doctrine of No-mind, p. 93).


From Ruminations 5, and Logical and Spiritual Reflections 3.10.


[1]              Needless to say, the following comments are not an attack on Buddhism, but on the rhetoric of Nagarjuna. Buddhism is not well served by such games. I think of Nagarjuna whenever I read v. 306 of the Dhammapada: “He who says what is not… and he who says he has not done what he knows well he has done… sinned against truth”. For me, he is just a philosopher like any other; his interest in Buddhism is incidental (as is his saintly status in the eyes of many).

[2]              Nagarjuna in Vigraha Vyavartani (Averting the Arguments), verse 29. The translation used here is given by ‘Namdrol’ in the E-Sangha Buddhism Forum (

index.php?s=d8946a5bcb1f56f3e9e21a108125823f&showtopic=5604&st=100&#entry82577). Note however that the word “alone” in this translation may not be in the original, judging by other translations I have seen, even though it does seem to be Nagarjuna’s intent.

[3]              See Future Logic, chapter 29.3.

[4]              By Frederick J. Streng. The full text of his translation seems to be that posted in the Internet at: Note that the phrase “non-apprehension of non-things” is considered an incorrect translation by Plamen Gradinarov. However, while willing to admit the latter’s objection, I do not agree that Streng’s freer translation is entirely inadmissible. In my view, it may not be literally precise, but it captures Nagarjuna’s paradoxical spirit and intent. See our discussion of this issue at In any case, even if the phrase “non-apprehension of non-things” is best not relied on, the criticisms of Nagarjuna in the present section can still be proposed on other grounds.

[5]              Two other translations of this sentence confirm and amplify this reading. “If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error” (Streng). “Should I have put forward any thesis, then the logical defect would have been mine” (Gradinarov).

[6]              See my work Buddhist Illogic on this topic, as well as comments on Nagarjuna’s discourse in my Ruminations, Part I, chapter 5. I must stress that my concern, throughout those previous and the present critiques, is not to reject Buddhism as such, but to show that it can be harmonized with reason. I consider quite unnecessary and counterproductive, the attitude of many Buddhist philosophers, who seemingly consider Realization (i.e. enlightenment, liberation, wisdom) impossible without rejection of logic. My guiding principle throughout is that they are quite compatible, and indeed that reason is an essential means (together with morality and meditation) to that desirable end.

[7]              Judging by its Sanskrit language, the centrality of the bodhisattva ideal and other emphases in it, this sutra is a Mahayana text. It is thought to have been composed and written in India about 350 C.E., though at least one authority suggests a date perhaps as early as 150 C.E. For comparison, Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika philosophy, was active circa 150-200 C.E.; thus this Prajnaparamita text was written during about the same period, if not much later.

[8]              Mu Soeng, p. 111.

[9]              In Mu Soeng: pp. 145 and 151, respectively. I spotted a similar argument in another Mahayana text: “And it is because for them [the boddhisattvas] training consists in not-training that they are said to be training” (my translation from a French translation) – found in chapter 2, v. 33 of the “Sutra of the words of the Buddha on the Supreme Wisdom” (see Eracle, p. 61).

[10]            Assuming the translation in this edition is correct, of course (and it seems quite respectable; see p. ix of the Preface). My point is that no logician has ever formally validated such an argument; and in fact it is formally invalid, since the conclusion effectively contradicts a premise.

[11]            Although not entirely absent in the earlier Abhidharma literature and the later Yogacara literature, they are not uncommon in some Prajnaparamita literature (including the Diamond Sutra) and rather common in Madhyamika literature.

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