Is Buddhism Logical?

An Introduction to Buddhist Logic

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Buddhism is often called logical, although whether it really is logical may not be immediately evident. A few minutes' review of the Zen koan literature would probably persuade most folks Buddhism is not logical at all. But often Buddhist teachers do appeal to logic in their talks.

I have written elsewhere that the historical Buddha taught enlightenment itself is not reachable through reason and rational thinking.

This is true even according to the Kalama Sutta, a well-known sermon of the Buddha found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka. This sutta often is mistranslated to mean that one can rely on logic to determine truth, but that's not what it actually says. Accurate translations tell us the Buddha said we cannot rely blindly on teachers and scriptures, but we also cannot rely on logical deduction, on reason, on probability, or on comparisons to what one already thinks.

Especially if you are very bright, that may not be what you want to hear.

What Is Logic?

Philosopher Graham Priest wrote that "Logic (in one of the many senses of the word) is a theory about what follows from what." It might also be called a science or study of how to evaluate arguments and reason, Over the centuries many great philosophers and thinkers generally have proposed rules and criteria for how logic may be applied to reach conclusions.

What is logical in a formal sense may not be whatever "makes sense."

Many of the first westerners who took a serious interest in Buddhism praised it for being logical, but that may be because they didn't know it very well. Mahayana Buddhism, in particular, can seem downright irrational, with its paradoxical teachings that phenomena cannot be said to either exist or not exist (see Madhyamika) or sometimes that phenomena exist only as objects of awareness (see Yogacara).

These days it is more common for western philosopher to dismiss Buddhism as being entirely mystical and metaphysical, and not subject to logical argument. Others attempt to make it "natural" by stripping it of anything that smacks of the supernatural to the person doing the stripping.

Logic East and West

Part of the disconnect between Buddhism and western lovers of logic is that eastern and western civilization worked out different systems of logic. Graham Priest has pointed out that western philosophers saw only two possible resolutions to an argument -- it was either true or false. But classic Indian philosophy proposed four resolutions -- "that it is true (and true only), that it is false (and false only), that it is both true and false, that it is neither true nor false."

This system is called catuṣkoṭi, or "four corners," and if you've spent much time with Nagarjuna it will no doubt seem familiar.

Graham writes in "Beyond True and False" that at about the same time Indian philosophers were settling on their "four corner" principle, Aristotle was laying the foundations of western philosophy, one of which was that a statement could not be both true and false. So we see here two different ways of looking at things.

Buddhist philosophy very much resonates with the "four corner" system of thought, and western thinkers schooled in the system founded by Aristotle struggle to make sense of it.

However, Graham writes, modern theoretical mathematics also has adopted the "four corners" model of logic, and to understand how that works you will need to read his article, "Beyond True and False," as math above about a fourth-grade level goes over my head. But Graham concludes that the mathematical models show "four corners" logic can be every bit as rigorously logical as the western yes-or-no model.

Beyond Logic

Let us go back to the working definition of logic -- a theory of what follows from what. This takes us to another issue, which I will crudely express as where do you get your whats?

The reason rational thinking and logic are of limited use in the realization of enlightenment is that what is realized is utterly outside ordinary experience, and so it cannot be conceptualized.

Indeed, in many traditions, it is explained that realization comes only when conceptualizations fall away.

And this realized thing is genuinely ineffable -- it cannot be explained with words. This doesn't necessarily mean it is irrational, but it does mean that language -- with its nouns, objects, verbs and syntax -- fails to accurately convey it.

My first Zen teacher used to say that Zen makes perfect sense once you catch on to what it's about. The problem is that "what it's about" can't actually be explained. And so, we practice and work with our minds until it clarifies.