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Is Buddhism paradoxical?

Buddhist literature is full of statements that sound paradoxical. In Mahāyāna sūtras, for instance, we repeatedly find claims of the form, “x is not x, therefore it is x.” This has led to the widespread idea that Buddhism, like some other religions, wants to point us in the direction of a reality transcending all intellectual understanding. But while this view of Buddhist thought may be common, it is rejected by most Buddhist thinkers. For it puts Buddhist teachings perilously close to Advaita Vedānta, the Indian school that claims that ultimately all is One. It also calls into question the idea that the Buddha taught the truth when he said that the cause of suffering is ignorance about impermanence and non-self. So for the Madhyamaka school, for instance, the point of the paradoxical-sounding statements is just to get us to stop engaging in metaphysical theorizing.

I have long favored this anti-metaphysical (or “semantic”) interpretation of Madhyamaka. This is what I had in mind when I said that for Madhyamaka, the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. Of course this itself sounds paradoxical. But this is paradox used ironically (Tom Tillemans calls this the “head-snapper” use): paradox as a rhetorical device that invites us to work out an ambiguity and resolve the seeming contradiction. In the case at hand this goes as follows: the first “ultimate truth” refers to whatever realization brings about final cessation of suffering, the second refers to the idea that there can be a theory that corresponds to the mind-independent nature of reality. And I’ve thought a similar strategy can be used to discharge all apparent contradictions in Madhyamaka.

Recently, though, there have been challenges to this way of resolving paradoxes in Madhyamaka, with Jay Garfield and Graham Priest proposing a dialetheist reading of Madhyamaka. Dialetheists hold that there can be contradictions that are true; they use a paraconsistent logic to prevent the “explosion” that results from the presence of a contradiction when our thinking is governed by the rules of classical logic. Now there is ample evidence that Indian Mādhyamikas accept the laws of classical logic. Indeed Candrakīrti says somewhere that anyone who accepts a contradiction is “crazy” (unmattaka). But Robert Sharf recently told me that Chinese Madhyamaka and its successor schools may be more friendly to dialetheism. I don’t read classical Chinese, so I’ll have to limit my discussion to Indian Buddhist philosophy. Could it be that Indian Mādhyamikas were wrong to reject the possibility of true contradictions, and that their arguments actually show reality to be, at heart, paradoxical in nature?

Here is a test case. Not just Madhyamaka but Mahāyāna in general holds that conceptualization is central to the ignorance that keeps us stuck in saṃsāra. This can be expressed as the claim that all conceptualization falsifies. Is this claim true? If it is, then since it uses concepts it is also false. So if these Buddhists are right about the roots of ignorance, then we are faced with a paradox. Is there any way they might get around this?

Seated Buddha Gandhara, by PHGCOM. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Seated Buddha Gandhara, by PHGCOM. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Before I retired from Seoul National University, our department brought François Recanati from Paris to give an intensive seminar on contextualist semantics. There I learned of an approach to the theory of meaning that he calls radical contextualism. We all know that some statements don’t have a determinate meaning apart from a context in which they are asserted. The statement, “It’s raining here today” only succeeds in saying something – in picking out some state of affairs in the world – when it is spoken at a particular place and time. Radical contextualist semantics says this is true for all statements, not just those containing words like “here” and “now.” While we may think we can understand the meaning of a statement without knowing the context in which it is uttered, this is only because we imaginatively fill in a background in which someone might say it. This is not the place to go into the evidence supporting radical contextualist semantics. But suppose it were true. It offers a way to resolve the paradox involved in trying to say that all conceptualization falsifies.

When we utter a statement, we presuppose that there is some mind-independent truth-maker for our assertion. Just what would count as such a truth-maker will vary, however, depending on the interests and cognitive limitations of speaker and audience in a particular context. Madhyamaka claims that no known theory about the nature of those truth-makers really works. This is what stands behind their view that conceptualization falsifies. The difficulty comes when we try to say this. To say that all conceptualization falsifies, one must presuppose a mind-independent fact that makes it true – in which case there would be at least one such truth-maker. One may be able to demonstrate that what counts as doing the grounding in one context stands in need of further grounding in some other. But we cannot look for a demonstration that this holds universally. Radical contextualism explains why this should be. To ask for such a demonstration is to ask for an assertion that holds across all possible contexts – something the radical contextualist claims there cannot be. That there are no ultimate truth-makers is something that perhaps can be shown, but it cannot be said.

I once decided to call work that brings two philosophical traditions into dialogue in order to help solve philosophical problems “fusion philosophy.” Others don’t like “fusion,” and use “confluence” instead. In most cases of fusion or confluence philosophy, there’s an attempt to show that ideas from an Asian philosophical tradition can be used to help solve a problem arising in current philosophical thought. The present case is different: radical contextualism is a modern theory being recruited to help solve a problem arising in Buddhist philosophy. This sort of confluence is something we should look to see more of in the future.

Featured image credit: Confluence of the Tolminka and Zadlaščica, by Paul Asman. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. elliot laurence

    The reason behind most Buddhist paradox’s, is to remind us not to think in either/or, black or white, duelistic thinking.

    This can enable one to think “Holographically,” using both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously.

    This mean that ideas are not linear, but spherical and that instead of being immersed in any one idea, you can step back and see ideas as a separate entity from yourself, without getting immersed in them.

  2. der

    Just discount all of Mahayana if you want the real Buddhist teachings. Hinayana (Theravada) has the most authentic records of what the Buddha intended according to historians and scholars.

  3. Alex Bunardzic

    In one episode of TV sitcom “Seinfeld”, Jerry calls an exterminator to help him get rid of cockroaches in his apartment. When the exterminator shows up at Jerry’s apartment, Jerry is perplexed: “But how is this possible? I keep my place impeccably clean! Why am I having this infestation?” To which the exterminator replies: “Mr. Seinfeld, I exterminate them, I don’t explain them.”

    Buddha’s teaching is the same — you have a problem, you are suffering, you’re not at ease with your life and with the fact that you will most definitely soon die. You can a) keep torturing yourself with all kinds of attempts at explaining to yourself what’s going on, or b) call the exterminator (i.e. the Buddha) who will help you exterminate your fears, your perplexing, your vexations, your suffering. But don’t expect that your healing will be done through receiving some phoney-balloney ‘explanation’.

    The ‘explanation’ offered in this text is exactly that — phoney-balloney make believe blabbering that only serves to further perplex the unprepared.

  4. Ven. Khanti Khema

    One point please about Theravada from which my school stems today.. If you respect it, please,; did you know that Hinayana is like a mean pejudicial word against Theravada? It isn’t nice to use that word anymore in conjunction with Theravada. I took this instructions per the late most Venerable U Silananda Mahathera. Please don’t.

    On the piece you wrote here, I truly liked it. It touched the point in my mind where I understand the idea is to
    Experience an experience of no experience!
    That is what Buddha Gotama wanted us to not do!

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