logic in zen

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How is logical and rational analysis used in Buddhist philosophy? Discuss its different usage in different schools of Buddhism, being careful to show how rational analysis is used in the Zen school.

Occasionally a conversation between two people, where one is recounting to the other of a fantastic tale of some sort, will end with the statement, "oh well I guess you had to be there". This happens when the situation may be highly significant or comical to the person who was involved in it, but the nuances of the experience are lost in the translation of it into words. Similarly, much of the Zen thought process and mindset appears to be of the 'you had to be there' type. This can make the explanation of how logic and rational analysis are used in Zen rather difficult unless both the teller and the listener are already perceiving life from a non-dualistic viewpoint (and in which case there would no need for it to be be explained. In fact it would seem like folly.) Unfortunately at this time my thinking is stuck in a dualistic mode but I'll attempt to explain it anyway.


From an external Western perspective it is easy to make the mistake of thinking Zen Buddhism to be nihilistic in outlook; whereby there is no objective basis of truth. However, this would be a bad analysis. Suzuki points to a quotation from the Prajnaparamita-Hridaya Sutra, (which is said to be one of the most concise of all the Prajna sutras) that is recited in Zen monasteries several times a day,(1) as being the type of thing that leads people to think that there could be nothing more nihilistic than Zen(2). But Zen looks at the central point of life which can't be deconstructed or expressed truly in words, and yet is forced to use words in the process that at first looks like negation; the, "not white, but not not.-white", statements. That which is left after taking away 'white', and 'not-white' looks like nothing to the 'ignorant' (to those following a Zen way of life, the word ignorant also means logical dualism) Western philosopher, but to those who see from a Zen, non-dualistic viewpoint, what is left is the 'live fact' of Zen which is neither negation or affirmation, and therefore, itself an affirmation(3). What is meant by this is that Zen does not leave the mind blank, which as Suzuki puts it, "would be the equivalent of intellectual suicide(4)" , but the experiencer is left to experience reality in an abstraction-free setting. Even this phrase, 'abstraction-free setting', shows up the inadequacy of words used descriptively; setting is akin to framework, and that which is being discusses cannot be framed.



The Middle Way, according to Zen, is "where there is neither middle nor two sides. When you are fettered by the objective world, you have one side; when you are disturbed in your own mind, you have the other side. When neither of these exists, there is no middle part, and this is the middle way."(5) This can be compared to the more straight-forward definition of the Middle Way espoused by the Buddha, and advocated by Nagarjuna of being "between harmful extremes, between avid indulgence and austere asceticism, and between sterile intellectualization and suffocating mental torpor"(6).


Zazen (or in its sanskrit, Shyana) is meditation or quiet contemplation and originated in India. It is very much a key component of forming spiritual discipline in most forms of non-dualistic spiritual tradition. In Zen Buddhism its connection with the koan form the backbone of what it used to reach satori (or enlightenment). Zazen is used to hone the mind to one single subject of thought, not letting it jump from one randemness to another. In this state, the mind is ready to realise the answer to the koan. Whereas in other schools of Buddhism, meditation is an end in itself, in Zen it is a vehicle to answering the koan(7). It should be noted that this relationship of meditation and koan is not universal throughout Zen Buddhism. The two main traditions in Japan are the Soto school and the Rinzai school. Rinzai uses the koan to acquire enlightenment whereas Soto rejects the koan and focuses on meditation through which comes the awakening of the enlightened mind that has been present since birth(8).


Koan literally means 'public document' and they take the outward form of a question or riddle, but they have the very concrete purpose of planting the seed of doubt in the mind or the person being questioned, and pushing that sense of doubt to its intended conclusion; a satorial experience. Its use could be seen as running counter to the principle of Zen in that it is a construction using language but when all is weighed up, the advantages of using the koan are greater than the disadvantages.

It is generally thought that the process of sparring a student to enlightenment would be far to hit-and-miss' without the use of the koan.


The use of the koan began by being used to give a student of Zen (who was very close to reaching satori) that little push into the new realm of understanding. Their understanding of the koan would often be instantaneous, leading to 'sudden enlightenment'.

Sometime later, Zen masters also began giving the koans to new disciples in order to help break the student's dualistic view. One of the better known koans was thought up by Hakuin; 'what is the sound of one hand clapping?'(9). Again, there is no successful way of philosophically approaching a koan; they can't be deconstructed or analysed symbolically. In essence, even the answer is irrelevant, but only once a sufficient answer has been given and that being an answer that demonstrates that the answerer's mind has been opened fully to a non-dualistic outlook(10).


This is the logic of Zen. Its conclusion is that the standard process of logic and reasoning will not meet our greatest spiritual needs and it uses the koans and other seemingly nonsensical statements to help us realise this. Also it uses action in helping us to see the inadequacy of words in transmitting the message of Zen. Western logic is bound to the thought process of, 'white is white'. Zen holds that while people are stuck with this limited viewpoint (and not realising that in order for white to be white it must also be not-white) then they will continue to suffer unnecessarily and Western philosophical thinkers will continue to go around in circles(11).


This point of; in order for something to be true, it must be also untrue is part of Nagarjuna's theory of emptiness. Although his time was before the rise of Zen Buddhism Nagarjuna is traditionally considered its patriarch. The other two points of his theory of emptiness are; "words cannot be assumed to be referents to nonlinguistic bits of reality", and "Any assertion or distinction only highlights one aspect of a situation and, in doing so, casts into shadows an equally important, though incompatible aspect"(12). The first of these points can be applied to concepts like time, where what we know as 'the past' has no as meaning unless it is thought of in relation to the present or future. Regarding the second point, we can say that 'the sun rises in the east and sets in the west' and think of them as two separate events, but in order for the sun to get from the east to the west, we must think of its path through the sky as one unified motion (13).


These few points come from the Prajnaparamita which began to gain prominence around 100 BCE, and is considered the originating text of Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen Buddhism is an off-shoot. The Prajnaparamita is thought to be written by Indian Buddhists, and was a direct inspiration from Shakyamuni Buddha. There were many other versions of the Prainaparamita but they were hidden because the writers thought that the people were not ready to comprehend them properly and that the teachings within them ("on the voidness and the magnificent energisation of the vision of the jeweline Buddaverse"(14)) would lead to the undertaking of organised violence in their name(15). Perhaps it could be argued that this was indeed the case in Japan where the teachings of Zen (that embrace this sense of 'voidness') were given to Samurais who warred against each other in the service of various Shoguns during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although this was long after the many versions of the Prajnaparamita were refound by Nagarjuna, the Japanese Zen masters had perhaps not had the centuries worth of deliberation on the texts and how they should be used, as had happened in Northern India and Tibet.


'The art of tea' was a ritualistic practice developed in relation to Zen in Japan which involves the procuring, preparing of, and drinking of tea. It can be seen as a haven from feudalistic regimentation, but also as a demonstration of how the Japanese people took philosophical thought (such as the philosophy of the Sung dynasty, Rigaku; the Chinese response to the Zen-Kegon interpretation if Mahayana Buddhist thought) from further west (India and China) and instead of responding to it with their own exercises in intellectual, rational thinking, melded it with culture and art(16).


It is said that Nagarjuna lived for over 600 years and during that time he retrieved the many other versions of the Prajnaparamita from dragons, who were holding onto them for safe-keeping. These versions are said to all be identical in message, but only differ in length and detail. They included sutras ranging in length from one letter to 100,00 verses of text. Nagarjuna also wrote many works himself(17).


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