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Introduction: Buddhism and Contradiction

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 63, Number 3, July 2013
pp. 315-321 | 10.1353/pew.2013.0035

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Buddhism and Contradiction

Dialetheism is the view that some contradictions are true. This view needs to be distinguished from trivialism, which is the view that everything, including every contradiction, is true. According to dialetheists, there are some contradictions that cannot be defused and, thus, should be accepted.1 Armed with the modern development of paraconsistent logic, dialetheism is slowly being recognized as a view to be taken seriously in contemporary Western philosophy.2

In "The Way of the Dialetheist: Contradictions in Buddhism," published in Philosophy East and West in 2008, Yasuo Deguchi, Jay L. Garfield, and Graham Priest (hereafter DGP) apply dialetheism to the interpretation of Buddhist texts. In opening the pages of Buddhist texts, it is not unusual to find sentences that appear to be contradictory. These contradictory sentences are not necessarily the expressions of inconsistency between one part of the text and another part of the text. They appear in one paragraph or sometimes even in one sentence. For example,

What the realised one has described as the possession of distinctive features is itself the non-possession of distinctive features.

(Vajracchedika 5)

Everything is real and is not real,Both real and not real,Neither real nor not real.This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

(Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XVIII:8)3

DGP argue that at least some of the contradictions found in Buddhist texts are "meant literally and to be accepted as true" (p. 396). Moreover, they argue that accepting these contradictions is a consequence of being rational. For DGP, some contradictions that arise in Buddhist discourses "are the result of following a certain view of the world through to its logical conclusions" (p. 401). They argue that these contradictions are not exemplifications of irrational mysticism but manifestations of 'ultra-rationality.'

The articles in this volume are, in one form or other, responses to DGP 2008. Most of them were presented at a workshop held at Kyoto University (exceptions are the articles by Kassor and Tillemans). Each presentation was followed by a reply from DGP and spirited debate. All of the articles and replies were revised after the workshop. Since DGP 2008 provides important context for these articles, and because not all of DGP's claims are addressed in this issue, I begin with a brief summary of the contents of DGP 2008. [End Page 315]

DGP argue for their interpretation in part by rejecting attempts to always 'defuse' contradictory statements of Buddhist discourses. They consider four main suggestions of this kind and argue against each of them.

1. The contradictions in Buddhist texts are metaphors and, thus, should not be taken literally. DGP concede that there are some contradictory statements in the Buddhist tradition that are meant to be poetic expressions. However, they argue that not all contradictions are mere poetic tropes. They point out that some contradictions appear in highly theoretical contexts such as the texts of Nāgārjuna.

2. The contradictions always occur in reductio ad absurdum arguments. The suggestion is that, given that contradictions appear in a reductio argument, they are intended to be rejected. DGP again concede that there are some contexts where contradictions appear and, thus, are rejected as part of reductio arguments. Moreover, they acknowledge that contradictions are sometimes used to the psychological effect of breaking out of 'conceptual thinking' as in the Chan/Zen tradition. Nonetheless, DGP argue, the contradictions that appear in the texts of Nāgārjuna and Dōgen, for example, do not appear in the context of reductio, nor are they used for a soteriological context as non-discursive devices for freeing oneself from conceptualization.

3. The contradictions are part of upāya (skillful means). The doctrine of upāya has been used to explain the historical developments of different Buddhist schools. But it has also been used as a way to account for the differences in the stages of our Buddhist education. The suggestion is, then, that contradictions may be appropriate at different stages of the Buddhist path, yet they should not be endorsed or accepted as true. Against the wholesale treatment of Buddhist contradictions in terms of upāya, DGP argue that some contradictions are addressed to a single audience...