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Barbara O'Brien

Are We Logical?

By July 26, 2012

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I've been working on an article on the Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel. The Three Turnings are a Mahayana thing, if you haven't heard of them. The article is stuck in a digital bardo at the moment, neither published nor not-published, but as soon as the About.com techies kick it into the Nirmanakaya realm I will link to it. [Update: "Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.")

Anyway, one of the issues that came up as I wrote was the issue of conceptual knowledge and logic. Occasionally I read that Buddhism (unlike those other religions) is logical and arrives at conclusions based on reasoned analysis. And I think, somebody's not spent much time with Zen, huh?

In his book The Third Turning of the Wheel: Wisdom of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, Zen teacher Reb Anderson offers a wonderful analysis of how logic appeared and disappeared and reappeared in Buddhism.

The Buddha began his teaching this way, Anderson Roshi says --

"He had to speak in a language that the people listening to him could understand, so in this first turning of the dharma wheel he offered a conceptual, logical teaching. He showed us how to analyze our experience and he set out a path for people to find freedom and liberate themselves from suffering."

OK, so far. But the second turning, which marks the emergence of Mahayana, kicks logic to the curb. Reb Anderson writes that the second turning "refutes the previous method and the previous path based on a conceptual approach to liberation."  In order to realize enlightenment, one must go beyond conceptual knowledge and logic.

However, once you've gone beyond conceptual knowledge and logic, you can be logical again. Thus, the third turning is "a logical approach that is based on the refutation of logic," Reb Anderson says.

This actually makes sense to me, but I'm not sure I can explain it. I'll give it a shot --

From the Mahayana view, the very logical Theravada approach does not explain how an individual may enter Nirvana if an individual is not-self, not an abiding autonomous thing. I should add that the Theravadins actually do work this out in a way that makes sense to them; I don't intend to knock the Theravadins here.

But let's wade into Mahayana for now.  The Mahayana second-turning view is expressed in the Heart Sutra, in which (quoting Red Pine) "The liberation of all beings revolves around the liberation of the bodhisattva from the concept of being." Conceptual knowledge doesn't go there.

But once the unreality of the concept of being sinks in, then that can be logically worked with to gain understanding.  Hence, there is logic based on the refutation of logic.

If this makes no sense at all, don't worry about it.

July 26, 2012 at 9:17 pm
(1) David Ashton says:

It makes perfect sense – probably because I dont understand a word of it :)

July 27, 2012 at 12:57 am
(2) Rachit says:

Mahayana without the knowledge of Theraveda is like a beautiful plastic flower, aesthetically pleasing but missing essense. Mahayana with the knowledge of Theraveda is the blossoming of a true lotus, which has fragrance to attract the bee and nectar for it.
Similarly, Theraveda without Mahayana practices is like a flowerless shrub waiting for the rains. Theraveda sprinkled with Mahayana makes the shrub blossom with beautiful flowers.

July 27, 2012 at 3:36 am
(3) Sean Robsville says:

Concepts are just tools which have evolved to help us find our way around the conventional world with reasonable efficiency and accuracy.

They work by exclusion, and don’t represent any ultimate reality. That’s why conceptual thought breaks down when we try to use it to probe ultimate truth.

We get a similar kind of effect if we think about quantum physics too much. Our concepts have evolved to cope with the lifestyle of stone-age hunter gatherers, not with examining the fundamental basis of either physical or mental phenomena… http://rational-buddhism.blogspot.com/2012/06/madhyamaka-conceptualism-universals-and.html

July 27, 2012 at 11:02 am
(4) Mark says:

The Buddha’s teachings arose from an enlightened mind, and we sentient minds need to cookie-cutter them into what is understandable for and by us. Hence, the idea of logic.

From his perspective, I currently believe all of the Buddha’s teachings were eminently logical, having arising dependence at their core.

I believe not seeing the logic is our issue, not the Buddha’s and not his/the teachings.

July 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm
(5) Bachalon says:

Well, logic, as a tool, is a good starting point, but logic has it’s own problems (there’s a good example of this at the beginning of “Games for the Super Intelligent” not a dhamma book but still fun nonetheless).

As for conceptual thinking, it’s origin, limits, and use, I would recommend “Concept and Reality.” Very technical and somewhat difficult, but wonderful nonetheless.

July 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm
(6) John says:

There’s a book coming out in the ‘Library of Tibetan Classics’ called ‘Three Stages of the Buddhas’s Teaching…’ which might be helpful in understanding the three turnings. I think, though, that going beyond logic while using logic (using illogic kan’t make any sense since you could always prove the opposite) won’t be very fruitful in the modern techno-logical world.

July 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

John — How will you go beyond the modern technological world? “A logical approach that is based on the refutation of logic” is pretty much what Zen always has been, and fortunately still is. If you work with it for very long you begin to see that. I suspect Tibetan Buddhism eventually gets around to the same place.

August 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm
(8) John says:

Barbara- I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘beyond’. If I start out in Denver and say I am going beyond San Francisco to Hong Kong, my going beyond would not affect anything but my own spatial position i.e. any use of ‘beyond’ besides a spatial concept will be a metaphor. So in what way could we go beyond technology?

August 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

John — I don’t mean “beyond” in a physical sense but in the sense of stepping outside our projections and conceptual boxes. We all live inside conceptual boxes, and the first step to liberation is to perceive that. There’s nothing wrong with technology, and you don’t have to give it up to “get enlightened.” And you don’t have to give up logic. Rather, it’s a matter of realizing there are other ways to understand beside the ordinary logical one.

The basic point of Zen koans, for example, is to frustrate linear, logical thinking and force the practitioner to perceive reality on another level. Note that there is nothing supernatural about this. And it doesn’t mean that koan masters can’t do computer programming or operate technological gadgets. It’s a different way of understanding that doesn’t involve linear logic.

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