That is the question. Or is it? Is there a difference, even if Hamlet thought so? As I’m reading Brook Ziporyn’s exploration of Tiantai Buddhism, I get drawn into such questions. In this book he writes much more clearly and plainly than he did about the Chinese philosopher Guo Xiang so you don’t see the weirdness coming. At times I feel like I did when I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf.” As a man walked across a room and kept going up the wall and onto the ceiling, I said “WTF! Where did that come from?” Unfortunately the other people in the theater heard me.
I’ve always been drawn to the Mahayana Buddhist notion that nirvana is here in this world of stress and suffering. I associate that with the bodhisattva practice of helping free everyone else from suffering before attaining one’s own enlightenment. But when Ziporyn reached his “conclusion” that nirvana is here and now, I said “Wait a minute. How did we get here?” And he’s only hinted at where he’s heading towards the Tiantai notion that we’re already enlightened.
I won’t get into these doctrinal disputes among Buddhists here. Just want to explore the insight that I’m still a recovering Aristotelian of the Thomist variety. Early into Ziporyn’s book I made a note to myself to find out when he gets around to dispute or reject the principle of non-contradiction, Aristotle’s bedrock axiom that I can’t be both “Ken” and “not-Ken” at the same time and in the same manner.
Through reading the Buddhist scriptures, I’m familiar with the ancient Indian logical tetralemma. It appears frequently in questions put to the Buddha. Does the Buddha exist after death? Does the Buddha not-exist after death? Does the Buddha both exist and not exist after death? Does the Buddha neither exist nor not exist after death? (e.g., AN 7:51) The Buddha ignored such questions. But some Buddhist philosophers spend too much time exploring these four alternatives logically and ontologically. Jay Garfield gives perhaps the most understandable example concerning inviting a couple to dinner. Possible responses are he comes, she comes, they both come, or neither comes. Where the tetralemma gets dicey for a former Thomist like me is when the alternative answers to a yes/no question are presented as: yes, no, both yes-and-no, neither yes nor no.
Ziporyn seems to be the first writer who hasn’t put me to sleep while writing from the both yes-and-no and neither yes nor no stances. I’m open to seeing where this goes, but I must admit a prediliction for the response of the medieval Arab Aristotelian ibn Sīnā to those who deny the principle of non-contradiction.
As for the obstinate, he must be plunged into fire, since fire and non-fire are identical. Let him be beaten, since suffering and not suffering are the same. Let him be deprived of food and drink, since eating and drinking are identical to abstaining. (Metaphysics I.8, 53.13– 15)
My disposition towards ibn Sīnā lines up with my long-standing delight at Diogenes’ counter to Zeno’s paradox. Zeno argued that you can’t get from here to there. Why? If you walk half-way, and then half of that, and then half of that remainder, and so on, there will always be a remainder to divide. You’ll never get past some remainder between you and your destination. Hearing this, Diogenes just got up and walked from here to there. Hegel and other Idealists didn’t like Diogenes’ solution because he didn’t stay in the realm of words. In the first volume of his Logic, Hegel writes:
The dialectic examples of the old Eleatic school … deserve a fuller consideration than the ordinary explanation that they are just sophisms; —an assertion which clings to empirical perception, following the method of Diogenes (so convincing to common sense), who, when a dialectician demonstrated the contradiction contained in motion, is said to have put no further strain on his reason, but, by mutely walking up and down, to have referred to the evidence of the eyes;—an assertion and a refutation which of course it is easier to make than to enter upon thought, to seize the confusions into which thought, quite unforced, leads when it formulates itself in ordinary consciousness, and to solve them by means of thought. … this sensuous consciousness will never let itself be raised from the sphere of the empirical to that of Thought.
Of course Hegel called such discourse “Thought” with a capital T. Unlike Hegel, part of my distrust of verbal gymnastics like Zeno and Ziporyn’s is that it takes forever to get out of the verbal traps they set if you stay within the bounds of their language. Perhaps Diogenes was just too impatient, If he assumed that it would be a waste of time to argue with Zeno, then Hegel may have a point. For now I’ll go with the flow and tell my inner Thomist to relax and see where Ziporyn takes us.