Skepticism, ordinary language and Zen Buddhism

Dick Garner

Philosophy East and West
Vol.27 No.2  (April 1977)
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press


"What is the real shape of a cat?"
J. L. Austin
Sense and Sensibilia




There is no quick and easy way to say what skepticism is. The many specialized ways philosophers use 'skeptic', 'skeptical', and 'skepticism' are enough like ordinary uses of those expressions to warrant the suspicion that we understand them, but different enough from the ordinary uses and from each other to warrant the further suspicion that we do not. So perhaps the safest way to begin is by thinking a little about a philosopher who, if anyone does, deserves to be called a skeptic--Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 A.D.), a Creek physician and the most influential and well known of those who call themselves skeptics.


His Position

Sextus divided philosophers into three groups: those who claim to have discovered the truth (the Dogmatists), those who claim that the truth cannot be discovered (the Academicians), and those who make neither of those two claims, but go on inquiring (the Skeptics, or Pyrrhonists).[1]

For the Sceptic, having set out to philosophize with the object of passing judgment on the sense-impressions and ascertaining which of them are true and which false, so as to attain quietude thereby, found himself involved in contradictions of equal weight, and being unable to decide between them suspended judgment; and as he was then in suspense there followed, as it happened, the state of quietude in respect of matters of opinion (I, 26).

When Sextus talks about "passing judgment on the sense-impressions" he has in mind determining whether there is a reality behind the appearances, and if so, whether and to what extent things are, in reality, as they appear to be. He expresses his skepticism about the existence of "external objects" when he says that "the question of whether the senses have illusory affections or apprehend some real object will be incapable of either decision or apprehension"(II, 50). More frequently, however, he grants, or even presupposes, that there is a real object of sensation and raises his skeptical arguments to show that we cannot know its true nature.

No one, I suppose, disputes that the underlying object has this or that appearance;the point in dispute is whether the object is in reality as it appears to be (I,22).




For example, honey appears to us to be sweet (and this we grant, for we perceive sweetness through the senses), but whether it is also sweet in its essence is for us a matter of doubt, since this is not an appearance but a judgment regarding the appearance (I, 20).

The skeptic will make no judgments about the appearances and refuses to assent to what is "nonevident." Sextus says that the skeptic adopts an attitude of "nonassertion," and he characterizes this as "a mental attitude of ours because of which we refuse either to affirm or to deny a thing" (I, 192). Yet he grants that honey appears to be sweet and, in another place, he says that the skeptic can be said to believe things when 'believe' means "to follow without any strong impulse or inclination." When this happens "our belief is a matter of simple yielding without any consent" (I, 230).


His Practice

Since we grant and come to believe "as a matter of simple yielding" not just that something tastes sweet, but also that it is sweet, and even that it is honey, we may wonder whether Sextus would grant, believe, or even assert such things. Surely his doctrine of nonassertion does not mean that he says nothing to his patients. He himself tells us that "we live in accordance with the normal rules of life, undogmatically, seeing that we cannot remain wholly inactive" (I, 23).It is only when confronted with the philosopher's question: "Is it really sweet (honey)?" that he retreats to his attitude of nonassertion. But even concerning this kind of question he would not say that there is no way to discover the truth of the matter, or that the notion of the truth of the matter in this sense makes no sense, for that would land him firmly in the sort of dogmatism he must avoid if he is to remain a skeptic. For a skeptic like Sextus, all philosophical questions remain open. His idea is that when we consider, in sufficient detail, the arguments that can be advanced both for and against any philosophical position, we will find that they are equally balanced--pro and con. At least that is what he claims occurred in his own case. Yet the idea of such a perfect and determinable balance appears artificial and contrived. It is easy to see how a talented skeptic might be able to produce an argument that would counter-balance this or that belief of a dogmatist ; but it is Sextus himself who is supposed to have attained quietude with respect to belief. Is he suggesting that all of the arguments he has discovered and invented for each philosophical point he has considered are perfectly and equally balanced? Perhaps he has seen so many arguments that none of them any longer carry conviction. In any case, what he says is that the skeptic has found himself "involved in contradictions of equal weight, and being unable to decide between them suspended judgment" (I, 26). Now even if we do not disqualify this notion of an equal balance between philosophical pros and cons, a state Sextus calls equipollence, two problems remain for the aspiring skeptic. First, no skeptical attitude attained by balanced and opposing arguments can be generalized to cover (what appear to be) similar



cases; and second, any quietude in matters of opinion that has been attained will be liable to be upset by further argument, so far undevised or unconsidered.


His Quietude

The skeptic fails to find an answer, but he does not assert that any answer is definitely wrong, or that there is no answer, and he does not (for fear of being a dogmatist) maintain that there is no question. This raises serious questions as to what his quietude amounts to, how it is attained, how it is maintained, and, further and most importantly, how it is supposed to lead to a lack of perturbation. A true skeptic, at least as conceived by Sextus, will be engaged in a continuing (and perpetually unresolved) search for a definitive answer to each and every philosophical question that comes before him. He will (and Sextus did) amass a large stock of philosophical arguments of varying degrees of strength and plausibility, from which he may draw to support any side of each philosophical question. Sextus called these arguments his "Tropes." The so-called quietude of the skeptic thus begins to resemble the peace of the well-armed man, always on guard and ready for combat, though with a reasonable expectation neither of victory nor defeat. It is not in the least like the quietude of the man who has, once and for all renounced contention--the man for whom, in the words of Wittgenstein, "philosophical problems ... completely disappear."[2]

His Formulas and Tropes

At times Sextus enunciates various skeptical formulas, such as:

No more (this than that).
I determine nothing. (All are undetermined.)
I suspend judgment. (I am unable to say which I believe.)


He says that, like the formula 'Nothing is true' all of these formulas are self-defeating, and that "the Sceptic enunciates his formulae so that they are virtually cancelled by themselves" (I, 15). This has always been a difficult point to make, and one that usually leads philosophers to lapse into metaphor. Wittgenstein, of course, spoke of the ladder that must be discarded once it has been climbed. Sextus, the physician, compares his skeptical formulas to "aperient drugs," which "do not merely eliminate the humors from the body, but also expel themselves along with the humors" (I, 206).

        Being unable to assert his own position, let alone to argue for it in a positive way, Sextus developed an arsenal of arguments (Tropes) designed to under-mine dogmatic assertions by counterbalancing any argument that might be produced in their behalf. Some of these are, of course, pretty strange. To prove that there is no "real color" he points out that "sufferers from jaundice declare that objects which seem to us white are yellow, while those whose eyes are bloodshot call them blood-red" (I, 44). And to prove differences of other sorts he relates that "Alexander's butler used to shiver when he was in the sun or




in a hot bath, but felt warm in the shade" (I, 82). And he reasons that since men differ in the body so much they "probably also differ from one another in respect of the soul itself" (I, 85). He incorporates the stock arguments from variability--the water on warm and cold hands, the effects of rippling water and strange light, dreams, and the fact that "many lovers, too, who have ugly mistresses think them most beautiful."[3] These arguments are, of course, never absolutely conclusive, though some are, for some people, more persuasive than others. A skilled skeptic, like a skilled physician, will choose his arguments on the basis of their ability to effect a cure (in this case a cure for dogmatism). So, while Sextus could not affirm his own position, and could not provide any conclusive arguments in its behalf, he could confront all comers with his tropes, in the hope that when all the dogmas have been undermined thereby, his own positionless position would remain as the only viable nonalternative. This would in no way affect the ordinary beliefs of anyone moved by his arguments--for it is not the affairs of daily life that Sextus is skeptical about. Rather, he is skeptical about philosophers' claims to have discovered facts about reality as it is. He opposes philosophical arguments with his tropes not because he believes the opposite of what those arguments are designed to show, but in the compassionate hope of leading those who offer them to a state of nonassertion, and thence to quietude in respect of opinions, and ultimately to tranquility.



Nonassertion is also a key element in an Eastern school of thought that had its origins at about the time Sextus was practicing medicine and philosophy--the Maadhyamika School in India and its continuation in the writings of Seng-chao (383-414) and Chi-tsang (549-623).[4]

Chi-tsang's First Stage

Chi-tsang distinguishes three stages at each of which he find a worldly truth and a higher truth. At the first stage it is a worldly truth of ordinary people that "dharmas possess being," while the higher truth, the "absolute truth of sages" is that "dharmas are empty in nature."[5] For the moment we can understand one who holds that dharmas have being as holding, in a dogmatic way, that the objects of our experience, their causes, or their elements are "real." When sages affrm the higher truth, or deny the worldly one, it would seem that, in Sextus' book, they have passed over into dogmatism. But the sage who counters the dogma of existence with the dogma of nonexistence need not be supposed to subscribe to his counter-dogma. Here too we are in the domain of the ladder, the fishnet, and Sextus' aperient drugs. Chi-tsang, for example, says that:

the idea of non-existence is presented primarily to handle the disease of the
concept of existence. If that disease disappears, the useless medicine is also discarded.[6]




and Seng-chao points out that

The Tathagata in accordance with the obstruction in the common people's views, speaks appropriate words to dispel their delusions.[7]

So neither Sextus nor the sage accepts the denial of the dogmas they oppose. Yet, as we have seen, Sextus, in offering opposing arguments to any philosophical dogma that might be presented and by presenting himself as a perpetual enquirer, appears to have less than a firm hold on quietude with respect to matters of opinion, or on the tranquility and peace that is supposed to follow therefrom. Does the sage do any better? Chi-tsang tells us that the path leading beyond all dogmas does not stop at denial, or even (as Sextus felt) at nonassertion; rather it must, by a dialectical progression, transcend both assertion and nonassertion. Let us try to see how this works.


The Dialectic

At the first stage, one who asserts that dharmas have being is asserting the ordinary truth, and one who asserts that dharmas are empty is asserting the higher truth. But to remain with the higher truth is to be attached to nonbeing; so we must move to a second stage, "which explains that both being and nonbeing belong to worldly truth."[8] Now since the worldly truth of the second stage involves both the assertion of being and the assertion of nonbeing, it recognizes thereby a duality. On the basis of the assumption that dualities are to be avoided we are led to advance to the higher truth of the second stage. Chi-tsang identifies the worldly truth at the first stage with the cycle of life and death, and the higher ("absolute") truth at that stage with The higher truth at the second stage, then, is constituted by:     

neither-the-absolute-nor-the-worldly, and

Here we do not assert that dharmas have being and we do not assert that they are empty. As Chi-tsang says, the higher truth at this stage is a denial of duality, but, as he also realizes, duality and nonduality are extremes, and so we are forced to move to another stage. What we get at this third stage can perhaps best be seen in the following chart, in which 'B' abbreviates 'Dharmas have being','E' abbreviates 'Dharwtas are empty','  ' is used to indicate assertion, and '~' negation :

Ordinary (worldly) Truth                                                                          Higher (absolute) Truth

Stage 1 uB uE
Stage 2 uB and u ~ uB and   E
Stage 3 uB and  uE, and  ~ u ~ uB and  ~ E, and ~( ~ B)
and~ uE and ~( ~ E).




According to the higher truth at the third stage, it is not asserted that dharmas have being and it is not asserted that dharmas are empty, and it is not not-asserted that dhrmas have being and it is not not-asserted that they are empty. Neither being nor not-being is asserted or not asserted--thus both assertion and nonassertion are left behind. Yung-chia (665-713) presents his own version of this dialectical movement and is quoted as having said that when we reach the absolute reality of the third stage "not only are the means of expression destroyed, but the roots of mental activity itself are cut out."[10] Perhaps Yung-chia has characterized the output of the dialectic properly, but the mechanism employed by the Middle Way philosopher is not for everybody. The Ch'an Master W^en-yen of the Y<u>-men Mountain (?-949) remarks that:

to pursue Truth through intellectual explanations and traditional wisdom ... is not approved by Buddha, because there is a barrier as etherial as a gossamer garment, which prevents one's true nature from being revealed. Hence we Know that in all intentional thinking there is a separation from Ch'an as great as between heaven and earth.[11]



Difficulties Mith the Above Views

When we come to ourselves after this dazzling display of dialectic we realize that, just as Sextus's procedure for attaining quietude is based on the dubious foundation of argument and equipollence, Chi-tsang arrives at the highest place by relying on the meaningless principle that dualities and extremes are to  be  avoided--meaningless  because it involves the distinction between dualities and nondualities, and between extremes on the one hand, and the Middle Way on the other. Perhaps this is why Ch'an Master Hui-hai (c. 750), when asked about the significance of the term 'middle way', answered: "It signifies the extremes."[l2]

The Ordinary Level

The ordinary truth at the first level is one that concerns everyone. One coping with the world here, and dealing with worldly or ordinary truth, is operating, I shall say, at the ordinary level. Sextus talks about following a line of reasoning conformable to the customs, laws, and institutions of his society; and even Naagaarjuna, the father of the Maadhyamika philosophy, says:

For we do not speak without accepting, for practical purposes, the work-a-day world.[13]

At the ordinary level we use words like 'true,''real,' 'know,' 'skeptic,' 'skeptical, and 'cause'; we talk about tables and rocks, diseases and cures, but we need raise no questions that could be called philosophical. Thus when Chi-tsang says;

When it is said that dharmas possess being, it is ordinary people who say so. This is the wordly truth of ordinary people.[14]




he is opening the way for a mistake. When we are firmly rooted in the ordinary level we will have no occasion to affirm this or to deny it. But ordinary people with little or no exposure to philosophy are easily led into metaphysics. And so when, by whatever device, the ordinary man is led to say "Dharmas possess being" (or that we perceive "material objects''), he is no longer speaking purely as an ordinary man, but as an ordinary man enticed into philosophical speculation--that is, as a philosopher. But let us put the question of who does metaphysics to one side. What Chi-tsang wants to convey is that by a dialectical progression we can arrive at the awareness of a place beyond philosophical and doctrinal conflicts and positions:

Only when both Buddhist and heterodoxical schools are taken out of sight and both the Mahayana and Hinayana are silenced can there be anything called correct principle. As this correct principle is understood, correct view will arise. And when correct view arises, then nonsensical discussion will cease.[15]

Where to Meet a Philosopher

Both Sextus and Chi-tsang start their therapy only after the first philosophical step has been taken by the ordinary man turned philosopher. They attempt to mo ve him beyond his dogmatism by employing methods of a kind that generated that dogmatism--Sextus countering arguments with arguments and Chi-tsang opposing counter-dogmas to dogmas (countering being with nonbeing). It is here that we can begin to see a difference between Sextus and the Maadhyamika philosopher on the one hand, and Wittgenstein, Austin, and, as we shall see, the Zen Buddhist on the other. For the latter three, in spite of their differences, all refuse to engage the philosopher at his own level, and try in various ways to bring him back to the ordinary level, at which they steadfastly remain.


We have already had occasion to note Wittgenstein's attitude toward philosophical problems and discussions:

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.[16]

In this passage from the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was contrasting; his then current attitude with ideas he had expressed many years previously in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But even in that earlier work he was highly critical of standard philosophical doctrines and discussions. There he had said that the correct method in philosophy would be to show anyone who wanted to say something metaphysical "that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions,"[17] and that "most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from a "failure to understand the logic of our language." They belong, he says, "to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful."[l8] He then




thought that complete clarity could be attained by finding the hidden logical form of the ordinary sentences we use--when that form is revealed, nonsense is exposed at a glance. Clarity was to be achieved by analysis of ordinary sentences into ideal ones whose very structure showed exactly how they were related to reality. Anything not subject to such analysis was nonsense. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein held a similar idea of the cause of our confusion:

A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.[19]

But the clear view is to be attained not by analysis, but by closer attention to the neglected details of our language as it is actually used. Because we are not in touch with our actual use of language we feel no difficulty when it is extended beyond what its common sense will bear. The remedy, he came to think, was to get in touch with the everyday use (at the ordinary level) and stay there. Then philosophical questions disappear because their formulation is seen to make no sense.

When philosophers use a word--"knowledge", "being", "object", "I" "proposition", "name"-and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?--

          What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.[20]

This is done not by providing a theory, or a body of truths, but by "assembling reminders for a particular purpose."[21] These reminders are designed to help us attain a clear view of the use of our words. So, for example, when we are inclined to suppose that all games must have something in common, Wittgenstein simply reminds us of the great variety of things we call games and then invites us to find something common. He says, "Don't think, but look."[22] In his Blue Book we find a good example of his technique in a discussion of the question of whether or not thinking is "operating with signs."

If we say that thinking is essentially operating with signs, the first question you might ask is. "What are signs?"--lnstead of giving any kind of general answer to this question, I shall propose to you to look closely at particular cases which we should call "operating with signs".[23]

Sections of the Investigations often take the form of a dialogue, with one voice expressing an inclination to do philosophy and the other pulling it back into the ordinary level:

            "I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am."-Yes: one can make the decision to say "I believe he is in pain" instead of "He is in pain". But that is all.-What looks like an explanation here, or like a statement about a mental process, is in truth an exchange of one expression for another which, while we are doing philosophy, seems the more appropriate one.

         Just try--in a real case--to doubt someone else's fear or pain.[24]





J. L. Austin's method is similar. He discusses with great perception and precision ordinary uses and philosophical misuses of such words as 'real', 'true', 'meaning', 'knowl,' 'illusion', 'delusion', and a host of others; and in each case he shows how problems crop up when we deviate from the ordinary use without a full awareness of what we are deviating from and Why.[25] In Sense and Sensibilia he takes on the philosophers' view that we never really perceive "material objects" but only "sense data." Analogous to Chi-tsang's suggestion that both orthodox and heterodox views be taken out of sight, and Wittgen-stein's desire that philosophical problems completely disappear, we find Austin maintaining that it is not one or the other of these terms that is objectionable, but both sides of the dichotomy:

One of the most important points to grasp is that these two terms, 'sense-data' and 'material things', live by taking in each other's washing--what is spurious is not one term of the pair, but the antithesis itself.

And he adds, in a footnote to this:

The case of 'universal' and 'particular', or 'individual', is similar in some respects though of course not in all. In philosophy it is often good policy, where one member of a putative pair falls under suspicion, to view the more innocent-seeming party suspiciously as well.[26]


          Though Austin is one with many Buddhist thinkers who disapprove of standard philosophical dichotomies, his method of dealing with those dichotomies sets him apart. Chi-tsang, for example, engages in a dialectical process that leads him beyond the dichotomies, Others rely on "direct insight." Austin's method was more mundane. He thought that it was necessary to dissolve the dichotomies, and the worries they engendered, by "unpicking, one by one, a mass of seductive (mainly verbal) fallacies." What makes this appropriate for our investigation is his further remark that this "leaves us, in a sense, just where we began."[27] That is to say, it leaves us at the ordinary level, minus our philosophical problems.


The Secret of Ordinary Langtrage Philosophy

The remarks, questions, jokes, assertions, and, in general, the therapeutic writings of Austin and Wittgenstein flow not from a theory, a position that could be stated dogmatically, but rather from a particular way of looking at the world, an alert and self-conscious awareness of theirown linguistic behavior, and a very clear insight into the reality of language as a form of life and as inseparable from our day-to-day activity as touching or hearing. If we attain that vision, we no longer have an inclination to make (or even to take seriously) dogmatic or skeptical philosophical remarks such as.


Tables are (are not) real.
Dharmas are (are not) real.




We never know the real shape of a cat.
We can never know if another is in pain.
We do not know if the honey is sweet "in its essence."
"All things are not things in the real sense."[28]


Philosophical Quietude

When Sextus tried to bring on the attitude of nonassertion he was also attempting to bring on quietude. He says that he initially attained quietude "in respect of matters of opinion," which is to say that (at the least) he no longer worried about what things were really like. But sometimes he seems to be speaking about more than just cessation of bother from philosophical questions. Indeed, he defines 'quietude' as "an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul" (1, 10). This requires a bit more than the cessation of questions about the nature of reality. So while there is a sense in which Wittgenstein and Austin also offer us quietude, we may wonder whether their quietude, the cessation of philosophical questions, is enough. I think it is not, for even if we are returned to (or firmly planted in) the ordinary level, it remains true that ordinary language (which Wittgenstein said is "all right"[29], even when used in an apparently non-philosophical way, contains much that is not conducive to an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul. There are all the ordinary concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, praise and blame, insult, hate, fear, and the rest. Even if we employ these in the ordinary way--especially if we employ them in the ordinary way--we are in trouble. Wittgenstein and Austin can be seen as attempting to destroy philosophical (uses of) language, or philosophical concepts, and though Austin, in Now to do Things with Words, expresses an inclination to "play Old Harry" with "the value/fact fetish"[30] and Wittgenstein said that there can be no propositions of ethics, the typical effect of their writings is a quietude of a distinctly philosophical sort.[31] They say little of the quality of life that might result from any such quietude.


Zen Buddhists are, of course, impatient with philosophical concepts. One master (Mu-chou Tao-tsung), sharing tea with a lecturer monk, informed him that he could not save him, 

    The monk: "I do not understand. Please explain, Master." The Master picked up a cream cake and showed it to him,
asking, "What is this?"
The monk said, "A material object."
The Master said, "You are the kind of fellow who boils in hot water.[32]

But it is not only philosophical concepts that the Zen Buddhist wants to eliminate, and not only concepts of good and evil and the like; he wants to do away with all concepts. One of the most emphatic of the masters who expressed this idea was Huang-po (d. 850). He said:




Do not deceive yourselves with conceptual thinking, and do not look anywhere for the truth, for all that is needed is to refrain from allowing concepts to arise.[33]

Hui-hai talks about "right thinking," which he says is not thinking in terms of good and evil, sorrow and joy, beginning and end, acceptance and rejection, likes and dislikes, aversion and love.[34] More positively, he says:


You should know that setting forth the principle of deliverance in its entirety amounts only to this--when things happen, make no response: keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever: keep them forever still as the void and utterly pure (without stain): and thereby spontaneously attain deliverance.[35]


Understanding without Thought

A mind empty of concepts, a still and undwelling mind, may sound to some like a rather frightening idea. The typical fear expressed is that without concepts one would be unable to function.[36] But if this fear cannot be dispelled by information about Zen in painting, the martial arts, and the tea ceremony, it surely cannot be dispelled by argument.[37] In his recent article "Wittgenstein and Zen,"[38] John Canfield explains that:

The advanced Zen practitioner, or Zen Master, does what he as a beginner was admonished to do, he lives free of thought. At the same time, he, like anyone else, will understand information presented to him, will understand and respond correctly to questions and requests, and so on.[39]

Canfield relates the Zen idea of "just doing something (with a mind free of ideas or concepts)" to Wittgenstein's notion of a practice. He shows that:


If language works in the way portrayed by Wittgenstein, there is no incompatability between living free of thoughts in the manner of the Zen Master, and participating fully, and with full understanding, in the day to day use of language.[40]

Canfield discusses and explains Wittgenstein's idea that thoughts (inner episodes) are neither necessary nor always available to explain language and intelligent behavior, and the Zen idea that they actually get in the way of those activities. But Wittgenstein does not go so far as Zen, nor, if I may put it that way, does he aim so high--he does not point to a silence beyond the elimination of philosophical concepts, a silence that cannot be disturbed even by words. One who has attained this level can, at least according to Hui-hai, engage in philosophical discussion without being stained;

One who has perceived his own nature will be right whether he says that those things are Praj~naa and the Dharmakaaya or that they are not, for he will carry out its function according to prevailing circumstances, without being hindered by the dual conception of right and wrong. As for someone who has not yet perceived his own nature, when he speaks of green bamboos, he forms a rigid concept of green bamboos as such; and, when he speaks of yellow flowers, he forms the same sort of rigid concept. Moreover, when he speaks of the Dharmakaaya, it becomes an obstruction to him, and he talks of Praj~naa without




knowing what it is. Thus, everything he says remains at the level of theoretical ebate.[41]

And again:

Someone who has clearly perceived his own nature, which may be likened to a Mani-pearl reflecting all appearances, will be right if he says that the Absolute does undergo changes and equally right in saying that it does not. On the other hand, anyone who has not seen his own nature will, upon hearing of the changing Absolute, cling to the concept of mutability; or, upon hearing that the Absolute is unchanging, he will grasp at the concept of immutability."[42]


The ordinary language-philosopher aims at the lowest goal--freedom from philosophical worry. If one follows Wittgenstein and Austin he can stay out of philosophical difficulty. But for a more encompassing sort of tranquility one must look elsewhere. Sextus, in aiming at quietude (an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul), aims higher; but by offering a suspicious method of attaining this--the method of countering arguments with arguments--he gives us possibly less than either Austin or Wittgenstein. The Maadhyamika metaphysician's method is intellectual in a different way, but like Sextus' it involves a measure of philosophical contention and argument. The goal is closer to that proposed by Sextus, but the method is necessarily restricted to those few capable of coping with extremely refined speculations. In contrast to all of these, the Zen approach is strikingly direct. When the Zen Master is confronted with philosophical speculation or with harmful conceptualization he appeals to no set trope or syllogism, but reacts spontaneously. D. T. Suzuki, in "An Interpretation of Zen Experience,"[43] offers an extended discussion of Daian's remark that the "conception of being and nonbeing is like the wisteria winding round the tree." He tells of Sozan who sought Daian out to ask:

When the tree is suddenly broken down and wisteria [that is, the conception of being and the conception of non being] withers, what happens?

Suzuki reports that when Sozan asked this question

The master threw up his mud-carrying board [he was building a wall] and laughing loudly walked away toward his living quarters.[44]

The direct response here, so typical of Zen, is entirely nonconceptual--some-times it works and sometimes it does not. It is not the content of the message that is important, it is the actual total effect on the listener. And, as a token of the move away from conceptualization, the "utterances" of the Masters came to include shouts and cries, slaps and silence, and we even hear stories of enlightenment arising spontaneously (as it must) at the sound of water or of a pebble falling. The Zen Master's utterances are no different from the sound of the water--both, with no conscious intentions and no thoughts, are capable of eliciting enlightenment from within.




One day the master spoke to the assembly thus: "Imagine a man hanging over a precipice a thousand feet high. There he is holding on to a branch of a tree with his teeth. Neither his hands nor his feet can give him any support. Now let us imagine someone coming to him and asking, 'What is the meaning of the First Patriarch coming from the West?' If this man should try to answer he is sure to fall and kill himself, but if he makes no answer it will be said that he has ignored his questioner. What ought he to do?

The monk Chao stepped forward from the assembly and said, "Let us not discuss the man who is hanging from a tree, but the moment just before he got hung up there." The Master smiled but made no answer.[45]


1.I use the Loeb Classical edition of the writings of Sextus, and the only text I cite is "Outlines of Pyrrhonism." References to this will follow the passage and the Roman numeral will indicate which of the three books of "Outlines of Pyrrhonism" the passage comes from. The translator,R. G. Bury says in his Introduction that "'Sceptic' in the original sense of the Creek term, is simply an 'inquirer' or investigator" (I, 34).

2.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co.1968), 1:133.

3.Philosophers seem doomed to repeat these arguments eternally without really thinking about what they are trying to show. Concerning the stick in water, J. L. Austin, the British philosopher, asked: "Does anyone suppose that if something is straight, then it jolly well has to look straight at all times and in all circumstances? Obviously no one seriously supposes this. So what mess are we supposed to get into here, what is the difficulty?" Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1962), p.29. Confer herein. part III.

4.I refer to the works of Seng-chao and Chi-tsang included in Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963).

5.Wing-tsit Chan, in the appendix to the Source Book comments on the word 'fa' as a philosophical term and as the Chinese rendering of' 'dharma'. 'Dharma', he says, means "that which is held to" and though it is a difficuit expression to translate, covers: all things, with or without form, real or imaginary, the material or principle of an entity, something that holds onto its nature as a particular thing (p. 786).

6.In Chan, Source Book, p.367. We find Wittgenstein's ladder metaphor in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. trans. D. F. Peras and B. F. McGuinness, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul): 6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way. anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them--as steps--to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) See also what Zen masters say in this regard. In John Blofeld's translation of the works of Hui-hai we read: The Dharma is beyond words, speech and writings. how can it be sought amid a plethora of sentences? This is why those seeking enlightenment forget all about wording after having arrived at the (real) meaning. Awakened to reality, they throw away the doctrine just as a fisherman, having caught his fish, pays no more attention to his nets; or as a hunter, after catching his rabbit, forgets about his snare. John Blofeld, trans., The Zen Teachings of Hui-Hai (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972). Huang-po uses the same metaphor. See John Blofeld, trans., The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 55.

7.Chan, Source Book, p. 348.

8.Chan, Source Book, p. 360. Chi-tsang identifies the view of the "School of Original Non-




Being"of Tao-an (312-385) as maintaining that "all dharmas are in their original nature empty and void,"and he says "this doctrine is no different from those taught in the Mahaayaana scriptures and treatises as well as by schools of Kumaarajiiva and Seng-chao" (p. 338). But, in fact, Seng-chao was not caught at this level, and in "The Emptiness of the Unreal," he criticizes the School of Original Non-Being by saying that it is "very fond of non-being" and "is nothing but a talk partial to non-being" (Source Book, p. 352).

9.My treatment of the dialectic here is defective and incomplete in a number of ways.Though it is clear that the worldly truth at the second stage can be represented:`u@B and u@E' it is not@clear how to represent the higher truth at that stage. There were two possibilities:

  (1) u ~B and u~  E.


  (2)   ~uB and  ~uE.

I decided to choose (2), since by adopting(l) we get a peculiar result when we arrive at the higher truth of the third stage, which, assuming that (1) is selected, comes out as.

  (3) u ~ B andu ~ E, and u ~  ~  B andu  ~  ~  E.

This is a fourfold assertion rather than an escape from assertion and nonassertion.   Another problem (which I do not take very seriously in this context, but which might bother some) is that I have disregarded the standard (and logically correct) interpretation of 'neither p nor q' when p and q are complex (conjunctions). Standardly 'Neither (A and B) nor (C and D) is represented:

  (4)  ~ [(A E B) v (C ED)].

which computes out as.

  (5)  ~(A E B)E~ (C E D)

And that is equivalent to.

 (6) (~A v  ~B) E(~C v ~D).

But I am interpreting 'Neither (A and B) nor (C and D)' as

 (7)   ~AE ~BE ~CE ~D.


The problem of making clear (and even of understanding) what is going on here is a difficult one.@In his comment on Chi-tsang in Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism (New York: Vintage, 1971),@Chang Chung-yuan says that the higher truth at the third stage is:

both notbeing and not nonbeing, and neither notbeing nor not nonbeing. (p. 11).

How this results can be seen in the chart he gives us on p. 35:

common truth   

 higher truth

(1) being   (1) nonbeing
(2) both being and nonbeing (2) neither being nor nonbeing
(3) both being and nonbeing and neither being nor nonbeing (3) both not being and not nonbeing and neither  not being nor not nonbeing.

That is:

(1) B (1) ~B
(2) BE ~ (2) ~BE ~ ~@B
(3) (B E ~ B) E (~ B E ~ ~ B) (3) (~ B E ~  ~ B) E (~ ~ B E~ ~ ~ B)

I could not make any sense out of the three stages until I introduced the idea of "assertion" and@adopted alternative (2) rather than alternative(l). The above treatment seems to employ something@closer to (1) than to (2), but it agrees with my treatment in ignoring the standard interpretation of@'Neither (A and B) nor (C and D)'.

10. In Chang Chung-yuan, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, p. 11, pp. 32-33.

11. Chang, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, pp. 284-85.

12. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui-Hai, p. 72.




13. This is from his "Averting the Arguments." in Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness. A Study in@Rrligious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), p. 224. See also Ives Waldo, "Naagaarjuna@and analytic philosophy," Philosophy East and West 25 (July 1975): 281-90. Waldo cites Bhaavaviveka on the topic of worldly truth:


We also accept the conventional reality which (everybody) in the world unanimously accepts as@real. For in worldly experience, origination through causes and conditions is accepted as real.@Therefore reality of the conditioned elements, i.e., of the eye organ, etc. is brought under the@category of samv.rti-sat [the truth of ordinary discourse]. Everyone including shepherds and cowherds know this. Since we make our experience from the standpoint of ultimate reality we never@contradict the actual experience of the world. (p. 285)   

I think this is what Seng-chao is talking about when he discusses the statement: "The dharmas have neither existence nor nonexistence."

As we go into the matter, when we say that there is neither existence nor nonexistence, does it@mean to wipe out all the myriad things, blot out our seeing and hearing, and be in a state without@sound, form, or substance before we can call it absolute truth? Truly [absolute truth is] in accord@with things as they are and therefore opposed by none. The false is regarded as false, and the@true is regarded as true, and therefore their nature cannot alter the absolute truth. In Chan, op.@cit., p. 353.

For one final example of truth at the ordinary level see the story cited by D. T. Suzuki in his article@"Mondo" in Studies in Zen (New York: Delta, 1955).

A company of monks came, and Daizui asked: "What would those who have mastered Zen call East?" The monks' leader answered: "It is not to be called East." Daizui shouted: "O you dirty-smelling ass! If you do not call it East, what do you call it?" There was no answer.

Suzuki says both are right, but he also asks "What else could East be called?" (pp. 169-70)       

14. In Chan, Source Book, p. 360.

15. Chan, Source Book, p. 365.

16. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, 133.

17. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.53.

18. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.003.

19. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I,122.

20. Wittgenstein, I, 116.

21. Wittgenstein, I, 127.

22. Wittgenstein, I, 66.

23. Wittgenstein, The Blue Book (New York: Harper, 1958), p. 14.

24. Wittgenstein, Philosophicall Investigations, I, 303.

25. a. 'Real' is discussed in Sense and Sensibilia, chapter 8, pp. 62-77. b.'True'is discussed in"Truth,"in J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1970), pp.117-133.In this article his "definition" of 'true' simply tells us the conditions@under which a statement is said to be true.

c.'Meaning' is discussed in "The Meaning of a Word," Austin, Philosophical Papers, pp. 55-75.

d. 'Know' is discussed in "Other Minds," Austin, Philosophical Pnpers, pp. 76-116.

e.  'Illusion' and 'delusion' are treated in Sense and Sensibilia, pp. 22 ff.

26. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, p. 4.

27. Austin, Sense ann Smsibilia, pp. 4-5.

28. This last remark comes from Seng-chao and is found in Chan, Source Book, p. 353.

29. Wittgenstein's remark that "ordinary language is all right", which occurs in the Blue Book(p. 28) has often been misinterpreted. Wittgenstein is not the linguistic conservative he is often@criticized as being. He makes this remark after having just pointed out that many words don't@have a strict meaning, but that this is not a defect. He then raises the question of an "ideal@language" and says that this wrong for it "makes it appear as though we thought we could improve@on ordinary language. But ordinary language is all right." Both Wittgenstein and Austin were@willing to acknowledge that we can't take ordinary language always at face value (see Philosophical




Investigations,I,132-133, and Austin's "A Plea for Excuses," in Philosophical Papers, pp. 181-185),but they usually stressed the way in which it is all right. In this case what is said to be all right,and not to need fixing up, is the lack of precise meaning found in the case of many words. If the goal of language is to describe the world (as it is sometimes naively thought), then no@matter how much we improve or tidy up our language, we will never attain that goal. The only@perfect "description" of the world would be a mirror image or a perfect replica (on any scale)--but then how do we distinguish between the world and its description?

30. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 150.

31.When Wittgenstein said that there cannot be propositions of ethics this was within the context of the Tractatus, where he hoped to "signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said" (4.115). This is a pretty complicated matter, but I will just say that although Wittgenstein lived his philosophy as much as any other philosopher I can think of, he seemed not@to have realized in his daily life the quietude his view, extended slightly in the direction of Zen,was capable of providing. He is typically, and not uncorrectly, pictured as a troubled and tormented@soul, and his letters bear out this picture, as they reveal his attachment to the concepts of good@and evil.

32. Chang, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, pp. 111-112.

33. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 33. Here are two more illustrations of Huang-po's rather extreme attitude: If you can only rid yourself of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything (p. 33). Only one entirely liberated from concepts can possess a body of infinite extent (p. 74). @

34. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of`Hui Hai, pp. 49-50.

35. Ibid., p. 78.

36. Richard Taylor illustrates this fear nicely when he discusses and criticizes what he takes to@be the Stoic idea of "apathy." He imagines beings who either do not move at all, or who wander@around bumping into trees and things because they have no desire not to. See his book Good and@Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 68, 124.

37. Hui-hai says that when we cease wrong (that is, conceptual) thinking, we will attain the state@of "nothing to perceive." His explanation of this notion is revealing:

Being able to behold men, women, and all the various sorts of appearances while remaining free@from love or aversion as if they were actually not seen at all--that is what is meant by 'nothing@to perceive'.

It means beholding all sorts of forms, but without being stained by them as no thoughts of love or aversion arise in the mind. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of`Hui Hai, p. 51.

He continues with some remarks about "the eye of an ordinary person" that need, but do not here get, further consideration.

38. John V. Canfield, "Wittgenstein and Zen," Philosophy, October, 1975, pp. 383-408. Thanks to Manny Pace for pointing this article out to me.

39. Canfield, "Wittgenstein and Zen," p. 385.

40. Canfield, "Wittgenstein and Zen," p. 403. Often philosophers define 'concept' in terms of the ability to use a word correctly; and when this, rather than something more mentalistic or Platonistic is what is meant by 'concept', then even Zen Masters have concepts. See Canfield, "Wittgenstein and Zen," p. 401.

41. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, pp. 104-105.

42. Blofeld, Tire Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, p. 96.

43. D. T. Suzuki, "An Interpretation of Zen Experience," in Studies in Zen, pp. 61-84.

44.Suzuki, "An Interpretation of Zen Experience," p. 62.

45.The master is Hsiang-yen Chih-hsien, and this comes from Chang, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, p. 223.

46. In his comment on this paper Dr. Mitchell made three points which raise questions of great Interest.

 a. He pointed to a possible metaphysical foundation for the Zen silence. Unlike the ordinary




language-philosopher who simply refrains from making metaphysical judgments, the Zen Buddhist responds to the "affirmative realization that sa^msaara is nirvaa^na."  

b.He contrasted a skeptic who might simply refrain from making moral judgments, thereby achieving a measure of tranquility, with the Buddhist who "overcomes 'dissatisfactoriness' by replacing ignorant craving with compassionate wisdom as a basis of moral judgments."

c.He stressed the Buddhist idea of faith (which overcomes doubt)--faith, namely, that "troubles(Klesas) are the actual 'seeds of Buddhahood'." And he emphasized the methodological value of the struggle with doubt as an avenue to enlightenment.

There is, of course, truth in the claim that the identification of sa^msaara and is a vital part of Zen Buddhism, but there is a Further, and more difficult truth in the idea that ultimately even these two concepts (sa^msaatra and must be eliminated--and what becomes of the identity then? Second, and similarly, there is no doubt that Buddhists and even Zen Buddhists say things that sound very much like moral judgments. But there is also no doubt that they say things that suggest that these are not taken quite seriously. Hui-hai, whose writings are not free from talk about good and evil, right and wrong, says

For I have learned to reach that mind of mine
Which basically transcends both right and wrong.

Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of' Hui Hai,   

  p. 80.

This is a conflict that has caused me a lot of concern, and at present I do not know what to make of it, except to suggest that perhaps when a Zen Buddhist uses a word like 'good' or 'bad' he is either (a) lapsing from his Zen Buddhism, or (b) speaking in words he knows his audience will understand. The third point, concerning doubt and faith, also needed to be made. But it seems to me that perhaps the doubt, and the faith that overcomes it, are for the Master, analogous to Sextus' tropes. Mitchell refers to the words of a contemporary Roshi, who maintained that Zen faith does assert "that human nature, all existence, is intrinsically whole, flawless, omnipotent--in a word, perfect." This can easily cause great doubt and wonder in the minds of those of us to whom things still appear to be quite otherwise; but, are these actually claims that the Master is making about something called "human nature," or even more generally, about something called "existence." Or are his remarks a refined 'He!' for those whose needs are met more by a puzzling and apparently false indicative assertion than by a slap or a shout?