Pointing the Way to Reasoning

So I have recently been reading the transcription of Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tarchin Rinpoche’s logic course in Pointing the Way to Reasoning (Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, 2005), and I thought I might write some blog posts on it. Two questions immediately present themselves: “Why logic?” and “Why this book?” I will address the second question here, and return again to the first throughout the posts I will publish on the book.

There are several Tibetan logic books I could have chosen, and they all have plusses and minuses (including mine). However, I think Rinpoche’s book (Rinpoche literally means “precious one,” but in Tibetan is term used to address a Lama who has deliberately reincarnated in order to teach) is one of the most important, because it provides a template for reading any/all logic books. There are five main subjects that are taught to Tibetan monks in the monasteries, and logic (rik-pa, rigs pa), according to Rinpoche, is the most difficult (13). I taught a second-year writing course last term and one of the books I used was Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2014). The reason this book is useful is that the authors make an argument for and provide templates that can be used to quickly get beginning students understanding and making complex arguments in their writing. Rinpoche’s book is similar in that—right at the beginning with Dialogue One—he gives a template for understanding how to read “collected topics” (du-ra, bsdus grva) textbooks, the introductory logic books that monks study in the monastery. Although there are several, they are all written in this same format, so once you understand how logical arguments are structured in these collections of texts you can read any of them. In order to resist the privileging of the teacher over the student (vis-à-vie Jacques Rancière and his arguments in The Emancipated Spectator) and empower the student’s own learning, I will deliver a heuristic that will enable anyone to read logic texts (at least in translation) for themselves.

This is my way of interpreting the title of Rinpoche’s source text, which is explained in the first pages of his book. I spent two summers studying at Sera Mey monastery in South India in the early 2000s, and they were no longer studying Purbuchok Rinpoche’s text when I was there, but for many years this was the introductory textbook for monks on “collected topics” (meaning an introduction to several beginning Buddhist concepts via logical analysis as a pedagogical tool). Purbuchok Jampa Rinpoche, as the text explains, was a logic tutor to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (the one previous to the Nobel-prize-winning present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso) and wrote a text referred to as the Yongdzin dura. Or, simply, a tutor’s text on introductory subjects, the full title of which is given as the “Magic Key to the Path of Reasoning: A Presentation of the Compendium of Debates, [Types of] Mind, and [Analysis of] Reasons that Discloses the Meaning of the Great Scriptures on Valid Cognition.”

Okay, so that’s a mouthful, but we can break it into more easily understood components. It is often helpful to approach Tibetan translation backwards, because the verb grammatically appears at the end of a Tibetan sentence. Here, it’s not a verb, but the most important word in this title is “valid cognition” (tse-ma, tsad ma) which actually appears first in the Tibetan (although it is translated at the end of the English). Tse-ma is the root of Tibetan epistemology: it means valid cognition or perception and is the basis for what we know exists, because in Tibetan philosophy the definition of an existing thing (chu, chos) is “that which is established by a valid perception” (tse-may drup-pa, tsad ma’i sgrub pa). So if something is real, if it exists, someone must have had a valid perception of it, and conversely, if something cannot be established by a valid perception, it does not exist.

So the stakes are high for this subject: as Rinpoche alludes to in his introduction, if you do not have a valid perception of yourself as possessing some part of you that is unchanging (tak-pa, rtag pa), then you have to face the reality that you are going to get old, get sick, and die, because that is a quality of impermanent, changing things. This is at the heart of what it means to be Buddhist, because birth, old age, sickness, and death are the four sufferings that led the Buddha to leave his life as a prince and seek another path. He had this realization: we are born to die, and the clock is already ticking.

You might say you know that already and don’t need logic to tell you that. But as Rinpoche elaborates (10-12), we don’t know it; that is, we haven’t really thought about this fact and what it means. If we did we would have the realization that life is short, and there is no time to waste. What Rinpoche is outlining in these pages is called death meditation, which relies on three main points:

  • death is certain (we are getting older instant by instead, slowly creeping towards our death)
  • death is uncertain (we don’t know when we will die, it could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could be one-hundred thirty years from now: we just don’t know)
  • Nothing but the Dharma can help

So the point of proving these truths to yourself if not to feel depressed, or morbid, or experience directly what Freud calls the death drive—the point is that if we understand that our time is limited, and we do not know when it will end, we will be more focused on what we really want to do with our time. The Buddhist answer then to this question is to focus on what can really help us, which is the Dharma: the teachings of Buddhism.

So how do we establish that the teachings of Buddhism are true or that they can help us? To do this we need logic, because logic is how we establish the reality of things that we cannot see with our eyes. If the definition of existing is “established by valid perception,” then how can we prove the existence of phenomena or concepts that we cannot see directly with our eyes? According to Buddhist logic, there are two kinds of valid perception: direct and indirect. Direct we can see with our eyes; we say in English, “seeing is believing.” Indirect valid perception however is synonymous with deduction, or logic. If something we cannot see exists, it must be provable through deductive logic. Can we see that we will die? No, that moment exists in a future beyond my present sight. So how do we know that we will die? The truth is, we all think that we will not. We think that doctors will cure us, or that there is medicine that we can buy that will save us. And there might be—for a while. But when will all the doctors and medicine not be enough? It is hard for us to acknowledge this fact. So we have to use logic to help us.

Once we have proven to ourselves that we will die, again, instead of making us feel depressed, what it should do is motivate us to study the Dharma, because the teachings of Buddhism claim to have a solution to the problem of death. This is revealed in what is often translated as the “Four Noble Truths,” a somewhat misleading translation, since “noble” here in English implies aristocratic, but there is no privileging of social birth in Buddhism: being born rich or with high social status does not give access to an easier path. How does having access to money or power help you understand logic? Rinpoche begins his book with a famous quote from an important Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Sakya Pandita [his name means scholar (pandit) of the Sakyas, a famous family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers]: “Those who wish to take it easy and stay comfortably without working / Cannot become scholars at all” (9). Being wealthy or belonging to a privileged class won’t help you: studying logic is hard work.

But there are, as the title of Rinpoche’s source text points towards, “magic keys” (trul-ki de-mik, ‘phrul gi lde mig). What is a “magic key”? Magic key here refers to several things, most importantly how logic is a tool to understanding and unlocking the most important concepts within Buddhist teaching. Again, it explains how to prove to yourself what exists: are the teachings of Buddhism true? If they are not—as you know from your death meditation—you do not have time to waste. There’s no point in studying the teachings of Buddhism if they are not true. So we have to discern for ourselves whether they are true or not, and—because we cannot see the truth of them with our eyes—we must use deductive logic to establish their validity, that these truths exist. And the fastest way to get proficient in the practice of logic is to use the “magic key” given in Rinpoche’s book: the template to understanding the structure of any logic text, which I will explain in my next post.

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