A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

25. Chapter Twenty-Five


1.         The Laws of Thought in Meditation


The three laws of thought are commonly considered by many current commentators[1] to be (at best) only relevant to rational discourse, and not relevant at all or even antithetical to meditation and all the more so to its finale of enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth, as will now be explicated.

The laws of thought are principally ‘moral’ imperatives to the thinker, enjoining him or her to have certain cognitive attitudes in all processes of thought. They call upon the thinker to make an effort, so as to guarantee maximum efficiency and accuracy of his or her thoughts. The ‘metaphysical’ aspect of the laws of thought is a substratum and outcome of this practical aspect.[2]


  1. The law of identity is a general stance of ‘realism’.

In discursive thought, this means: to face facts; to observe and think about them; to admit the factuality of appearances as such and that of logical arguments relating to them; to accept the way things are (or at least the way they seem to be for now), that things are as they are, i.e. whatever they happen to be; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires awareness, receptivity and lucidity. The antitheses of these attitudes are evasiveness, prejudice and obscurantism, resulting in “sloth and torpor”[3].

At the apogee of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) consciousness of the “thus-ness” (or “such-ness”) of “ultimate reality”.

  1. The law of non-contradiction is a general stance of ‘coherence’ (which is an aspect of ‘realism’).

In discursive thought, this means: while giving initial credence to all appearances taken singly, not to accept two conflicting appearances as both true (or real), but to place one or both of them in the category of falsehood (or illusion); to seek to resolve or transcend all apparent contradictions; to pursue consistency in one’s concepts and theories; to reject inconsistent ideas as absurd and self-contradictions as untenable nonsense; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires harmony, balance and peace of mind. The antitheses of these attitudes are conflict, confusion and neurosis (or madness), resulting in “restlessness and anxiety”[4].

At the peak of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) the “one-ness” (monism or monotheism) of “ultimate reality”.

  1. The law of the excluded middle is a general stance of ‘curiosity’ (which is also an aspect of ‘realism’).

In discursive thought, this means: engaging in research and study, so as to fill gaps in one’s knowledge and extend its frontier; engaging in speculation and theorizing, but always under the supervision and guidance of rationality; avoiding fanciful escapes from reality, distorting facts and lying to oneself and/or others; accepting the need to eventually make definite choices and firm decisions; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires clarity, judgment and understanding. The antitheses of these attitudes are ignorance, uncertainty and delusion, resulting in “doubt and indecision”[5].

At the pinnacle of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) the “omniscience” of “ultimate reality”.

Thus, I submit, rather than abandon the laws of thought when we step up from ordinary thinking to meditation, and from that to enlightenment, we should stick to them, while allowing that they are expressed somewhat differently at each spiritual stage. Whereas in discursive thought awareness is expressed by intellectual activity, in meditation the approach is gentler and subtler, and in enlightenment we attain pure contemplation.

When such final realization is reached[6], the laws of thought are not breached, but made most evident. “Thus-ness” is the essence of existence; it is the deepest stratum of identity, not an absence of all identity. “One-ness” is not coexistence or merging of opposites, but where all oppositions are dissolved or transcended. “Omniscience” is not in denial of ordinary experience and knowledge, but their fullest expression and understanding. What in lower planes of being and knowing seems obscure, divergent and uncertain, becomes perfect at the highest level.[7]

Those teachers or commentators who claim that the laws of thought are abrogated once we transcend ordinary discourse are simply misinterpreting their experiences. Either their experience is not true “realization”, or their particular interpretation of their realization experience is just an erroneous afterthought that should not be viewed as part of the experience itself.

Instead of the laws of identity, non-contradiction and exclusion of any middle, they propose a law of non-identity, a law of contradiction, and a law of the included middles! According to them, the ultimate reality is that nothing has an identity, all contradictories coexist quite harmoniously, and there may be other alternatives besides a thing and its negation!

They adduce as proofs the Buddhist principles of non-selfhood, impermanence and interdependence.

But they cannot claim that something has no “nature” whatsoever, for then what is that “something” that they are talking about? If it is truly non-existent, why and how are we at all discussing it and who are we? Surely these same people admit the existence of an “ultimate reality” of some sort – if only a single, infinite, universal substratum[8]. They call it “void” or “empty”, but surely such a negation is not logically tenable without the admission that something positive is being negated; a negation can never be a primary given.

Similarly, we might argue, “impermanence” means the impermanence of something and “interdependence” means the interdependence of two or more things. They cannot claim infinite impermanence, without admitting the extended existence in time of something however temporary; and they cannot claim a universal interdependence, without admitting causal connections between actual facts.

There is an unfortunate tendency here to use words without paying attention to their relational implications. Another example of this practice is to speak of “consciousness” (or perception or thought or some such cognitive act), without admitting that this implies consciousness of something (called an object) by something (called the Subject).

This is done deliberately, to conform with the ideological prejudice that there is no cognizing self and nothing to cognize. Similarly, so as not to have to mention the Agent willing an action, volition is concealed and the action is made to appear spontaneous or mechanical. They refuse to admit that someone is suffering, thinking, meditating or becoming enlightened.

Another claim often made is that our common experience of the world is like a dream compared to ultimate reality. The implication being that the laws of thought are not obeyed in a dream. But in truth, even in a dream, though images and sound come and go and seem to intertwine, actually there is no contradiction if we observe carefully. As for the difference between dream and awake experience, it is not strictly a contradiction since they are experienced as distinct domains of being.

Contradiction is not even thinkable, except in words (or intentions). We cannot even actually imagine a contradiction, in the sense defined by Aristotle (is and is not at once in every respect). We can only say (or vaguely believe) there is one. We of course commonly encounter apparent contradiction, but that does not prove that contradiction exists in fact. It is an illusion, a conflict between verbal interpretations or their non-verbal equivalents.

We formulate theories; they yield contradictions; we correct the theories so that they no longer yield these contradictions. We tailor our rational constructs to experience. We do not infer contradiction to exist from contradictions in our knowledge. We question and fix our knowledge, rather than impose our beliefs on reality. That is sanity, mental health. That is the way knowledge progresses, through this dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.


2.         Reason and Spirituality


In Judaism, the rabbis consciously practice non-contradiction (and the other laws of thought) in most of their discourse; but in some cases, they desert this virtue.

For example, it often happens that equally authoritative commentators have divergent interpretations of the same text; nevertheless, both their positions are upheld as traditional and true so as to avoid any suggestion that any important rabbi might ever be wrong. In such cases, the rationale given is that the different, even conflicting, perspectives together deepen and enrich the overall understanding of that text. In non-legal contexts (haggadah), there is no pressing need to decide one way or the other, anyway; while in legal contexts (halakhah), a decision is often made by majority[9].

Also, as I have shown in my Judaic Logic, some of the hermeneutic principles used in the Talmud are not in conformity with syllogistic logic; some yield a non sequitur in conclusion, and some even a contradiction. In such cases, the absurdity occurs on a formal level, within a single line of reasoning (rather than in relation to conflicting approaches); yet the conclusion is often accepted as law anyway, because the (erroneous) form of reasoning is considered traditional and Divinely given.

However, it is interesting to note in this regard that there is a Talmudic law[10] about two people who find a prayer shawl and bring it together to the rabbinical court, both claiming it as their property (on a finders-keepers basis); these people are not permitted to both swear they found it first, since these oaths would be in contradiction and that would make one of them at least a vain use of God’s name (a grave sin).

This Judaic law shows that the rabbis are ultimately forced to admit the logical law of non-contradiction as binding, i.e. as indicative of objective reality.

Similarly, in Buddhism, there are many teachers who insist on the importance of keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground even while one’s head is up in the heavens. They teach that karmic law should not be ignored or denied[11] – meaning that one should not act as if there are no laws of nature in this world and anything goes. To act irresponsibly is foolish and at times criminal. I would include under this heading adherence to the laws of thought; for without the awareness, harmony and clarity that they enjoin, healthy respect for causality would not be possible.

It is important, at this juncture in the history of philosophy, that people understand the danger of denial of all, or any, of the laws of thought. Due to the current influx of Oriental philosophies, and in particular of Buddhism, some would-be philosophers and logicians are tempted (perhaps due to superficial readings) to take up such provocative positions, to appear fashionable and cutting-edge. But while predicting that Western philosophy will be greatly enriched by this influx, I would warn against abject surrender of our rationality, which can only have destructive consequences for mankind.

Logic is one of man’s great dignities, an evolutionary achievement. But it is true: logic alone, without meditation, morality and other human values, cannot bring out the best in man. Taken alone like that, it can and sometimes does apparently lead people to narrow-minded and sterile views, and dried-up personalities. But in the last analysis, people of that sort are simply poor in spirit – their condition is not the fault of logic as such. In fact, they misunderstand logic; they have a faulty view of it – usually an overly deductive, insufficiently inductive view of it.

The current ills of our society are not due to a surfeit of logic. Rather, our society is increasingly characterized by illogic. Many media, politicians and educators twist truth at will, and people let themselves to be misled because they lack the logical capacity or training required to see through the lies and manipulations. Rationality does not mean being square-minded, rigid or closed, as its opponents pretend – it means, on the contrary, making an effort to attain or maintain spiritual health. To give up reason is to invite mental illness and social disintegration. Taken to extremes, unreason would be a sure formula for insanity and social chaos.

Aristotle’s answer to irrationality was effectively to train and improve our reason. I do not think this is “the” single, complete solution to the human condition – but it is for sure part of the compound solution. Logic is only a tool, which like any tool can be unused, underused, misused or abused. Logic can only produce opinion, but as I said before it helps produce the best possible opinion in the context of knowledge available at any given time and place. It is not magic – only hard work, requiring much study.

Rationalism is sometimes wrongly confused with ‘scientism’, the rigid state of mind and narrow belief system that is leading mankind into the spiritual impasse of materialism and amorality. On this false assumption, some people would like to do away with rationalism; they imagine it to be an obstacle to spiritual growth. On the contrary, rationality is mental health and equilibrium. It is the refusal to be fooled by sensual pursuits—or spiritual fantasies. It is remaining lucid and open at all times.

The ‘scientific’ attitude, in the best sense of the term, should here be emphasized. For a start, one should not claim as raw data more than what one has oneself experienced in fact. To have intellectually understood claims of enlightenment by the Buddha or other persons is not equivalent to having oneself experienced this alleged event; such hearsay data should always be admitted with a healthy ‘grain of salt’. Faith should not be confused with science; many beliefs may consistently with science indeed be taken on faith, but they must be admitted to be articles of faith.

Note well that this does not mean that we must forever cling to surface appearances as the only and final truth. There may well be a ‘noumenal’ level of reality beyond our ordinary experience and the rational conclusions we commonly draw from such experience. Nevertheless, we are logically duty bound to take our current experience and reasoning seriously, until and unless we personally come in contact with what allegedly lies beyond. Those of us who have not attained the noumenal may well be basically “ignorant” (as Buddhism says), but we would be foolish to deny our present experience and logic before such personal attainment.

Wisdom is an ongoing humble quest. An error many philosophers and mystics make is to crave for an immediate and incontrovertible answer to all possible questions. They cannot accept human fallibility and the necessity to make do with it, by approximating over time towards truth. I suggest that even in the final realization we are obligated to evaluate our experience and decide what it is.

The phenomenological approach and inductive logic are thus a modest, unassuming method. The important thing is to remain lucid at all times, and not to get carried away by appearances, or worse still by fantasies. Even if one has had certain impressive meditation experiences, one should not lose touch with the rest of one’s experience, but in due course carefully evaluate one’s insights in a broader context. Logic is not an obstacle to truth, but the best way we have to ensure we do not foolishly stray away from reality. Rationality is wise.

Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 3, chapters 20 & 21.


[1]           Judging by Internet postings and debate on this topic.

[2]           It could also be said that the two aspects are ‘co-emergent’, mutually significant and equally important. But here I wish to stress the psychological side of the issue.

[3]           See Kamalashila, p. 253.

[4]           See Kamalashila, p. 249.

[5]           See Kamalashila, p. 258.

[6]           I submit, on the basis of my own limited experience, but also out of logical expectation of consistency between all levels of being. I think many people more knowledgeable than me would agree with the descriptions here given of the higher realms.

[7]           Buddhist, and especially Mahayana, philosophers often stress that nirvana (the common ground of all being) and samsara (the multiplicity of changing appearances) are ultimately one and the same. Even while admitting this, we must remain aware of their apparent difference. The whole point of the philosophical idea of monism (“nirvana”) is of course to resolve the contradictions and gaps inherent in the experience of plurality (“samsara”). At the same time, the one-ness of nirvana is in a sort of conflict with the multiplicity of samsara. We must somehow both admit and ignore this tension. In truth, all this remains an unsolved problem at some level.

[8]           The “great self” or “ocean of permanence”, to use the words of Dogen (p. 267). Note that Dogen is not here saying there is no such thing, but is stressing that we do not – as some people claim – automatically all return there after death, but rather are subject to various rebirths according to our respective karmas; he is implying that to get there is hard-won realization, not something given gratis to all comers). Some identify this underlying ultimate reality with the “Deus sive Natura” of Baruch Spinoza (Holland, 1632-77). But I hasten to add that I do not subscribe to Spinoza’s equation of God and Nature, which implies that God is like Nature subject to determinism. For me, as in normative Judaism, God is the free, volitional creator of Nature. He underlies and includes it. It is a mere product His and but a tiny part or aspect of Him.

[9]           Although in some cases, centuries later, scattered groups of Jews may follow different interpretations of the same decision.

[10]          I unfortunately cannot find the exact Mishna reference at this time, but I heard it discussed by two Rabbis.

[11]          I give you for example Dogen, who quoting Baizhang (“don't ignore cause and effect”), Nagarjuna ([do not] “deny cause and effect in this worldly realm... in the realm of practice”), Yongjia (“superficial understanding of emptiness ignores causes and effect”) and others, decries “those who deny cause and effect” (pp. 263-9).

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.