Eastern (Asian) Philosophical Tradition


Eastern (Asian) Philosophical Tradition

Eastern philosophic traditions generally tend to be less concerned with the existence or non-existence of Gods. Although some Eastern traditions have supernatural spiritual Beings and even powerful Gods, these are generally not seen as separate from the Universe, but rather as a part of the Universe.

The content of this article will be discussed under two major eastern philosophies: the Hindu philosophy and the Buddhist philosophy. It is interesting to note that at the time that ancient Greek philosophy was blossoming on the other side of the world, a different set of philosophical traditions emerged within the Eastern Asian regions of India and China.

Like Greece, both of these areas had complex social structures, sophisticated cultures, and, most importantly, systems of writing that enabled people to record their thoughts. But unlike Greek philosophy which was largely secular, Eastern philosophies were intimately tied to their local religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.

The first two traditions will be discussed in this unit while next and final unit will be devoted to the last two traditions.

By the end of this article, you should be able to, describe Eastern philosophical tradition, explain key concepts in Eastern philosophical tradition and identify essential characteristics of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy


Hindu Philosophy

The best place to begin examining Eastern Philosophy is by looking at Hinduism. Hindu texts are among the oldest in the East, and their concepts directly or indirectly influenced the philosophy of other Eastern philosophical traditions.

While many of the world’s religious traditions were founded by renowned people – Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad – Hinduism has no founding figure, and it covers a diversity of views of the people of India dating as far back as 3,500 BCE.

The term “Hindu” comes from the Persian word “Hind,” which represents the name given to the Indus River region of northern India. 

Most generally, “Hinduism” means the religion of the Indus River region. Early Hindu religion was polytheistic, similar to the religion in ancient Greece and Rome.

Their sacred text is a large work called the Vedas, which literally means “bodies of knowledge,” written between 1,500-800 BCE in the ancient language Sanskrit. 

It describes features of various gods, rituals to appease them, and hymns to chant to them. Hindu philosophical discussions emerged shortly after, from around 800 BCE to 200 CE., emphasizing the pantheistic notion of the divine reality that permeates the cosmos.

The Hindu name for this reality is the Atman-Brahman, literally meaning the Self-God, and much of Hindu philosophy focuses on this concept.

The dramatic implication of the notion of the Self-God is that I am the God of the cosmos. This requires some explanation, and classical Hindu philosophers were prepared to provide it. The Atman is our true Self that lies at the inner core of our human identities, and it is only this inner core that is identical with God.

Hindus sometimes use an analogy of an onion to describe the various layers of our identities. Like an onion with many layers of skin, our human identities also have different layers. The outer layers of our identities involve common sense views of ourselves that we experience empirically, such as our individual physical bodies, sensations, thoughts and feelings.

The Self-God is like the inner core of the onion, hidden beneath many distracting layers, and consequently we fail to immediately comprehend the very existence of that inner core and our divine status. 

Instead, we see ourselves as distinct beings – each of us with our own bodies and minds – and we see the world itself as consisting of a multiplicity of isolated parts. By peeling away the outer layers of our identities, we will find the Self-God within each of us and see the underlying unity of the world.

The doctrine of the Self-God was put forward in two specific Hindu works: The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita.

The Upanishads is actually a series of more than 200 anonymously-written texts, although Hindu tradition gives special emphasis to only about 18 early ones composed between 600 and 400 BCE.

In one of the most famous of these, a father picturesquely describes to his son how things that seem diverse in fact have an underlying reality.

Plants, animals, humans, and everything else are united in the Self-God that exists beneath the physical structure of things. Take, for example, how bees collect juices from a variety of trees and unify those juices in their honey: Bees make honey by collecting the juices of distant trees and reducing the juices into one form.

These juices have no discrimination and do not say “I am the juice of this tree or that tree.” In the same manner, when all these creatures merge with Being either in deep sleep or in death, they do not know that they merged with Being.

Whatever these creatures are here – whether a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito – they become that again and again. Everything that exists has as its soul that which is the finest essence. It is Reality. It is the Atman, and you are that, my son.

This passage makes a distinction between our physical identities and our underlying true identities. Our physical identities go through continual cycles of reincarnation; this is so of animal life as well as human life. Our true underlying identities, though, merge with God, which is undifferentiated reality. The father says to his son, “You are that,” meaning that his son is the Self-God that he is describing.

The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, is a 100-page section of an epic poem called the Mahabharata.

At about 5,000 pages and composed over an 800-year period, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem. It chronicles a legendary feud between two branches of a royal family. The long-standing quarrel culminates in a bloody battle.

The story line behind the Bhagavad Gita focuses on prince Arjuna, the leader on one side of the feud, who is despairing about going into battle against his kinfolk. He expresses his grief to his charioteer, Krishna, who, it turns out, is the manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu in human form.

Krishna comforts Arjuna with a philosophy lesson about discovering the Self-God: Those who distinguish between the slayer and the slain are ignorant of them both.

No one slays, and no one is slain. No one is born, and no one dies. No one who once existed ceases to exist. They are unborn, perpetual, eternal and ancient, and are not slain when their bodies are slaughtered. If we understand a person to be indestructible, perpetual, unborn, undiminishing, how can that person slay, or be slain?

Krishna’s point is that we are all eternal by virtu e of the Self-God within us, and what happens to our bodies is insignificant. For this reason, Arjuna should not worry about the conflict with his relatives since even if their bodies die in battle, their inner selves are untouched.

It is one thing for us to theoretically understand the concept of the Self-God, and entirely another for us to discover the Self-God within each of us. 

To assist believers in this task, Hindu tradition developed a series of yoga techniques. The term “Yoga” literally means “to yoke” or “to harness,” and, more generally, it means “discipline”.

The Bhagavad Gita is something like a handbook of the various Yoga methods, and we will look at its account of two of them. The first of these is the Yoga of selfless action (karma), which involves routinely behaving with indifference to the fruits of our actions.

By engaging in pure action, unconcerned with the action’s results, we distance ourselves from the outer layers of our identities and our perceptions of the world. We thus become more sensitive to the reality of the Self-God.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, we will not reach this degree of indifference in our actions by following traditional customs in the scriptures: “Scriptures prescribe many ceremonies to attain pleasure and power, but rebirth is the fruit of those actions” (ibid).

Like eating a meal, we perform religious rituals for a purpose; in this case, the purpose is to appease God or to get to heaven. However, religious actions are no less distracting than any other action.

There are clear psychological indicators when we disassociate ourselves from our actions, namely, we are freed from all emotions and attachments.

As such, a second type of Yoga discussed in the Bhagavad Gita is that of meditation, which involves immediately experiencing our union with God through contemplation.

The practice of meditation requires a disciplined effort, and to that end the Bhagavad Gita provides step-by-step instructions. When attempting meditation, we should first find a private spot, assume a seated posture, gaze ahead, subdue our thoughts and senses, and lose self-consciousness.

Through this method, we directly experience the unified SelfGod within us. The point of all these steps in the meditative process is to block out distractions.

Hindus have a long tradition of belief in reincarnation, which, most simply, is the view that one’s present life is followed by a series of new lives in new physical bodies.

There are two components to rebirth. 

First, there is the basic process of rebirth itself: when I die, my true Self will be reborn into another body, and when that body dies, I will be reborn into another, and so on.

The Bhagavad Gita picturesquely states, “As a person throws off worn-out garments and takes new ones, so too the dweller in the body throws off worn-out bodies and enters into others that are new”.

Some Hindu writings are explicit about the mechanics of the rebirth process. When I die, and my body is cremated, my soul rises with the smoke and travels through the heavens for several months. My soul then falls back to earth, mixes with natural elements, and is consumed by humans.

From there my soul works its way into a man’s semen, and, through intercourse, enters a woman’s womb. The second component of rebirth is that the moral consequences of my behaviour in this life are carried over to my next lives.

Known as the doctrine of karma, or action, the quality of my existence in my new life is largely a function of my good or bad actions in my present and previous lives.

To illustrate, imagine that my true Self carries around a karma pouch from one life to another. Each time I perform a good deed, a good-karma token is tossed into the pouch, and when I perform a bad deed, a bad-karma token is thrown in.

When I die, I carry the karma pouch and all of its tokens on to the next life. If I have an abundance of good-karma tokens, then in my next life I may be healthier, wealthier, and more spiritually mature than I am now. On the other hand, if I die with an abundance of bad-karma tokens, then I may be reborn sickly, poor, and ignorant.

To make my next lives better, I should do what I can to accumulate as many good-karma tokens as I can. In the Hindu tradition, reincarnation is thought of as a good thing; it is something that should be dreaded. We need to do what we can to become released (moksha) from the rebirth cycle.

Hindu writings stress several approaches to release, two of which are especially dominant.

One approach is that release is a matter of accumulating a great abundance of good karma over our various lives. When I get as good as I can possibly be, then the rebirth process is over and my true Self remains with God.

The appeal of this approach is that it underscores the fact that life is a moral journey, with perfection as our ultimate goal. The other approach to release involves discovering the Self-God within me through disciplined reflection and meditation.

The appeal of this approach is that I can go more directly towards my final goal and experience the pure Self-God right here and now. Both of these approaches, though, are interconnected.

Read on: Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods

Buddhist Philosophy

Buddhism was founded in India by a former Hindu monk named Gautama Siddhartha (563-483 BCE), better known as Buddha, a term which means the “enlightened one.”

Buddha came from a wealthy family in what is now the country of Nepal, where his father was a feudal lord. The night before he was born his mother dreamed that a white elephant entered her womb through her side.

Hindu priests interpreted the dream as a dual destiny: he would either be a universal monarch, or universal teacher. Hoping that his son would take the path of a monarch, his father confined him to the family estate, sheltering him from the ugly experiences of illness and death.

At age 29, he had three occasions to glimpse the outside world, and each time he was shocked to learn about the suffering that humans experience.

First he saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead body. On a fourth occasion he saw a Hindu monk, which inspired him to leave his family estate to pursue a life of religious devotion.

Buddha wandered for six years, learning what he could from holy people about the solution to the human predicament. He joined a band of five ascetic monks who taught him the practice of self-renunciation.

So austere were Buddha’s efforts, though, that he almost died of starvation. He started eating again to regain health, and his ascetic colleagues left him in disgust. Disheartened by his failures, Buddha sat under a fig tree, vowing to not rise until he achieved supreme awakening. He stayed up all night, and at the first glimpse of the morning star he became enlightened. He eventually drew a large crowd of followers and set up monasteries in every major city.

Buddha eventually died by accidentally eating poisoned mushrooms at the home of a close disciple. Through his early experiences as a monk, Buddha became dissatisfied with many traditional Hindu teachings, such as the role of the priests and the authority of their scriptures.

Nevertheless, Buddha’s underlying philosophy draws heavily from Hinduism, and one contemporary scholar has gone so far as to say that Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export.

Buddha himself wrote nothing, and the oldest accounts of his teachings are in a voluminous collection called the Pali Canon, compiled during the first five centuries after Buddha’s death. The texts are written in a language related to Sanskrit, called “Pali”, hence the designation “Pali Canon.” 

The most famous part of the Pali Canon is a section known as “The First Discourse,” which, according to tradition, Buddha delivered to his ascetic friends immediately after his enlightenment.

The content of the discourse is the foundation of all Buddhist teaching. The discourse presents “four noble truths” concerning the quest for enlightenment.

The first truth is that life is suffering: Now this is the noble truth concerning suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, and death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, and separation from the pleasant is painful. Any craving that is unsatisfied is also painful.

In brief, the five components which spring from attachment are painful. This then is the noble truth concerning suffering.The Pali word for suffering is sometimes translated as anxiety or frustration, but a good description is dislocation. For example, the pain that I experience from a dislocated shoulder is the result of my arm being yanked out of its normal position.

Similarly, the root of all suffering involves some twisting or distortion of our true nature. A poignant illustration of suffering is the birth process. From the moment we come into the world as infants, we find suffering.

With each contraction the mother is gripped with perhaps the greatest physical pain that she will experience in life, while anxious friends and relatives stand by helplessly. Physically contorted as it emerges, the baby is forced to cry so that it may begin breathing.

Once giving birth, the mother remains in pain for some time, and the frail baby requires continual monitoring at the risk of dying. Buddhist writings offer an endless list of suffering that we experience throughout our lives, such as that from sickness, old age, fear of death, failure to fulfill ambitions, separation from loved ones, and association with people we dislike.

Even on a good day – if we can escape some actual human tragedy – our lives are nevertheless dominated by pre-emptively avoiding suffering.

We monitor our diets, struggle to keep up with an exercise routine, cautiously drive around town, lock our doors, and stay clear of hostile people.

The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is desire: Now this is the noble truth concerning the origin of suffering. It is that thirst or craving which causes the renewal of existence, accompanied by sensual delight, and the seeking of satisfaction first here, then there.

That is to say, it is the craving for the gratification of the passions, or the craving for a future life, or the craving for success in this present life. This then is the noble truth concerning the origin of suffering.

The above quote describes desire as an insatiable craving for private fulfillment.

We cling or grasp to virtually anything that might satisfy our yearnings, much like a child that jealously clutches a favourite toy.

Ultimately, our cravings can never be truly satisfied, and so we suffer – as a child does when we attempt to wrench a toy from his hands. The central point of this noble truth is that for every type of suffering we experience, there is some misguided craving that is at its source.

Suppose, for example, that my leg gets broken in a car accident on my way to the store.

Chronologically, I had several desires that led up to the accident. One desire impelled me to buy a car to begin with, rather than simply to walk everywhere.

Another desire inclined me to purchase something that I don’t currently own. Yet another desire had me go shopping at that particular time, rather than stay home. And, once I’m at home in my leg cast, lying in bed, my present desires perpetuate my suffering. I want to go back to work, but I can’t. I’d like to go to a restaurant, but I can’t. I’d prefer to walk around outside but I can’t.

The more things that I desire and cling to, the more I increase my suffering. Why are we driven to cling so ferociously to so many things? Buddha has an answer. Desire arises from five distinct components of our human nature.

These components are matter, sensation, perception, predisposition, and consciousness. Each of these five components has me rely on something outside of me. Even if I want to do something as simple as walk from the living room into the kitchen, I rely on the material construction of the house itself, my raw sense perception of it, and how these perceptions automatically register in my mind.

Since the human condition is shaped by desire – many if not most of which go unfulfilled – then our condition is one of suffering.

The third noble truth is that the end of suffering is achieved by extinguishing our desire; this is the state of nirvana, a term that literally means “to extinguish.” Of the virtually endless number of desires that bubble up from my five components, my goal should be the destruction of these, as Buddha describes here: Now this is the noble truth concerning the elimination of suffering [i.e., the attainment of nirvana]. It is the destruction of this very thirst, in which no passion remains.

It is the laying aside of, the getting rid of, the being free from, and the harbouring no longer of this thirst. This, then, is the noble truth concerning the destruction of suffering.

In this passage Buddha depicts nirvana as a state in which “no passion remains.” Most people can understand the task of eliminating some desires – such as the desire for unhealthy foods. But the idea here is that we should extinguish all desires, and this will bring on a mental state of enlightenment. 

Addressing the goal of the third noble truth, the fourth is that nirvana is achieved by adopting a series of moral attitudes, beliefs, and actions, which Buddha collectively calls the eightfold path: “This is the noble truth concerning the path that leads to the elimination of suffering.

It is the noble eightfold path.” Briefly, these are the eight recommendations.

(1) We should adopt right views that are free from superstition or delusion.

(2) We should have right aims that are high and worthy of the intelligent and earnest person.

(3) We should practice right speech, which is kindly, open, and truthful.

(4) We should perform right conduct that is peaceful, honest, and pure.

(5) We should adopt a right livelihood that brings no harm or danger to living things.

(6) We should put forth the right effort in self-training and self-control.

(7) We should have right mindfulness insofar as we are fully aware of the present moment and not preoccupied with hopes or worries.

(8) We should engage in right concentration, which involves proper meditation that leads to the nirvana experience.

On the surface, the eightfold path endorses many of the values that, since our childhoods, we’ve been taught to adopt. In fact, these eight recommendations appear integral to simply conducting our normal desire-filled lives in a civilized manner.

How, then, do these eight recommendations lead to nirvana, the extinguishing of all desires? Buddha’s explanation is that they all involve adopting a Middle Way, which is the calm detachment achieved by avoiding the extremes of asceticism and self-indulgence:

There are two extremes, fellow monks, which a holy person should avoid: the habitual practice of ... self-indulgence, which is vulgar and profitless ... and the habitual practice of self-mortification, which is painful and equally profitless.

There is a middle path discovered by the Buddha – a path which opens the eyes and bestows understanding which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, and to Nirvana. Truly, it is the noble eightfold path.

For each of the recommendations in the eightfold path, we can see how we must follow a middle course. For example, with the first path of right aims, I should strive to be free from superstition and delusion. If we look at common superstitions and delusions today, such as belief in alien abduction or racial superiority, these are clearly extremist views that we should steer clear of.

This middle course “opens the eyes and bestows understanding,” which eventually leads to nirvana.

The Middle Path is a stepping-stone towards nirvana insofar as it creates a mental disposition, which in turn enables us to be receptive to the nirvana experience.

Also read: Sub-Disciplinary Focus on African Philosophy

Conclusion on Eastern (Asian) Philosophical Tradition

While the specific elements of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies differ dramatically, they however have certain affinities in their conception of God and the cosmos, and they are both interested in understanding how God – or an ultimate divine reality – relates to the world.

We have examined the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism as major philosophical traditions of the east. Although Hinduism has no founding figure, the religion covers a diversity of views of the people of India dating as far back as 3,500 BCE and it has directly or indirectly influenced the philosophy of other Eastern philosophical traditions. Vedas, the sacred text of Hinduism describes features of various gods, rituals to appease them, and hymns to chant to them.

Buddhism on the other hand, is a religion founded in India by Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha), and it has the Pali Canon which contains the foundation of all Buddhist teaching as creed. Both religions have had tremendous impact on eastern (Asian) philosophical traditions.

Post a Comment