East vs. West

I just finished reading an article that details “Why so Many Love the Philosophy of the East – and so Few That of the West”. Using the celebrity Miranda Kerr as the protagonist, the article claims that Western philosophy focuses on arcane, technical problems, while Eastern philosophy quickly and clearly explains how mere mortals can make their way in the world. The article compares the work being done in the Philosophy departments of major universities, like the one at Sydney University, to the work being done in commercial yoga classes and Buddhist meditation groups. This comparison is specious because it mistakenly assumes that religious groups like Japanese Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International, are in the same line of work as Sydney University. These two groups are not in the same line of work.

The correct comparison is between a religious seminary, such as the work being done at a Buddhist monastery or a Christian theological seminary, and Sydney University. These organizations are involved in critical analysis of texts and ideas that are central to each organization’s area of specialization. These organizations are different than popular religious groups that host meditation and yoga practices.

One might compare Soka Gakkai International to the popular activities of any other popular religious group, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Sufism, mainstream Islam, etc. Popular religious groups offer practices meant to provide solace, inspiration, and comfort to people.

Additionally, religious traditions often have a popular and scholastic aspect: a group of people working with the public and a group of scholars working on technical problems internal to the religion or philosophical system. The two branches of a religion are related, while often functioning independently of each other. For example, most Catholics haven’t read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, nor will they ever. The Summa is a technical work on Catholicism, much like the work by Derek Parfit cited in the article, or any one of the technical philosophical works on Buddhism or Yoga philosophy.

I challenge anyone who believes the premise of the article linked above to read a technical Buddhist text, such as Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha, and claim it is more approachable and applicable to living a fulfilling life than Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. Both works are equally applicable, as well as equally technical and dense in their content.

For a comparable recitation to “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” in the Western tradition one ought to look to a church hymnal, or a book of folk songs. In other words, the article is comparing Miranda Kerr’s Buddhist devotional practice to technical philosophy, which is similar to comparing a child’s Lego toy with the engineering required to build a nuclear submarine.

I’d like to offer my own answer to “Why so many love the philosophy of the East — and so few that of the West”. Having a degree in (Western) Philosophy and one in the Philosophy of Religion (Buddhism and Hinduism), I feel qualified to take a stab at it. Most folks who “love the philosophy of the East” can’t read the difficult, technical texts that found the popular practices of yoga and meditation: in other words, most folks love the devotional or exercise practices of the East, which have been wrapped up in mystical language of the philosophical traditions that support those practices. Because we have access to the technical works of Western philosophy (and religion), it’s easier to find those traditions tedious and boring — i.e. driving a Porsche or a Lamborghini is thrilling, but having to repair the engine is tedious and boring. Whether you’re practicing Eastern or Western religion and philosophy, the practice (e.g. meditation, philosophical debate, yoga practice, etc.) is thrilling, but the technical, analytical work is tedious and boring, whether that work is in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, or English.

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6 thoughts on “East vs. West

  1. SkepticMeditations

    I like your train of thought on this topic.

    Seems to me–having been a devotee of Hindu Yoga meditation myself for decades who nowadays approaches yoga meditation with skepticism–that many Westerners prefer to hold onto romantic notions of the mysticism of the East and give little if any effort to thinking deeply about the actual history and how the mystical doctrines originated.

    Many yoga meditators are anti-intellectual and prefer to emphasize feelings so they are able to avoid using critical reasoning. Romantic ideals of magical energies or states of consciousness, karma, reincarnation, and perfected buddhas seem to hold a seductive appeal to Westerners (who overall don’t seem to value philosophy period).

    thanks

    Reply
    1. My Other Feet Post author

      @SkepticMeditations — Thanks for the vote of confidence. It’s troubles me that folks seem to drop their standards or expectations when thinking about Eastern religious and philosophical traditions. The German Romantics did it in the 19th Century, and people still do it today, nearly 100 years later. Quickly embracing anything because it appears mystical or Eastern is simply Orientalism at its finest — although, I suppose the grass always seems greener on the other side, and it is easier to critique one’s own culture than a foreign one. An abundance of enthusiasm can’t make up for a little rigor and attention to detail.

      Reply
      1. SkepticMeditations

        @My Other Feet,
        I may be interesting to examine the motivations why people seek the answers, morals or controls of Eastern (or Western) religiosity. I’m researching some sources about the seeming human need for certainty and moral authority. Perhaps I may get inspired by posts on your blog to also write about this topic on my blog. thanks

      2. My Other Feet Post author

        @ S.M. — That’s a great suggestion. There are many writers I’ve read who have touched on that topic, but I’ve never thought about it directly. Nietzsche and Taleb jump to mind immediately, as does Plato — I think the first two would say that such a search is misguided, while the latter would offer his theory of Forms as a solution. I think it’s time to do some more reading! I’m interested in what you come up with in your research.

      3. SkepticMeditations

        I heard an interview this week with the author, James Lindsay, of this book (link below) Everybody is Wrong About God, who discusses an intriguing perspective on religion and/or humanism as necessary “moral communities”. I’ve not yet read the book.

        http://www.amazon.com/Everybody-Wrong-About-James-Lindsay/dp/1634310365/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449455857&sr=1-1&keywords=everyone+is+wrong+about+god

        Podcast interview with James Lindsay, can be found at
        http://atheisticallyspeaking.com/as/

  2. Pingback: Why do people seek certainty? | The Olive Presser

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