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.