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Eastern philosophy


This article is part of the
series on Eastern culture
Eastern Culture , Society ,
Philosophy, Medicine Religion
Asian art , culture ,
China , India , Japan , Vietnam
Taoism , Confucianism ,
Buddhism , Hinduism ,
Shintoism , Sikhism

In the West , the terms Eastern philosophy, refersvery broadly to the various cultures , socialstructures philosophical systems of "the East," namely Asia , including China , India , Japan , and the general area.

Most Western universities focus almost exclusively on Western philosophicaltraditions and ideas in their philosophy departments and courses. When one uses the unqualified term "philosophy" in a Westernacademic context, Eastern philosophies had traditionally been overlooked in the past, but increased connections between "East andWest" in recent years have served to bridge the culture gap by a large degree.


Philosophical and religious traditions

Following is an overview of the major Eastern philosophic traditions. Each tradition has a separate article with more detailon sects, schools, etc. (c.f.)


Main article: Hinduism

Hinduism (सनातन धर्म;Sanātana Dharma, roughly Perennial Faith) is generally considered to be the oldest major world religion still practised today and first among Dharma faiths. Hinduism is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems,practices and scriptures. It has its origin in ancient Vedic culture at least as far backas 2000 B CE . It is the thirdlargest religion with approximately 1.05 billion followers worldwide, 96% of whomlive in the Indian subcontinent .

Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas , hence Veda Dharma , and their mystic issue, the Upanishads , as well as the teachings of many great Hindu gurus through theages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools , Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions.

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma , reincarnation , karma , and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas . Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru , the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras , love of Truth in manymanifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine ( Atman / Brahman ) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for manyspiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.

See Also: Hindu philosophy -- Vedic civilization -- Hindu scripture -- Yoga -- Vedanta -- Bhakti -- Hindu deities


Main article: Confucianism

Confucianism developed on Confucius teachings and is based on a set of Chinese classic texts . It was the mainstream ideology in China and the sinized world since the Han dynasty and may still be a major founder element in Far-East culture. Itcould be understood as a social ethic and humanist system focusing on human beings and their relationships. Confucianism emphasizes formal rituals in everyaspect of life, from quasi-religious ceremonies to strict politeness and deference to one's elders, specifically to one's parentsand to the state in the form of the Emperor.


Main article : Taoism

Taoism is the traditional foil of Confucianism. Taoism's central books are the Tao Te Ching , traditionally attributed to Lao Zi (Lao tse) and the Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tse). The core concepts of Taoism are traced far in ChineseHistory, incorporating elements of mysticism dating back to prehistoric times , linked alsowith the Book of Changes (I Ching), a divinatory set of 64geometrical figures describing states and evolutions of the world. Taoism emphasizes Nature, individual freedom, refusal ofsocial bounds, and was a doctrine professed by those who "retreated in mountains". At the end of their lives --or during thenight, Confucean officers often behaved as Taoists, writing poetry or trying to "reach immortality". Yet Taoism is also agovernment doctrine where the ruler's might is ruling through "non-action" (Wuwei).


Main article: Legalism

Legalism advocated a strict interpretation of the law in every respect. Morality was not important; adherence to the letter ofthe law was paramount. Officials who exceeded expectations were as liable for punishment as were those who underperformed theirduties, since both were not adhering exactly to their duties. Legalism was the principal philosophic basis of the Qin Dynasty in China . Confucian scholars werepersecuted under Legalist rule.


Main article: Buddhism

Buddhism is a system of beliefs based on the teachings of SiddharthaGautama , an Indian prince later known as the Buddha , or one who is Awake -derived from the Sanskrit 'bud', 'to awaken'. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, one whose tenets are not especially concernedwith the existence or nonexistence of a God or gods. The Buddha himself expressly disavowed any special divine status orinspiration, and said that anyone, anywhere could achieve all the insight that he had. The question of God is largely irrelevantin Buddhism, though some sects (notably Tibetan Buddhism ) doworship a number of gods drawn in from local indigenous belief systems, and hold that these gods are merely different aspects ofthe universal whole.

The Buddhist soteriology is summed up in the Four NobleTruths :

  1. Dukkha : All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containingsuffering.
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
  3. Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
  4. Marga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

However, Buddhist philosophy as such has its foundations more in the doctrines of anatta , which specifies that all is without substantial metaphysical being, pratitya-samutpada , whichdelineates the Buddhist concept of causality , and Buddhist phenomenological analysis of dharmas , or phenomenological constituents.

Most Buddhist sects believe in karma , a cause-and-effect relationship between all thathas been done and all that will be done. Events that occur are held to be the direct result of previous events. One effect ofkarma is rebirth. At death, the karma from a given life determines the nature of the next life's existence. The ultimate goal ofa Buddhist practitioner is to eliminate karma (both good and bad), end the cycle of rebirth and suffering, and attain Nirvana , translated as nothingness or blissful oblivion and characterizedas the state of being one with the entire universe.

See also: Buddhist philosophy -- Schools of Buddhism -- Buddhism in China

Zen Buddhism

Zen is a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism withTaoist principles. Bodhidharma was a semilegendary Indian monk who traveledto China in the fifth century CE.There, at the Shaolin temple, he began the Ch'an school of Buddhism, known in Japan and in the West as Zen Buddhism. Zen philosophy places emphasis on existing in themoment, right now. Zen teaches that the entire universe is one's mind, and if one cannot realize enlightenment in one's own mindnow, one cannot ever achieve enlightenment.

Zen practitioners engage in zazen (just sitting) meditation. Several schoolsof Zen have developed various other techniques for provoking satori , or enlightenment,ranging from whacking acolytes with a stick to shock them into the present moment to koans ,Zen riddles designed to force the student to abandon futile attempts to understand the nature of the universe through logic.


Maoism is a Communist philosophybased on the teachings of 20th century Communist Party of China revolutionary leader Mao Zedong . It is based partially on earlier theories by Marx and Lenin, but rejectsthe urban proletariat and Leninist emphasis on heavy industrialization in favor of a revolution supported by the peasantry, and adecentralized agrarian economy based on many collectively worked farms.

Many people believe that the implementation of Maoism in MainlandChina led to widespread famine , with millions of people starving to death. ChineseCommunist leader Deng Xiaoping reinterpreted Maoism to allow for theintroduction of market economics, which eventually enabled the country to recover. As a philosophy, Deng's chief contribution wasto reject the supremacy of theory in interpreting Marxism and to argue for a policy of seeking truth from facts.

Despite this, Maoism has remained a popular ideology for various Communist revolutionary groups around the world, notably the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia , Sendero Luminoso in Peru , andan ongoing (as of early 2003 ) Maoist insurrection in Nepal .


Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, a sophisticated form of animism that holds that spirits called kami inhabit allthings. Worship is at public shrines, or in small shrines constructed in one's home.

Differences from Western Philosophy

Arguments against the "Eastern philosophy" designation

Some have argued that the distinction between Eastern and Western philosophies is arbitrary and purely geographic, that thisartificial distinction does not take into account the tremendous amount of interaction between Eastern and Western thought, andthat the distinction is more misleading than enlightening. Furthermore, it has been argued that the term Eastern philosophyimplies similarities between philosophical schools which may not exist and obscures the differences between Easternphilosophies.

One such argument is historical. Our first "historical glimpse" of Western philosophy actually takes us to Asia Minor . Whether its root lie in India (or the roots of Indian philosophy stem froman Indo-Aryan invasion) we may never know. But it is surely plausible that the Middle East was a crossroads of ancient religiouscum philosophical systems.

A related argument is linguistic, based on the classification of Sanskrit as one of the earliest Indo-European languages . Shared concepts include the supernatural, the immortal soul (ancestor ofmind-body dualism). (Nietzsche famously argued that Christianity and Buddhism were "kindred" religions.)

The central conceptual structure shared with Classical Western philosophy (and lacking in East Asian thought prior to theBuddhist "invasion") includes counterparts of the dichotomies between reason v emotion, appearance v reality, one v many, andpermanence v change. Indian and Western thought, with their robust mind-body conceptual dualism, share consequent tendencies tosubjective idealism or dualism. Formally, they share the rudiments of Western "folk psychology" --a sentential psychology andsemantics (e.g. belief and (propositional) knowledge, subject-predicate grammar (and subject-object metaphysics) truth andfalsity, and inference. These concepts underwrote the emergence (or perhaps spread) of logic in Greece and India (In contrast topre-Buddhist China). Other noticeable similarities include structural features of related concepts of time, space, objecthood andcausation -- all concepts hard to isolate within ancient Chinese conceptual space.

One fundamental reason for the separation is that both traditions of Eastern philosophy tend to be marginalized or ignored inWestern studies of the "history of philosophy." So both tend to be relegated to the World Religions departments of Westernuniversities, or to New Age nonacademic works, though there are several notable exceptions.

The perception of God and the gods

Because of the influence of monotheism and especially the Abrahamic religions , Western philosophies have been faced with the question of the nature of God andHis relationship to the universe. This has created a dichotomy among Western philosophies between secular philosophies andreligious philosophies which develop within the context of a particular monotheistic religion's dogma regarding the nature of God and the universe.

Eastern philosophies have not been as concerned by questions relating to the nature of a single God as the universe's solecreator and ruler. The distinction between the religious and the secular tends to be much less sharp in Eastern philosophy, andthe same philosophical school often contains both religious and philosophical elements. Thus, some people accept the metaphysical tenets of Buddhism withoutgoing to a temple and worshipping. Some have worshipped the Taoist deities religiouslywithout bothering to delve into the philosophic underpinnings, while others embrace Taoist philosophy while ignoring thereligious aspects.

This arrangement stands in marked contrast to most philosophy of the West, which has traditionally enforced either acompletely unified philosophic/religious belief system (e.g. the various sects and associated philosophies of Christianity , Judaism , and Islam ), or a sharp and total repudiation of religion by philosophy (e.g. Nietzsche , Marx , Voltaire , etc.) The distinction between religion and philosophy is not so importantin the East.

Gods' relationship with the universe

Another common thread that often differentiates Eastern philosophy from Western is the belief regarding the relationshipbetween God or the gods and the universe. Western philosophies typically either disavow the existence of God, or else hold thatGod or the gods are something separate and distinct from the universe. This comes from the influence of the Abrahamic religions , which teach that this universe was created by asingle all-powerful God who existed before and separately from this universe. The true nature of this God is incomprehensible tous, His creations.

Eastern philosophic traditions generally tend to be less concerned with the existence or non-existence of gods. Although someEastern traditions have supernatural spiritual beings and even powerful gods, these are generally not seen as separate from theuniverse, but rather as a part of the universe. Conversely, most Eastern religions teach that ordinary actions can affect thesupernatural realm.

The role and nature of the individual

It has been argued that in most Western philosophies, the same can be said of the individual: Western philosophies generallyassume as a given that the individual is something different from the universe, and Western philosophies attempt to describe andcategorize the universe from a detached, objective viewpoint. Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, typically hold that peopleare an intrinsic and inseparable part of the universe, and that attempts to discuss the universe from an objective viewpoint asthough the individual speaking was something separate and detached from the whole are inherently absurd.

Syntheses of Eastern and Western philosophy

There have been many modern attempts to integrate Western and Eastern philosophical traditions.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was very interested in Taoism . His system of dialectics is sometimes interpreted as aformalization of Taoist principles.

Hegel's arch-enemy Arthur Schopenhauer developed aphilosophy that was essentially a synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism with Westernthought. He anticipated that the Upanishads (primary Hindu scriptures) would have a much greater influence in the West than they have had. However,Schopenhauer was working with heavily flawed early translations (and sometimes second-degree translations), and many feel that hemay not necessarily have accurately grasped the Eastern philosophies which interested him.

Recent attempts to incorporate Western philosophy into Eastern thought include the Kyoto School of philosophers, who combined the phenomenology of Husserl with the insights of Zen Buddhism .

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