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Eternal Matters–A Look at Eastern Philosophy

One of my philosophy professors in college said that he had once asked an Indian man about how the Hindus answered the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The man looked back at my professor and said, “We wouldn’t ask those questions.”

Eastern and Western philosophy, as well as Eastern and Western religion, are miles apart. Not long ago I gave my youngest brother one of the poems in the Tao Te Ching to read, after he demanded why I was looking at “Chinese stuff.”

He began: “Heaven goes on forever./ Earth endures forever.” He made a face. “No it doesn’t!”

“Keep reading,” I said.

He started again. “There’s a reason heaven and earth go on enduring forever:/ their life isn’t their own/ so their life goes on forever.” He scrunched up his nose again. “That’s not true!”

I told him to save his comments for the end. He finished reading and repeated his objections. I then had the pleasure of trying to explain Taoist beliefs to an American ten-year-old. He liked the idea of having the same essence as his dog (he loves animals), but telling him the same thing about girls did not go over well.

If the Tao Te Ching can be believed, there were at least a few Chinese adults who had a similar reaction. At any rate, the idea of a life force that encompasses being and non-being seems like something that almost has to be intuitively grasped. A rational explanation can only carry you so far.

When I was ten or so, I read a magazine article about the yin-yang symbol. The article explained that is symbolized there was always a little bit of bad in the good, and a little bit of good in the bad. It was a children’s magazine; and, based on my brother’s reaction, a full explanation would have probably confused most of the eight-to-twelve-year-old readers. Still, the explanation he got was probably a little more accurate. In Taoism, everything, whether good or evil, existent or nonexistent, shares the same essence.

The most interesting thing about Eastern philosophy (at least to me) is that it doesn’t really conflict with a naturalistic view of the universe. Someone could easily hold to Taoism and atheism at the same time. From both points of view, there is no ultimate Source of life outside of the world-system.

Another professor of mine described a discussion he had with a group of Chinese students. They contended that believing in an eternal God was irrational. The professor’s response? “I believe in an eternal God. You believe in eternal matter. How is that any more logical?”

That may be the best summary of the differences between Christianity and Eastern philosophy that I have heard.

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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Philosophy

 

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Understanding China (and More)

Confucius (Tang Dynasty)History may be “my thing,” but Asian history is not. Something about the East was always difficult for me to understand. The worldview is just very different from anything that the West has experienced, at least for a very long time. There is something almost familiar about Islam or even the animist religions of Africa in comparison with Taoism or Hinduism.

Maybe I’m an oddity. But I’m inclined to think that I’m not the only one who finds Asia a little difficult to understand. No, having an alarm clock marked “Made in China” will not help you. But reading Confucius might.

I volunteer at the library weekly, and I have a bad habit of picking up very random books while shelving. I still wonder if the check-out librarian had any thought on my picking up The Aneid and young adult sci-fi at the same time. My latest find was The Analects of Confucius. It’s short. It’s witty. (It’s also a little hard to understand in places unless you have a good background in Chinese history. I don’t. I read the footnotes.) The Analects include little gems like these:

“Only girls and servants are hard to train. Draw near to them, they grow unruly; hold them off, they pay you with spite.”

“Tsai Wo said: ‘Were a man who loves told that there is a man in a well, would he go in after him?’ The Master said, ‘Why should he? A gentleman might be brought to the well, but not entrapped into it.’”

“[Confucius] did not eat sour or moldy rice, putrid fish, or tainted meat.”

“[Confucius] did not sleep like a corpse.”

“One said, ‘ To mete out good for evil, how were that?’ ‘And how would ye meet good?’ said the Master. ‘Meet evil with justice: meet good with good.’”

“The Master said, ‘Unruly when young, unmentioned as man, undying when old, spells good-for-nothing!’ and hit him on the leg with his staff.”

Granted, those are more the exception than the rule. (To be honest, I wouldn’t eat moldy rice either.) Confucius often sounds almost Christian when he talks. The Analects even include a version of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

In high school I was taught that Asians emphasize the group, while Westerners emphasize the individual. It seems that Westerners often respond to that difference in one of two incorrect ways. Some people think that Asians are horrible to consider putting the group first. Meanwhile, the multiculturalists argue that all cultures are morally equal, and that Asians mainly need to be understood. Some may even claim to admire Confucius. But the values he taught (aside from the ones about leaving people in wells) would not be popular with most Americans, period.

I’m in no place to comment on Chinese culture as a whole. But one of the main themes of the Analects is that of respect. Not respect to other people’s ancestors; respect to your ancestors. Not just taking care of your parents (you take care of animals too, says Confucius), but honoring them with every decision you make. And courtesy toward others ought to characterize everything you do. Those aren’t popular themes today.

For some of us, they are difficult. How do you honor your parents when one or both of them does little that is worthy of respect? (Confucius: a son should keep his father from doing evil, and vice versa.) How do you respect ancestors when some of them did foolish or evil things? (Confucius: choose your heroes wisely.) In any case, we live in a culture where self-promotion is seen as highly important. A culture focused primarily on deference would have drawbacks, of course, but it sounds appealing, particularly to those of us who find self-promotion to be embarrassing at best.

The Analects also helped me understand another book: C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis write of the Tao, his word for the universal moral code that is the source of our value judgments. Even the relativists who argue against the Tao have to use some part of the Tao to make their arguments. We need special revelation, of course, because people can make evil choices based on the Tao. Its demand on duty to kin may be abstracted into extreme nationalism, for example. And there are contradictions between cultural perceptions of the Tao. (Most Christians and Jews would argue for getting the man out of the well, even if he was an idiot to climb in.)

But contradictions in the Tao—or, better yet, advances in it—are done within its parameters. “From within the Tao,” writes Lewis, “comes the only authority to modify the Tao…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else…. Wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position…. Only those who are practicing the Tao understand it.”

If you want to understand China, Confucius is a good start. But if you want to understand traditional morality, you can start anywhere—Confucius or Aristotle or Moses or Christ. Whatever anyone may say about our need for the Tao, no one functions for very long without it.

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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