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Chinese Philosophy: Back to the Beginning

Given the rapid globalization and synthesis of all human thought that is occurring throughout the world today as more and more Eastern works are translated and transliterated into Western languages and are the topic of much intellectual pursuit by not just academic scholars but also by individuals in the West as Yoga, Vedānta, Daoism and other classically Eastern philosophical systems have become more and more prevalent in Western society, it perhaps is a good time to look for, and look back to, how these two systems of belief really differ from each other and where this difference stems from and perhaps come to a better understanding as to how they might be better integrated or aligned to reflect a more global and complete perspective on existence and reality in the modern Quantum Era.

Throughout academic parlance in the Enlightenment Era intellectual and philosophical development throughout mankind’s history has been divided into Eastern and Western branches.  The Eastern branch of thought and development for many centuries was looked upon as “Oriental”, a term that has fallen out of favor in academic and intellectual circles in no small measure due to the fact that it implied and originated within the context of the colonization of a good part of the “Eastern” world and Western academic pursuits into understanding the nature of theological and philosophical, as well as socio-political development of the so-called East – an outsiders view that came with its own bias that is considered by most scholars to be one of supremacy and dominance that looked down upon the cultural and religious systems of the East with not disdain per se but most certainly with a sense of arrogance and superiority.

There is undoubtedly much truth to the idea that the East-West divide is an intellectual delineation created by Western scholars upon its Oriental neighbors as a product of colonization by Europeans in the last few centuries, an outsider’s view so to speak.  There are still nonetheless certain unique characteristics of what we might call the “Eastern” worldview which are not necessarily unique to the Eastern part of the world geographically (although to the Greeks and Romans it most certainly was the East) but reflect an unbroken tradition that reaches more directly back into the mind of pre-civilized man given its unbroken linguistic tradition.  In particular here we’re referring to the Indo-Aryan peoples and the ancient Chinese, each of which has a direct and unbroken linguistic, theological and philosophical tradition that is preserved from the early origins of their respective civilizations.

The problem however, despite these known biases, is that the classification of East versus West does have a certain clarity and clean delineation in modes of thought however, modes of thought that are divided at least intellectually by what could be termed reductionist versus holistic.  In other words, even if the classification of certain ways of thinking and development as a whole doesn’t have a specific geographical divide between East and West (although one could argue that in fact does), the tendency to break things down into parts and explore their relationships as individual automata and their interactions does in fact characterize Western thinking more or less since Hellenic antiquity and the tendency to look at individuals within the context of their relationship to the whole, or the universe at large, does in fact characterize “Eastern” modes of thought to a great extent.

Despite many scholars derision of the distinction between the “West” and the “East” as a gross oversimplification of the complex and interconnected cultural and societal development of the civilized world (and they have a sound point no doubt), this basic split in worldview can still be very helpful when looking not just at the development of civilization, but also when looking at the development of theology and philosophical systems in antiquity as clear lines between East and West can be drawn in these disciplines.  Today no doubt, going back at least to the introduction of Yoga to the West by Swami Vivekananda in the early part of the twentieth century, these “Western” and “Eastern” worldviews start to blend.  However, despite the integration between Eastern and Western cultures in the last hundred plus years, there does still however exist a chasm between Western reductionist and Eastern holistic perspectives on reality that makes it difficult at times for the two groups to communicate effectively – even if this distinction is not geographical any more.

In particular here we’re referring to the general position of the scientific community which takes a fundamentally materialistic and objective realist worldview in contrast to the Eastern philosophic perspective (Buddhism, Daoism) which is much more holistic and is primarily based upon the belief in the flow and harnessing of energy as predominant characteristics of reality rather than objective and materialistic components.  The lines are drawn between objectivity and indivisibility and wholeness primarily.  Although some scholars continue to work toward bridging this gap (the current author included), the intellectual chasm still exists nonetheless and represents a clear divide from which to view ancient philosophical and theological development which underpins the modern vantage points to a large extent.  However, despite the advent of the Scientific Revolution in the last few hundred years the battle lines between the objective materialists and the unified idealists were drawn as far back as 2500 years ago in ancient Greco-Roman culture represented by the Epicureans and Neo-Platonists respectively, a point that few if any modern scholars fail to recognize.

So although it may be relatively true to diminish this very general and perhaps all too simplistic distinctive set of worldviews which divide mankind’s relationship to the universe, it is the author’s view that not only does this gap in thought between Eastern and Western world views still exist, but that it still exists in a very profound way and underlies each individual’s worldview and relationship to everyday reality in ways that are so assumed, so baked into our psyche’s from childhood, that their very existence is unknown to us given how at the very heart of our perception of the world they sit.  It is perhaps most pronounced when you look at the world of “physical reality” underpinned by modern Physics and its fundamental relationship to what we all see and perceive as “real”, the belief and blind faith in the mechanistic nature of things and the existence of individual objects outside of our individual nature that are separate from and only outwardly perceived by, our minds or subject.

The hypothesis here, and one that is difficult to prove no doubt but interesting in and of itself, is that perhaps what we in the West consider “East”, which initially came with all sorts of uncivilized and even barbaric connotations (going back to the age of colonization here where the Western world thought their systems of religion, their systems of governing, etc. were much more advanced than those of their Eastern counterparts), is maybe just a window into a more distant past of ourselves, a past that has not been whitewashed and completely blanketed over by the “righteousness” and “divine truth” of Scripture.

One cannot deny that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have had an immense cultural and socio-political influence on social development in the West for at least the last 1500 years.  What is interesting to look in contrast however, is the view from the East which has produced a very different theo-philosophical tradition that reaches much deeper into antiquity; essentially as far back as the second millennium BCE which is a good 1500 years earlier than the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West.  Both in the Indian/Vedic tradition and the Chinese philosophical tradition, their theological and philosophical systems rest on texts and schools of thought which date to the origins and dawn of their civilizations.  They date back to the time when nation-states were first developing and when language and writing systems had just advanced enough to codify these systems of belief, these teachings, which no doubt stemmed from oral traditions which reached even further back into antiquity.

The theo-philosophical tradition in the West went through many phases of development before Christianity took root – the Pre-Socratics, Hellenic philosophy, the Jewish tradition and the Septuagint, the Gnostics, Egyptian and Greek mystery cults, Hermeticism, etc.  All of these intellectual forces, these very ancient systems of belief from all of these different cultures were supplanted by, were whitewashed in fact, by the flood of Christianity (and then subsequently Islam) which swept the Western world from the 3rd century onwards and has had a direct influence on the theo-philosophical history in the West right up until the modern era.

But many of these ancient belief systems, in particular the Greek and Egyptian mystery cults (Orphism, Eleusinian Mysteries, Hermeticism etc.), retained many of the pre-historic shamanistic characteristics that harkened back to earlier times in socio-political history where communing directly with the divine wasn’t a hypothetical possibility but was a fundamental aspect of reality.  Times when a direct connection between the divine was not only believed to have been possible but in fact considered to be an elemental aspect of what it meant to be human and in many respects defined a people.  The mythos, cosmogony and theology of these ancient peoples, their so called “barbaric” rituals, were all integrated and closely tied to the elemental and pervasive presence of the divine.

Over time, and this was progression can be seen in all ancient civilizations as societies became more complex this pseudo socio-political construct was hijacked by the rulers and emperors themselves who claimed to be the only ones that had or were privy to this divine connection.  But this was most definitely not always the case as you reach deeper back into antiquity and in fact can be seen in many of the rites pf passage and other shamanistic rituals that exist in some, now almost extinct, pockets of hunter-gatherer societies that still exist in the world today.  This was part of the social and political developments within which Christianity took root in the West, as theology and the state became more and more interconnected and interdependent, and it was these characteristics in fact that had these ancient mystic theo-philosophical systems themselves labelled “pagan”.

When we look to the East, back into the depths of its history at the first written records to see what they believed, how their societies were organized and what the role of these ancient “priests” were and how their systems of belief were absorbed and used by those in power to stay in power, to re-write history, and to perhaps more than anything else unite a people, what we find is a reliance on, and a direct relationship back to (linguistically and culturally), the forefathers of philosophy and the original written works which came to define their civilization intellectually.

So while the Chinese specifically went through a similar process of social and political transformation and sifting process to determine which theo-philosophical systems to hold onto moving forward and which to reject and label “barbaric” (for example the so called “Burning of the Books” in the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BCE), alongside of the usurping of the divine connection by the emperors to assert their own authority, they still held onto an intellectual tradition, and a linguistic system, that spoke very directly of their pre-historic hunter gatherer and shamanistic societal past.

Far Eastern, i.e. “Chinese”, philosophy has as its basis one of the most persistent and lasting intellectual tradition of any modern civilization.  Even into the modern era, its core curriculum – to use a Western term – continued to be rooted in the study of ancient texts, establishing and reinforcing the longstanding and persistent Chinese culture, history and philosophy as primarily reflected in the Confucian school (Rújiā).  The Five Confucian Classics (Wǔ Jīng)[1] became part of the state sponsored curriculum during the Western Han (aka Former Han) Dynasty (206 BCE – 9CE), when “Confucianism” was adopted by the state in a move that paralleled the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire some six centuries later to the West.

Added to this list of core literary Chinese state sponsored texts in the 12th century by the Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 CE), considered by most to be the most influential Confucian scholar in history outside of Confucius himself, were what have come to be known as the “Four Books” (四書 or Sìshū) a set of Confucian texts which provide the further exposition and explanation of classic “Confucian” thought.  These Four Books are:

  • Great Learning: originally a chapter in the Book of Ritesthat is attributed to Confucius along with a commentary by one of Confucius’s disciples,
  • Doctrine of the Mean: Another chapter of the Book of Rites attributed to Confucius’s grandson focused on the attainment of perfect virtue,
  • the Analects: the only text attributed directly to Confuciushimself, and
  • the Mencius: a collection of dialogues and conversations of the philosopher Mencius, a supposed disciple of Confucius’s grandson, which expanded and expounded upon the ethical, moral and political philosophy set forth by Confucius.

These Four Books were added to the Five Classics and established as part of the state sponsored curriculum in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE), and persisted into the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 CE) until the early part of the 20th century, establishing the fundamental intellectual foundation of virtually all areas of of Chinese influence for almost two thousand years.  It is tempting to speak of these Five Classics, along with the Four Books, as a canon of sorts and certainly if we use a broad definition of the term these texts represent the Chinese religious canon if there ever was one.  The problem with using this terminology however is it invariably carries with it religious undertones, undertones that don’t necessarily carry over to the Eastern tradition completely and entirely.  The logical question of course is, if we call these ancient Chinese texts a “canon”, can it be said that the content of this work, the belief system and worldview which underpins it, is religious?

There has certainly been plenty of debate on this topic in the academic community and otherwise.  While we don’t see some of the hallmark characteristics of Western religion in this long-standing tradition – for example scriptural authority as divine revelation – we do however see an integral form of worship and ritual that is tied more to ancestor worship rather than to a divine being, i.e. a God or gods as the case may be.  It is no doubt the absence of a strong creation story with its ex nihilo assumptions as well as the absence of obsession on the written words as truth (gospel), and clarity of truth itself really, that makes us reluctant to categorize Confucianism as a religious system per se.  Here’s what can be said with certainty however: there does exist a specific set of literature surrounding the philosophical system attributed to Confucius that was compiled and standardized into a set of received and orthodox texts that was used to indoctrinate an entire culture spanning a very large geography for many centuries, millennia even.  It is representative of a distinctive mode of thought, a way of living and behaving, and even a way of governing and ruling that was adopted very early in China’s socio-political history.  Beyond philosophy proper, the tradition included elements of worship and veneration – at least in terms of approach and mode of thinking regarding the same – included a strong emphasis on cultural and ritualistic heritage, and even integrated an ancient notion of God (Heaven, Tiān) that was responsible for the dispensation of justice and the preserver of order in the natural world.

The Chinese philosophical tradition is much more focused on what the ancient Greeks would refer to as the “practical arts” of philosophical inquiry, i.e. Aristotle’s practical philosophy, how is one to live and how is the state to govern its people for the optimization of harmony and prosperity.  Such is their fascination with the Way, referred to as the Dao, a fairly esoteric philosophical construct that permeates virtually all of Chinese philosophy albeit much more strongly in the, not surprisingly, Daoist school which bears its name, versus the Confucian school which represents more or less Chinese orthodoxy after the 2nd century BCE.  An interesting question is why this is the case?  Why did the thinkers in the Far East lean in the direction they did with respect to theo-philosophical thought?  The answer to this question, the theories we might come up with to explain this fundamental intellectual distinction between classic “Eastern” and “Western” modes of thinking, underlying worldviews in fact, although may not be able to be answered definitively, will most certainly lead to a better understanding of the two intellectual paths individually.

One possible explanation is that philosophical lack of precision is a function of the ideogram and logograph form of writing that is so characteristic of Classical Chinese.  This can be directly contrasted from the semantic clarity of the alphabet and subject/object based writing tradition in the West, and by West here we mean not only the Greek/Roman system of writing but also the system of writing in ancient India or Sanskrit.  Whether the writing system itself evolved (or didn’t evolve depending on your perspective) due to this fundamental intellectual characteristic or if the causal relationship was the other way around (vice versa, chicken and egg problem) is perhaps not an answerable question.  This lack of clarity in terms of how ideas are expressed via writing is however a fundamental characteristic of the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition.  It could be argued for example that the language itself, the means of communicating ideas via writing at least, did not lend itself, or to go a step further even did not allow for, the type of systemic intellectual and metaphysical inquiry which is so characteristic of the ancient Hellenic and Indo-Aryan philosophical traditions.

The ancient Chinese system of writing was much more raw, and evolved more directly from the symbols that were used in deep antiquity to denote concepts and notions in and of themselves, and did not have (markedly so) implicit subject and object delineation.  One can look at the Chinese system as a more direct representation of Plato’s forms and ideas in fact, as their symbols, their written language, was a more direct representation of Forms and Ideas that could ever be reflected in Western linguistic systems.  The Western systems were more powerful now doubt, more powerful to the extent that they were simpler, easier to learn, and had more far reaching and broader meanings that could be drawn and expressed than their Chinese counterparts.  Perhaps this is the reason why the intellectuals in the West created what could be considered to be a more sophisticated philosophical and metaphysical system than their counterparts to the Far East, the ancient Chinese philosophers being more concerned with ethics, behavior and right living (Dao), rather than a comprehensive description of metaphysics and the nature of reality that was a hallmark of the early Greek philosophers.

While it is difficult to say whether or not the linguistic system within which these various philosophical systems developed was the cause of such a divergence, or the other way around, it is clear that the two civilizations, civilizations which had no real contact with each other until well into the Common Era, took very different routes in their approach to understanding the world around them and their development of intellectual thought to support the evolution and growth of their respective civilizations.  What we do know however, and this is true in the West as well but perhaps more pronounced in the Far East in ancient China, is that philosophy was used as a form of statecraft.  The connection between the philosophers, the intellectual elite, and the rulers and aristocracy was of a much different sort in the Classical era.  While the philosophical schools in the West were intellectually free of political ties, particularly in the Hellenic tradition, in the East the art of intellectual inquiry, the written word, developed primarily as a means to help create a better society – in no small measure due to the fact that the time period of Chinese history when this intellectual development was taking place, when these texts that survive down to us were taking on their final form, was marred by great internal conflict and strife, aptly named the Warring States Period.

As such we are left with an intellectual system from the ancient Far East that although reaches far back into history, it for the most part nonetheless takes on a very practical and sociological purpose – namely how to establish the best possible conditions for a conflict free and harmonious society.  This can be said of virtually all of ancient Chinese philosophical inquiry, even the Daoist tradition which although was counter-cultural in a way, almost rebellious to the Confucian way of thinking, was focused on the Way (Dao) and not again necessarily on what could be considered “true” or how reality should be defined.  In some sense, this is the fundamental distinction between Eastern and Western intellectual development – one which wants to break the world down into parts and structure and another that is much more concerned with how to live in a more holistic way within the universal order, i.e. what has come to be called naturalism by many in Western academic circles.

In the Far East in particular, in ancient China, philosophical development is almost completely disconnected from the mythological traditions and ancient forms of worship which preceded them.  So while we have evidence of these ancient forms of worship and surrounding mythos, primarily from the archeological record and some vague and indirect references from the ancient historical works, the intellectual tradition of the Far East is characterized by what can only be called a general skepticism, and perhaps even a dismissal of, these ancient forms of worship which no doubt – like their counterparts to the West and the Indian subcontinent – were associated with hymns, ceremonies, worship and sacrifice to their respective gods and deities, some of which can perhaps fall into the category of ancestral (heroic) worship which is one of the unique characteristics of (what we know of) the ancient theological tradition of the Far East.  Nonetheless the ancient Chinese do develop lasting philosophical systems – such as Daoism and Confucianism for example – that although lack some of the distinguishing characteristics of Western philosophy, i.e. being based upon reason and logic (i.e. Logos) – still nonetheless fall into the broader category of philosophy in a global sense, i.e. one that includes the Eastern as well as Western traditions from antiquity.

The ancient Hindu (Indo-Aryan) philosophical tradition in contrast, still retains a clear record and connection to this transition from these ancient forms of worship into the study of philosophy, the nature of “reality”, as is recorded in the rich textual tradition that has survived intact as it were.  We refer specifically here to the ancient texts of the Indo-Aryans such as the Vedas and their philosophical counterpart the Upanishads, the Purāṇas, the Brahmā Sūtras, the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), the sum total of which provide not only the theo-philosophical underpinning of all Indian philosophy (what has come to be known as Hinduism) even to this day, but also record and capture the connection between, and the ultimate transition to, ancient forms of worship that are recorded in painstaking detail in these ancient works, the Vedas in particular.

To the Western scientist, at least most of them, this objective realist subject-object metaphysics world is in fact true, an accurate depiction of reality, and any other worldview that contradicts this is fundamental untrue, unreal, and based upon conjecture or some wishy washy philosophical belief system that is neither verifiable or objectively true.  This is despite the fact that great thinkers such as Descartes and Kant, not to mention Plato and Aristotle, great thinkers who laid the philosophical foundations for modern science, were forced to incorporate the act of perception directly into their metaphysics.  This objective realist intellectual position lies at the heart of the Western materialism and consumerism and sits in stark contrast to the philosophical and metaphysical systems that have originated to the East – Vedānta, Yoga and Daoism being perhaps the best examples.

These philosophical systems of the East subsume the act of perception however, the subjective mental framework which guides our everyday existence, into their metaphysical models.  They furthermore posit that the individual act of perception is connected and inextricably linked to the cosmic and organic principle which governs and rests within the physical universe.  This is where the philosophical systems of the East and West diverge basically.  The Western systems, which include the great religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism speak of an external and omnipresent God who is to be worshipped and whose laws are to be followed whereas the Eastern systems do not distinguish between that which is within and that which is without, tat tvam asi as goes one of the great Vedic precepts, or “thou art that”.

In the East then, again most markedly by the underlying theo-philosophical systems of the Far East (China), what we in the West call “science”, i.e. the physical world, is seen as an aspect of what we in the West have come to call the “natural” world.  In the East, the understanding of natural phenomenon is not completely segregated from other fields of study as it is in Western intellectual tradition, but integrated within it as a branch of knowledge but not complete within itself.  This can be seen for example in the practice of Vedic (Ayurvedic) or Chinese medicine where the underlying “science” of the respective approach is built on top of and integrated with the underlying, and wholly integral, theo-philosophical system rather than standing alone outside and separate from it.  This is why we in the West have come to call this “holistic” medicine.  In many respects this worldview was reflected in Aristotle’s original conception of knowledge, epistêmê, where the Physics was referred to as natural philosophy, reflecting its essential codependence and relationship to the other branches of philosophy – practical philosophy – Ethics, Political Philosophy, the Arts, etc. – as well as first philosophy (i.e. metaphysics).

In this Eastern, holistic and process based worldview, the universe is not looked upon as fundamentally “objective” per se, as having existence outside of the context within which we experience it or perceive it, but from a more integral and synthetic, and ultimately harmonious, perspective.  In this context, the goal of life is not the optimization of some self-centered idea of “happiness” – whether this notion is defined as the attainment of some set of predefined materialistic objective phenomena or even from a psychological perspective as the achievement of some certain state of “consciousness” that we look upon as reflecting “tranquility” or “serenity” necessarily, either of which focuses on a very narrow definition of “self” – but is rather defined as a harmonious and balanced state of Being, to use the English translation of the early Hellenic philosophical term which Plato adopts and which forms one of the cornerstone principles, along with the notion of Becoming, of his theo-philosophy.

In the holistic and process based worldview, one which we again are calling “Eastern”, “happiness” is achieved by first a recognition and basic understanding of the interconnectedness and codependence on the notion of “self” with the world within which it lives – as we learn from any rational interpretation of Quantum Theory quite definitively – both from a naturalistic and humanistic, as well as socio-political context, and then subsequently by a complete acquiescence and integration of this mindset, this understanding, into our whole existence, an existence which is defined not by the existence of some “I” or ego which perceives and interacts with objects that all exist within a basic space-time continuum, but an existence which is defined as a continuous process of unfoldment (to use Bohm’s terminology) of experience which includes not just the individual who is “perceiving” but also the “objects” of perception, the cognitive experience itself which “connects” the two, as well as the entire natural world within which this “experience” takes place.

However, in order to truly recognize the importance of the very basic idea of “the meaning of life”, our purpose for being here, and the relevance of whatever answer we may come up with for this very basic of questions really, we must first fundamental transform our definition of knowledge, i.e. sciencia, itself.  The alternative being proposed here is that we revert back to a more Aristotelian definition of knowledge, i.e. epistêmê, where any understanding of a “thing” must include an understanding of its purpose, or “how” and “why” it came into being.  Once we do this, then the question itself of the meaning of life, its underlying purpose as it were, is not “relegated” to the “unscientific” domains of religion or philosophy, given the “non-empirical” and “unverifiable” nature of any answer we may come up, but then wholly integrated into scientific inquiry, an inquiry that is defined in a much broader sense as an understanding of being – being qua being – rather than confined to the domains of natural philosophy or physics.  This inversion allows us to establish at least the basic intellectual framework where we can incorporate “purpose” and “meaning” back into any study of anything really, or anything whose “existence” we wish to try to understand.

[1] Again the Five Classics are the Shujingor the Book of Documents, the Shijing or Book of Songs, the Liji or Book of Rites, the Chūnqiū or Spring and Autumn Annals and the Yìjīng or Book of Changes.

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