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Moral Moments

The History of the World, Part 2

by Joel Marks

An Asian philosopher once explained the layout of Oriental philosophy to me quite succinctly: Chinese philosophy is Far Eastern, Indian is South Asian, and Islamic is Near Eastern. I shall try to expand on that at slightly greater length in the present column, which carries on the project I discussed previously (in Issue 47) of introducing or, you might say, orienting Occidentals to Asian traditions of thought that rival our own in pedigree and scope. (I have, however, relegated Islam to the ‘Western’ tradition due to its Abrahamic lineage.) Although not all Westerners are as geographically challenged as one of my college students who asked, “Where’s Asia?” many Americans, at least, do show amazingly little recognition of the great philosophical traditions of the rest of the world. (Now that I think about it, they show amazingly little recognition of the Western tradition as well! But you, Dear Reader, have demonstrated your intellectual spunk by reading this magazine.) I’ll offer a few tidbits in this column that will, I hope, whet the appetite.

Let us begin with Mother India. As far back as Abraham in the ‘West’ (Near East? Middle East?), the rishis meditated in the forests. Their communions with ultimate reality were eventually written down as the Upanishads, the ne plus ultra of the world’s metaphysical philosophies. A very accessible translation into English was rendered by Christopher Isherwood and his Hollywood guru, Swami Prabhavananda. (Isherwood is the author of Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based.) The book is short, as are most of the editions of Asian texts I will recommend for the novice; and all of them, in one version or another, can be found in any half-decent bookstore and on the Internet. Thus, a person can establish his or her first familiarity with the essential Eastern corpus in a few evenings or in a weekend.

The tradition of India is also known as Hinduism (both names from the same root, referring to the Indus river valley where this civilization began). Midway in its history was born a prince, Siddhartha Gautama. The story of how he became the Enlightened One – the Buddha – is one of the world’s treasures. (A depiction is contained within Bertolucci’s charming 1993 film, Little Buddha.) His function as a reformer and then a founder is reminiscent of Jesus, whose anointment as the Christ would come half a millennium later. Both were princes of peace. However, the Buddha is not God, or a god, or a prophet of God, or an oracle of a god. He is, perhaps, a psychologist! I recommend Irving Babbitt’s translation of the Dhammapada.

In India, Hinduism eventually embraced Buddhism (as it does all things), and the result was the Bhagavad Gita. Considered a kind of Hindu Bible, it is, again, quite short, and the Isherwood and Prabhavananda version is fine. The text is actually an excerpt from the Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic poem, full of gods and heroes and great battles. Interestingly, its philosophical nugget, the Gita, was an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi’s epochal campaign of nonviolent action, by which he accomplished what George Washington had required bloodshed to do (with all due respect to my English readers). Gandhi’s deeds and thoughts in turn inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement in the U.S., and both Gandhi’s and King’s successes were models for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, whose achievements eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

Returning to ancient times: China gave rise to two great schools of thought, Taoism (or Daoism) and Confucianism. Their seminal (and short!) works – the Tao Te Ching (also called the Lao Tzu, after its purported author, a near contemporary of Confucius, or K’ung-Fu-Tzu, who was himself a contemporary of the Buddha) and the Confucian Analects – are a study in contrast: the one mystical and paradoxical, the other straightforward and conventional. Both pay heed to the still earlier tradition of yin/yang: the harmony of opposites. These two ‘opposites’ (Taoism and Confucianism) themselves harmonized (this being an Asian trait, it seems, as witness also Hinduism and Buddhism, and contrasting to the bloody relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their relations with the others), although Confucianism became the titular creed of the Chinese civil service for over two millennia, until Mao.

Meanwhile, Buddhism had spread eastward out of India. This fact became very belatedly known to Americans of my generation when we saw images on television of Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest repression. This made a lasting impression of the power of meditative self-control (or selfless nonattachment, as the case may be).

A very different face is presented by the Ch’an philosophy of China, which resulted from the blending of Buddhism with the indigenous Taoism of such carefree sages as Chuang Tzu. Thus, Ch’an is a kind of culmination of the two great traditions of India and China. Ch’an continued the eastward migration of Buddhism, to Japan, where it became Zen – as distinctive and delightful a philosophy as the world has known. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a nonpareil collection of stories and wisdom, compiled by Paul Reps.

But the eastward journey of Buddhism was still not over: In a kind of reverse-Columbus, it struck out towards the rising sun to reach the West (perhaps abetted by the American occupation of Japan after World War II). For in the 1950s on the shores of America there appeared the Beat Generation, whose main figures, such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, were heavily influenced by Zen. Kerouac’s novel about ‘dharma bums’ – On the Road – also became the defining metaphor of the hippies of the following decade, eponymously known (with affection by some) as the Sixties.

To conclude this wild road trip of my own, I note that the beat-niks were Buddhists and the Beat-les were Hindus (courtesy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). Thus, from island nations on either side of Eurasia, Asian philosophies migrated to the U.S., where they helped to create the current generation of my students, who have never heard of any of this stuff (except the Beatles).

© Joel Marks 2004

Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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