Book Review: Eastern Philosophy

EasternPhilosophyCoverEastern Philosophy
by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Orion, 2005
256 pages (hardcover)

Powell’s Books

Having recently taught a course that touched on various concepts found in Eastern philosophy, I was surprised to find that in graduate-level theological education, the closest 90% or more of my students came to knowing anything about Eastern philosophy, was what they heard in the movie, Kung Fu Panda.

This is not an exaggeration.

My students were also frustrated with the complexity of what they were learning.  This is partly due to the struggles of wrapping a Western Christian mind around an entirely different concept of existence.  Still, it was a learning experience for myself, as well.  I felt like an anthropologist, sitting back, observing reactions of students in their natural habitat, and curiously noting the words they chose to describe and critique the views they were reading.  They were clearly puzzled.  I was also puzzled by the number of rejections that did not seem to come from careful thinking—after all, many had spent less than a week with the views they were learning—but rather from the anxiety that occurred from reading something unfamiliar.  It was a case of fearing the unknown.  Despite these difficulties, there was a light side;  a few students were attempting to be calm and objective, particularly the mystical types who noticed a few similarities.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s Eastern Philosophy was chosen as a way to get my students into the diversity of over 3,000 years of Eastern thought.  Ram-Prasad’s book introduces the reader to the diversity of the Eastern world and I found it to be an enjoyable read. His approach is to offer a more in-depth look at fewer subjects (one per chapter), which allows him to do justice to the complexity of Eastern philosophy.  Chapters include “Ultimate Questions and Answers,” “The Self,” The Outward Good,” “The Inward Good,” Language,” “Knowledge,” and “Logic.”  There is also a “Glossary of Names and Schools” and a section for further reading.  This format does not work for everyone, especially if the reader is a charts-and-flashcards kind of person, but I enjoyed it.

Eastern Philosophy is a motif-driven conversation the relies on diversity to move forward in presentation and reminds us to not assume.  For example, when examining “classical Chinese philosophy,” Ram-Prasad calls it “ametaphysical,” noting that “as we look at Confucianism and Daoism in particular, we will see that the ultimate questions they ask are not about reality,” contra Western Christianity.  Classical Chinese philosophy is meta-ethical and concerned with how we are to “act in the world.”  The Buddha, on the other hand, does bother to make claims about reality but, as Ram-Prasad points out, the world and humanity are not substantial.

Wheel of Life - MarenYumi

(Image: The Bhavachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist representation of the “wheel of life.” MarenYumi – Flickr, CCL)

Because Eastern Philosophy is concerned with Eastern threads, connections, and complexities, it does not dive into Western and Eastern differences or similarities.  If used as a text, the instructor would have to provide another route for this conversation.  It is, nevertheless, a useful text for promoting this kind of discussion.

Western Christianity and Eastern philosophy do have similar concerns, if not always beginning in the same place and arriving at the same conclusions.  The difficulty is communicating those points and getting students to see them as opportunities for religious dialogue.  Consider the idea of a soul:  Ram-Prasad reminds us that in Eastern philosophy, the atman or self can have various meanings or nuances, from soul, to person, to the “‘subject’ of awareness.”  Sounds simple, but the Upanisads add a wrinkle with the addition of a cycle of lives.

What happens when a cycle of lives enters the mix?  The atman is something that “transcends the body and its experiences” and so the question becomes, what exactly is it?  As Ram-Prasad writes, the Atman:

animate[s] and provide[s] the foundations for a person through a life; without it, there would be no person.  But when that person—that being with parents, personality, character, relationships, and body, which has its own identity—dies, the self does not cease to exist with the person.  It passes into another life and becomes the foundation of another person (or an animal, which lacks personhood).  This is somewhat paradoxical:  the self of the human person is truly and really what that person is, but that is precisely because the true self is more than—and lasts beyond—that person!

Things get more complicated when Ram-Prasad engages discussions of self and the Buddha.  How can one describe something without appealing to its relationship to something else?  For the Buddha, says Ram-Prasad, the analogy of the chariot makes this point.  Can we discuss the nature of a chariot without discussing its parts, and take away the parts “and there is no chariot left. There is no such thing as a chariot in itself; there is no essence to a chariot.” When we remove all the parts we end up in discussions of being that potentially comes to nothing.  Moreover, as Ram-Prasad notes, in India, the Hindu schools emphasize a “unifying subject-self,” in order to “explain the experience of a continuous, concrete person.”  In other words, Eastern thought is diverse, and Ram-Prasad brings this out well.

How does this connect with Christianity?  In reading Ram-Prasad, a few students could not escape the conclusion that Eastern philosophy is complicated, perhaps too complicated for them to be interested.  Christianity seemed to offer a simpler solution. For the average Christian, the soul is traditionally the immaterial and persistent side of the human being.  The soul is the real you.  The person experiences a single birth, life, death, and eternal life.  The immaterial soul continues that person’s narrative in each stage, with consciousness, growth, and identity.

This may allow things to feel simplified for the Christian lay person, but the problem is a lack of knowledge of their own religion and the various positions and lengthy discussions Christians theologians and philosophers have had on this subject for centuries.  Christians have asked very similar questions on the nature of the soul and so it should not surprise anyone that there is more to the story than simply identifying an immaterial side to human existence.  Discussions of the soul often involve complex inquisitions into the nature of identity, what it means to be an immaterial thing, and the problem of finding the essential being of anything.  Does a person have a body and soul?  Is a person both body and soul?  Where does the real personality of a person exist?  Does a soul have a spatial relationship?  Some, as Christian philosopher Kevin Corcoran argues in Rethinking Human Nature, rebuff the idea of a soul altogether and argue for materialism.  John Locke placed identity in memory and Jonathan Edwards found it in mind of God.

So perhaps the best way to promote dialogue is to begin with a better view of one’s own religion.  There are commonplaces for dialogue.

In this same course, my students were to explore these areas by engaging in an interview with someone of an entirely different religion.  There were to ask certain pre-arranged questions without proselytizing, and to consider the differences and similarities.  They then wrote a short paper on it and—for the sake of honesty—had to turn a copy of that same paper in to the person they interviewed.  Not all seemed to understand the person they interviewed, but I saw many realizing that they shared common concerns, especially when it came to social issues.

One should recognize that, as Stephen Prothero once wrote in Newsweek, “it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful—and all are true. The proof text for this happy affirmation comes, appropriately enough, from the Hindu Vedas rather than the Christian Bible: ‘Truth is one, the sages call it by many names.’”  Nevertheless, there is a lot of inter-religious conversation to be had, and a lot more to learn, particularly for myself, in this area.  There is a reason why scholars have wondered about the cross-pollination of ideas between Zen Buddhism or Hinduism and Eastern Christianity, particularly with apophatic mysticism of Meister Eckhart and Gregory Palamas.  (This potential connection has labeled these figures controversial even within the broader Christian world.)  Even the celebrated evangelical, Jonathan Edwards, has a view of divine emanation that has led to charges of potential monism.

Because of the many nuances in Eastern Philosophy, I found students who either loved or hated the book, but rarely did they seem to fall in the middle.  Nevertheless, none of them seemed to miss an opportunity to learn.  At 256 pages Ram-Prasad’s book is not an insurmountable read.   At the very least, it allows the Western Christian to get a glimpse into the beliefs of a neighbor and follow one of the most agreed-upon beliefs, The Golden Rule.

  • I’m very interested in exploring world religions via the narratives adherents of those religions write, as opposed to those written by others even when they’re trying to be fair. Eastern philosophy is so diverse that it’s hard to find introductory books that do it justice–but this sounds like a winner. Looks like yet another title coming from this new blog to my TBR list–thanks for the great recommendations!

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