Starting in the early 60s, the West became fascinated with Eastern philosophy. The counter-cultural loved it because it seemed to offer everything the West was lacking—esteem for nature over machine, mystery over dominance, and balance over forward-motion.
Yet, while its secrets have grown more familiar, the East has kept its distance, and sometimes our perception of its philosophies can be defined by caricatures. Hinduism may be encapsulated by its cyclical understanding of reality or Buddhism by an unending sense of tranquility and nonaggression. But in truth there is much more.
For understanding the faiths and philosophies of the East, one must start with Hinduism. Known by its practitioners as the Sanātana Dharma, or “eternal law,” Hinduism provides the perfect foundation by being the world’s oldest religion and the religion out of which almost all the others were born. At its core, Hinduism sees the universe as a series of concentric circles webbing out from the divine, and this motif of infinity is apparent throughout the faith, namely the belief in reincarnation. But while rebirth is central to the ancient religion, the ultimate desire is escape. One method for liberation, according to the Advaita, is fully comprehending that all is one—all is Brahman—and that the diversity in what we perceive is simply illusion.
Belief systems and worship practices for the followers of Hinduism are diverse. As humankind’s oldest religion, you’d expect many different variations and branches within the faith—some bearing little resemblance to others. Buddhism and Jainism, for example, are considered by Hindus to be unorthodox branches of the faith. Some common Hindu practices include individual worship (forgoing the assembly in favor of mantras and meditation), sacrificing animals, and the infamous caste system (which is bearable given their belief in rebirth).
An early offshoot of Hinduism is Jainism, a religion you might recognize for sporting a backwards swastika as its logo. Jainism believes that every soul is potentially divine, and that when a soul is released from the cycle of reincarnation, it resides at the apex of the universe in spiritual freedom. It recognizes the existence of the Hindu pantheon but is entirely more concerned with the life of the practitioner.
The emphasis of Jainism is on asceticism and escaping the material world. This can be seen through the Great Vows which its holy people make: nonviolence, speaking the truth, abstaining from sex, not stealing, and detachment from all things (material, status, relationships). Its laypeople make similar vows. And make no mistake—these are not empty vows; it is important in Jainism that each person makes progress in their stages of rebirth, inching towards freedom. Like Hinduism, they have no need for clergy, and worship is done individually. Mediation is a staple as well as prayer for friendship, peace, and compassion. Jainism experiences some division and dwindling numbers.
Buddhism, another Hindu offshoot, probably holds the most familiar place in Western culture. Its founder, Siddhartha Guatama became the the Buddha, or “Enlightened One,” after conceiving of the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism and was persuaded by Brahma’s persuasion to share his insight with others. The Buddhist worldview, descending from that of Hinduism, holds that all things are linked (as with reincarnation) and illusory, and to escape it is to be totally independent—this is nirvana.
The main beliefs and ethics of Buddhism, however, can be summed in the Four Noble Truths: existence is dukkha (unsatisfactory and full of suffering), dukkha arrises from craving or clinging, dukkha can cease (nirvana), and we can achieve this through the Eightfold Path—right understanding, right directed-thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhists are encouraged to work out their own salvation, not relying on external assistance.
In addition to Buddhism, the East is dominated by folk religions, particularly in China and Japan. Most of these faiths, however, are not very religious. Confucianism, for instance, accepts the existence of the divine but is primarily a conservative form of humanism. Taoism, another prominent ideology in China, has two main streams: philosophical and religious. Both modes teach adherents to go with the flow and just be cool (for all my doobie brothers)—we should do what’s natural. Taoism holds that we can achieve immortality through personal discipline and directing the natural forces within us. Both Confucianism and Taoism make use of the concepts of yin and yang and thus encourage balance in the universe and in daily life.
Before moving on, I want to admit that it is unfair to lump these together—each is a totally unique philosophy or religion with hundreds, even thousands, of years of history. With that said—let’s try to find some connecting threads:
The doctrine of reincarnation, which makes an appearance in several Eastern faiths, is crucial to understanding their way of thinking. Not only does it demonstrate their obsession with repetition and the cyclical nature of the universe, it is a conceptual monument to their indifference toward the individual. In the unending processes of rebirth, one’s identity is not maintained by one’s attitude or character, but through the general connective tissue of the cosmos. A person is swallowed up by the whole, and traditional Eastern thought has little interest in contesting that.
Another thread is the Zen school of thought, which while most directly related to Buddhism (and sorta to Taoism), resonates with sentiments common throughout Eastern philosophy. Zen focuses on self-control and meditation, practices that are clearly beneficial for the soul, but also has a practical interest—using these tools to better one’s own life as well as the lives of others.
Lastly, you may have noticed a pattern after Hinduism that Easterners typically believe in the divine and spiritual forces but their religions are, perhaps, more aptly described as philosophies. Despite India being a hotbed for religion and housing a pantheon of millions of gods, Eastern thinking as a whole has little use for detached or ineffectual deities and instead cultivates the efforts of humanity.
Eastern religions hold countless treasures—novel and mysterious to the Western mind. Without a doubt, there is much to be gained by bringing their secrets into our own schools and churches. Entire religions have been built up on a synthesis of the two ways of thinking (Sikhism, to name one). While caution may be appropriate for their approaches to the divine, Eastern philosophies offer an unparalleled opportunity for self-improvement, something to not be taken lightly.