Discover the holistic and all-encompassing philosophies of the ancient East.
- Taoist philosophy teaches its adherents the paradoxical action of non-action.
- Over three thousand years ago, the I Ching conceptualized binary code and influenced major asian religions
- Ram Dass and Herman Hesse synthesized western scientific and philosophic views with traditional eastern religions to inform their teachings.
All cultures in the world have sought to develop an understanding of themselves, their realities and seek deeper truths. While the scientific and reductionist worldview of European thought has labored to formulate and postulate on the world, a divergence of thought also flourished throughout the East with a more holistic view of existence. These ideals and differing thoughts have certainly pollinated and crossed one another throughout the years. Today, the old dichotomy and division of Eastern and Western thought has largely dissolved or converged. In the past century or so, these views of the world were more alienated from one another.
In a more seemingly rapid paced world without sanctuary or peace of mind, it's time we return to these books on Eastern philosophy. Discover what has been lost and what can be found again.
Tao Te Ching
This influential and widely known Chinese text is attributed to the great sage Lao Tzu. Short and whimsical, the "Tao Te Ching" reads more like folky Aesop's fables than fundamental religious doctrine. It's a slim book and a quick read, but leaves behind new profundities on the nature of being and reality. Stephen Mitchell's poetic translation keeps the wisdom intact.
Considered the foundational text for Taoism, the "Tao Te Ching" leads its reader into a newfound, harmonious way of existing in the world. Taoism is the paradoxical concept of non-action or "doing not-doing". Mitchell writes in the introduction that: "The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can't tell the dancer from the dance."
"Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity."
– Lao Tzu
"The Analects" are a collection of Confucius' sayings after the fact; they were written sometime after his death in 497 BCE. Confucius' goal was to create and uphold the ideal vision of what a man should be. He wanted to perfect one's moral character and develop the methods toward pursuing such a grand goal.
Drawing from many different ancient Chinese texts and philosophies already in existence, the philosophy or religion of Confucianism has gone through many iterations. It shares a similarity with Christianity and the works of Socrates as both these philosophies and religions had the words of their leaders written after their deaths by their devotees.
One of the great classics of world literature, "The Analects" have to be read firsthand to be truly understood.
"Not to discuss with a man worthy of conversation is to waste the man. To discuss with a man not worthy of conversation is to waste words. The wise waste neither men nor words." – Confucius, "The Analects"
The I Ching
"The I Ching" has had an immense influence on the world. It's influenced Chinese thought for thousands of years and radically changed notions of mathematics and psychology in the West within the past few centuries. As the basis for binary code and a whole slew of other interesting phenomenon, "The I Ching" is one of the oldest efforts to try to reconcile the human mind into the greater cosmic scheme of things.
Richard Wilhelm's translation is the definitive book on "The I Ching", serving as both a reference, commentary and faithful rendition of the original text. The book can be used in a number of ways, and it stands as both the source for Confucianist and Taoist philosophy.
The Bhagavad Gita
Nowhere is there a more full picture of the rich spiritual realm and world of the Hindu faith. Considered to be a masterpiece of Sanskrit poetry, "The Bhagavad Gita" is one of our best sources for ancient Hinduism. It's part of a larger epic called "Mahabharata", but stands alone as a cornerstone of the religion.
The story describes a battle between two great armies as the god Krishna comes down mid-battle to enlighten the warrior Arjuna. The epic is non-linear and a long running philosophical treatise on the notions of freedom, understanding, meaning of life and the nature of reality. Concepts of the cyclical nature of time and cosmic oneness of the universe are all expressed in this book.
"The nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed." – "The Bhagavad Gita"
Herman Hesse's classic has resonated with countless generations and remains an inspiring novel. The story is written in simple verse and follows a wealthy Indian Brahmin as he leaves a life of privilege and religiosity to try to find true spiritual fulfillment. Hesse's treatment of the religious enlightenment is diverse as he weaves into classical Eastern thought, Jungian psychology and existentialism.
Siddhartha leaves home with his friend Govinda and journeys through the many iterations of enlightenment seeking. He is not confined to any piety or guru worship as he joins the ascetics, follows the Buddha and even rejects him before going on to become a rich man and experience the pleasures of the world. Soon he understands that all experience is provisional and dependent on himself. Only the individual can find their own enlightenment.
"Words do not express thoughts very well. they always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another." – Herman Hesse, "Siddhartha"
Be Here Now
This is the recounting of a lifetime of experience and spiritual seeking from the man who would begin his journey as Dr. Richard Alpert and transcend into Baba Ram Dass. Both a biography, exploration of mysticism and period piece of the 1960s counterculture, "Be Here Now" is a riveting and unconventional book. It's a book to be experienced. There are many illustrations and wonderful poetic distillations of the many religions of the world.
Ram Dass has a simple message and that is to live in the present moment.
"Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW... so you stop asking." – Baba Ram Dass, "Be Here Now"
The Way of Zen
Alan Watts wrote and lectured on Zen Buddhism for much of his life. He had an incredible way of explaining its practices and principles to early curious Western readers in the mid-20th century. Watts considered Zen to be "one of the most precious gifts of Asia to the world." He wrote:
"Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture. Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life." Alan Watts, "The Way of Zen"
Watts explains the concept of Zen as far as he can take it before that switch clicks and you're in on the cosmic laugh. Although Zen is one branch of Buddhism, it is more concerned with the ideals of spontaneous action and thought. Emptiness, detachment from desire and even renouncing the idea of enlightenment are all tenets of Zen that Watts lays out in a playful and profound way.
What would you do if money was no object?
- Philosopher, Alan Watts believed we too easily mistake the symbolic for the real.
- If money was no object, we'd seek what we truly desire.
- Watts believed we can only have so much ostentatious consumption.
In a thought-provoking lecture Alan Watts once posed this great question: "What would you do if money was no object?"
This pointed and hyperbolic question asks us to dig into the deeper truth of what it is we really want and desire in life and also question the symbolic importance we place on the almighty abstraction of the dollar.
Watts urged his listeners to detach themselves from the notion of chasing money to satisfy our desires. Easier said than done of course — but in typical koan fashion, Watts manages to show us that when we instead seek something less material and more spiritually fulfilling, the money part won't become an issue in the end.
What would you do if money was no object?
The gist of Watt's speech is as follows:
"So I always ask the question, 'what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?' Well, it's so amazing as a result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say well, we'd like to be painters, we'd like to be poets, we'd like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can't earn any money that way…
Let's go through with it. What do you want to do? When we finally got down to something, which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, you do that and forget the money, because, if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time… To structure your existence with an objective of monetary gain is to spend a lifetime chasing an abstraction.
... And after all, if you do really like what you're doing, it doesn't matter what it is, you can eventually turn it — you could eventually become a master of it. It's the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it. And then you'll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don't worry too much..."
Now money is a fundamental fact of our current constructed reality, even Alan Watts understood that. Barter, exchange, value, currency and what have you – there is absolutely no feasible way around it. So leave your pipe dreams and utopian visions at the door, just entertain the question at face value for now. It's probing for something much deeper than some cheap ideological economic fix.
Alan Watts on being paid for his work
Alan Watts on money, possessions and lifestyle www.youtube.com
Pontificating on this issue in any regard is risky business as inherent contradictory and seemingly hypocritical charges are bound to be directed at its speaker.
Watts rightfully so, silenced any criticism for any monetary gain he received for his work. After all, he knew that he was playing the society game and needed to make a living for himself. Watts was a philosopher and quite good at what he did.
This line of questioning would lead to Watts making an important distinction on the nature of differentiating between money and wealth. On a personal level, he understood what wealth was to him and the limits of a human's capacity to experience luxury and excess:
"There are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume... We cannot drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour 12 roasts of beef at one meal."
Does It Matter? Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality
Watts explored the issue deeper in his anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality. In the essay "Wealth Versus Money," Watts remarked on the inability for humankind to distinguish between the merely symbolic and the true.
All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is...
He looks into our simple confusion between money and wealth:
"Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.
But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth."
This type of symbolic thinking manifests itself in all outlets of the physical world. In his essay, Watts makes a point about the how the fundamental confusion between money and wealth leads us to preposterous positions. He used the Great Depression as an example.
"Remember the Great Depression of the '30s? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up-and-up; and the next, unemployment, poverty, and bread lines,
What happened? The physical resources of the country the brain, brawn, and raw materials were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so-called financial slump…
Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees..."
Watts makes no claim of being an economic or financial expert. Those to him are mere surface roles muddying the waters at the core of this issue he's trying to broach. Watts likens the absurdity to a man coming to work on the building of a house, the morning of the Depression and the boss saying to him:
Sorry, baby, but we can't build today. No inches.
Watts realized that there was going to be and will always be harsh resistance to this type of idea or rather awareness of the symbolic:
"What wasn't understood then, and still isn't really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself.
It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution."
Now wait just a minute before flinging out those Communist manifestos and leading a riot down Billionaire's row. Regulation and taxation on this abstraction is not the answer.
"To try to correct this irresponsibility by passing laws would be wide of the point, for most of the law has as little relation to life as money to wealth. On the contrary, problems of this kind are aggravated rather than solved by the paperwork of politics and law.
What is necessary is at once simpler and more difficult: only that financiers, bankers, and stockholders must turn themselves into real people and ask themselves exactly what they want out of life — in the realization that this strictly practical and hard–nosed question might lead to far more delightful styles of living than those they now pursue. Quite simply and literally, they must come to their senses — for their own personal profit and pleasure."
So then we're brought back to the original question: what do I desire?
Mindfulness mediation has many benefits, but to focus on the benefits is to miss the point of mindfulness.
Big Think has mentioned before how great mindfulness meditation is for you. Reducing stress, helping to make you a better person, and helping us to better understand ourselves is all in day’s work for mindfulness. Recently there has even been evidence that mindfulness can delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. It is increasingly popular across the world as millions seek the potential benefits of quietly observing their minds, focusing on their breathing, and living in the moment.
But some of the reasons we might cite for doing it are strictly modern reasons; people like Gautama Buddha could not have known that he might have been delaying Alzheimer's when he began to meditate, and Zen monks have been practicing Shikantaza meditation, focused on the moment and observation of the mind, for a millennia. So why do we practice mindfulness? What was the original reason?
In his book You Have to Say Something, Dainin Katagiri, a Buddhist monk of the Zen tradition, offers us an answer. When discussing why people bother practicing zazen meditation he says “Because Zen is everyday life, to live day by day.” He goes on, “For this, all you have to do is concentrate on your hands, your feet, your eyes, your mind – in this present moment.” He goes on to say that, “Zen practice is to be fully alive in each moment.” One reason to meditate is to reset ourselves to attentiveness in the moment.
So I can practice meditation to help live in the moment and help to prevent Alzheimer’s? What a deal! However, Dainin offers us a warning against using meditation as a tool in this way. Saying that it is an end in itself, and that if we focus on it as a means to an end then we not only misunderstand but stand to not benefit much at all from doing it.
To his way of thinking, the benefits of meditation are side effects of adopting a mindful way of being. If we try to obtain those benefits without fully grasping mindfulness, we are liable to fail. On the other hand he feels that focusing on meditation as an end comes naturally. “When mindfulness, thoughts, and views all work together as one, this is zazen. If you truly realise this, you can’t be using zazen as a means to a happy future. You can only do zazen itself.”
Mindfulness has many benefits, but to focus purely on the benefits is to miss part of the point. We benefit from a new way of thinking about how and why we act. If we apply only 'means end' thinking to mindfulness, we are likely to lose out entirely.
Katagiri, Dainin, and Steve Hagen. You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight. Boston: Shambhala, 1998. Print.
Larouche E, Hudon C, Goulet S (Jan 2015). "Potential benefits of mindfulness-based interventions in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: An interdisciplinary perspective".Behav Brain Res. 1 (276): 199–212.