Eastern Philosophy Explained with Three Animated Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

“Among the founders of reli­gions,” writes Walpo­la Rahu­la in his book What the Bud­dha Taught, “the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be oth­er than a human being, pure and sim­ple. […] He attrib­uted all his real­iza­tion, attain­ment and achieve­ments to human endeav­or and human intel­li­gence.” Rahula’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Bud­dhism is only one of a great many, of course. In some tra­di­tions, the Bud­dha is mirac­u­lous and more or less divine. But this quote sums up why the gen­er­al­ly non-the­is­tic sys­tem of East­ern thought is often called a psy­chol­o­gy or phi­los­o­phy rather than a reli­gion. With the video above, Alain de Botton—whose School of Life has recent­ly brought us a sur­vey of West­ern philoso­phers—begins his intro­duc­tion to East­ern thought with Bud­dhism. The Buddha’s sto­ry, de Bot­ton says, “is a sto­ry about con­fronting suf­fer­ing.”

Born the son of a wealthy Indi­an king and des­tined for great­ness by a prophecy—or so the sto­ry goes—Siddhartha Gau­ta­ma, the future Bud­dha, dis­cov­ered human suf­fer­ing dur­ing brief excur­sions from his palace. Appalled and dis­turbed by sick­ness, aging, and death, the Bud­dha left his lux­u­ri­ous life (and his wife and son) and prac­ticed many rit­u­als and aus­ter­i­ties before find­ing his own path to enlight­en­ment and Nirvana—the extin­guish­ing of desire.

One fruit of his real­iza­tion is the doc­trine of “the Mid­dle Way,” a medi­a­tion between extremes that one source com­pares to Aristotle’s gold­en mean, “where­by ‘every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.’” The Buddha’s enlight­ened under­stand­ing of the essen­tial con­ti­nu­ity of life gave him com­pas­sion for all liv­ing beings; of the thou­sands of sutras, or say­ings, attrib­uted to him, his teach­ing can be con­cise­ly summed up in what he called “the Four Noble Truths,” the acknowl­edge­ment, cause, and rem­e­dy of inevitable pain and dis­con­tent.

Most of what de Bot­ton does in his intro­duc­tion to the Bud­dha will be famil­iar to any­one who has tak­en a com­par­a­tive reli­gions class. But true to his task of approach­ing Bud­dhism philo­soph­i­cal­ly, he avoids Bud­dhist meta­physics, cos­mol­o­gy, and ques­tions of rebirth, instead inter­pret­ing the Buddha’s teach­ings as a kind of East­ern Aris­totelian ethics: “We must change our out­look (not our cir­cum­stances). We are unhap­py not because we don’t have enough mon­ey, love, or sta­tus, but because we’re greedy, vain, and inse­cure. By reori­ent­ing our minds we can become con­tent. By reori­ent­ing our behav­ior, and adopt­ing what we now term a ‘mind­ful’ atti­tude, we can also become bet­ter peo­ple.”

While Bud­dhist schol­ars and sages would argue that enlight­en­ment entails a great deal more than self-improve­ment, the sum­ma­tion suits the pur­pos­es of de Botton’s School of Life—to help peo­ple “live wise­ly and well.” These videos—like his oth­ers, ani­mat­ed by Mad Adam films with Mon­ty Pythonesque whimsy—distill East­ern thought into fun, bite-sized nuggets. Just above, we have a short intro­duc­tion to the Chi­nese sage Lao Tzu, pur­port­ed author of the Tao Te Ching, the found­ing text of Dao­ism. Where­as de Bot­ton seems to take the Buddha’s sto­ry more or less for grant­ed, he admits above that Lao Tzu may well be a myth­i­cal char­ac­ter, “like Homer,” and that the Tao is like­ly the work “of many authors over time.”

Dao­ism is often inter­twined with Bud­dhism and Con­fu­cian­ism, but its own par­tic­u­lar phi­los­o­phy is dis­tinct from either tra­di­tion. At the heart of Dao­ism is wu wei, which trans­lates to “non-action” or “non-doing,” a mode of being that seeks har­mo­ny with the rhythms of nature and a ceas­ing of pre­oc­cu­pa­tion and ambi­tion. Anoth­er “key point” of Lao Tzu’s instruc­tions for real­iz­ing the “Tao,” or “the way,” is get­ting “in touch with our real selves,” some­thing we can only accom­plish through recep­tiv­i­ty to nature—our own and that out­side us—and through free­dom from dis­trac­tion, a most dif­fi­cult demand for tech­nol­o­gy-obsessed 21st cen­tu­ry peo­ple.

The third video in de Botton’s series sur­veys a Japan­ese Zen Bud­dhist sage and con­trasts him with West­ern philoso­phers, who gen­er­al­ly write long, obscure books and clois­ter them­selves in lec­ture halls and offices. In the Zen tra­di­tion, de Bot­ton says, “philoso­phers write poems, rake grav­el, go on pil­grim­ages, prac­tice archery, write apho­risms on scrolls, chant, and in the case of one of the very great­est Zen thinkers, Sen no Rikyu, teach peo­ple how to drink tea in con­sol­ing and ther­a­peu­tic ways.” Born in 1522 near Osa­ka, Rikyu reformed and refined the chanoyu, the Japan­ese tea cer­e­mo­ny, into a rig­or­ous but ele­gant med­i­ta­tive prac­tice. Rikyu coined the term wabi-sabi, a com­pound of words for “sat­is­fac­tion with sim­plic­i­ty and aus­ter­i­ty” and “appre­ci­a­tion for the imper­fect.” Wabi-sabi offers not only the foun­da­tion for a way of life, but also for a way of design and archi­tec­ture, and its prac­tice informs a great deal of tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese aes­thet­ics.

Like Lao Tzu, Rikyu intend­ed his prac­tices to help peo­ple recon­nect with the sim­plic­i­ty and har­mo­ny of nature, as well as with each oth­er, inspir­ing mutu­al respect free of sta­tus-con­scious­ness and com­pe­ti­tion. Rikyu’s wabi-sabi phi­los­o­phy is premised on Zen’s under­stand­ing of the imper­ma­nence, imper­fec­tion, and incom­plete­ness of every­thing. There­fore he eschewed the trap­pings of lux­u­ry and pre­ferred worn and hum­ble objects in his cer­e­mo­ni­al instruc­tions. Whether we call Rikyu’s prac­tices reli­gious or philo­soph­i­cal seems to make lit­tle dif­fer­ence. In the case of the three thinkers pro­filed here, the dis­tinc­tion may be mean­ing­less and intro­duce West­ern con­cep­tu­al divi­sions that only obscure the mean­ing of Bud­dhism, Dao­ism, and Japan­ese Zen. When it comes to the lat­ter, anoth­er West­ern inter­preter, Alan Watts, once deliv­ered an excel­lent talk called “The Reli­gion of No Reli­gion” that helps to explain prac­tices like Rikyu’s chanoyu.

All of the videos here are part of the School of Life’s “Cur­ricu­lum.” Vis­it de Botton’s Youtube chan­nel for more, and for short videos offer­ing advice on every­thing from anx­i­ety to rela­tion­ships to “the dan­gers of the inter­net.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to Hei­deg­ger, The Sto­ics & Epi­cu­rus

What Are Lit­er­a­ture, Phi­los­o­phy & His­to­ry For? Alain de Bot­ton Explains with Mon­ty Python-Style Videos

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Jayarava says:

    Ugh the Bud­dhist video is awful. The usu­al sim­plis­tic Roman­tic plat­i­tudes. Tra­di­tion­al­ly Bud­dhism begins and ends with kar­ma and the pre­sump­tion that death results in rebirth. Every­thing else fol­lows from this. And yet no men­tion of either.

    And his pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Indi­an terms is tru­ly appalling. The wrong man for the job.

  • Steve Dunc says:

    Great stuff. I have to stop the pre­sen­ta­tions and write down the ideas to real­ly absorb the wis­dom. The Relat­ed Con­tent sec­tion is also worth watch­ing.

  • PHOTUE says:

    I want study The Bud­dhain the now world…

    What is the Bud­dhain?
    That is the sun
    That is the moon
    by the moment you see­ing.

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