The Unexpected Ways Eastern Philosophy Can Make Us Wiser, More Compassionate & Better Able to Appreciate Our Lives

I feel com­pelled to start this post with a dis­claimer: do not take the eight-and-a-half-minute video above, “Six Ideas from East­ern Phi­los­o­phy” from Alain de Botton’s School of Life series, as an author­i­ta­tive state­ment on East­ern Phi­los­o­phy.

Not that you would, or that de Bot­ton makes such a claim, but in an age of uncrit­i­cal over­con­sump­tion, infi­nite scrolling, and indi­vid­u­al­ly-wrapped explain­ers, it seems worth the reminder. No tradition—and cer­tain­ly not one as incal­cu­la­bly rich, deep, and ancient as the schools of thought summed up as “East­ern Philosophy”—can be para­phrased in an ani­mat­ed list.

Think of “Six Ideas from East­ern Phi­los­o­phy” as a teas­er. If you’ve resigned your­self to the fact that suf­fer­ing is ever-present and universal—the first idea on de Botton’s list and the Buddha’s first Noble Truth—you might love… or make a good faith effort to appre­ci­ate… The Mid­dle Length Dis­cours­es, the Shobo­gen­zo, the poet­ry and songs of Han Shan and Milarepa, or the thou­sands of trans­la­tions, com­men­taries, adap­ta­tions, and etcetera about them.

But the video isn’t about famous texts. The logo­cen­tric char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of phi­los­o­phy as only writ­ing per­sists, despite its seri­ous lim­i­ta­tions. In many East­ern tra­di­tions, writ­ing and study are only one part of com­plex reli­gious prac­tices. The first two ideas on de Botton’s list come from ear­ly Indi­an Bud­dhism; the third from Chi­nese Chan Bud­dhism, the fourth and fifth are Daoist con­cepts; and the sixth, kintsu­gi, comes from Japan­ese Zen.

De Botton’s title is mis­lead­ing. As he goes on to show, in brief, but with vivid exam­ples and com­par­isons, these are not “ideas” in the broad­ly Pla­ton­ic sense of pure abstrac­tions but for­mal­ized ways of being with oth­ers and being alone, of being with objects and nat­ur­al for­ma­tions that embody eth­i­cal ideals of bal­ance, equa­nim­i­ty, con­tent­ment, kind­ness, care, and deep appre­ci­a­tion for art and nature, with all their imper­fec­tions and dis­ap­point­ments.

Can we make much sense of the ado­ra­tion of the bod­hisatt­va Guanyin (whom de Bot­ton com­pares to the Vir­gin Mary) if we nev­er vis­it one of her tem­ples or call for her com­pas­sion­ate aid? Can we study the sub­tleties of bam­boo with­out bam­boo? Can we grasp the Four Noble Truths if we can’t sit still long enough for seri­ous self-reflec­tion? Some­times the prac­tices, land­scapes, and icono­gra­phies of East­ern phi­los­o­phy do not seem sep­a­ra­ble from ideas about them.

If there’s a bow to tie on de Botton’s sum­ma­ry, maybe it’s this: from these Bud­dhist and Daoist per­spec­tives, the end­less bifur­ca­tions of West­ern thought are illu­so­ry. Pain, imper­fec­tion, and uncer­tain­ly are inevitable and not to be feared but com­pas­sion­ate­ly accept­ed. And phi­los­o­phy is some­thing that hap­pens in the body and mind togeth­er, an idea cer­tain­ly not alien to the walk­ing thinkers of the West.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

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

Alan Watts Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to Med­i­ta­tion & East­ern Phi­los­o­phy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, East­ern Wis­dom and Mod­ern Life

What Is a Zen Koan? An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to East­ern Philo­soph­i­cal Thought Exper­i­ments

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

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