Eastern Philosophy Explained: From the Buddha to Confucius and Haiku to the Tea Ceremony

There was a time, not so long ago in human his­to­ry, when prac­ti­cal­ly no West­ern­ers looked to the East for wis­dom. But from our per­spec­tive today, this kind of philo­soph­i­cal seek­ing has been going on long enough to feel nat­ur­al. When times get try­ing, you might turn to the Bud­dha, Lao Tzu, or even Con­fu­cius for wis­dom as soon as you would to any oth­er fig­ure, no mat­ter your cul­ture of ori­gin. And here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, intro­duc­tions to their thought lie clos­er than ever to hand: on The School of Life’s “East­ern phi­los­o­phy” Youtube playlist, you’ll find primers on these influ­en­tial sages and oth­ers besides, all play­ful­ly ani­mat­ed and nar­rat­ed by Alain de Bot­ton.

De Bot­ton him­self has writ­ten on many sub­jects, but has found some of his great­est suc­cess in one par­tic­u­lar area: pre­sent­ing the work of writ­ers and thinkers from bygone eras in a man­ner help­ful to mod­ern-day audi­ences. That his best-known books include The Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy and How Proust Can Change Your Life sug­gests a per­son­al incli­na­tion toward the West­ern, but through­out sub­se­quent projects his purview has widened.

With the School of Life’s Youtube chan­nel he’s cast an espe­cial­ly wide cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al net, which has pulled in not just the ideas of Pla­to, Kant, and Fou­cault but the prin­ci­ples of rock appre­ci­a­tion, kintsu­gi, and wu wei as well.

Who among us could­n’t stand to cul­ti­vate a lit­tle more appre­ci­a­tion for rocks, or indeed for the oth­er seem­ing­ly mun­dane ele­ments of the world we pass our days ignor­ing? And sure­ly we could all use a bit of the world­view behind kintsu­gi, the art of repair­ing bro­ken pot­tery in such a way as to bril­liant­ly high­light the cracks rather than hide them, or wu wei, a kind of flex­i­bil­i­ty of being com­pa­ra­ble to slight drunk­en­ness.

If these con­cepts appeal to you, you can go slight­ly deep­er with the School of Life’s intro­duc­tions to such his­tor­i­cal per­son­ages as Zen poet Mat­suo Bashō, acknowl­edged as the mas­ter of haiku, and Sen no Rikyū, who devel­oped the Japan­ese “way of tea.” These would once have seemed unlike­ly sub­jects to inter­est peo­ple from the oth­er side of the world; but as the pop­u­lar­i­ty of these videos under­scores, that era has passed. And as the School of Life expands, might it not find an even more robust audi­ence of East­ern­ers get­ting into West­ern phi­los­o­phy?

Watch nine videos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Phi­los­o­phy of “Flow”: A Brief Intro­duc­tion to Tao­ism

In Basho’s Foot­steps: Hik­ing the Nar­row Road to the Deep North Three Cen­turies Lat­er

Bud­dhism 101: A Short Intro­duc­to­ry Lec­ture by Jorge Luis Borges

What Ancient Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy Can Teach Us About Liv­ing the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Pop­u­lar Pro­fes­sor, Michael Puett

A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Kintsu­gi, the Japan­ese Art of Repair­ing Bro­ken Pot­tery and Find­ing Beau­ty in Imper­fec­tion

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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