Western Philosophy Meets Eastern Philosophy


West, Meet East

What exactly do they mean by Eastern Philosophy? How does it differ from Western Philosophy? What's the difference between analytical contemplation vs tranquil contemplation? These were questions I asked myself before entering a mediation session at the Genkai-Ji Zen Center in Clarksville, Tn.
I was hesitant at first, not really sure what to expect but, living up to my personal mantra, I embraced the moment. The Buddha statue sat quietly watching me as I walked up to the small unassuming house. His face sat in permanent contemplation, something I feared would not happen for me. As I entered the meditation space, I was greeted by an older man in traditional Japanese vestiges. He spoke of a life that cycles from one day to the next that absorbs the energy around it like a sponge. He described the life cycle of a Buddhist as a candle lighting a candle but, it's not the same flame as the one before it. However, all the flames are causally connected to each other. I thought about that during my meditation. I thought about these differences during the silence.
Western vs Eastern
searches the mind
clear the mind
seeks objective knowledge
accepting subjective knowledge
being 'with' the world
being 'in' the world
seek the 'why'
'accept' the way
mind & body
the whole self
seek the self
seek the other
material possessions
no possessions
inward relationship
outward relationship

It was clear I was suffering from extreme monkey mind! The questions didn't stop coming. How was I connected to those around me? Whose candle did I light? Who lit mine? He also talked about the will. The will that works towards something pure and full of wisdom, not the passional will that desires for the heart. Was my will directed towards knowledge, or pleasure? Taming the thoughts of the Western beast was harder than I thought, (no pun intended). Halfway through the session, we were instructed get up and walk around, which seemed to help calm the mind, then during our second session I tried hard to contemplate the differences; particularly, "ends vs means", "mind & body vs the whole self", and "reason vs senses".
Ends vs Means:Western Philosophy seeks enlightenment, as does Eastern Philosophy but, in two very different ways. Western Philosophy seeks reason and wisdom above all things, and at the end of this journey, in the words of Plato, you would have removed yourself from the Cave. In Plato's Allegory of a Cave, a prisoner sits bound by chains with his head affixed in the direction of a wall with shadows on it. After an unknown amount of time, the prisoner is released from his chains, passes by the fire, and crawls up the slope to the brightly lit opening of the cave. There he discovers the true meaning of the shadows as well as discovers an existing world, where pure knowledge lives. Plato says only when we leave cave will we find enlightenment. However, for a Buddhist, life is a journey but, not one you walk alone but, a journey with those around you. So I contemplated the differences. In that sense, the man would have released his fellow prisoners also, and together they would have explored the cave, the fire, the captures, and the slope, and of course, eventually explore the outside of the cave. But, it would have been a process, not a sprint, Finally, one day they would discover the pure Forms but, that would not be the end of the journey, it's only a part of the journey. The Zen Master gave the impression that everything is an evolution and as long as you're on the journey, your evolving. The more you experience and the more relationships you foster, the more you will experience unlimited wisdom. In that way, exploring the cave would be better than leaving the cave.
Mind & Body vs The Whole Self:The Philosophy of the Mind examines the relationship between the mind and the body. One famous thought experiment asks, what if all collective memory and knowledge was stored in the mind, and the mind was located in the brain. Could you then remove the brain, store it in a vat of solution, hook wires to the brain and plug the wires into a computer? The computer would then live out your life and you would be none wiser? Or, say while you were asleep someone removed all your memories and put them in the body of another person and their memories into your body? Who's who? It baffles the mind to think you might not be connected to your body! You may be your neighbor, or the guy down the street? However, the Zen Master spoke of the mind and body as mysteriously connected as one being. He asked me how often do you think about breathing, or smelling? It's really an unconscious action we perform that we never think about, right? He asked, how often do we really use our senses to understand the world around us? So, I sat there for what seemed hours (only 20 mins), I could hear their breathing, I could hear mine. I could smell the incense and feel my heart beating, and I could swear I heard theirs; it was actually soothing. I'll be honest though, I've attended conventional Christian church with very nice people but, I often space out during the sermon. You know, write my to-do list in my head, figure out what's for dinner, but I don't really contemplate what he's saying, nor do I feel a connected to the person in the next pew. During the meditation, I was completely still and quiet, I felt connected to the other participants, as if our breathing was in rhythm; as they exhaled, I inhaled. I was taking them into me and giving myself back to them.
Reason and the Senses:The age old argument, do you obtain knowledge with your reason or your senses?!?! This area of Western Philosophy is sharply divided with Rationalists on one side and Empiricists on the other side; each claiming superiority over the other. A Rationalist argues knowledge is innate, intuitive, and superior to that of an experience, which can be flawed due to the inaccuracy of the senses. Ask yourself this, have you ever look at an object from far off and swear it was a ball when it, in fact, it was something completely different? A Rationalist would say, "see, I told you, you need reason to understand that object because your senses failed you!" An Empiricist would say reason means nothing without feeling or sensation. Reason can't jump out of the mind and absorb the world, "Why... reason would be worthless without sense data!" The argument goes on and on. A Buddhist would find the argument humorous being the whole idea of a separation between the two is ridiculous. For a Buddhist, the world is absorbed through the senses and enraptured through the mind; a solid connection between reason and the senses. But, 'a connection' would imply there was a bridge between two items. That's not quite right, instead, think of it as mixing together the ingredients for a cake. You may have eggs, milk, water, and oil, but when you mix them together, you have one solid item - a cake. A Buddhist would say that's what happens with reason and the senses, it's one solid item - a being. Reason lives within the senses and the senses exist within reason. There is no division among the two because the mind is not isolated in the brain, or the heart, or a limb, the mind lives throughout the entire body. The mind is present in the fingers, toes, blood, heart, etc. Reason without the senses, or visa verse, is as purposeful as a candle without a match.
What can a Western Philosopher gain from an Eastern Philosopher?I promised myself I would never live in a textbook. I would study the philosophers, study the arguments, and educate myself in the analytical ways of Philosophy. That being said, I feel that when I attended the meditation session I learned a very valuable lesson. Buddhism became less about chants and incense, and more about embracing the journey, with all its faults, joys, sickness, health, errors, pains and hope. The ideas of Eastern Philosophy allow for transformations not seen in Western Philosophy. Wisdom is no longer a noun, but a verb. Philosophy is no longer a subject, but an experience. And in that, you will gain an experience you won't soon forget.

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor