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Eastern philosophy

In the West, the term Eastern philosophy refers very broadly to the various philosophical systems of Asia. The development of the major Eastern philosophical traditions occurred primarily in India, China, and Japan.

Most Western universities focus almost exclusively on Western philosophical traditions and ideas in their philosophy departments and courses. When one uses the unqualified term "philosophy" in a Western academic context, Eastern philosophies are generally overlooked; consequently, the term "Eastern philosophy" came into use.

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Differences from Western Philosophy Some have argued that the distinction between Eastern and Western philosophies is arbitrary and purely geographic, that this artificial distinction does not take into account the tremendous amount of interaction between Eastern and Western thought, and that the distinction is more misleading than enlightening.

Others have argued that there are a number of general differences between Eastern philosophies and Western philosophies. They feel that some broad distinctions may be drawn, with the goal of helping a Westerner unfamiliar with Eastern philosophic traditions to understand the general patterns of differences (with the understanding that these are sweeping generalization, and there are numerous exceptions on both sides.)

Proponents of this view point out that there has been relatively little study of Eastern philosophic traditions in Western academic settings as compared to Western traditions, and that synergies within each sphere are far more common than synergies between Eastern and Western philosophies. Awareness of Eastern philosophies in the West has largely been relegated to the World Religions departments of Western universities, or to New Age nonacademic works, though there are several notable exceptions. The University of Hawaii[?], for example, offers many courses in Eastern philosophy [1] (http://www.uhh.hawaii.edu/academics/cas/humanities/philosophy.php).

The Perception of God and the gods

Because of the influence of monotheism and especially the Abrahamic religions, Western philosophies have been faced with the question of the nature of God and His relationship to the universe. This has created a dichotomy among Western philosophies between secular philosophies and religious philosophies which develop within the context of a particular monotheistic religion's dogma regarding the nature of God and the universe.

Eastern philosophies developed in a polytheistic setting, and have not been as concerned by questions relating to the nature of a single God as the universe's sole creator and ruler. The distinction between the religious and the secular tends to be much less sharp in Eastern philosophy, and the same philosophical school often contains both religious and philosophical elements. Thus, some people accept the metaphysical tenets of Buddhism without going to a temple and worshipping. Some have worshipped the Taoist deities religiously without bothering to delve into the philosophic underpinnings, while others embrace Taoist philosophy while ignoring the religious aspects.

This arrangement stands in marked contrast to most philosophy of the West, which has traditionally enforced either a completely unified philosophic/religious belief system (e.g. the various sects and associated philosophies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), or a sharp and total repudiation of religion by philosophy (e.g. Nietzsche, Marx, Voltaire, etc.) The distinction between religion and philosophy is not so important in the East.

Gods' relationship with the Universe

Another common thread that often differentiates Eastern philosophy from Western is the belief regarding the relationship between God or the gods and the universe. Western philosophies typically either disavow the existence of God, or else hold that God or the gods are something separate and distinct from the universe. This comes from the influence of the Abrahamic religions, which teach that this universe was created by a single all-powerful God who existed before and seperately from this universe. The true nature of this God is incomprehensible to us, His creations.

Eastern philosophic traditions generally tend to be less concerned with the existence or non-existence of gods. Although some Eastern traditions have supernatural spiritual beings and even powerful gods, these are generally not seen as separate from the universe, but rather as a part of the universe.

The Role and Nature of the Individual

It has been argued that in most Western philosophies, the same can be said of the individual: Western philosophies generally assume as a given that the individual is something different from the universe, and Western philosophies attempt to describe and categorize the universe from a detached, objective viewpoint. Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, typically hold that people are an intrinsic and inseparable part of the universe, and that attempts to discuss the universe from an objective viewpoint as though the individual speaking was something separate and detached from the whole are inherently absurd.

Philosophical Traditions An overview of the major Eastern philosophic traditions. Each tradition has a seperate article with more detail on sects, schools, etc. (c.f.)


Taoism originated in China. Taoism's central book, the Dao de jing appeared in approximately 600 BCE. The beliefs themselves are much more ancient, incorporating elements of mysticism dating back to prehistoric times. The Dao de jing was written by Lao Zi (Wade-Giles, Lao tse), a minor Chinese court official who became tired of the petty intrigues of court life, and set off to live as a hermit in the desert. Taoism teaches "action through inaction" (wu wei[?]), that one should effect changes subtly and without disrupting the natural flow of the universe, rather than by attempting to force change. Another central idea is the dualism of the universe, the belief that all aspects of everything are diametrically opposed into divisions of light and dark, male and female, yin and yang, etc. One half is no better than the other, and indeed, neither can exist without the other, since each contains a small amount of the other. Ultimately, both are the same thing, tao, which means the way ahead.

Some time after the publication of the Dao de jing and another work by Zhuang zi (Wade-Giles, Chuang tse), Taoism developed its religious aspect, especially among the Chinese peasantry. Lao Zi and other famous personas were elevated to deity status among followers, and complex religious rituals involving alchemy, magic spells and symbology began to be practiced.


Confucianism is the traditional foil to Taoism, developed by Confucius in the 6th through 5th centuries BCE, shortly after the Dao de jing was written. Whereas Taoism takes a holistic and empirical approach to the universe, Confucianism attempts to create a complex interdependent and well-defined system of ethics and morals. Confucianism emphasizes formal rituals in every aspect of life, from quasi-religious ceremonies to strict politeness and deference to one's elders, specifically to one's parents and to the state in the form of the Emperor.


Buddhism is a system of beliefs based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince later known as the Buddha, or one who is Awake. Buddhism is fairly unique as a traditional non-theistic religion, one whose tenets are not especially concerned with the existence or nonexistence of God. Buddha himself expressly disavowed any special divine status or inspiration, and said that anyone, anywhere could spiritually achieve all that he had. The question of God is largely irrelevant in Buddhism, though some sects (notably Tibetan Buddhism) do worship a number of gods drawn in from local indigenous belief systems, and hold that these gods are merely different aspects of the universal whole.

Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths. All life is held to be suffering derived from desire, and that suffering can be eliminated through awareness. Awareness is heightened through the practice of meditation.

Most Buddhist sects believe in karma, a cause-and-effect relationship between all that has been done and all that will be done. Events that occur are held to be the direct result of previous events. One effect of karma is rebirth. At death, the karma from a given life determines the nature of the next life's existence. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist practitioner is to eliminate karma (both good and bad), end the cycle of rebirth and suffering, and attain Nirvana, translated as nothingness or blissful oblivion and characterized as the state of being one with the entire universe.

See also: Buddhist philosophy -- Buddhism in China

Zen Buddhism

Zen is a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism with Taoist principles. Bodhidharma was a semilegendary Indian monk who traveled to China in the fifth century CE. There, at the Shaolin temple, he began the Ch'an school of Buddhism, known in Japan and in the West as Zen Buddhism. Zen philosophy places emphasis on existing in the moment, right now. Zen teaches that the entire universe is one's mind, and if one cannot realize enlightenment in one's own mind now, one cannot ever achieve enlightenment.

Zen practitioners engage in zazen (just sitting) meditation. Several schools of Zen have developed various other techniques for provoking satori, or enlightenment, ranging from whacking acolytes with a stick to shock them into the present moment to koans, Zen riddles designed to force the student to abandon futile attempts to understand the nature of the universe through logic.


Hinduism is a belief system prevalent in India. (c.f.)


Maoism is a Communist philosophy based on the teachings of 20th century Communist Party of China revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. It is based partially on earlier theories by Marx and Lenin, but rejects the urban proletariat and Leninist emphasis on heavy industrialization in favor of a revolution supported by the peasantry, and a decentralized agrarian economy based on many collectivly worked farms.

Implementation of Maoism in China led to widespread famine, with millions of people starving to death. The Chinese Communist government recognized the shortcomings of Maoism, and Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping instituted non-Maoist reforms which eventually enabled the country to recover.

Despite this, Maoism has remained a popular ideology for various Communist revolutionary groups around the world, notably the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, and an ongoing (as of early 2003) Maoist insurrection in Nepal.


Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, a sophisticated form of animism that holds that spirits called kami inhabit all things. Worship is at public shrines, or in small shrines constructed in one's home.

See also: Chinese philosophy

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