Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy
Eastern Philosophy has always had a very similar goal to Western philosophy: that of making us wiser, less agitated, more thoughtful and readier to appreciate our lives. However, the way it has gone about this has been intriguingly different. In the East, Philosophy has taught its lessons via tea drinking ceremonies, walks in bamboo forests, contemplations of rivers and ritualised flower arranging sessions. Here are a few ideas to offer us the distinctive wisdom of a continent and enrich our notions of what philosophy might really be.
ONE: Life is suffering
The first and central ‘noble truth’ of the Buddha is that life is unavoidably about suffering. The Buddha continually seeks to adjust our expectations so we will know what to expect: sex will disappoint us, youth will disappear, money won’t spare us pain. For the Buddha, the wise person should take care to grow completely at home with the ordinary shambles of existence. They should understand that they are living on a dunghill. When baseness and malice rear their heads, as they will, it should be against a backdrop of fully vanquished hope, so there will be no sense of having been unfairly let down and one’s credulity betrayed. That said, the Buddha was often surprisingly cheerful and generally sported an inviting, warm smile. This was because anything nice, sweet or amusing that came his way was immediately experienced as a bonus; a deeply gratifying addition to his original bleak premises. By keeping the dark backdrop of life always in mind, he sharpened his appreciation of whatever stood out against it. He teaches us the art of cheerful despair.
TWO: Mettā (pali): Benevolence
Mettā is a word which, in the Indian language of Pali, means benevolence, kindness or tenderness. It is one of the most important ideas in Buddhism. Buddhism recommends a daily ritual meditation to foster this attitude (what is known as mettā bhāvanā). The meditation begins with a call to think very carefully every morning of a particular individual with whom one tends to get irritated or to whom one feels aggressive or cold and – in place of one’s normal hostile impulses – to rehearse kindly messages like ‘I hope you will find peace’ or ‘I wish you to be free from suffering’. This practice can be extended outwards ultimately to include pretty much everyone on earth. The background assumption is that our feelings towards people are not fixed and unalterable, but are open to deliberate change and improvement, with the right goad. Compassion is a learnable skill – and we need to direct it as much towards those we love as those we are tempted to dismiss and detest.
Guanyin is a saintly female figure in East Asian Buddhism strongly associated with mercy, compassion and kindness. She occupies a similar role within Buddhism as the Virgin Mary within Catholicism. There are shrines and temples to her all over China; one, in the province of Hainan, has a 108 metre statue of her (it’s the fourth largest statue anywhere in the world). Guanyin’s popularity speaks of the extent to which the needs of childhood endure within us. She is, in the noblest sense, ‘mummy’. Across China, adults allow themselves to be weak in her presence. Her gaze has a habit of making people cry – for the moment one breaks down isn’t so much when things are hard as when one finally encounters kindness and a chance to admit to sorrows one has been harbouring in silence for too long. Guanyin doesn’t judge. She understands that you are tired, that you have been betrayed, that things aren’t easy, that you are fed up: she has a measure of the difficulties involved in trying to lead a remotely adequate adult life.
FOUR: Wu Wei (Chinese): Not making an Effort
Wu Wei is a (Chinese) term at the heart of the philosophy of Daoism. It is first described in the Tao Te Ching, written by the sage Lao Tzu in the 6th century BC. Wu Wei means ‘not making an effort’, going with the flow, but it doesn’t in any way imply laziness or sloth. It suggests rather an intentional surrender of the will based on a wise recognition of the need, at points, to accede to, rather than protest against, the demands of reality. As Lao Tzu puts it, to be wise is to have learnt how one must sometimes ‘surrender to the whole universe’. Reason allows us to calculate when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events but, for Lao Tzu, we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in an unprotesting acceptance of what is truly necessary that we find the distinctive serenity and freedom characteristic of a Daoist.
FIVE: Bamboo as Wisdom
East Asia has been called the Bamboo Civilization, not merely because bamboo has been widely used in daily life, but also because its symbolic qualities have been described and celebrated for hundreds of years in the philosophy of Daoism. Bamboo is, surprisingly, classified as a grass rather than a tree, yet it is tall and strong enough to create groves and forests. Unlike a tree trunk, the stems of bamboo are hollow, but its inner emptiness is a source of its vigour. It bends in storms, sometimes almost to the ground, but then springs back resiliently. We should, says Lao Tzu, ‘become as bamboo is.’ The greatest painter of bamboo was the Daoist poet, artist and philosopher Zheng Xie of the Qing Dynasty. Zheng Xie is said to have painted eight hundred pictures of bamboo forests and saw in them a perfect model of how a wise person might behave. Beside one pen and ink drawing of bamboo, he wrote in elegant script: ‘Hold fast to the mountain, take root in a broken-up bluff, grow stronger after tribulations, and withstand the buffeting wind from all directions’. It was a message addressed to bamboo but meant, of course, for all of us.
Since the 16th century, Zen Buddhist philosophy in Japan has been alive to the particular beauty and wisdom of things which have been repaired. Kintsugi is a compound of two ideas: ‘Kin’ meaning, in Japanese, ‘golden’ and ‘tsugi’ meaning ‘joinery’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should never just be tossed away, they should be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that breaks have a rich merit all of their own. It’s a profoundly poignant idea because we are all in some way broken creatures. It’s not shameful to need repair; a mended bowl is a symbol of hope that we too can be put together again and still be loved despite our evident flaws.