Asian Philosophies Book Thoughts

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2018


These are thoughts spawned while reading the class text book Asian Philosophies by John M. Koller. (Note that I started reading this before the class started.)

First thoughts on South Asian religions/philosophies

I find it interesting how important being ancient is to how much weight is given a philosophy or religion in South Asia. The text book takes a lot of time talking about how ancient the Indus Valley cultures were and how ancient the religions spawned from it were and how important this ancientness has been to the peoples of South Asia.

It reminds me of the treasures that are thought up for Dungeons and Dragons quests. In D&D adventures questing to recover an ancient book which is a source of great power is a common task.

This similarity leads me to believe that there is some instinctive thinking supporting this belief system. If that is so, what has been the benefit of cultivating this instinct?

More thoughts:

o If there is nothing new to be learned why do we bother with more human existence?

o The Indian climates, cultures and topographies must be rather monotonous, as in, offering few surprises, to support this view that there is little new to be learned.

Further Thoughts on South Asia

I'm halfway through the South Asian part.

I don't know if its just the author's style and perspective, but I find the various religions/philosophies being discussed as quite monotonous. They are all about experiencing suffering and what point of view to take on self. Wow! There's nothing else to talk about? There's nothing else to aspire to?

If this monotony is really true, I'm going to reiterate what I said earlier about the Indian culture being really monotonous. It appears to be monotonous over the terrain and over time. This is why the ancient texts can seem so insightful and relevant even in modern times.

This monotony may also explain why the Indian culture seems to have stagnated once it reached the Agricultural Age in social and technological accomplishments. In ancient times it was doing real well in leading in human advancements. But this leadership seems to have been replaced with complacency and stagnation. The local feeling seems to have been everything important has been learned, we now get to argue over details on the best way to alleviate suffering and refine answers to the what-is-self issue. While this stagnation was happening in the Indian region Western Europe was experiencing the Renaissance and pulling ahead dramatically, first in science and technology and then in how to run economies and societies. It seems that the European cultures kept a lot more diversity in what was thought about and the answers to those issues.

Another thought: with so much emphasis on alleviating human suffering I'm surprised that the Indian societies didn't advocate more drug use. If your goal is to alleviate feelings of suffering, taking opium is certainly a lot easier to master than yoga drills. Once again, this thought may be a product of the author's perspective and not match well what was happening "on the ground" in the South Asian region.

I find these to be curious insights.

Concluding thoughts on South Asia

The monotony ran all through this section. The issues presented for the various religions and philosophies all seemed the same. The core issues were how does perceived reality relate to Brahman and Atman, the real reality, and how to alleviate suffering.

Likewise the solutions seemed monotonous too. All seemed to recommend becoming some kind of monk and forswearing off of enjoying material pleasures in favor of some kind of meditation.

Related: the author put little effort into describing how the differences that are high profile in these discussions turned into differences in lifestyles for the individual people or the communities they lived in, as in, little linkage with the history of the region. There are few equivalents to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of his church starting the Reformation and Counter Reformation which brought on lots of discussion, social changes, and wars to Europe.

All-in-all, real monotonous.

This makes me wonder: There had to have been a lot more variety in the people living in these times and places, not all were aspiring or accomplished monks. Did "religion" and "philosophy" as being defined in this book really suit all the peoples of these communities? If these were some kind of official religions and philosophies I suspect there were lots of informal variants that were active and thriving but not discussed in formal circles, and which didn't make it into this book.

First thoughts on the East Asia part

This section shows a lot of monotony, too, this seems to be the author's theme. The monotony part is that once again the central issues are how to alleviate human suffering, and how to think about the relation between self, the world, and the world's creator, and the solution is to control one's personal thinking and activities and to make them monk-like.

But this section has some differences in what it is being monotonous about. One of the first differences is in describing Confucian philosophy.

The Confucian brand experience

Reading about Confucius I was struck by how many people over such a long period of time have contributed to what is now considered Confucian thinking. My "Ah-Hah!" thought on this: Confucius thought needs to be considered a brand. It is far from the work of a single person.

Having come up with this insight, this business of being a brand seems to apply as well to the other Asian philosophies being discussed in the book. All have a senior name that is associated with the philosophy but all have many contributors besides that leading name.

Little clarity, lots of mumbo jumbo

Another pattern is that the writings are complicated and filled with ambiguities and contradictions. The justification is that seeing through those contradictions to the point of finding meaning is what indicates the seeker has achieved insight. Roger Editorial: This is not a feature of these writings I enjoy. This kind of writing would sure not be suitable for a car repair manual. That said, this writing style seems to produce wildly popular religions and philosophies, and straight talk does not.

Exportable religions

Some religions become widespread -- Buddhism, Christianity and Islam being good examples. What I find interesting is all of these have roots in earlier religions that didn't spread. Buddhism sprang from Hinduism while Christianity and Islam sprang from Judaism.

Which leads to the interesting question: What do these exportable forms have in common that the local forms did not?

Concluding thoughts on East Asia

Overall, just about as monotonous as the South Asia section. It is all about seeing unity in the aspiring person's existence and striving to end human suffering.

There is just a little more on how the East Asian philosophies mesh with East Asian politics and cultural situations. Example: the tests given to aspiring Chinese government officials are testing on Confucian ideas so this influences what are considered to be Confucian ideas. But there is very little description of this kind of interaction. I suspect this has a lot to do with why the ideas seem so monotonous and so well-suited to monkish-style living.

Final thought: Pricing

Based on the topic and insights this book contains, it should have cost about $20 new. I paid about $100 used. Sadly, this is a good example of why education costs are so high these days. I strongly suggest that whomever is picking the text book for this course reexamine their choice and find something equally suitable but much more affordable.



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