Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Art of Happiness 23

The Western versus the Eastern Mind

In a "former life" I spent three years as a religious!
In the West we do our professional thinking mainly, though not exclusively, through analysis and are very used to "breaking a subject down" into its constituent parts while in the East, it seems to me, thinkers proceed in a more holistic fashion, seeking to bring out the "whole" or "larger picture" with respect to a given subject.

In the West, also, many people turn to religious beliefs as a source of happiness.  This refuge in religious tenets in common to all the great world religions: especially the monotheistic revealed religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who all believe in another life where souls will be either be rewarded or punished for their sins.  Often happiness is projected into this Utopian idea of a heavenly reward.  The message simply is: - if one suffers in this life, one can and will be happy in the next.  Now, admittedly, I am simplifying here to make my point and I do allow for more nuanced and sophisticated theological understanding of heaven among professional theologians.  However, what I am getting at here is that our Western Religions (and for handiness sake I'm including all the great revealed religions here) leave themselves wide open to the often-quoted and understandable criticism of Karl Marx who argued that such religions act quite like "an opium" in the following famous quotation:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  (See here )
Such a basic and simplified explanation as I have given above of revealed religions does do grave injustice to the sophisticated and nuanced positions of eminent theologians in mainstream churches.  It is also, perhaps, an extreme simplification of more mysterious and complex and indeed authentic faith positions taken up by wonderful human beings like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dr. Martin Luther King and many other wonderful religious personages who have done wonderful things for people on our little Blue Planet.  However, oftentimes mainline churches and their believers state their positions in such crude and un-nuanced ways as to leave the ground open for the broadside attacks of the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins whom I call "evangelical atheists" or "proselytizing atheists."  As a former staunch believer, who is now an agnostic, I cannot bear any evangelistic or proselytizing factions whether in the churches or the sciences.  As a philosopher, I prefer to think things out for myself, and as as an educator, I prefer to train the young minds in front of me to come up with their own answers and to raise their own questions.

As regards the pursuit of happiness, where do these thoughts lead me?  Well, going back to the book under discussion in these posts, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (Hodder and Stoughton 1998) by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler it leaves me with the belief that Buddhism offers a more practical way of pursuing happiness than do the revealed religions.  Indeed it can be argued that Buddhism is less a religion and more of a philosophy of living.  In fact, it could be argued that it is a practical psychology solely.  This, of course, is why it has been so popular with certain philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and many psychologists (like Jung) over the years.

The Dalai Lama's approach is fundamentally different from many Western religions in that it relies more heavily on reasoning and training the mind than on faith.  Howard Cutler argues that "in some respects, the Dalai Lama's approach resembles a mind science, a system that one could apply much the same way as people utilize psychotherapy.  But what the Dalai Lama suggests goes further.  While we are used to the idea of using psychotherapeutic techniques such as behaviour therapy to attack specific bad habits - smoking, drinking, temper flares - we are not accustomed to the idea of cultivating positive attributes - love, compassion, patience, generosity - as weapons against all negative emotions and mental states." (Op. cit., p. 204)

In the West we tend to concentrate on relieving or assuaging the neuroses suffered by our clients or patients rather than practising the positive psychology outlined in such Buddhist practices that the Dalai Lama and other great teachers of Buddhism like Thich Nhat Hanh recommend and practise with great success.  Dr Cutler quite rightly maintains that the school of cognitive therapy - as founded and practised by the likes of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck comes nearest to the Buddhist approach to improving our well-being as human beings.  These great doctors and psychologists argue that our upsetting emotions and maladaptive behaviours are quite simply (or quite complexly, depending on your view-point) caused by distortions in thinking and irrational beliefs.


Christopher Dos Santos said...

Namaste, brother TQ, changing faces of life. Interesting post thanks for sharing.

Billy Joe said...

I agree with many of the criticisms of revealed religions (I would say that Buddhism is a revealed religion. It has a Prophet Who is still revered today, Whose Teachings are its foundation. It's Buddhism, taught by the Buddha. And if that had been no Buddha there may not have been such a religion.).

But I wholeheartedly disagree that "Western" religion doesn't rely on reasoning and training the mind. I can point to so many contradictions to that that I won't even take up the space if I had the time.

Maybe the emphasis of those who have espoused the Western religions was often askew and neglected other teachings.

I see all the religions, Buddhism and Hinduism included, as necessary for the whole human race's development, no one greater than the other.

Just as light can be a particle and a wave, there can be what seem to be conflicting perspectives of spirituality and God yet both are correct.

In Love and Unity,

TQ said...

In philosophy, as indeed in thought of any kind, even theology, I believe it is great to have differing viewpoints. I may not agree with yours and you may not agree with mine, but that is fine. As a liberal and agnostic I would die defending your right to hold your views but certainly would not die for your views. Buddhism could be safely argued not to be a revealed religion as nowhere did Siddhartha Gautama claim to be in receipt of knowledge from any other-worldly Being as did Jesus and Muhammed. However, I still enjoy meditating in churches of all denominations as I find them exceptional havens of peace, and several of my best friends are priests and religious in the Catholic faith. Others are Jewish and Moslems. Others agnostics and atheists. I cherish them all as friends and treat them equally. My one basic belief in life is the advice that Polonius gave his son in the tragedy of Hamlet: "This about all, to thine own self be true!" If anyone is true to him or herself he/she truly is a good person! That's all we need. Thanks for your comments. They are sincere and thought out and their yours. Hold fast to them. My blog isn't evangelical. I'm not trying to convert anyone to my viewpoints!

In veritate,

Tim Quinlan

Billy Joe said...


Thank you for responding to my post. I, too, believe in being true to one's Self. I just don't think it is profitable or accurate to pit East against West.

When you speak of Buddhism, it seems you are referring to the essence of Buddhism. When I look at the essence of Buddhism or Christianity or Islam, I don't see any conflict. "No man hath seen God at any time." The Unoriginated, the Uncreated? It matters not to me whether one says, "I Am sent me", or one says, "The Father sent me", or one says, "I am the Prophet of Allah", or "I am the Enlightened One". To me they are all Enlightened Ones giving the same message. They each connected with the One Reality.

I'm interested in converting people to seek their true self. Whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or whatever, that they seek the oneness deposited at the heart of all creation, which I believe is the essence of all the religions and spiritual traditions.

In love and unity,