WESTERN KNOWLEDGE AND EASTERN WISDOM
Armando Martins Janeira
A constructive basis for a meeting between East and West can be found by bringing together the great and most modern conclusions of Western science with the oldest assertions of Eastern Wisdom.
The role of wisdom is to introduce harmony. Harmony is, in the universe, order; clarity in man’s mind. Wisdom can lead the powers created by science towards putting order in man’s life - because the order of life of the individual, of the city, of a nation, is inseparable from the order of the universe. Here, the Western humanist Gabriel Marcel, in his book “Declin de la Sagesse”, in spite of his neo-socratism, in what concerns wisdom is not to the Greeks, but to China, that he turns, because it is in the revealing Chinese texts that we can see, “under a truly marvellous light, that the sage is essentially tied to the cosmos”.
Many writers have brought together, sometimes, exaggerating the extent of similarity, inter-related ideas and theories produced in East and West. Here are some quotations from René Grousset’s L’Homme et son Histoire: “The prudence of Socrates and that of Confucius. We knew that on universal suffering and on the therapeutics of suffering Schopenhauer had already re-found the positions of primitive Buddhism, those properly of Buddha Sakyamuni. The élan of Karma which is all India philosophy brings either to cut off with or to emerge into the Absolute, we find it in the Élan vital of Bergson. We can find that the Hindu system of Vaisheshika is identical to the atomism of Epicure; this same Vaisheshika develops a monadology which Leibniz, unaware of it, will reinvent. Kantian criticism has been invented in the first century of our era by the Dekan philosopher Nagarjuna; the idealism of Berkeley or of Fichte, in the IV-V centuries by the philosophies of Pendjabis Asanga and Vasubandhu; the mechanist evolutionism of Herbert Spencer in the XII century by the neo-Confucian Tckou-Hi. The powerful idealist monism of the Vedanta reminds us of all one side of the great German post-Kantian philosophy”. “These accords are too much important for not being pointed out”. Comparative philosophy has allowed us, through the confrontation of our values and the Oriental ones, to take a general view of human spirit. “It is the proof - proof by the spirit - that human thought obeys universal laws”. “To the great problems, the eternal problems of human spirit, the Western thought, Indian thought and Chinese thought have, in nearly every case, brought similar solutions”. ( )
I believe, though, that, up till now, the only valuable contribution brought to find out a common ground between the fundamental truth contained in ancient Oriental texts and their deep wisdom and the last conclusions of Western science, was made by the Swiss philosopher Carl Jung, founder of the school of analytical psychology, in his preface to the translation of the I Ching, the “Book of Changes” by Richard Wilhelm, and particularly in his interesting study on “The Secret of the Golden Flower”, printed in the seventeenth century. The “I Ching” is much older; different parts are originated in different eras, and some of its fundamental ideas go back to the remote antiquity, possibly as far as 3000 years ago. But its composition is attributed to King Wen, father of the founder of the Chou Dinasty. Additions, commentaries, have been contributed by generations during about thousand years. Upon the archaic wisdom born in the dawn of Chinese civilization, all the great minds, together with the deep intuitions of the people have contributed to create this extraordinary book full of secret rich meanings. The exegesis of every new Chinese philosophical school has deepened its scope and charged it with meaning. It is curious to mention in passing that one of the sharpest commentators of I Ching, who wrote also the most significant commentary on Lao Tse, is a young man who died at 23 years of age, Wang Pi, born in the year 226. This genial young thinker brushed aside all the adventitious superstitions and established the I Ching as a book of wisdom, whose precepts can inspire action and endurance in an interpretation which remained the definitive one for the next five hundred years. After him every philosophical school has commented on the I Ching, some with only dry scholarly deductions, others with profound insight, deepening its meaning and broadening its implications. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were still written original studies on this fundamental book of Chinese culture. The I Ching has given inspiration to great minds like Confucius and Lao-Tse.
Chinese mentality in its traditional trend has been, in elementary aspects, different from that of the West. This may explain why the first Jesuit scholars who studied Chinese culture, having revealed it to Europe, those who have got deep into the study of I Ching were after considered insane or heretic. I Ching means Book of Changes and in these words is implied the concept of permanence. The early Chinese texts contain the paradoxical definition: “Change: that is unchangeable”. The son today bows before his father; we will be father tomorrow and his son will also bow before him, and so on eternally. This example shows how stability in change does not exclude dynamism and sets a harmonious course opposed to chaos. Unlike the Hegelian concept of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, the Chinese concept of I, change, embraces the two opposites dissolving all contradiction between them. This is implied in the concept of Tao, and implicit in many aphorisms of Tao Tê Ching. It has some similarity with the idea of change of Bergson and his theory of the élan vital.
The opposition and interrelationship of Yang, masculine, heaven and Yin, feminine, earth, or above and below, light and shadow, the polarity of these two concepts, not set in contradiction, but opposed as capable of creative and harmonious setting together, never destroying each other, nor fusing into one another, but rather operating in a dynamic and constant inter-action is a fundamental character of Chinese thought since oldest times.
The I Ching is based on 64 hexagrams, calculated and disposed in such a way that it is supposed to be able to comprehend all the possibility of events and all the possible formulations of human thought. By the most abstruse and superstitious minds it has been taken as an oracle and hermetic source of divination; but men of reason and far sight have been reading it as a book of wisdom where deep study can dig up great truth and revelation.
Among the notable commentaries and speculations on the I Ching, are the ones formulated by a great Confucian master during the Ming Dinasty, Shao Yung, whose mathematical conceptions for a new system of hexagrams came to the knowledge of Leibniz. The German philosopher, in search of a solution for certain mathematical problems had thought out the so-called binary or dyadic numeral system, which makes use of two numbers only, instead of ten. This problem is being considered again in our days by the most modern trends of mathematical science. When Leibniz, through the Jesuit missionaries, knew of the diagram formulated by Shao Yung six centuries before, he recognized in it, with amazed enthusiasm, the same system he himself had conceived not in the form of hexagram but in the corresponding form of numbers (3). This extraordinary example - and several others can be found - of cultural identical phenomena having arisen in East and West, sometimes even simultaneously, show the unknown links that unite the thought of Man and reveal the universality of his nature. It is interesting to note that the binary system has been used, in our days, in calculating machines, by L. Couffignal, one of the founders of a just new born science, - if it is already one - cybernetics, defined as the general theory of machines and action. In a more general way it might be said that Chinese formulations of I Ching remind us, in their mathematical formalism, of the processes of symbolic logic, except, of course, that this one chooses symbols with a certain meaning to make afterwards a total abstraction of this meaning and considers the theorems only under the external, graphic form of those symbols, while the comments that follow the hexagrams plunge into a sea of dense and obscure thought implying multiple meanings. (4)
It was with this same purpose of finding the links between Eastern and Western thought that Jung, master of the last discoveries of psychology, has started, through his study of this ancient book, a dialogue through which he found out the most unexpected revelations. He found out that the Chinese mind, as Jung states, “contemplates the cosmos in a way comparable to that of a modern physicist, who cannot deny that his model of the world is decidedly a psycho-physical structure”. The Chinese method aims at self-knowledge and at the exploration of the unconscious to its deepest strata. And through his long experience of medical psychology and psychotherapy, Jung had found out that the exploration of the unconscious raises very strange and unexpected things in which the irrational fullness of life manifests itself strongly. Individual conscience, Jung had written in another book, is surrounded by the abyss of unconsciousness like by a threatening sea. (5)
The principle of causality, which until our time has been the basic principle of Western Science and Philosophical speculation, has been invalidated by modern physics. The so-called natural laws are no more inalterable and invariable truths.
Here we reach the conclusions the Chinese have stated thousands of years before, evolving a principle which Jung calls synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to causality. This concept “takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely a peculiar inter-dependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers”. (6)
But where Jung has deepened this analysis of the psychological and intellectual encounter between old Eastern wisdom and Western modern science, is in his thorough study of the Chinese Book of Life T’ai I Ching Hua Tsung Chih, translated as The Secret of the Golden Flower. This book, printed in wooden tables during the seventeenth century is rooted in an oral tradition which goes back to the religion of the Golden Elixir of Life (Chin Tan Chiao), developed in the T’ang period, during the eighth century. There are in this book ideas from the I Ching, from Taoism and Confucianism; probably it suffered also influences from zoroastrianism and even from the Nestorian branch of Christianity.
Jung departs from the contention, that as human body shows a common anatomy, over and above all racial differences, so too, does the psyche possess a common substratum, which Jung calls collective unconscious. This collective unconscious transcends also all differences of culture and consciousness, irrespective of all racial differences. This explains the analogy, and even identities of various myth-themes and symbols and the possibility of human understanding in general. As consciousness is derived from unconscious, the intellectual manifestations of all men have to show analogies in their substance, form and purpose. The union of the opposites in a high level of consciousness is not a rational affair, but a psychic process of development which expresses itself in symbols.
Here Jung analyses the symbols of the mandala type. The most beautiful mandala belong to Tibetan Buddhism, but mandala can also be widely found in Europe during the Middle Ages, most of them representing Christ in the center of a magic circle with the four Evangelists at the cardinal points. Jung found out that some of his patients draw mandala similar to Eastern ones, though they were completely ignorant of Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism. Jung adds to this discovery his own testimony: “When I began my life-work in the practice of psychiatry and psychotherapy, I was completely ignorant of Chinese philosophy, and it is only later that my professional experiences have shown me that in my technique I had been unconsciously led along that secret way which for centuries has been the preoccupation of the best minds of the East”. In the text of this Chinese book, Jung has found striking parallels to the course of psychic development in his patients, none of whom were Chinese.
And concluding his thought, Jung writes: “The East has taught us another, wider, more profound, and a higher understanding, that is understanding through life”. “The greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown”. “The East came to its knowledge of inner things with a childish ignorance of the world. We, on the other hand, will investigate psyche and its depths, supported by a tremendously extensive historical and scientific knowledge”. But it was this knowledge that prevented us to penetrate into the deep realm which the Chinese, through their persistent concentration in the inner life, have explored. In this secluded realm, dense with mysteries, our modern science is discovering now the great truths which the East announced thousands of years ago. The West has been putting too much faith on its science. A determinist of causal conception, which brought to a mecanicist conception of nature, has been long time used to represent an ideal of scientific explanation of nature in all fields of knowledge. But as the field of scientific experience was widening, this faith proved to be too simplistic and contrary to facts. Our conception of reality is no more explainable by causality. In spite of the universal order of this world, it is impossible to foresee completely the consequences derived from our intervention in the world of reality.
We know absolutely nothing of the intrinsic character of the physical world. The positivistic and rationalistic world of last century has vanished.
There are many thinkers who, still based on the old mechanist background, consider science the only way to approach reality. There are others who, like C.E.M. Joad, think that “scientific knowledge no longer possesses a primacy among the forms of experience and the world which it affirms no longer possesses an exclusive title to be called real”.
We live in a world without eternal laws; what formerly appeared as laws governing each separate atom are now found to be only averages attributable in part to laws of change, says Bertrand Russell. We can never be sure that our scientific laws are quite right. (7)
Einstein’s theory of relativity shows that space and time are both derivative from events and that they are, in fact, forms of relationship between events. Prof. Plank writes: “Men must learn to regard space and time not as objective realities to which everything must conform, but as concepts which in this region of phenomena must now be transcended. They are not objective realities independent of consciousness and perhaps none such exist”. Prof. Sellars, like I Ching, says that “Time is change”. Days and months and years “are measurements in terms of relation between material events, that is between the revolving earth and the sun and other stellar bodies”.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, based on a concept of time-space totally new, has modified the law of gravitation; the new aspects of atomic physics have revolutionized all the old edifice of classical physics; the theory of quanta, of Plank, has helped to renounce the idea of determinism. Now some scientists consider the Universe on the way of an explosive expansion, starting from some primitive “atom”, a Universe where time and space annihilate each other in a kind of absolute zero. (8) Here the last trends of science meet the oldest truths of Buddhism.
In the space of a generation, our knowledge of the world and of the nature has thrown down all the knowledge we have been accumulating before. The feeling of the length of our past and of the immensity of cosmos follows us even in the simple circumstances of our material life (9).
The method of science is not the only method of knowing things, important things we know through some faculty which is not scientific observation nor reasoning. The world of science, writes C.E.M. Joad, studies not the real world, but a selected or abstracted aspect of something that underlies it. That is why, besides, the traditional way of religion, the approach to his reality has been through art, in new dimensions found out by modern critics like André Malraux. The Orient has approached it also through a millenary communion with nature. These aesthetic, moral, religious avenues of exploration of the universe are not only as valid as the approach through science, they may be even more important, since, while science does not give us information about the reality of things, or rather about the reality behind them, art and religion do so. Scientific knowledge is not knowledge of reality but of appearance, Joad writes. (10)
Does it exist then a poetic truth, spiritual or cultural, distinct from scientific truth? If art enriches us, says the physicist Niels Bohr, is because it makes us feel a harmony which transcends all systematic analysis. Poetry, painting and music use a form of expression which renounces more and more to definition (which is the characteristic of scientific communication) and leave place to a freer play of imagination. Art develops along more individual, more intuitive efforts for arising in us feelings which evoke our situation in its whole. (11)
The East has been always inclined to search for the poetical truth; that is why its traditional wisdom, avoiding definitions, preferred rather vague formulas, dense with obscure meanings which defy time and precision. It is true that this impractical attitude is responsible for the economic underdevelopment and misery which have afflicted the Eastern peoples centuries after Europe had found remedy for plagues and famine. But has the West, also, with its scientific development and with its Christian charity not been killing millions of men in two World Wars, and has not the culmination of its technique been the invention of a lethal weapon capable of destroying everything the West has created?
This digression through the investigations of Wilhelm, father and son, and C.G. Jung, was necessarily long because it is until today the main constructive contribution, on this field, which can help us to begin to build a bridge through which East and West can come together.
Carl Jung has often been accused of having given too much importance to mysticism in the study of psychology (as he has been accused of psychologism) because of his view on the unconscious and on the content of the liberation experience is too narrowly psychological. (12)
Science must advance, and there is no scientist whose theories have not been contradicted by his successors and by his disciples. But whatever the reservations to Jung’s ideas may be, it is of great importance that for the first time a scientist has carefully examined and meditated on occult texts of the past, not as “superstition and protoscience but as living insights into man’s relation to cosmos”. “Carl Jung’s scholarly investigation of the occult”, writes Karl Saphiro, “is one of the most important scientific and aesthetic events of our age”. (13) Jung’s work, writes Giuseppe Tucci, is “destined to leave lasting traces in human thought”. (14)
What has been said proved that Eastern and Western man are naturally alike and, though having followed for thousands of years, in many aspects, completely different paths, the wisdom that emerges from their separate experiences is ultimately the same. This conclusion points out to the need of studying thoroughly what in us is different and what is similar, of putting together all that Western and Eastern man have created, for the purpose of developing the full capacities of human nature and building a truly universal culture.