WESTERN AND EASTERN CULTURE
Armando Martins Janeira
We live in one world where the perspective of life and the compass of history became universal. Though expressed through various forms of civilization, the main problems of man, today, are universal, as every important event which takes place on Earth concerns simultaneously every man.
But why is it that when we contemplate the forces that impel the progress of man and that impress the main character of the various civilizations, we see that the influence of the Western civilization is largely predominant?
The starting points of Western and Eastern civilizations can be placed at about two and a half millennia ago, when Socrates and Plato in Greece, Confucius in China and Buddha in India were teaching and spreading many of the great ideas on which we still inspire our thoughts today.
Later, in Europe, came the Roman Empire, the Barbarian invasions, and the light of Hellenic civilization dimmed for many centuries.
Europe was sunk in a dark state of barbarism in the eighth century, when China, with its capital in Chang-an, Japan, with its capital in Nara, and when still Constantinople represented the light of the spirit and the highest peak of civilization on earth. About seven centuries later, though, Europe had caught up with the civilization of China, India and Japan, and they were all at approximately the same level. Then after, from about 1500, Europe began to progress at a fast pace and began to discover the world and model it according to its civilization.
The question arises why did Europe develop so rapidly, while the other countries did not. Since the Age of Discovery until today, the West has been widening its pre-eminence by means of its science and technology and also by spreading a rational attitude which is one of the main Western attributes.
Which special qualities had, then, the Western man to spread his ideas and impose his power to the whole Earth?
Several explanations have been given: the extraordinary variety of Europe’s geographical and national elements; the idea of political liberty, which arose in Greece and nowhere else in the world came into being, proclaiming a brotherhood of free men within a polis organized on the basis of freedom; a rationality that lead to a social organization which repels the universal despotism of totalitarian systems and is the pivot of scientific progress; the resoluteness of Western man when confronted with the world in its reality, a resolution which is manifested in historical tensions: as those, for example, between Christianity and science, State and Church, between Latin and Teutonic nations, between Catholicism and Protestantism. ( ) The most sublime struggles of the spirit and the longest theory of greatest and supremely individualistic men, who strived for the deliverance of other men, belong to the West. A great oriental poet, Rabindranath Tagore, has written “In the heart of Europe runs the purest of human love, of love of justice, of spirit of self-sacrifice for higher ideals; the Christian culture of centuries has sunk deep into her life’s score”. About three quarters of the Western renovating philosophers and great social thinkers have been imprisoned, or banished, or killed, or had to flee to save their lives for the sake of the new ideas they fought for. Such was the nerve of those who spread the ideals of Europe. This force of expansion has successively brought every Western European country to explore the world leaving a lasting impression in the lands and civilizations with which it came in contact. At the extreme West, being the first country to build its national unity, Portugal was the first to begin the great enterprise of exploring new ways through virgin seas. For this, the Portuguese invented a ship with a special system of sails which could advance against the wind, and created instruments by which they could determine their geographical position and find their way in the vastness of water with no sight of land. This was one of the greatest achievements in man’s history. Spain has profited from Portuguese technical advance and experience. After came to Dutch and the French. The last ones, the English began in the the seventeenth century and reached the climax of their expansion in the East in 1815; it was the period when Europe was at the height of its self-development.
During this contact of nearly five centuries, the West has spread the best of its ideas in the countries of the East. From the very first contacts, this influence was felt. The earliest statues of Buddha, which date from the first century before Christ, were the work of a Greco-Buddhist school, in the Northwest India, the Gandara school of art. It flourished from about the second century B.C. until the second century A.D. The Greek influences are responsible for the idea of representing the person of Buddha, which before then was considered too sublime to be modelled by the hands of an artist as a human figure. The figures of Apollo and other Greek deities, more or less Indianized, represented Buddhist themes. The statues in eighth century Nara show an admirable union of the Buddhist profundity with Greek grace. ( )
The first Western contact with Japan was so deep that the Portuguese have elaborated a grammar of the Japanese language before the Japanese themselves did it. It would be impossible to mention all the ideas and utilities with which the West has contributed to the development of Eastern countries. As it was the West that moved to meet the East, the Eastern contribution has not been of the same essential nature. We can say that the development of Western countries owes nothing fundamental to the East. Voltaire wrote a Chinese tragedy from a modified Jesuit translation. Schopenhauer inspired in the East his pessimist philosophy. The English have learned in India to play polo and wear pajamas, instead of night skirts, and to take bath. Lacquer was introduced in Europe in the seventeenth century and “China-ware” spread from Meissen to Worcester.
During the eighteenth century, “chinoiseries” were in great fashion and so were the “japoneries” in the nineteenth. The French impressionists, Toulouse Lautrec, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, were influenced by the Japanese school of the Ukiyo-e. The influence of the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound and of the Chinese and Japanese translations of Arthur Waley has been wide in the West and admitted by great poets like T. S. Elliot. But all this cannot be compared with learning to build a ship or an air-plane, to produce a vaccine or to make acquaintance with symphonic music.
We reached already the point where the West has nothing more to teach to the East. Japan became the world´s greatest shipbuilding country and can now teach the West many new things in the field of optics, electronics, agricultural methods.
For the first time the East is feeling a Messianic urge of coming to succour the West. For the first time in its millenary history, Eastern religions got to the West to preach their own ways of salvation and also for the first time a religion intolerant of others like Catholicism, which always denied the truth of any other religion, begins to be inclined to adopt oriental religious methods of meditation. This signs are a felicitous sign of the human wide understanding, but it can also be more one sad augur of Western decline. The augur of West sinking into Asia from whose womb it first came.
Is there a danger that the serene influence of the East be such that it can lull the eternal inquietude of the Western soul and its deepest endeavour for the unattainable, that it can suppress the Faustian man´s restless striving for the infinity?
Arthur Koestler expresses this preoccupation in a dramatic way: “Civilization passes through the most dreadful crisis of growth after it came down from the trees but unfortunately we have to conclude that neither yoga nor Zen nor any other form of Asiatic mysticism have the least valuable advice to give” ( )
The crisis of today is not only felt in the West. The West suffers from its inner process of growth; the scientific outlet in which Western man has been concentrating mainly his efforts, the external world, on which he has been exerting his moral and physical courage, is explored nearly to all its limits. Only a new adventure in space can renew his energy and his audacity. The East suffers from the disturbing impact upon its ancient culture of the science, the philosophy, the religion, the industrialism and the political and economic systems created by the West. The stream of utilitarianism that has been moving from West towards East has not saved the latter; but it has given Eastern peoples more bread and more health. The tide of spirituality and aestheticism moving to the West from the East has not helped the first to find the full meaning of life. So East and West have continued fundamentally alien to, and separated from each other, without either of the two being able to assimilate the new foreign elements, but each losing part of its strength and of its genuine character.
Today, still, the predominant spiritual approach in the East and the utilitarian Western approach show both to be unsatisfactory. Utilitarianism in the American degree, with its restless struggle for material wealth and comfort, leaves man, in the end empty and abandoned to the desolation of his soul.
The meta-physic aloofness of Indian spirituality, only loving the “eternal verities and the deep secrets of theosophy and brahmavidya” - it has been written that “metaphysics has been the curse of India” - abandons man to poverty, to an empty social life and aimless nihilism. ( )
Chinese and Japan are trying to reconcile both tendencies, the first by throwing herself entirely in the arms of a Western means of salvation, Marxism; the second adapting the most modern means of science and technology and at the same time efforting herself to keep the essential values of its religious and aesthetic rich traditions. Japan is probably the only country that has absorbed these diverse trends, incorporating them in her own culture, without losing her national character and, on the contrary, increasing her vitality. Japanese received, from India, spiritualism, from China, aestheticism, from the West, science and technology; and, still, these alien courses of inspiration have enriched her intellectual activity and increased her standards of living without drying so far a sole of her fundamental traditional sources of spiritual strength. This consideration could bring us to think that Japan, that had the force and wisdom of combining harmoniously Eastern and Western sources of inspiration, might be the country which has more probabilities to perform the creative synthesis on which the survival of civilization and its universal realization depends.
This aptitude for adapting and reconciling diverse values can be illustrated by the way Japanese combined Shintoism, a native religion, with Buddhism, imported from China on the sixth century. During one thousand years these two religions were fused into what is called “Ryo-bu Shinto”. Shinto shrines were often served by Buddhist priests. A Japanese Buddhist saint, Nichiren, chooses a name that means sun-lotus, which symbolizes the combination of Shinto - the sun symbolizing light and life - and Buddhist lotus-purity and perfection. Kanera Ichijo, in the 15th century, brought further his eclecticism, as he combined those two religions with Confucian ethics. It will be possible for Japanese still to combine these three harmoniously with Christian ideals, without any sign of disruption or spiritual anguish which in the West makes conflicting religious beliefs a source of inner struggle and family hate and intolerance.
Another example of this genius for absorbing foreign values and transforming and fusing them into the active mass of national culture is the case of literature, specially of poetry: after the impact with Western poetry, Japanese poetry, which was slumbering in a monotonous repetition of forms and themes, awoke and became creative.
On the material field, the economic prosperity of Japan and its impressive industrial progress is the best proof of the Japanese genius for learning and transfusing foreign ideas into its own. Japan has been accused of imitating everything Western. The phase of imitation was inevitable in a country starting from zero in science and technology, in such a short time to such a high degree of development. But now we are already beginning to see Japanese creative capacity.
We must not forget that the leaven of Western Europe has been working in Japan, or in China, for only one century. In Russia it has been working for two centuries longer and is still not completely developed.
When we consider Eastern and Western culture from a broad point of view, we realize that there is an ancient and vast background of fundamental values on which they meet and from which they draw in their historical development and in the lively sources of today´s life. Arnold Toynbee, replying to the question who are the greatest benefactors of the living generations of mankind, answers: “Confucius and Lao-Tse; the Buddha; the prophets of Israel and Judah; Zoroaster; Jesus and Muhammad; and Socrates.” ( ) All these lasting benefactors raise their voices to us from a distant past, they still give food to our thoughts and inspire our good deeds, direct our human trajectory.
We need to look deep into the past when we consider East and West, because they are like two poles of human nature, having the same ground, from which all the high conquests of the spirit are derived and to which all the deep movements revert, into a vast ocean of the unconscious common to all men.
The meeting of East and West is coming closer everyday. The benefits that can derive from it are incalculable. As far as we can see, it is the only possibility for sparking a new phase in civilization.
As far back as Goethe and Leibniz, the creative synthesis between East and West, has been considered men’s only salvation. Today we can feel this human tide rising, with the vital force of a regeneration.