Richard Lim & Jayan Warrier
The term ‘eastern’ does not seem to be a fair generalisation when we discuss philosophical traditions, considering there are so many variations to any topic under discussion, much like the word ‘western’. The philosophies have gone through upgrades in time and many of them have intermingled with other similar ones as a result of invasions, modifications due to some perceived threats in the society and the need to express them in new ways. These teachings have been transmitted from generation to generation through oral traditions, through a chain of teachers and disciples. Though some of these traditions from the east value the ‘originality’ and consider any adaptation as deviations from the real, it was almost impossible to ‘protect’ them from modifications. Translations into various languages from Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali and so on in the last 200-300 years have made them accessible globally. Some teachers from the west have made these concepts so easy for those who have no background in any of the eastern traditions of lifestyle – which some of us from the East appreciate so much, having sometimes lost in the jargons and complexities.
The world according to the eastern traditions begins with one’s own body and experiences seemingly originating from outside, encountered through that body. At its heart, the individual selfhood or ego is not taken as a concrete entity with fundamental inherent substance. The individual selfhood or ego is constructed like any concept. And while concepts of solidity can make conventional life convenient, but closer scrutiny reveals that change and impermanence is the only reality. In meditational practices, many people experience the non-dual reality. For instance, it is not about a person with a mind and body standing apart from the universe and experiencing a world outside, but it is about pure awareness that is experiencing the arising of the constructed ego, the body and the rest of the world.
From this point of view, as far as epistemology is concerned, the question about the existence of a real world comes down to the experience of the body and the experience of a world through that body: five senses and mind. The body is experienced at least in three different ways: body as arising from nothingness when one is in deep sleep, as sensations when eyes are closed and as a solid structure with parts when seen through the eyes. The ego is seen to be lacking in any inherently substantial entity just like everything else we perceive. So, what is ‘real’? The eastern perennial traditions conclude that the external world does not have an independent existence apart from the awareness that is aware of it. How do we then describe the world we experience? In various traditions, specifically Buddhism and Hinduism, the conclusion is that the world is nothing/empty, the world is a mental projection that exists only as far as the mind exists, the world is just energy, the world is apparent reality, it is real and unreal at the same time. ‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ – this phrase stated in the heart sutra probably sums it up very well.