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Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought (book review) Patrick S. Bresnan

180220: excellent introductory textbook to an entire tradition of philosophical thought little known in the ‘west’. rather than the core impetus for philosophy being hellenic, familiar names such as plato, aristotle etc, the thought universe begins with indic texts such as vedas, upanishads, bhagavad ghita, leading to flowering of buddhist philosophy. this is introductory, not ‘primary’ texts of great historical vintage, and the five i rate with that in mind. do not ask for details, for full explicit meanings, but follow this as engaging history. this is easy to read, fluid, translations exact, and i suggest that as these philosophies are living it is useful to see how this thought has developed...

i have read some ‘eastern’ philosophy before (160), mostly indic-buddhist (62), and bresnan recounts how it is an outgrowth of what is now called hinduism, a sort of ‘reform’ movement, a new interpretation, of the founding texts, the vedas, of indic civilization. he goes into some geography, history, culture of the areas the vedas arose, and i found this great as that part of the world is mostly unknown to me. i do not know what the current theories are about the arrival of aryans and the indigenous dravidians, only that i might have bought into a eurocentric narrative denigrating the indigenous. at any rate, the vedas are kind of founding myth of aryans and support if not establish all those aspects of hinduism i thought i knew, caste etc...

throughout this tradition, in all thought, there are certain axiomatic assumptions shared by all cultures, but the clearest confusion to the ‘western’ thinker is the ‘why’ motivating philosophy. there is no clear division between religion and philosophy, indeed the ‘why’ is to ‘use’ philosophy for what seems religious ends, that is, to answer the unanswered questions of human existence, which can be seen as dream, illusion, ignorance, from which we must be ‘woken’ or ‘enlightened’. in the ‘west’ the metaphysical conflict is between good and evil, in the ‘east’ it is between ignorance and that form of embedded knowledge we call ‘enlightenment’. all thought examined here is philosophy of how to become so enlightened, whether this is called moksha, nirvana, satori...

there are other shared assumptions, such as reincarnation, though how this works with karma is not much looked at here, but another interesting aspect is that enlightenment is seen as here and now, not after death, however extensive or prolonged the process of becoming so. there is the universal practice of meditation. there is the unrecorded history of oral traditions, which when compiled became the vedas for example, so the hindu practices, still continuing, are very much alive...

buddha (awakened one) [book:The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon|663516] was himself hindu, of the warrior caste, and operated in such cultural matrix where it was, for example entirely acceptable and even honored to leave the world of usual work, farming, merchant, warrior etc, and dedicate oneself to spiritual concerns. i always found such ‘renouncing’ the world and its pleasures for something i could not name, brave and terrific and wanted to do that myself, but this is not ancient india. so i have satisfied myself by reading about it. then things happen. now i enjoy this text because it affirms all that i have read of various forms of buddhist thought and lives and now know to call this liberation from the pains of the world ‘enlightenment’...

this text progresses from hinduism through buddhism and he gives great outlines of core teachings of the historical buddha: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and goes on to elaborate how this ‘pali canon’ became extended into the ‘Mahayana’ (middle way) and doctrines such as dependent origination and ‘shunyata’ (emptiness) [book:The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā|1048288]. it is this form of buddhist thought which spreads through the rest of asia from india, merging, changing, evolving with or against indigenous chinese ways of thought from confucianism and daoism into unique forms such as chan (zen in japan), but always remaining true to those core teachings. there is of course religious buddhism but the sort that fascinates me is the philosophical. though no logical system can prove itself, it has seemed to me that buddhism requires the least ‘belief’ from outside, and once given is supremely logical way of living that need not be considered religious. the last buddhist thought (or no-thought) examined here is actually where i first encountered it through art, and this is zen, possibly the most intellectually challenging, paradoxically, for by its nature all intellectual, rational thought is its own block to enlightenment... far better, probably, to begin at the beginning with an introduction like this text...

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