Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Argentinean camel: a note on East and West

There are many things to be particularly appreciated in the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and one of them is that it shows how a Westerner can interpret a message that is really far from his own culture – especially considering the historical moment when Hesse was writing his great book. An Eastern master will probably not see much in Hesse's novel, although the book reaches the Eastern way as close as a Westerner could. Siddhartha, as described by Hesse, is a character between East and West, a sort of "innocent Zarathustra" (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, not the historical Zoroaster). In Hermann Hesse’s book we find statements like: “had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again”. An Eastern master would not be capable of understanding, for example, the Hamletic “problem” of suicide because in this form it is a typical Western issue (see also Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”)

The Eastern master might tell you that “to be” or “not to be” are one and the same so, what’s the problem? For the Easterner, shallowness and depth are just two different ways of the Om and you can’t “hear” the Om (although you can chant it) but be and not be Om (also “be” would be a troubling concept for the Eastern master because for a Westerner the problem of being is a term deeply influenced by Parmenides…). All Eastern concepts are somehow beyond Western systematic post-Ionian thinking, and there is little we can do to properly approach those ideas because our way of thinking is deeply and inevitably rooted into categories that are fundamentally different from the ways of the East: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao”. A definition is not a description and a description is not an explanation. That’s a very important point where Western sciences get caught: we believe that a more accurate description of a phenomenon is an explanation! An Easterner would not fall into this trap. Easterner cannot be tricked like that.

It is also illusory (an Eastern master would never say “wrong” but “illusory”) to believe or declare that Eastern thinking is about “non-dualism” (不二), because “dualism” is once again a Western concept: basically it’s duality without one half of it. Eastern thought (不二) is, to a certain extent, beyond duality, which is a very different and difficult concept.

Those are among the many reasons why it is also fundamentally wrong to speak about “Asian Religions”, labeling Eastern spirituality with a Western name. “Religio” is Roman terminology that cannot be applied to an Eastern way of thinking that has little or no connection to Western theological concepts (at least after the IV century B.C.)! It is the same as talking about an Argentinean camel! Well, after all this is just another sign of the deep indifference for philosophical questions of our age – most likely a byproduct of the vulgar materialism that affects all levels of our society. The word “religion” comes from the Latin term “religio” used by Cicero in his De natura deorum (II, 28). It is even difficult to say that the Bible itself contains a “religion” in the way that it was intended later, considering that in Hebrew there is no term that could be equivalent to the Latin “religio” – the closest word used in Hebrew is “dat” (דת or דתא) which means “law” or “custom”, and the faith of the Jews is based on a covenant/pact (ברית, breet) with the Almighty. For as strange as it might appear, the same issue exists in Greek where there is no apt term for “religion”, at least in the way that it was intended later. The word ἐκκλησία, “ecclesia”, which nowadays means “church” is used in Greek coming from ἐκκαλέω; a gathering of citizens called out into a public place, associated, in the Septuaginta, with קָהָל, which indicates also a gathering, but for sacred purposes, while for Greek historians such as Thucydides, the word contains a clear political meaning. Another Greek term used is Θρησκεία “Thriskia” which means “worship” (see:[*]). In modern Greek “thriskia” means “religion” in the Western sense, as it was also used in the notorious slogan Πατρίς, Θρησκεία, Οικογένεια (Country, Religion, Family) used by the Regime of the Colonels that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

The thinking of the East it’s a crave for unity, while the thinking of the West is mainly about divisions (διαίρεσις) and duality. The only points where East and West meet are in the mystics, where both are craving again for unity. Of course we are talking about the past, but not a remote past if Kipling could still write in his Ballad of East and West that “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” (1889) because nowadays, under the dark hat of globalization, the East has been “westernized” as well, and there are only very minor differences between Eastern and Western thinking: you can talk to a Chinese or a Japanese and find the same opinions as a guy from Brooklyn or Bremerhaven. Globalization is, after all, a new provincialism, the sad material provincialism of the West cunningly spread over the entire planet.
(Sergio Caldarella)