Eastern philosophy is a collection of philosophies developed in East and South Asia. It includes Buddhism, Yogic philosophy, Vedanta, Taoism, and others. These philosophies are less concerned with rituals and revolve around understanding our relationship with the universe.
There are differences between Eastern and Western philosophy. While Western philosophy emphasizes individualism, collectivism is the focus of Eastern philosophy. Virtues are central to both systems.
In this article, let’s look at five of the key figures of Eastern philosophy and their origin. We’ll see when they were around and what their key teachings were about.
Patanjali was an ancient Indian sage who compiled and systemized the principles of meditation and yoga. While we know little about his era, but can estimate that he lived around the second century B.C. He wrote the Yoga Sutras, a short Sanskrit book from which the contemporary practice of yoga is founded.
The Yoga Sutras lays out ways to achieve a pure, illusion-free state of being, also known as Samadhi. It describes five social restraints and moral codes of yoga (Yamas). They are Ahimsa (non-violence), Asteya (non-stealing), Satya (truthfulness), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and brahmacharya (celibacy or fidelity). Patanjali defined yoga as the “restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.”
Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, yoga has become increasingly prevalent in the Western world. As of now, around 300 million people regularly practice yoga.
2. The Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama was born to a noble family in 563 BCE in present-day Nepal. He grew up in a palace and had a luxurious life. Later, he left the palace hoping to find spiritual enlightenment through overcoming life’s intrinsic suffering. In his search for answers, he finally attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.
Buddhism is a philosophical tradition established on Gautama Buddha’s original teachings. The very fabric of Buddhist philosophy is that suffering (dukkha) is an inevitable part of human life.
This suffering is caused by self-centered cravings (tanha) and aversions. People suffer when they cannot attain what they crave or avoid what they dislike. Buddha says that to achieve Nirvana, one must overcome this perpetual cycle of craving and aversion.
Gautama Buddha taught Vipassana meditation, a mindful breathing and body awareness technique that emancipates practitioners from suffering through concentration and discipline. He emphasized Vipassana as a non-sectarian practice that anyone can practice regardless of their religious beliefs.
Being one of the largest “religions” in the world today, roughly 7% of the total population currently practices Buddhism.
3. Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer who lived in the 6th century BCE. He is considered the founder of Taoism. He was an older contemporary of Confucius and a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty.
Lao Tzu is best known for writing the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching. It offers a rebellious spiritual philosophy based on an underlying unity of the universe. It says that one returns to the source of being by being simple in their thoughts and deeds.
Taoism is a religious or philosophical tradition that emphasizes living by following Tao. It can be further classified into religious and scholarly Taoism. According to Taoist philosophy, all living species should live in harmony with the universe and its natural vitality.
Chi or “qi” is the life-force energy that pervades and guides everything in the universe. In yoga, this energy is referred to as “prana” which can be modified through breathwork called “pranayama.”
While it’s been over 2500 since its origin, Taoism still has a large following, especially in China. Today, over 74 million people practice Taoism worldwide.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher born in 551 B.C in eastern China. He was one of the most influential Chinese sages and his teachings are still relevant in Chinese culture. He started his career as an official, working for aristocratic households in Lu. He later left the service and became a teacher.
Confucianism emphasizes personal, societal, and governmental morality. Its central premise of having a good moral character is essential to impact the collective environment and promote harmony in society. This stems from the belief that human beings are inherently good and capable of improvement.
“The Analects” summarize his teachings and for many years served as the backbone of Chinese tradition. According to the Association of Religious Data (ARDA), there are still over 8 million official Confucianists in the world.
Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th and 6th centuries. He founded Zen Buddhism in China. Being originally from South India, he later became a Buddhist monk after a curious Chinese emperor summoned him to hear his teachings.
As the story goes, Bodhidharma encountered Buddhist monks in a Shaolin temple who were physically very weak. He stayed for nearly a decade, becoming a monk himself and teaching them how to cultivate physical health, ultimately improving their meditation.
Eastern Philosophy for a Modern World
Eastern philosophy broadly refers to the various schools of Asian thought. Among the most well-known are Buddhism, Yogic philosophy, Taoism, Zen, and Confucianism.
Meditation, self-mastery, and harmonious living are recurring themes in Eastern philosophy. Based on the lasting popularity of practices like Yoga and mindfulness in the West, it’s clear that these teachings have much to offer the modern world.