I wanted to write something as an introduction to Eastern philosophy. This of course is an incredibly difficult thing to do. I was immediately reminded of this section of the Tao Te Ching:
The ancient masters were subtle,
mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their
Watchful, like men crossing a winter
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.
So as you can see I had a good deal to live up to! My brain felt like an uncarved block of wood when I felt like writing this. So I think all I will do is describe appearances and do this by comparison. It is this comparison that first very literally blew my mind wide open to a pattern of thought that I had never experienced as a child/teenager. I cannot really tell you what Taoist dogma (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) is, or what it is to be a good Buddhist. I could describe the eightfold path or quote sections from the Bhagavad Gita but I don’t think that would be very useful. These things are not useful in the same way that they are if I were to tell you about Christianity, Judaism or Islam.
Western religions work by proclamation. Orders are passed down from the throne of God and disseminated by his viziers (Priests, Imams and Rabbis) to his faithful subjects. It is a monarchy with God at the top (as a deeply male King), who passes down his very serious instructions. If I want to learn about the King and his laws I simply read and obey them, I submit myself before them (This had always been a troubling issue for me, why would anyone, let alone a benevolent God want people to submit before them).
In Hinduism, Shiva dances. This is brilliant, it is not very fitting for a deity to do this in the West, but life is a glorious dance. The Tao is described as a mysterious female, this sounds fantastic! (One because I like females and two because mysterious females are even better!) Eastern religions do not hand down orders, they work by dialogue. There is a constant exchange, using humour, insight and practice. The phrases of Eastern texts are designed to be tools to aid thought and to promote insight. Confucius in one of his more enlightened moments said: ‘I will give my disciples one corner, it is up to them to find the other three.’ Laws do not work like this. You could not expect a judge to condemn someone for a crime with the words ‘Well I expected you to figure out the rest of the rules for yourself.’
This is the great beauty of this pattern of thinking, it does not dominate, it does not control and it grows with you. This dialogue is the vital part of the way, and this is why practice is so heavily emphasised is Eastern religion. In Western religion all that is fundamentally needed is that you understand the laws and submit before the king. In Eastern religion this is meaningless. Reading an understanding the eightfold path is only the absolute beginning; it is the opening PowerPoint presentation before a debate begins. In order to really get this pattern of thought you must practice. To some extent it doesn’t matter what, painting, calligraphy, martial arts, meditation, walking, chanting and music were all considered perfectly good tools to engage in this dialogue. It is up to you to find something, stick to it and let your own understanding grow with you.