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Buddhism and Confucianism

How have Japanese, Chinese, and Indian philosophy recently entered Anglo-American philosophy?

Asian philosophy came to the West as Buddhism from Japanese, Chinese and Indian philosophy, and Neo-Confucianism from Chinese philosophy. Given the common thread of Buddhism throughout Asia, many might be tempted to designate all philosophy from Japan, China, and India as "Asian philosophy" or "Eastern philosophy," but there are other systems of thought and religion just as diverse as Buddhist traditions.

Also, the different Buddhist traditions derive from cultures that have very distinctive histories, as well as very different current political and economic situations and ties to the West. That their theological dimensions are not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, is probably all that the philosophies of these areas—broadly understood to be more than Buddhism and Confucianism—have in common.

Although Euro-American intellectuals in other fields have well-developed scholarly traditions based on Eastern texts, it should be noted that philosophers, as a profession, are relative latecomers to Eastern philosophy. For instance: the British biochemist Joseph Needham (1900-1995) wrote extensively on technology and science in the history of China; the nineteenth century German novelist Herman Hesse introduced an international readership to Indian thought and Buddhism in his 1922 novel, Siddhartha; and philosophy's own Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was fascinated by Chinese thought. The question is what do philosophers put on their curricula from Eastern thought in new ways that emphasize a commonality of philosophical interests? Again, the answer is Buddhism, on account of its resonance with Western metaphysics and epistemology, and Confucianism for what it teaches about virtue ethics.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism was founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama. The majority of Indian scholars place his lifespan as c. 563-c. 483 b.c.e. Indian Buddhism divided into Theravada, or Hinayana or "Lesser Vehicle," and Mahayana, or "Greater Vehicle." Indian Buddhism was no longer a vibrant religion in India after the thirteenth century, but it had by then spread geographically. Theravada Buddhism is practiced in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in China, Japan, Nepal, and the United States. Tibetan Buddhism, in addition to including the Greater and Lesser Vehicles, has a form known as Vairayana. All of the three vehicles are practiced in Himalayan parts of Mongolia, Northeastern China, and Russia.

Zen Buddhism is practiced in Japan as a kind of meditation called "zazen" that repudiates texts (even though there is a written tradition) and focuses on unmediated direct experience. Zen originated in India and emerged in China in the seventh century c.e., from which it spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Zen includes Yogacara, which is a form of philosophical idealism that uses yoga exercises to achieve disbelief in the existence of physical objects.

What is the school of thought of Buddhism?

The general structure of Buddhism as a school of thought is based on a religious belief in reincarnation, which is known as "the wheel of life." The spiritual ideal is for the individual to stop being reincarnated by adopting behavior with the correct karma, or consequences. The wheel of life is propelled by the flame of desire. The main obstacle to Enlightenment is thereby identified as desire: desire for

Buddhism is often associated with China, Japan, and Nepal, but it actually began in India, where it was started by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (iStock).

Buddhism is often associated with China, Japan, and Nepal, but it actually began in India, where it was started by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (iStock).

people, money, power, fame, objects, and anything else. By following the Eightfold Path, a practitioner will snuff out his or her "flame" of desire and no longer need to return to this earth.

There are three precepts or self-evident truths: that all life is unhappy or unsatisfying, that all life is impermanent, and that there is no eternal or even permanent self or soul. From these precepts, the Eightfold Path manifests itself: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right views, and right intentions.

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