Having taken Philosophy 101 at too early an age and my professor being a very dry speaker I had been turned off by philosophy for years. For the last 5 years or more I have been introduced to J. Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, and I have read Autobiography of a Yogi (unadulterated version). I have also taken an interest in Jung, working my way back to classic school of thought.

What confuses me is when thinking back on Philosophy 101 I never heard anything about eastern religion which seems to me to be more a philosophy or way of life.

So where are the lines drawn between philosophy and eastern mysticism? At what point is it considered a religion or is this all just linguistics?

  • 1
    Ken Wilber has written extensively about how western and eastern philosophy relate.
    – user3905
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 17:01
  • @Skrimpo Thank you for offering up another resource! Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 20:43
  • whatever the subject or activity, where there is respect for obtaining knowledge, there is philosophy.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 3:53
  • you could try this
    – user34654
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 5:42

4 Answers 4


Western philosophy has a long and broad tradition. It doesn't surprise me that in a first course in the West you would only be introduced to the major Western philosophers - but perhaps it is worth mentioning that there are other philosophical traditions out there which are worth looking at for their own intrinsic interest as well for the impact they have made on the West.

As an aside and a concrete analogy: one wouldn't for example be able to fully understand Western art without also looking at the influences coming from outside the Western sphere, like Incan and African art which are non-representational. One could make a strong case that the advent of non-representational art in the West was determined by the impact of non-Western art itself on the West.

It only takes a little reflection to understand that non-western culture will have their own modes of philosophy - simply because the questions of life and the world are common to all of humanity and not just the West. In other traditions they may be presented as religion, theology, mythology as well as the kind of discursive tradition that is presented as philosophy in the West.

In the West, because of the recent (since the enlightenment) secularization and desacralization project in elite intellectual circles, it's not usually realized how connected the Western tradition is to the form of their religion - Christianity. Two millennia of Christianity will have left its mark. There are obvious figures like Pascal and Aquinas, but Kant and Hegel in part philosophize because of religion.

Eastern traditions have left their mark on Western philosophy although one has to go looking for it. Schopenhauer, for example, said that the Upanishads were the consolation of his life. Simone Weil, Christian mystic and moral philosopher knew Sanskrit. Oppenheimer, administrator of the Manhattan Project quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, 'I am become death, destroyer of worlds', at the first nuclear test explosion.

They have also left their mark on popular culture from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Yoda in Star Wars, the Beetles taking up with a guru, the films of Bruce Lee and Kung Fu, the 70s TV serial, and on high art through the paintings of Rothko and some of the short stories of Salinger.

There is also possibly a more hidden tradition which has been documented and argued for in McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought, in brief, that there were philosophical exchanges from antiquity between India and the West. This is in all probability correct. After all, there is the Greco-Indo city of Ghandara in Afghanistan and one only has to look at the statues there to discern the merger of both influences.

As to why these influences aren't more discussed and why the philosophies elsewhere aren't given their due comes down to the intellectual parochialism and the soft power of cultural (for want of a better word) imperialism. The West is the centre and thus spreads its influence much more than it is influenced by.

I suspect as China and India become more culturally self-confident and learn to reinvigorate their own traditions rather than merely copying the West that will change.

Eastern religion is not just a philosophy. It is also a religion, and religions are a way of life. That is, they have practices, rituals and temples. In some places bhakti (devotion) is much more common than self-conscious philosophizing.

One thing is true - the discursive tradition of the East is played down in the West. Amartya Sen, in his book, The Argumentative Indian, tried to open that discussion up a little. One example will have to suffice:

In the West, the axiomatic system is said to have originated with Euclid, hence axiomatic systems are associated in the Western mind with mathematics - and thus the apocryphal story that Plato hung over his Academy 'Let no-one ignorant of Geometry enter here'. This axiomatic system was a secret treasure of the West which it has recently bequeathed to the rest of the world.

But in India the axiomatic system is associated with Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian, and philosophy there in the beginning had a deep relationship with language rather than mathematics. When one considers how important grammars are now in computer science, one can see the difference is not all that great. It's also worth noting that Wittgenstein inaugurated the linguistic turn in Anglo-American philosophy and that Saussurean linguistics was responsible for semiotics as well as Structuralism in Continental Philosophy.

It's likely that in both traditions it was the example of law that lead to the idea of axiomatic systems. But this is simply an educated guess.

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    I wish you'd taught my Philosophy 101 and I gained seemingly interesting read to boot, thank you! Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 17:02
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    You're welcome. If you like my answer, you should vote it up:) And good luck with finding out more! Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 17:10
  • Thanks - I tried to do so earlier but did not have the point total. First experience on stackexchange, very good idea. Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 22:11
  • Plato lived before Euclid, so his "geometry" couldn't have been Euclid's "axiomatic system"
    – b a
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 19:00
  • As well as Schopenhauer & the Upanishads, a convincing case has been made for Heidigger's Dasein being prompted by Taoist thought en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dasein#Origin_and_inspiration Yoga is an emanation of Hinduism in the West, and Tai Chi of Chinese thought.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 2:39

There are a lot of analytic-tradition philosophers who have a quick flick through Nietzsche and give up 'continental' philosophy as a bad job. And there are a lot of non-English language philosophers who see limiting philosophy to meta-science and meta-mathematics as abandoning the needs of language-clarification that not only postmodernists but Wittgenstein also pointed to. What should the core syllabus be? Depends where you hang out, and what questions or problems you consider need addressing.

Mysticism is a pejorative term. China had it's own school of logic,though it became suppressed. In Indian logic you can find the nyaya epistemological method from Hindu thought. And the tetralemma in Buddhist thought makes a lot of sense when you realise it can deal with paradoxical self-referencing sentences, the bane of 20th C analytic philosophy.

Philosophy, mysticism, religion, who's boxes are these? Why should people who didn't make those boxes, be expected to sort their traditions neatly into them? Confucianism seriously stretches our definition of religion. Hindu & Buddhist thought have deeply philosophical traditions and movements, and almost purely 'mystical' ones, but because they place primacy on subjective experience, mind, over world, these are not incompatible. Key insights of Greek mathematics are thought to have come directly from Indian religious thought https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0038xb0 And Alexander The Great, taught by Aristotle, invaded India, and I read somewhere Indian philosophy made some Greek influence there.

Western thinkers have had a few problems getting to grips with Eastern thought. Lack of texts translated is still a problem in going beyond core doctrines to deeper subtler ideas - this is especially an issue for Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, with large bodies of complex thought, developed against now largely innaccessible previous traditions. The second major issue is persistent gaps in translation and understanding of key Eastern ideas, mainly because of differences in epistemological 'cosmology'. Enlightenment cannot be translated into a word, but only as a kind of conclusion of a mode of discourse founded on personal practice directed at direct experience. Western thought still has no place for that, though some like Sam Harris are now building it.

It's not all bad though. You might like this article comparing a philosophical technique used by one of Buddhism's most significant thinkers, to strategies used by some key Western thinkers https://absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/nagarjuna-nietzsche-rorty-and-their-strange-looping-trick/

And this article by Graham Priest on applying the Indian tetralemma or catuskoti to language paradoxes in Western thought https://aeon.co/essays/the-logic-of-buddhist-philosophy-goes-beyond-simple-truth

  • I like what you say here but would want to note that neither Sam Harris nor Graham Priest understand Buddhism. The former seems to be a materialist while the latter has not understood Nagarjuna and even seems to doubt that N understood metaphysics. For a clear picture it would be best to refer to Buddhist philosophers. Not arguing with your main points, just trying to prevent people from using Priest and Harris as introductions to this philosophy since they may never recover. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 10:28
  • @PeterJ To consider it philosophy not religion, people must be allowed to take up debates without joining a gang.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 17:11
  • I'm afraid I don;t know what you mean. No gangs are required. I'm suggesting the two authors you mention at the end are not trustworthy on the topic of Buddhism and will mislead us if we are studying it. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 11:14
  • But you imply it is some kind of indivisible whole. My point is he catuskoti, and strange-looping like also seen with Indra's net, are portable concepts ready for use in modern philosophy, that don't need fencing-off as beyond Westerners who do anything less than totally immerse themselves in a different culture. The two authors mentioned do not claim Buddhist expertise, only that elements of Buddhist (or really just, Indian) discourse and practice, ie philosophy, are relevant to discussions now.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 22:49
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    It's a fair question. I think that the fact neither of the writers you mention endorse Buddhist philosophy tells us something. The fact that neither of them claim to understand also tells us something. But really one just has to read what they write. Priest believes in a paradoxical universe and Harris is a materialist, two ideas that require the rejection of Buddhist philosophy. Priest even seems to believes that this philosophy is full of contradictions, and idea that indicates his complete misunderstanding. ,
    – user20253
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 10:53

I'll stick to the 'East/West' terminology although it's clumsy.

The line is exact and precise.

Western philosophers deny the Unity of the Universe while Eastern philosophers proclaim it.

Accordingly, in the West we have no explanation for the failure in logic of all partial metaphysical theories and are unable to make sense of philosophy.

Heidegger blames the loss of the concept of Unity from the philosophy of the West on the Greeks after Socrates and I feel he has a point. This is the only global philosophical theory that is banned outright from the sheltered cloisters of the Academy, the ban coming in with Aristotle, Democritus, Plato and their peers, and it is the only one that works. Parmenides and Heraclitus are ignored. The stagnation of Western philosophical thinking is thus guaranteed.

Oddly, and contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, there is no disagreement between East and West on the results of philosophy and science. They are what they are. The difference is only that in the West we have no interpretation for these results and are baffled and confused while in the East they are explained. It is quite a weird situation on examination. The cause is poor scholarship, for it is exceedingly rare to meet a professional philosopher of the Academy who has a grasp of the Upanishadic philosophy. I'm not sure I know of one.

Having rejected the Unity of All for dualism Western philosophy becomes a fabulously complex snake-pit of not quite workable ideas and forever intractable problems. Eastern philosophy, while mind-boggling, is logically very simple and disposes of metaphysical problems with no trouble at all.

In short, Eastern philosophers and Yoga practitioners normalise on a neutral metaphysical position while in the West this position is banned for being 'mysticism'. Although we have established the failure of all partial metaphysical theories we do not abandon them, and the result is logical positivism, scientism, dogmatic religion and a general all-round pessimism as to the value of studying philosophy.

The problem for anyone looking into this issue is that many of the cross-over books are written by Western philosophers who don't know their subject well enough. The consequence is a vast amount of misinformation. I don't know of one good book on this relationship and I've read a few.

Another difference, arising from the first, would be that in the West philosophy is assumed to be incomprehensible while in the East lots of people claim to comprehend it. Logic alone can lead us to a solution, but only if the Universe is a Unity would a philosopher be in a position to verify his or her own calculations in experience, or even to use experience rather than calculations to establish 'what is the case', while this verification would be a pipe-dream for Western thinkers, some sort of ancient superstition, leaving them to spend millennia trying to solve the problems of philosophy with no luck so far. Western thinkers tend to ignore or fight against the results of logic and to deny the possibility of knowledge.

It's a very important question and this is not (!) a satisfactory answer but just off-the-cuff. I've written a fair bit that's relevant to this question which is more carefully considered but this isn't the place to advertise. It's quite a simple issue at heart but it would take a lot of words to make this clear.

The shortest answer may be that in the West we see that all positive metaphysical positions fail in logic and don't know what to do about it, while in the East this failure is interpreted as a clear proof of the Unity of All. This, I suspect, is the root of the problem as far as it is an intellectual one.

EDIT: In response to a comment it should be noted that a doctrine of Unity is not monism or monotheism. It is best called 'advaita' ('not-two'), a phrase that is used in order to avoid the implication of monism. Monism would be seen as dualism in disguise. Thus, for instance, Al-Halaj tells us that it would be incorrect to say 'God is One' since a separation with the testifier is implied. This doctrine takes us beyond numerical values and beyond all systems of predication and reference.

  • Western philosophers deny the Unity of the Universe And what, all that monotheism was a ruse? You make sweeping, unjustified, unevidenced generalisations, that obviously don't make sense.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 2:44
  • @CriglCragl - I struggle to see what monotheism has got to do with this. It is not nondualism and does not claim the unity of all. Perhaps you might look into how nondualism differs from theism. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 10:14

So where are the lines drawn between philosophy and eastern mysticism? At what point is it considered a religion or is this all just linguistics?

As pointed out, mysticism has a sense that is usually pejorative; often referring to the dilution of esoteric traditions, east or west, the rise of new age religion, Jungianism, etc.. In a less cynical usage it is:

best thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined.... [In a narrower sense philosophers are more interested it is a] (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual unitive experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense-perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.

I'm not sure that all Buddhists would consider themselves mystics in either sense. Perhaps e.g. no true zen "practices... aimed at human transformation", and it claims there's nothing to be acquainted with besides perception. The linked to article suggests something like that.

Some Buddhist experiences, however, including some Zen experiences, would not count as mystical by our definition, involving no alleged acquaintance with either a reality or a state of affairs (see Suzuki, 1970).

Moreover, there is a philosophy of religion in the west. And philosophers like the Aristotlean Aquinas were influential in forming what Christianity is today. Anslem invented the ontological argument for God. And so on. The fact that someone like Nagarjuna was a Buddhist arguing about Buddhism doesn't seem to me to offer any particular problems on those grounds.

But comparative philosophy, as evidenced by at least your question, does seem to raise questions about how to categorize things, whether something is a philosophy of religion, or metaphysics, etc.. I'm unsure if western interpretations of Buddhism, which I'm fairly familiar with, have a huge value outside of a Buddhist context. This seems like a lacunae, gap, if not a aporia, irresolvable one.

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