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Understanding Eastern Philosophy provides an accessible critical introduction to how some of the key philosophies of the East compare with those in the West.
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Like an onion with many layers of skin, our human identities also have different layers. The outer layers of our identities involve common sense views of ourselves that we experience empirically, such as our individual physical bodies, sensations, thoughts and feelings. The Self-God is like the inner core of the onion, hidden beneath many distracting layers, and consequently we fail to immediately comprehend the very existence of that inner core and our divine status.

Instead, we see ourselves as distinct beings — each of us with our own bodies and minds — and we see the world itself as consisting of a multiplicity of isolated parts. By pealing away the outer layers of our identities, though, we will find the Self-God within each of us and see the underlying unity of the world. The Upanishads is actually a series of more than anonymously-written texts, although Hindu tradition gives special emphasis to only about 18 early ones composed between and BCE.

In one of the most famous of these, a father picturesquely describes to his son how things that seem diverse in fact have an underlying reality. Plants, animals, humans, and everything else are united in the Self-God that exists beneath the physical structure of things. Take, for example, how bees collect juices from a variety of trees and unify those juices in their honey:.

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Bees make honey by collecting the juices of distant trees and reducing the juices into one form. Whatever these creatures are here — whether a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito — they become that again and again. Everything that exists has as its soul that which is the finest essence. It is Reality. It is the Atman, and you are that , my son.

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This passage makes a distinction between our physical identities and our underlying true identities. Our physical identities go through continual cycles of reincarnation; this is so of animal life as well as human life. Our true underlying identities, though, merge with God, which is undifferentiated reality. It chronicles a legendary feud between two branches of a royal family. The long-standing quarrel culminates in a bloody battle.

The story line behind the Bhagavad Gita focuses on prince Arjuna, the leader on one side of the feud, who is despairing about going into battle against his kinfolk. He expresses his grief to his charioteer, Krishna, who, it turns out, is the manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu in human form.

Krishna comforts Arjuna with a philosophy lesson about discovering the Self-God:. Those who distinguish between the slayer and the slain are ignorant of them both. No one slays, and no one is slain. No one is born, and no one dies. No one who once existed, ceases to exist.

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They are unborn, perpetual, eternal and ancient, and are not slain when their bodies are slaughtered. If we understand a person to be indestructible, perpetual, unborn, undiminishing, how can that person slay, or be slain? By implication, Arjuna should not worry about the conflict with his relatives since even if their bodies die in battle, their inner selves are untouched.

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There are two components to rebirth. First, there is the basic process of rebirth itself: when I die, my true Self will be reborn into another body, and when that body dies, I will be reborn into another, and so on. Some Hindu writings are explicit about the mechanics of the rebirth process. When I die, and my body is cremated, my soul rises with the smoke and travels through the heavens for several months. My soul then falls back to earth, mixes with natural elements, and is consumed by humans. The second component of rebirth is that the moral consequences of my behavior in this life are carried over to my next lives.

Known as the doctrine of karma , or action , the quality of my existence in my new life is largely a function of my good or bad actions in my present and previous lives. To illustrate, imagine that my true Self carries around a karma pouch from one life to another. Each time I perform a good deed, a good-karma token is tossed into the pouch, and when I perform a bad deed, a bad-karma token is thrown in. When I die, I carry the karma pouch and all of its tokens on to the next life.

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If I have an abundance of good-karma tokens, then in my next life I may be healthier, wealthier, and more spiritually mature than I am now. On the other hand, if I die with an abundance of bad-karma tokens, then I may be reborn sickly, poor, and ignorant. To make my next lives better, I should do what I can to accumulate as many good-karma tokens as I can. While we might think of reincarnation as a good thing, it is instead something that we should dread.

We need to do what we can to become released moksha from the rebirth cycle. Hindu writings stress several approaches to release, two of which are especially dominant. One approach is that release is a matter of accumulating a great abundance of good karma over our various lives. When I get as good as I can possibly be, then the rebirth process is over and my true Self remains with God. The appeal of this approach is that it underscores the fact that life is a moral journey, with perfection as our ultimate goal.

The other approach to release involves discovering the Self-God within me through disciplined reflection and meditation. The appeal of this approach is that I can go more directly towards my final goal and experience the pure Self-God right here and now. Both of these approaches, though, are interconnected.

If I rob a bank this morning, I stand little chance of discovering the Self-God within me this afternoon, no matter how hard I meditate. It is one thing for us to theoretically understand the concept of the Self-God, and entirely another for us to discover the Self-God within each of us.

To assist believers in this task, Hindu tradition developed a series of yoga techniques. The first of these is the Yoga of action karma , which involves routinely behaving with indifference to the fruits of our actions. We thus become more sensitive to the reality of the Self-God. Suppose, for example, that it is lunchtime and I make a sandwich. Ordinarily, I do this to ward off hunger pangs, to satisfy my food craving, to keep me healthy, or to keep me alive.

All of these reasons, though, emphasize the outer layers of my identity: my bodily cravings, my desires, and the continuation of my finite life. This all takes me far from my true inner Self. I should still eat the sandwich, but I should disassociate myself from the act of eating, and view it as though someone else is eating the sandwich.

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Ultimately, reincarnation is the result of people clinging to the fruits of their actions. We are locked into our physical bodies as long as we enjoy the results of our activities. We need an evenness of mind to give up the fruits of our actions. Like eating a sandwich, we perform religious rituals for a purpose; in this case, the purpose is to appease God or to get to heaven. However, religious actions are no less distracting than any other action. There are clear psychological indicators when we disassociate ourselves from our actions, namely, we are freed from all emotions and attachments:.

He is without attachments on every side, whether desirable or undesirable, and neither likes nor dislikes. The person of understanding is well poised. Just as a tortoise pulls in all its limbs, the sage withdraws his senses from the objects, and his understanding is well poised. The analogy of the tortoise in the final sentence explains the benefit of freeing ourselves from emotions and attachments. Through detachment, we withdraw from the world of the senses, which in turn enables us to be more in tune with the Self-God.

A second type of Yoga discussed in the Bhagavad Gita is that of meditation , which involves immediately experiencing our union with God through contemplation. The practice of meditation requires a disciplined effort, and to that end the Bhagavad Gita provides step-by-step instructions. When attempting meditation, we should first find a private spot, assume a seated posture, gaze ahead, subdue our thoughts and senses, and lose self-consciousness.

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Through this method, we directly experience the unified Self-God within us. The Yogi should constantly engage himself in Yoga, staying in a secret place by himself, subduing his thoughts and Self, and freeing himself from hope and greed.

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  5. He should set up a fixed seat for himself in a pure place, which is neither too high, nor too low, made of a cloth, a black deerskin, and grass, one over the other. Once there he should practice Yoga for the purification of the Self; he should make his mind one-pointed, subduing his thoughts and the functions of his senses. He should hold his body, head and neck erect, immovably steady, looking at the point of his nose with an unseeing gaze. His heart should be serene, fearless and firm in the vow of renunciation. His mind should be controlled as he sits in harmony. In this manner he will think on me and aspire after me.

    The point of all these steps in the meditative process is to block out distractions. Imagine that you are in a room with 50 radios playing, all tuned to different channels, and in the back of the room a cat is meowing. The only way to hear the cat is to first shut off all the radios, one by one.

    Similarly, the meditative techniques guide us in successively shutting down the commotion of ordinary consciousness so that we can experience our inner Selves.