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Paradox1's avatar

Are Eastern and Western beliefs on the importance of human life mutually exclusive?

Asked by Paradox1 (1177points) March 28th, 2012

As a forewarning, I have had very little formal schooling in Eastern religion or philosophy, so my question may seem a bit rudimentary and haphazard. My question has to do with the differences in East vs. West philosophy, which I got to thinking about after reading the Steve Jobs biography and seeing how he seemed to blend both into his life where to me it seems that they cannot exist in tandem.

Please correct me where I am wrong, but in Eastern belief systems, namely Zen Buddhism I think, the value of a human life seems to be essentially null. The goal is surrendering your attachments and desires and so you shed the ego and no longer are able to see life and death as you simply see and know “existence” within the greater cosmic universe.

This is very different than in the West, where the value of life is extremely coveted and protected. It is the “rational” life and philosophy that allows man to attain, achieve. The Bible seems to place a supreme value on life on Earth as well, however often Jesus would talk of renouncing your own life in the pursuit of God, so I am a bit confused on that bit.

So are these belief systems mutually exclusive, or do I not know enough about either to see how one might entertain, encourage, and even live their life by the principles of both cultures?

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17 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

No, but I think the idea is to pick and choose which elements of each approach to adopt. The Western persuit of money and possessions is alien to the practice of Zen, yet there is a thread which runs through Western philosophy which holds wealth and material possessions in much lower regard. The concept of meditation is not alien to a Christian approach to life.

rojo's avatar

As someone who grew up in the west, I would like to point out that while in theory the bible might place “supreme value on life”, in practice life (other than your own) seems to be worth very little. So, the question is really, which belief system is more honest.

Judi's avatar

Remember, the wise men came from the east.
There are some universal truths and some places where they diverge. Jesus said that you must loose your life to find it. I don’t know much about Buddhist teaching either, but I don’t think the two belief systems, although defiantly different, are as different as fundamentalists would have you believe.

JLeslie's avatar

I am not sure the west necessarily is always interpreted as valuing life on earth. I always say the Judiasm focuses on life on earth, following God’s laws and desires for us, and gives very little thought to afterlife. The Muslims seemed more obsessed with life after death, the paradise of death, and of course still pleasing God. The Christians seem somewhere in the middle of the two, valuing life, and focused on the afterlife as well. I am speaking in a very general way about the religions, and of course each person within the religions, and varying sects see these things a little differntely, the above description is just my own generalization.

Growing up as a non religious Jewish person, we never spoke about life after death in a serious way regarding our behavior on earth. Our morals and ethics about our behavior on earth had to do with how we affect others and ourselves on earth, and that life is prescious. There was an overtone of this is your one shot, do what is right, and be aware of all the good things life, earth, love, provides for us during this short time we get to experience it.

I think of eastern religions, and my knowledge is very small about them, as being more accepting of lifes trials, more patient, and less judgmental. Life on earth is a temporary state for them I guess, that will be revisted (reincarnation) or the soul moves to an afterlife. It seems to me they are focused on learning to handle life, the goal is to attain wisdom and experience.

We can find honor in death in both east and west. The Japanese commited harry carey, Muslims who blow up themselves in the name of God. Even Christian soldiers who go to almost a certain death believing they will be “saved.” I would assume all the people participating in such things are strong believers in what life will be after death, or depressed and passively suicidal, or all those things in one. Of course, this is different than a hero who sacrifices himself in a moment of terror to save another, or the average soldier who takes on risk for a cause, but hopes to stay alive.

flutherother's avatar

They aren’t very different. Both place a high value on life and Buddhists will not hurt or harm any other creature. Both tell us to renounce personal desire and to imitate the way of life of Buddha in the one case or Jesus in the other. If you look around you can see how successful each has been in achieving its aims. Two paths may apparently lead in the same direction but you can’t follow both at the same time.

JLeslie's avatar

@flutherother I think of the eastern religions as accepting there are many paths to the desired end, and Christianity as only having one acceptible path that will get you to the right place.

flutherother's avatar

@JLeslie Buddhists believe you can achieve Nirvana through your own efforts, Christians believe you need divine help to get to Heaven. Another important difference is the idea of sin which is much stronger in the west.

thorninmud's avatar

Buddhism places a far higher value on human life—and any life, for that matter—than do Western traditions.

You’re right that Buddhism emphasizes release from attachments, desires and ego (all the same thing, really). Ego is our way of seeing ourselves from a privileged point of view. To the ego, “I” am distinct from and somehow more important than others (though I might be reluctant to admit that).

The result of release from ego is not at all that life (your own or that of others) is seen as valueless. Quite the contrary. All life is seen to be as precious as your own. In a fundamental way, the life of others is seen to be inseparable from one’s own life. It’s our common treasure.

Taking the life of another human becomes almost unthinkable from this point of view. Even animal life merits that consideration. Beyond ego, the well-being of others is just as important as one’s own; in fact, it’s in seeking the well being of others that one finds one’s own well-being.

Earthgirl's avatar

They both value life itself but see it’s purpose in different ways.
Western belief focuses more on the individual and values achievement and the contributions that the individual gives to humanity.
Eastern thought with it’s emphasis on losing your separateness and getting beyond your ego and individualistic striving for attaining possessions and grasping at ego gratification sees enlightenment as achieving oneness with the universe and an egoless state.
. Of course there are many variations on both themes. There are some similarities and universal truths such as Judi states and some things that can’t be reconciled and coexist without conflict. By this, I mean a conflict in yourself. Of course you can hold two conflicting opinions or philosophies and many people do. In life, unless we are totally passive (and even passiveness is a choice with consequences) we are called to action and when we decide what course to take we live out our philosophical ideals, or try to.

Alan Watts has written a lot about the similarities in Eastern and Western thought. You might want to read this
His list of works is extensive and I’m not sure which book would be the best to read. I read one of them in college about comparative religion but I’m not sure which one it was. I’m sure you could read a lot of his work for free on the internet.

And in Western thought though we value the individual and admire and pride ourselves on ego gratifying achievements and sadly, possessions, contributing to the community and doing things which are selfless are valued as well. Heros tend to be this way. I guess in Western thought the hero is someone who has great achievement but great spiritual values as well. I suppose that could be a way of reconciling the two approaches.
But really if you have two different philosophies you are following both and neither, aren’t you? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s called forging your own path.

Paradox1's avatar

@Earthgirl Both and neither, sounds pretty paradoxical. I am interested in reading Watts and have had his name in my head for a while now, but will make the effort. Thank you.

Earthgirl's avatar

A couple quotes about about Steve Jobs:“But with Jobs, there was always something more, something that ties into the larger culture. Although he was working himself to exhaustion, his approach to work was extremely narcissistic — it was a form of self-expression, of pleasure. His loyalty was not to some faceless corporation but to himself; Jobs likes to say that he is one of those people who wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says: “Am I doing what I want to do?” Fundamentally, his sense of who he was, which he had been searching for all along, became a function of what he did.”

“Jobs’s Zenlike ability to focus was accompanied by the related instinct to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. . . . Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity.”

And one about Eastern thought vs. Western thought:
“Thus a study of history shows that Western civilization is founded on self-love, desire for worldly possessions and absence of faith in religion. Should therefore and individual or a nation wish to achieve the results obtained by the West, he or it must build on that foundation. That is the reason why Japan and other Oriental countries which have modeled their national life entirely after the West cannot, with all their love of country and nation, escape these evils. This is the unfortunate result of being inspired by Western ideals, as will become clear by a study of Indian life after it came in contact with the West”

This brief account from Sri Ramakrishna expresses the sort of innate conflict between East and West that can’t be ignored. It’s what I mean when I say that following both Eastern and Western ideals simultaneously is a little impossible. A hybrid of the two becomes both and neither. Reading the above quotes about Steve Jobs tells us he was far from an egoless state. Yet there are true spiritual leanings in him that were surely sincere. He tried to integrate his ambitions to achieve with the correct motivations. Joy in work that was its own reward, not done purely for ego fullfilment or profit motive…though surely they may have factored in to his drive….it’s hard to say, hard to judge. Simplifying things may be “Zenlike” but that doesn’t make one a Zen follower. The Shakers believed in simplicity too.

thorninmud's avatar

Westerners often make the mistake of thinking that the spartan lifestyle imposed on monastics represents “true” Buddhism. But early on, it was recognized that people who thoroughly engage life on a secular level can also be followers of the Way. This in no way precludes the accumulation of material things. Here was Buddha’s advice to “householders” (non-monastics):

“He that cleaves to wealth had better cast it away than allow his heart to be poisoned by it; but he who does not cleave to wealth, and possessing riches, uses them rightly, will be a blessing unto his fellows. It is not life and wealth and power that enslave men, but the cleaving to life and wealth and power.

Whatever men do, whether they remain in the world as artisans, merchants, and officers of the king, or retire from the world and devote themselves to a life of religious meditation, let them put their whole heart into their task; let them be diligent and energetic.

A noble disciple with riches gotten by work and zeal, gathered by the strength of the arm, earned by the sweat of the brow, justly obtained in a lawful way, makes himself happy, glad, and keeps that happiness; he makes his parents happy, glad, and keeps them so; so likewise his wife and children, and his servants.”

Judi's avatar

@thorninmud , and Jesus summed it up, “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” He didn’t say “money” was the root of evil.
Right after he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven,” he said, “All things are possible with God.”
It sounds like Jesus and Buddha were in sync.

thorninmud's avatar

@Judi Rumor has it that they were room mates at UC Berkeley.

Judi's avatar

@thorninmud , I thought they met up during Jesus’ formative years in Egypt, but I’ll buy that.

Earthgirl's avatar

thorninmud That is a good quote that explains a lot about Buddhism but there are other Eastern religions and philosophies that do advise asceticism. What do you think, as far as Buddhism is concerned, about the ego atttachment to the success of material wealth? I don’t think money in itself is evil. But striving for fame and fortune is very often an egoistic pursuit and not a joyful, love of the work itself pursuit.

thorninmud's avatar

@Earthgirl Yes, ego involvement changes everything. Buddhism certainly speaks highly of asceticism too, precisely because it is so hard for us not to “cleave to” our possessions and position. Possessions and status give a reassuring sense of shape and solidity and entity to what is essentially a self-less process.

It’s kind of like when you see a dust-devil weaving its way across a plain; it looks like a thing, an entity, but it’s actually just a temporary process—kinetic energy picking debris up here and depositing it further along. What we take for an entity is just whatever debris happens to be caught up in the process at the moment.

Our ego is just the idea that there’s a real entity at the heart of this process. The more debris the process picks up and whirls around, the more convincing that idea of entity seems. We come to value the debris for the comforting substantiallity it lends to the idea of the entity. Hence the “cleaving”.

There’s nothing wrong with the process. All that whirling around and picking up and putting down is utterly amazing. It’s life. Problems arise with the idea that this little aspect of the process over here is more important than that little aspect of the process over there.

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