Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought

Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought

Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought

Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought

Synopsis

What is the place of Eastern thought - Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism - in the Western intellectual tradition? Oriental Enlightenment shows how, despite current talk of 'globalization', there is still a reluctance to accept that the West could have borrowed anything of significance from the East, and explores a critique of the 'orientalist' view that we must regard any study of the East through the lens of Western colonialism and domination. Oriental Enlightenment provides a lucid introduction to the fascination Eastern thought has exerted on Western minds since the Renaissance.

Excerpt

Why has the West been so fascinated by the East? Why, over many centuries, have so many Western thinkers, writers, and intellectuals of all sorts, along with a wide cross-section of the educated public, become infatuated with a culture so remote and so different from their own? In Ancient Greece the East was viewed as a place of wonder, and the naked philosophers of India-the 'gymnosophists'-were objects of considerable interest in the Hellenic world. Marco Polo's expedition to China in the thirteenth century is perhaps the best-known prologue to the long story of the imaginative construction of Asian cultures in the minds of Europeans. But it was the voyages of discovery of the sixteenth century, and the consequent expansion of European consciousness, interest and power, that constituted the first of the central acts of this drama. Where hitherto the Orient beyond the Middle East had been to all intents and purposes a blank sheet on which all kinds of fantasies could be inscribed, now information began to pour back into Europe, initially from the reports of Jesuit missionaries, but later from travellers of all kinds, from traders, colonial administrators, and finally from scholars and seekers of wisdom. It is no exaggeration to say that this information, albeit often distorted and tinged with fantasy and wishful thinking, exercised a magnetic attraction on the European mind. In the eighteenth century it was China that was the object of fascination, Confucius being elevated to almost cult status by European intellectuals such as Voltaire. In the Romantic period attention switched to India, where mystical visions of the unity of the Soul with the All, of Atman with Brahman, and the image of an ancient bond between East and West resonated powerfully with the interests and passions of leading European thinkers. In the nineteenth century it was the turn of Buddhism, with its powerful spiritual message combined with an outlook that appeared to be remarkably in tune with empirical science, which proved an attractive proposition to a number of Western intellectuals. The twentieth century has witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of orientalist interests, ranging from the well-known impact of Zen on the beat and hippie generations, and the dispersal of esoteric Buddhist wisdom from Tibet amongst eager recipients in the West, to

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