Proto-Phenomenology in the Ancient and Medieval Eastern World

 In History of Phenomenology

Based on the generalized definition of proto-phenomenology given in the prior post, we can find very rich examples of this in Eastern Philosophy as well.  In fact, we can say that the so-called “mindfulness revolution” started in the ancient Eastern world.  The Eastern philosophical tradition is geographically centered in both India and China and also the nearby countries whose culture is heavily influenced by one or both of these two cultural epicenters.  By contrast, the Western world includes the Middle East, Europe, and Northern Africa.  Eastern philosophy is quite diverse and is probably best understood in terms of the different philosophies that emerged and developed since ancient times within religious and spiritual traditions of Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (the latter can best be described as quasi-religious, but has a religious dimension nonetheless).  There was certainly some degree of borrowing and cross-pollination of ideas among these philosophical traditions, and there is also significant diversity of opinions within each of these four, but we can nonetheless approach this by analyzing each of them individually.  Of these four, it is quite evident that Hinduism, Daoism, and Buddhism each have their own schools of meditation, introspection, and reflection for the purpose of developing greater understanding of what might (or might not) be called the self and its relation to the greater whole.  Confucianism is the only one of the four that does not seem to involve much proto-phenomenology, except insofar as Neo-Confucianism borrows from Daoism and Buddhism.  As such, we will focus more closely on the unique proto-phenomenological innovations and practices that are evident within each of the other three.

It is likely that the oldest proto-phenomenology in the world can be found within certain versions of Hindu philosophy, and the best examples of this can be seen in some of the Upanishads and also in the Yoga Sutra, which is the philosophy that underlies the practice of Yoga, which involves both mental and physical processes acting in unison.  A prominent example is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, known to be one of the earliest to have been composed, which states that one perceives and understands the true self (atman) as a result of being calm and concentrated.  The earliest method of yoga is described in the Maitri Upanishad, and this involves breath control, withdrawal of the senses, meditation, concentration, inquiry, and absorption.  The “eight limbed” or “raja” yoga is codified in the Yoga Sutra and it defines yoga as cessation of mental fluctuations.  This is accomplished through the following: ethics and personal restraint, discipline, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, absorbed concentration, and this process culminates with the sense of “I”.  According to An Introduction to Hinduism, the three most important features of yoga philosophy, as it relates to the exploration of consciousness and what we can consider to be a certain type of proto-phenomenology, are: 1) Yoga is a discipline or range of disciplines, constructed to facilitate the transformation of consciousness, 2) Consciousness can be transformed through focusing attention on a single point, and 3) The transformation of consciousness eradicates limiting, mental constraints or impurities such as greed and hate.

Daoist practice also often involves systematized meditation that can be understood as form of proto-phenomenology.  This involves concentration, observation, and visualization.  Introducing Daoism provides the following analysis:

The earliest form of Daoist meditation described in the texts is a form of concentration: the quietest simplicity encouraged by the Dao De Jing, which comes with a general withdrawal of the senses and a reduction of mental input.

This book goes on to describe what can be called mindfulness or awareness meditation as:

…a form of practice that encourages openness to all sorts of stimuli and leads to a sense of free-flowing awareness.  It often begins with the recognition of physical sensations and subtle events in the body but may also involve paying attention to outside occurrences.  Early Daoist examples of this practice appear in the Zhuangzi, which describes the fasting of the mind as a replacing of ordinary sensory patterns with pure qi-mentation and sketches of practice of sitting in oblivion with its complete forgetfulness of self and others.[1]

Buddhism started the emphasis on understanding the mind as the most important path toward peace.  The Dhammapada, which is one of the most central Buddhist texts, says that the mind is the greatest ally and the greatest enemy.  The most notable versions of Buddhist philosophy and practice feature ways of provoking the mind to enable self-transcendence and open a path to enlightenment.  One notable innovation within Buddhist meditation is the strong emphasis on how one must release their desires in order to achieve enlightenment.

Buddhism was undoubtedly based in part on Hinduism (where some aspects were embraced and others were rejected) and there are varieties of Buddhism that were also influenced by Daoism.  There are several schools and movements within Buddhism that involve meditation.  This includes vipassana, which is a form of meditation that seeks insight into the true nature of reality, and samatha, which is a meditative practice that aims for tranquility of the mind.  Yogacara is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes consciousness through which one supposedly realizes the non-self.  Yogacara promotes the viewpoint that all conceptions of the world are constructed arbitrarily and that fundamentally all of the little bits of perception are not inherently connected.  Within this school “…perception is regarded as essentially a process of imagining, in which the mind generates mental constructions that are perceived as a world”.  Buddhism also features 37 “qualities that contribute to awakening”, which are understood to be useful for meditation, and are grouped into 7 sets.[2]  The Zen tradition involves special transmission of methods, practices, and ideas outside of the scriptures and with no dependence upon words or letters.  The highest truth is considered to be inexpressible and communication is often either non-verbal or uses nonsensical statements to indirectly convey ideas.

Some commentators have analyzed Eastern philosophy and compared it to Twentieth Century Western phenomenology and came to the conclusion that there former includes examples of fully developed phenomenology no less than the latter and that thus it does not deserve the “proto” prefix that we are using herein.  The comparison can again be made to protoscience (what we would retroactively refer to as such), which was practiced in a haphazardly and did not achieve reliable results.  When more systematic and methodological forms of scientific practice were developed and could generate reliable results, this then became modern science, or simply “science” (with no prefixes or qualifiers). The line of reasoning is that some schools within Eastern philosophy should be considered to be fully-fledged phenomenology because they are methodological and because they can provide reliable results.  This point does seem to have merit and we do want to avoid being Western-centric, but most published definitions of the philosophical and methodological sense of “phenomenology will refer to the work of Edmund Husserl and his successors.  This definition of “phenomenology” (with no prefixes or qualifiers) is problematic, but at least we have “proto-phenomenology” as an adequate term that allows us to refer to schools of thought that are functionally similar to some Husserlian and/or post-Husserlian phenomenology, but that were composed before his time.

[1] Kohn, Livia Introduction to Daoism, p. 138-14. Routledge, 2009.

[2] Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism, p. 321. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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