Proto-Phenomenology in the Early Modern Eastern Tradition

 In History of Phenomenology

This post continues the series on the historical development of proto-phenomenology and intersubjective thought and methodology from ancient times to the present.  You might want to start with the post on proto-phenomenology in the ancient and medieval Eastern world if you haven’t already.

Most of the philosophical groundwork for Eastern Philosophy was established in what we can now consider to be ancient times.  The distinction between “ancient”, “medieval”, and “modern” is based largely on a Western conception of the historical development of society, culture, and ideology, but these terms do have analogous meanings in the Eastern world in a certain sense.  The so-called axial age, wherein societies grew into larger civilizations and were forced to confront new challenges and had to come up with more comprehensive worldviews and lifeways than had previously been available, occurred at roughly the same time within the Eastern and Western worlds.  This period started from approximately 600 BC and lasted until perhaps around 400 AD, and this includes the rise and initial development of most of the major world religions, spiritual traditions, and philosophical foundations, including those of the Eastern and Western worlds.  Although there are human developments older than the axial age, what came out of these centuries is most relevant to this project and thus this is what we are referring to with the term “ancient”.  We can call “medieval” that which occurred thereafter, wherein these religions, traditions, and philosophies were further developed and refined, and this age came to an end with the rise of globalization and the advent of modern science in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

We can consider anything that occurred after that to be “modern”, all the way up to the present day.  There is, however, a somewhat arbitrary distinction that we can make between “early modern” and “late modern”.  In the West, we’ll consider “early modern” to end somewhere in the middle of the Nineteenth Century because that is when several intellectual movements started that are relevant to the development of phenomenology.  In the East, “early modern” probably lasts until these practices were first integrated with Western philosophy and science so as to produce the spiritual and transpersonal approaches to psychology.  Thus, we can consider Early Modern Eastern philosophy to go from approximately the Seventeenth Century through the early Twentieth Century.

This period of Eastern philosophy is situated centuries after the main texts of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism were written and also after multiple levels of derivative interpretation and commentary were also formulated.  It is after the Age of Discovery, but before Western culture became more or less ubiquitous throughout the world and before modern science became the predominant mode of maintaining political, economic, and military power.

This period can be characterized mostly by the continuation of the classical religious and spiritual movements mentioned above and their further development within the context of special organizations such as monasteries, sanghas, ashrams, and retreat centers.  These were driven by masters, who would train initiates in the time-honored traditions, rituals, and philosophical frameworks.  There were masters who taught students how to gain better control over their minds and how to raise to higher levels of consciousness.  All of this occurred in ancient and medieval times as well, but each generation had the potential to improve upon the practices of the past and to develop ways of achieving the even deeper levels of mindfulness and even greater self-transcendence than had previously been possible.  These masters would often say that their practices were ancient and that they were only continuing traditions that were developed long ago by the founding sages, but there was some development and refinement and further explorations of the possibilities of altered states of consciousness that had never been practiced before in ancient or even in medieval times.  The vibrant schools that did these things and developed these transformative practices in more detail and got results in exploring consciousness and expanding human potential and the most notable instances of this occurred in the generations immediately prior to the integration with modern science.

The innovations that occurred in this region of the world and in this general time period were not often published, but they were beyond what one could learn merely from reading.  The abilities are not entirely captured in the ancient scriptures nor in the medieval commentaries.  These were practices that you pretty much had to be physically present for and you had to learn from masters from within those institutions.  The early modern Western world, wherein science was being developed, modern infrastructure was being built, innovative governance methods were being conceived, and socio-cultural changes were rapidly occurring, could not have handled practices like these, at least not out in the open.  It would not have been possible for this stuff to have been out in the wild of the rest of the world during the early modern period since they would have been altered beyond recognition.  These practices had to be refined and developed further within these Eastern institutions, which were sometimes, though not always, esoteric in nature.

There are some specific thinkers and advancements in theory in practice that are worth mentioning here.  In Japan, Zen master Hakuin Ekaku systemized, categorized, and created a rigorous training program around the numerous koans, which usually take the form of dialogues, questions, or statements and which are used to provoke a student’s progress in the Zen tradition.  Hakuin said that enlightenment could be achieved through great faith, great doubt, great determination.  In Tibet, the Great 5th Dalai Lama established the unity of spiritual, religious, and political life with ritual connection to the Buddha and a special connection to nature as the way to achieve enlightenment.  The Hindu practices of yoga, Vedanta, and Tantra had also continued from ancient times, and in the early Twentieth Century, Sri Aurobindo systematized these practices and further developed methods for achieving altered states of consciousness in his Integral Yoga.

Photo by Justin Merced on Unsplash

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