Our Western Christian thinking is qualified in its deepest philosophical and methodological ideas by a personalistic idea of God. This concept makes it particularly difficult to understand the fundamental disposition of Eastern Asian religions because of the numerous deities, scriptures, and schools of thought. The difficulty is primarily due to the popular concept of no self. Such Asian religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism exhibit significant differences in their religious essences, and hence cannot be legitimately classified into a single category. In order to bring this point into clearer understanding, all of these religions believe in the idea of An-Atman, meaning no self.
Hinduism, also known as San?tana Dharma, which means Eternal Religion, is thought to be the oldest major world religion that is still practiced today. It was the first religion that had a concept of reincarnation. This concept of reincarnation comes from the story of Brahman, also known as Parusha, a mythological god, who has wholeness or oneness; much like the figure of Jesus in Christianity. Brahman is the highest, supreme God of Hinduism.The story behind Hinduism states that Parusha sacrifices himself by essentially ripping himself wide open from his chest area. By doing this his wholeness, his being, becomes 330 million Gods. These 330 million Gods become the Law Code of Manu, which is a caste system. In this caste system the lowest level is the harijan, or the untouchables. The next level above that are the Shudras, or the lowly people. Above them are the artisans and skilled laborers. Next in the caste system is the aristocracy, which is made up of kings, queens, and princes. The highest in the caste system are the priests. These five levels are the earthly levels for men. Anything below the untouchables would include plants, rocks, females, fecal matter, etc. According to the Law Code of Manu, it is a person’s job to live a good life, then in your next life you will be born higher up.
This can continue for many, many years, until you become a priest and reach the idea of moksha (revelation or salvation). It is the state of Brahman and Atman coming together. Atman is a philosophical term in Hinduism to identify the soul beyond identification with the phenomenal reality of worldly existence. In order to reach moksha, the Hindu’s believe in the “4 yogas”. These represent a path that takes the atman back to Brahman, and therefore one would reach moksha. The first of the four yogas is the Inana Yoga. This is the path of knowledge. As a hindu taking this path, you would read the texts over and over. For about 1,000 years this is considered the one and only path. The next yoga is the Karma yoga, which one would act and work without acting or thinking, according to your dharma. The third yoga is the Bhakti yoga, which is complete devotion. One would devote and worship a god so thoroughly they would loose themselves. The last yoga is the Raja yoga, which is a physical exercise. One would cross their legs, chant, breathe slowly, etc. This form of medittation would help achieve oneness with Brahman. Traditionally the life of a Hindu is divided into four “stages of life”. This would include each man to start off as a student where they would spend about 20 of their first years of life studying with their guru (teacher). Then they would graduate into a householder. Here the man would become married, have kids, and this would last until they are about 50-60 years old, after they have raised their family. The next stage of life is withdrawal. Here the man would withdraw from conception of who he is, his name, his society, and he would venture out into the woods and practice yoga all the time. The last stage of life is to become a sannyasin, or a “thus gone one”. This means that the man wakes up to the realization of who he is, no what he is. He will essentially be out of his brain, and walk around 24 hrs a day in bliss, he is considered not a human being anymore. In the majority of traditions of Hinduism, Brahman is as a supreme being who possesses personality, who is believed to be made up of three classic male Gods, thus they worship him as Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Brahma creates all things, while Vishnu sustains what Brahma creates, while Shiva destroys what Vishnu sustains, so Brahma can create again. This belief of these three Gods is what keeps the cycle going for all life to live. A major important text in the Hindu religion is that of the Bhagavad Gita, also widely known as “The Gita”. It tells hinduist how to live their everyday lives, while keeping God at the center of their awareness and activities. Hindus consider this text to be a direct message of Vishnu in the avatar of Krishna, revealed to them in the form of a long dialog, between him and Arujna (a prince), in the middle of a battlefield. Arujna has doubt in fighting and Krishna tells him it is his duty to kill others even though he believes it is wrong. In this story, Krishna gives different yogas (paths) to Arujna in order for him to achieve moksha. This story is said to teach him the law of Karma. Essentially, he is not really killing his enemies because they will be reborn again into another part of the caste system. During the discourse, Krishna reveals his identity as the Supreme Being himself , blessing Arjuna with an awe-inspiring vision of his divine universal form. Hindus believe The Gita is a message that shows that one who should renounce everything for God; thus creating the idea of an-atman, or no self, because you give yourself and everything you have to God.
Buddhism also believes in the idea of an-atman, or no self. An essential goal of this religion is to search and discover true enlightenment and ultimately reach nirvana; also known as the supreme state free from suffering and individual existence. The attainment of nirvana breaks the otherwise endless rebirth cycle of reincarnation. Buddhism’s belief is based on Anicca (everything changes), and An-Atman, no-self, no thing, and nothing exists in or of itself. Siddhartha Gautama, the son of king Shuddhodana, wanted to renounce himself and become Sannyasi, in order to be released from Samsara (eternal cycle of birth and rebirth). As a Sannyasi, it is Siddhartha’s job to try to figure out why the 4 “Passing Sights” occur. These sights include old age, sickness/disease, death, and Sannyasi. These views represent the concept of change, and after seeing these 4 “Passing Sights”, Siddhartha’s eyes become open to the truths of the real world. Subsequent to this, Siddhartha renounces himself as a Sannyasi, and decides to give up everything he has so he can try to figure out why humanity suffers. By doing this, Siddhartha performed Nagarjuna, including long meditation, and he came to the realization of an-atman (not self). Siddartha “experienced the enlightenment or ‘awakening’ (Bodhi) that transformed him into a Buddha” (Coogan, 2003). This was the beginning of Gutama’s Buddha-hood. He learns that no thing is independent and nothing exists on an independent level, hence the idea of an-atman. Gautama was recognized as “The Buddha” or the “Awakened One.” His teachings became very popular throughout the centuries. Teachings of Buddha spread all over India and Asia and eventually all through the East and West. Ultimately, the life of a Buddha, the “Awakened One,” is to rid the world of all suffering. “Buddha was not considered to be God or a supernatural being, but a man who had found the answer to the deepest dilemmas of human life and had made that answer available to others” (Coogan, 2003). Along with Buddha’s experience of the ultimate truth of humanity, came immense knowledge. In particular; the “Four Noble Truths”. The first noble truth is Dukkha, the truth of suffering; that all things in life suffer. The second noble truth is Tanha, the truth of the origin of suffering. This means that humans suffer because we become attached to believe that all things are real or permanent; and this is the root of humans’ desire. The third noble truth is Nirvana; the truth of the cessation of suffering. This is a state that should end suffering, a state of being of non-attachment, and experience of no-self, or bliss. The fourth noble truth is the “8-Fold Path”, which are the rules, rituals, and the ways that allow humans to have an experience of non-suffering. This path “consists of having the ‘right understanding,’ ‘right thought,’ ‘right speech,’ ‘right action,’ ‘right livelihood,’ ‘right effort,’ ‘right mindfulness,’ and ‘right concentration”(Coogan, 2003). Once a person reaches the end of the path, karma (action or deed) will not punish him or her in a next life. The journey will be complete; hence, nirvana will be reached. The Buddha goes on to teach for 48 years and uses Upayas, a teaching tool; a style, such as stories. Upayas help humans get to a state of non-attachment and understand that there is no truth and are used by any means necessary to teach. Buddha bases his beliefs and teachings on the ideas of an-atman (no self), and pratitya-samutpada (the doctrine of dependent origination). The pratitya-samutpada doctrine teaches that for anything to come into being it must be co-arising, that it arises in dependence on causes and conditions, and lack intrinsic being. It also teaches that everything has “Buddha nature”; the potential to “wake up” and help others “wake up”. Furthermore, sunyata (emptiness, all things are empty of independent nature; everything is interdependent on something else) is present in all of Buddhism. This idea is represented through Mahayana Buddhism which focuses on the idea of the true state of reality is emptiness. The most real things are the empty space that allows fate to exist for you. When the end of his time came, the Buddha gives one last teaching and tells his followers one final message. In the folklore version, it is known that the Buddha says, “be a lamp unto yourself’. This means that he does not want his people to go to a guru, a teacher. Instead people need to know themselves, teach themselves, and figure out what they really are. In the metaphoric version the Buddha says, “Go internally, not externally”. He means this is how a person will find nirvana. In the most modern, philosophical version, the Buddha says “Impermanent are all things. Observe this carefully, constantly.” By sending this teaching he is trying to get the message across that people need to challenge the western world to do this. The constant part of this message is where humans fail. Buddhism will teach their followers that anicca (impermanence) needs to be understood, practiced, and accepted in order to reach true enlightenment and it has more options than right or wrong or true or false in order to get the self to reach the path of enlightenment in which to prepare the self for the journey in finding nirvana.
Taoism is another religion that is focused on the teachings of an-atman. Many scholars translate the word Tao as “the path” or “the way”. The Asians that follow this religion enforce that “Tao” should not be translated, it goes beyond words; it is an expression to create self harmony. The founder of Taoism is believed by many religious historians to be Lao-Tzu (604-531 BCE), whose life overlapped that of Confucius (551-479 BCE). Lao-Tzu was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society with social suffering during his lifetime. As a result, he wrote a book called Tao-Te-Ching. This book is believed to contain all of Lao-Tzu’s wisdom and philosophical beliefs. Today, it is widely considered to be the most influential Taoist text. After writing the Tao-Te-Ching, Lao-Tzu became a popular respected deity. Taoism conceives the Universe as one large organism of powers and influences, a living machine, comprising the two cosmic souls. Ancient Chinese philosophy attributes to man two souls: Shen (immaterial soul) and Kuei (the material, substantial soul). Shen is found in bright lighted areas on earth and consists of yang (male) substance, while Kuei is found in dark, wet places on earth and consists of yin (female) substance. Taoism focuses on the idea that individual and self harmony should be created. People should not stick out in a crowd, because they will be taken down if they are. To create this harmony there is energy in the universe called Ch’i (power, spirit) and Li (patterns to the energy). Taoists believe that our suffering is due to not having a relationship with these energies. In his philosophical teachings Lao-Tzu replaces Shen and Kuei with yin and yang, and this is the turning point for Taoism. Yin and yang are two functions of Li. Yin represents the negative forces in nature, and is receptive whereas yang represents the positive forces in nature and is assertive. Taoism believes that all things in nature are impermanent, and are always changing (anicca) between energies. The goal of the universe is to make these energies work together. Essentially there should be a harmonious relationship between yin and yang. Taoists have different arts to harness the Ch’i (power, spirit), so they use principles to realize our oneness with “The Tao”. The first art is that of wu-wei, or “non-doing.” Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. Essentially it means to accomplish something without putting effort, therefore emphasizing no selfness, or an-atman. The second art to harness the Ch’i, is that of Feng-shui, or “wind-water”. Feng-Shui was widely used to orient buildings – often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, in an auspicious manner, such as bodies of water, stars, or a compass. It is the art of using natural energies in the universe to one’s advantage, without expending energy yourself. The third art is that of Ch’i-Kung, or “energy cultivation.” This is the science and practice of ch’i. Physical and mental health is allegedly improved by learning how to manipulate ch’i through controlled breathing, movement, and acts of will. By doing Ch’i-Kung, Taoists believe that the energy in your body changes, it no longer ages and no longer grows into suffering. Taoism as a religion teaches to merge oneself into the environment as a whole and there is no self (an-atman) at all.
Confucianism is another Asian religion that believes in the idea of an-atman; no self. The idea developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–478 BC), who was one of Lao-Tzu’s students. He believed that all of human sins come from not living the “5 Right Relationships”. If a person lives the “5 Right Relationships” then there is a way to less suffering and one can live harmonious. These “5 Right Relationships” begin by practicing Li, the natural patterns in life, and humans need to put their bodies into these patterns in such a way that one will not need to think about it. These relationships are father and son, older sibling and younger sibling, husband and wife, older friend and younger friend, and lastly, ruler and subject. It is argued that a right relationship is where yin and yang equal themselves enough that there is assertiveness and receptiveness. If there is no yin and yang between these relationships then evil occurs such as murder, stealing, etc. Anicca is shown and believed in these relationships because they are impermanent and constantly changing. Confucius believed that a person will become what they practice and that everyone had their role to play based on their relationship to others. If everyone fulfilled their duties and kept their place then society would be stable and harmonious. For Confucius and his followers, the relationship between father and son was the most important. In Confuciust ideals, Hsiao (filial piety) is one of the virtues to be held above all else: a respect for the parents and ancestors. Followers will suggest if you have Hsiao, you will also have respect for the earth and your enemies, thus creating harmony. Confucianists believe in the “Golden Rule”, which says do not do unto tohers as you would not have them do unto you. This would then bring up the general question of how do you attribute not doing/ acting if there is no independent self? The confuciusts would say that if one is able to live this idea or belief out, then Jen comes into play. Jen is an important concept that means love or human heartedness. It is believed that one does not learn this concept, instead everyone is born with a sense of it. This is the highest virtue according to the Confucian way of life; if this principle could be put into practice, then mankind would achieve peace and harmony. Jen is considered to be the Confucius route to the “Golden Rule”. Another important concept according to Confucius was Te (power). According to Confucius, The power needed to rule consists of more than just physical might. It is necessary for the leaders in Confucianism to be men of good value. They need to set a good example to their subjects and learn to teach without teaching in such a way that they don’t immulate themselves. These men need to make aware that the yang’s life is harmonious and in order to get their subjects to act harmonious they need to do it without using force to do so. Thus, if the rulers would follow the example of the past, then the people would rally around the virtuous example. Confucius teaches his followers the idea of an-atman, or no self by stressing if one had no selfish motives, but only the supreme virtues, then there is no self. If one serves selflessly, he does not know what service is and therefore does not recognize it as service. If he knows what service is, he has a self, and therefore has not learned the Confucius way.
In the difficulty of understanding the idea of no self, or an-atman, our Western religions make it hard to understand due to our ideas of a personified version of one God. In the Eastern Asian religions, there is no personified God; instead there are numerous deities and philosophies that represent different attitudes which enable the person to believe in no autonomous, independent self. Instead the followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are here to please their numerous Gods, whereas the followers of Western Christianity are here to please one God and our human selves, which don’t exist in the Eastern Asian worlds.