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The (Crass) Westernisation of Eastern Wisdom

There is a notion among some Western students of Eastern disciplines that they need to seek the approval of the Western scientific community. Because of this, some Western Buddhists deny the reality of bodhisattvas and the continuity of consciousness, Western acupuncturists deny the existence of the energy their discipline was developed to deal with, and everything is about finding and verifying the physical, scientific truths obscured by these ‘metaphors.’

This approach, which surrenders three thousand years of scientific and spiritual development to a naïve, Newtonian Western materialism without the slightest regard for the integrity or aims of the traditions being deconstructed, can best be described as ‘craven.’ More importantly, it is the surrender of one worldview to another entirely incompatible with it, discarding the core of the traditions in question and leaving the shell so ephemeral as to be a waste of your time.

Why Does Modern Acupuncture Hurt?

If you’ve ever experienced acupuncture from an experienced practitioner qualified in China, chances are it didn’t hurt all that much after insertion, perhaps with the exception of one or two tender points. With many Western-trained practitioners, however, it feels like a nerve is being pinched at each and every point.

There’s a reason. The Western ‘scientific’ version of acupuncture, which doesn’t believe that the body’s energy pathways exist, has decided that acupuncture works by stimulating the nervous system and increasing blood flow to various parts of the body. They therefore seek out the nearest nerve ending to every acupuncture point and stab it, sometimes twisting the needle after insertion, just to make sure those nerves are well and truly stimulated. The original tradition, of course, sees the nervous system as a secondary actor in acupuncture, and sees no need to assault it.

One acupuncturist of my recent acquaintance had the gall to stand up and tell a room full of his patients that the word ‘qi’ should be translated as ‘vital air,’ meaning, in his opinion, oxygen, and that acupuncture is not a form of energy healing. For someone educated in the far larger tradition of which acupuncture is only one part, a tradition that includes qigong and its vast array of energy cultivation methods, the energetic understanding of disease and of the formulation of medicines, the extensive Taoist tradition of inner alchemy, the insight of Chinese medicine into the energy-psychology relationship and much more, this notion was painfully laughable. If nothing else, anyone with the slightest acquaintance with this terminology should know that oxygen, like food, water and sunlight is jing, not qi. Jing fuels the energy system, giving rise to qi, and it’s obviously comical to say that “oxygen gives rise to oxygen”.

This is the net result of a trend that seeks to scour Taoism’s three thousand year old scientific tradition for tidbits that are deemed acceptable by current scientific dogma (which automatically rules out anything that sounds in any way spiritual or has to do with a non-materialist understanding of the universe) and reframes the rest in the most unapologetically silly ways.

What is the Sound of One Brain Farting?

Something similar has happened to Buddhism in the West, where alleged Western ‘Buddhists’ have gone to extraordinary lengths to reframe Buddhist teachings as a psychological system that does not require belief in, well, Buddhist teachings.

A classic example is the Western treatment of the bodhisattvas and dhyani-buddhas of Mahayana and Tibetan teaching. Identification with these enlightened beings is a key element of Buddhist practice, an aspect that many Western ‘experts’ would like to discard as primitive and out of step with the modern world. Others, however, think they have found a workaround, arguing that since these enlightened beings are emptiness (sunyata), and part of the undifferentiated consciousness, which is why the practitioner is able to identify with them in the first place, that they are therefore ‘not real,’ merely imaginary visualisation tools for psychological purposes.

Well, the bad news is that you and I are sunyata just as much as the enlightened beings are in Buddhist teaching, so either both we and they are real, or neither. This absurd argument highlights the futility of pursuing Buddhist teachings for psychological purposes in this life, divorced from the larger purpose. If living more happily in this life is all you’re interested in, there are a thousand easier ways than trying to live according to Buddhist teachings. But I forgot, all that fasting and vegetarianism and long nights spent in meditation and meritorious deeds is just so “last millennium”. Why do all that when we can just read the Lotus Sutra every now and then and bliss out for a few minutes a week with some nice calming meditation music?

The real question here is what it is in Buddhist teaching that the Western mindset is so afraid of. Why all these intellectual gymnastics? If it’s simply the idea of the continuity of consciousness after death, then the next logical question is why on earth would you waste time on Buddhism? Buddhism, after all, is the direct result of Siddhartha seeing a sick man, an old man and a dying man, and realising that this too was his destiny if he did not change it. This experience gave rise to the Four Noble Truths, the central doctrine of Buddhism. Sure, there are elements of Buddhism that could be attractive to secular psychology, but in the end, if you don’t acknowledge the possibility of Enlightenment through direct contact with the undifferentiated consciousness, all that effort is ultimately meaningless.

But what if the problem is more basic? What if the Western mind simply cannot countenance the very foundation of Buddhist cosmology, the idea that all physical worlds are simply mental aggregates of consciousness? But then, the Western mind, including much of its own scientific establishment, has yet to catch up with the last century of sub-atomic physics, so this is hardly surprising.

The Eastern Worldview

Let’s look at what is really happening here. At a fundamental level, the worldview common to Buddhism and Taoism and all Authentic Ancient Traditions, that the world in all its aspects is the creation of consciousness and energy, is being uncritically replaced with a Newtonian Worldview in which matter gives rise to energy and consciousness. This is the central, unacknowledged cause-and-effect dilemma of the present age. The mindset behind the very scientific materialism that these people are attempting to appease is itself scientifically obsolete. Quantum physics, examining matter at the most minute level, has found what? Energy and probability- probability actualised by consciousness. That which we experience as matter is not matter at all..

This is exactly what the East has known for millennia. Let’s take the example of a Chinese herbal remedy. The doctor examines the patient’s energy state in detail, and formulates a compound of herbs to support whatever elements of the energy system are deficient and calm whatever parts are acting up. The scientist takes it and breaks it down into its constituent chemicals and looks for reactions that might be pharmacologically interesting. No doubt, there are some. But then the scientist makes a concentrated formula of whatever discrete elements he’s been able to show have a chemical impact he believes is useful.

But this new, concentrated formula is a non sequitor in the context of Chinese medical theory. It was never interested in the operation of discrete parts of the medicine, but the synergy of the whole. While it is certainly interested in chemical reactions, these reactions are simply one manifestation of the energetic action of the medicine, since matter is energy. The concentrated formula is not only flawed theoretically, it is potentially dangerous, as its energetic and chemical effect will be untempered by the ingredients it was supposed to work with.


The most dangerous thoughts in any age are the unquestioned assumptions, the ‘truths’ and ways of thinking we take in from childhood which we never stop to seriously question. Therefore, one of the most difficult requirements of objective investigation of the science of another culture is the ability to put yourself in the worldview from which it comes. If you can’t do that, it will prove impossible to understand the purpose, the guiding principles, the integrity and inner coherence of the whole system. More to the point, if we in the West cannot get over the engrained materialist worldview, there is very little that any of these traditions can do to help us.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger