Understanding Eastern Philosophy, Ray Billington (Routledge).
On hearing the term “Eastern Philosophy” my immediate reaction is often slightly suspicious: Oh dear, I think, here come half-baked platitudes, either involving its dismissal on the basis of “navel-gazing”, or, on the other hand, naive acceptance on the grounds that it can all be fitted comfortably into the middle-class Western way of life. Whichever approach is taken, massive generalisations are often confidently made by people who have little detailed knowledge of the area, on the assumption that it is sufficiently far away for no-one to notice.
The broad term “Eastern” might perhaps be usefully used as a general label for philosophies originating in India, China, Japan and adjoining areas, but for Westerners this often evokes an exoticism which blinds them to their universal relevance and leads prematurely either to the sceptical over-use of critical faculties or their complete suspension. Ray Billington makes a laudable attempt to clarify this popular confusion, though he unfortunately does not entirely shake free of it himself.
Ray Billington is clearly a man of devastating chutzpah, who thinks nothing of trying to introduce beginners to a vast area of thought perhaps comparable to Western and Islamic philosophy put together, and what’s more, make meaningful comments on the overall relationship between Eastern and Western thought, all in the space of 187 pages. His bold assertions and irritatingly opinionated asides reveal his strengths as a lecturer: he is probably even better at getting the basic ideas across in the lecture hall than he is in print, by goading the complacencies of his students. The precision of his scholarship leaves something to be desired and he sometimes shows a cavalier disregard for accuracy by mis-spelling and mis-using technical terms. He does not appear to have spent much time studying any one of the Eastern philosophies in detail, but contents himself with a broad sweep seemingly based mainly on secondary sources: even beginners should expect better than this.
The book falls into three main sections. The first two chapters are concerned with laying the conceptual groundwork from a Western (particularly a Christian) point of view which he feels are important to reaching an understanding of Eastern Philosophies. This is well-intentioned but might just succeed in reinforcing the prejudices Billington wants to avoid: spirituality and religion are related largely to God, a relationship which is simply irrelevant to Buddhism and the Chinese philosophies. Rather than equipping the reader with theological baggage it might be better to make the most of the open-mindedness which her assumed theological ignorance makes possible.
The main part of the book works its way through an account of all the main Eastern philosophies: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, the Yin-Yang school, and Confucianism. This is the weakest part of the book where the shallowness of his understanding becomes most evident: beginners might well find it informative, but should check its accuracy against another source. Since there are numerous excellent introductions to these philosophies available (especially to Buddhism), often written by practitioners who have both a philosophical and a practical grasp of their subjects, a beginner would do much better to turn to one of these.
The final six chapters are the most valuable and show Billington on more secure ground: making general comparisons between Eastern and Western traditions and their attitudes towards the spiritual, human nature, ethics, nature and authority. For example, he valuably points out that Eastern ethical traditions which appear individualistic or anarchic to Christians might well be of more practical use than the distant and absolute pronouncements of a God. Another valuable point is that faith can be taken as confidence in a hypothesis, to be confirmed by experience, rather than blind reliance on God. However, the comparison concentrates on theistic religion in comparison to “Eastern” religion, with little exploration of the parallels in Western secular philosophy. I would like to have seen these chapters in a much-expanded form become the basis of an interesting book.
But overall, though well-intentioned, Billington is still too caught up in unconscious Christian assumptions and the force of his own opinions to make a sufficiently reliable guide through the vast jungles of Eastern and Western thought. It is a pity that nobody else appears to have written a book of comparable pitch and scope without these deficiencies.