Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

[12] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

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Reverent Guests of Nature

This week, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss what to do about global warming.  How did we ever get into this mess?  Yes, we all know the proximate causes – the greenhouse effect, carbon emissions, etc.  But I’m asking about the underlying cause: the construction of our view of mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at an entirely different perspective of our place in the universe: the ancient Chinese view of the cosmos.  It’s fundamentally different from how the Western world sees things.  And there’s a lot we can learn from it.

Let’s start with what there wasn’t.  There was no “command and control” Creator that ruled over the natural world.  Consequently, there was no God to create Man in His image to follow His command and dominate Nature.  Instead, there was the Tao, which existed even before the creation of the world.  But there was no ruling mandate that came along with the Tao’s role in creation, as the Tao Te Ching itself states:

Tao everlasting does not act
And yet nothing is not done.
If kings and barons can abide by it,
The ten thousand things will transform by themselves.[1]

And in a direct contrast to God the Creator expecting Man to follow His own dominating role, the Tao instead informs the sage how to follow the ways of the Tao in leading the people:

In loving the people and governing the state…
To give birth yet not to claim possession,
To act yet not to hold on to,
To grow yet not to lord over,
This is called the dark virtue.[2]

As historian Toby Huff so clearly puts it: “Within this cosmos there is no prime mover, no high God, no lawgiver”.[3]

So, if there was no Creator, how did this harmony come about?  In the West, we’re used to an either/or approach to cosmology.  In our present day, it’s the faith of religion against the reductionism of science.  Either there’s a God who created everything and gave it all meaning, or there was just the Big Bang and ever since then the immutable laws of physics arranged everything down to the last molecule in a cold, hard universe without magic, mystery or meaning.

But the Chinese view of Nature had nothing to do with either of these two extremes.  Instead, they saw the universal order of things as “an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer”.  Joseph Needham, the leading 20th century expert on ancient Chinese cosmology, gives the analogy of a traditional country-dance to describe the Chinese view:

Spontaneous yet ordered, in the sense of patterned movements of dancers in a country dance of figures, none of whom are bound by law to do what they do, nor yet pushed by others coming behind, but cooperate in a voluntary harmony of wills.[4]

Joseph Needham sees country dancing as an analogy for the Chinese view of natural harmony

Here’s how an early Chinese philosopher – Wang Pi writing around 240 AD – described the cosmology expressed in the I Ching, on which he wrote a famous commentary:

We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they never swerve from their course.  So also we do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him.

Needham describes this thought as “extremely Chinese.  Universal harmony comes about not by the celestial fiat of some King of Kings, but by the spontaneous cooperation of all beings in the universe … not from the orders of a superior authority external to themselves, but from the fact that they were all parts in a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic pattern, and what they obeyed were the internal dictates of their own natures.”[5]

Needham coined the phrase “an organic worldview” to describe this – self-contained organisms following their own internal rules within the context of larger organisms, and themselves comprised of smaller organisms also following their own rules.

And this worldview leads to a very different perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.  In contrast to the Genesis myth putting Nature under Man’s dominion, “the universe did not exist especially to satisfy man.  His role in the universe was ‘to assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth.’”[6]

In my blog, Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how, beginning with Plato, our dualist Western tradition came to idealize the mind and separate the abstractions of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) from our animate consciousness.  By contrast, Chinese traditions looked for harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and the other aspects of our existence.  “Hence the key word is always harmony; the ancient Chinese sought for order and harmony throughout natural phenomena, and took this to be the ideal in all human relationships.”[7]

The Chinese never conceived of an immortal soul.  They never conceived of an omnipotent Creator.  The notion of dualism never entered their consciousness.  They used their pfc faculties every bit as much as the Greeks, but for the purpose of understanding the integration of these faculties with other aspects of themselves and with the natural world around them.

Clear Weather in the Valley, an example of Sung dynasty landscape painting by Tung Yüan (late 10th century) shows the view of humanity’s relatively subordinate place within the natural environment and demonstrates how human activity is seen to blend in with the environment.

Because of their emphasis on harmony, it never occurred to them that they should use their intellect to conquer the natural world.  On the contrary, traditional Chinese thought is pervaded by the notion of “non-purposive action”, wuwei, as the wisest approach to the natural world and to life in general.  In the words of the Tao Te Ching:

One who desires to take the world and act upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses.[8]

Over two millennia of Western dualism, billions of people have spent their lives struggling with the conflict between the natural drives of their animate consciousness and a conceptualized ideal of spirituality arising from the pfc’s abstractions.  In traditional Chinese thought, the opposite is true.  Harmony is seen as arising from each of us being in touch with and following our own true nature.

And the same harmony applies to our relationship with the natural world.  As world leaders meet this week in Copenhagen to debate how to manage the global climate crisis we’ve brought on ourselves, they might do well to pause for a moment and consider this view from the Tao Te Ching of the Taoist approach to the natural world:

Careful, like crossing a river in winter…
Reverent, like being guests…
Those who keep this Tao,
Do not want to be filled to the full.
Because they are not full,
They can renew themselves before being worn out.[9]

[1] Chen, E.M., (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. Chapter 37.

[2] Ibid. Chapter 10.

[3] Huff, T. E. (1993/2006). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251-2.

[4] Needham, J., (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2. London: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Needham, ibid.

[6] Needham, ibid.

[7] Needham, ibid.

[8] Chen, ibid. Chapter 29.

[9] Chen, ibid.  Chapter 15.

Digging into the archaeology of the mind

For those of us who have grown up in a world dominated by Western thought, the prevailing mindsets available to us – scientific methodology, monotheism or some other dualistic belief – seem like the only ones to choose from.

In my blog entitled Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how our Western thought structure has led to an imbalance in our collective consciousness, whereby the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – the part of the brain that mediates symbols and abstract values – has predominated over other aspects of our consciousness.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  And it doesn’t have to be this way.  There were other ways in which the pfc could have constructed its cosmology without seeing itself as an immortal soul separate from its own body and the rest of the natural world.  Without seeing its intellectual constructs as the only ultimate truth.  And there are other approaches we can use to construct meaning in a way that integrates with our bodies and with our animate consciousness, without having to reject the evidence of science.

Time to dig into the archaeology of the mind

To find these other approaches to meaning, we need to dig deep into the archaeology of the mind.  Back to the era of the ancient Greeks, when Plato first posited an immortal soul separate from our material bodies.  Only we’re going to look at another path taken by the pfc, a path that connects the pfc’s drive for meaning with the living, feeling reality of the animate consciousness.  It’s a path taken thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, in a culture virtually untouched by the Proto-Indo-European mental structures that pervaded both Western and Indian cultures.  It’s a path laid down by the Chinese thought tradition.

When Plato was setting the foundations for mind-body dualism in the West, ancient Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Lao-Tzu[1] and Chuang-tzu were offering very different viewpoints on the nature of the cosmos.  These masters were the mouthpieces for ancient traditions that had grown up over thousands of years, completely cut off from the other thought traditions of Western Eurasia.  Chinese scholar Chad Hansen describes how “early Chinese and Greco-Indian philosophical traditions materialized on opposite divides of a great physical barrier – the Himalaya mountains and Xinjiang barrens.”[2] This physical barrier led to a philosophical chasm: “early Chinese philosophers show startlingly little interest in the familiar staples of early Western thought” such as dualism of body and soul.

Joseph Needham (arguably the greatest 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought) describes the East/West dichotomy as follows:

Europeans suffered from a schizophrenia of the soul, oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the ‘atoms and the void’ on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and state, and all things past, present, and to come.[3]

Until the last few hundred years, China’s culture and civilization were more advanced than anything the West had achieved.  But something even more remarkable in Chinese culture is that it represents an unbroken tradition from our prehistoric indigenous roots.  We see in classical Chinese culture a sophisticated and complex cosmology, but one which evolved along a continuum from early shamanistic conceptions of the world.  In the West, by contrast, the confluence of ideas generated in Proto-Indo-European, Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought traditions led to the revolution in thinking that occurred in classic Greek culture: the ascendancy to power by the pfc in the form of dualism.

Classical Chinese and Western thought are built on different foundations.  The Chinese foundation connects all the way down to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots.  The Western foundation was reset in a new Platonic concrete over 2,000 years ago, providing a solid base for monotheistic and scientific thought, but creating a separation between our conceptual and animate consciousness, and between humans and the natural world.

Chinese culture connects to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots

And what we see in early Chinese thought is an approach fundamentally different from that in the West.  Instead of dualism there’s the polarity of yin and yang.  Instead of Heaven and Hell, there’s a harmonious interaction between different aspects of the natural world.  Instead of mankind’s separation from nature, there’s a complex, organic view of our connectivity with nature.  Instead of the pfc dominating human consciousness with its idealization of reason and the mind, there’s a harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and our animate consciousness.  Instead of God, there’s the Tao.

How does this difference translate into daily life?  For starters, as environmental philosopher George Sessions notes, the contrast between these two thought traditions shows up in their relationship with the natural world.  Sessions observes that “while Taoism and certain other Eastern religions retained elements of the ancient shamanistic Nature religions, the Western religious tradition radically distanced itself from wild Nature and, in the process, became increasingly anthropocentric.”[4]

But the difference goes even further than that.  It’s so pervasive that, even after hundreds of years of Western cultural impact on East Asia, and modern education systems that prioritize scientific-based thinking, the traces of a different conceptual blueprint show themselves in an individual’s self-definition.  Research findings by psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have identified a difference between a Western-oriented “independent self” versus an East Asian sense of an “interdependent” self, which arises out of a more holistic view of integration with nature.  Here’s how they describe it:

The notion of an interdependent self is linked with a monistic philosophical tradition in which the person is thought to be of the same substance as the rest of nature.  As a consequence, the relationship between the self and other, or between subject and object, is assumed to be much closer.  Thus, many non-Western cultures insist on the inseparability of basic elements, including self and other, and person and situation.  In Chinese culture, for instance, there is an emphasis on synthesizing the constituent parts of any problem or situation into an integrated or harmonious whole.

They contrast this with the “Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.”[5]

This difference extends to the very way in which we conceptualize the world existing around us.  Psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues have reviewed multiple research studies showing East Asians emphasizing relationships and similarities between objects and events, in contrast to Western subjects focusing more on categories and rules for particular items.  They see this difference as arising from the cultural foundations of Chinese thought.  In contrast to the ancient Greeks who were focused on the “object independent of its context,”

… the Chinese were convinced of the fundamental relatedness of all things… It is only the whole that exists; and the parts are linked relationally, like ‘the ropes in a net’[6]

These differences in cognition can literally be seen in the neural connections activated by people raised in East Asia versus those raised in the West.  Multiple functional neuroimaging studies have identified these differences.  In one study, led by Trey Hedden, participants were asked to perform “absolute” and “relative” conceptual tasks.  Westerners had to use more of their frontal brain regions (i.e. had to work harder) on “relative” tasks than “absolute” tasks.  East Asians showed the opposite effect.  Thus, they concluded, “the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.”[7] In a survey of such studies, Shihui Han and Georg Northoff conclude that “one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions.”[8]

The implications of these differences in East Asian and Western are enormous, but are frequently misrepresented in the political tug-of-war arising from such research.  Much of the debate centers around nature/nurture issues such as “Are Westerners hard-wired to be more creative?” or “Are East Asians hard-wired to be meeker?”  I believe that these issues are relatively fruitless to pursue and tend to be used by people to buttress their own prejudices.

Instead, I think these findings offer a path to much richer pastures.  I propose that those of us who are Western-educated can learn something invaluable from the classical Chinese thought traditions.  We can discover different ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, which have the potential to lead to a more integrated sense of ourselves, and increased harmony with the natural world.

Is our Western thought structure on shaky foundations?

But, as anyone who has done foundation work on their house can attest to, it ain’t easy.  Digging down below the floorboards can be messy and painful, and can turn up long-forgotten buried secrets.  It can also, though, be essential for survival.  If the foundations are not rooted well into the soil, a bad storm or an earthquake can cause devastation.  There’s a growing awareness that our society has created its own perfect storm in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.  At this point, I think our conceptual constructs could gain a lot from a tradition that’s rooted to the earth, that’s founded on an organic unity with the natural world.

In future postings, I’ll look in more detail at the cosmology of classical Chinese thought, and explore its direct relevance to the scientific and spiritual views of the 21st century.  Let’s get digging!


[1] Most modern scholars question whether the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by one individual.  However, for convenience, virtually everyone remains comfortable referring to the author(s) as Lao-Tzu.

[2] Hansen, C. (2000). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[4] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[5] Markus, H. R., and Kitayama, S. (1991). “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.  It should be  noted that, while Markus & Kitayama focus their analysis on East Asia, they extend their view of an “interdependent self” to other “non-West European” cultures such as in Africa and South America.

[6] Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. (2001). “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition.” Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

[7] Hedden, T., Ketay, S., Aron, A., Markus, H. R., and Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2008). “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.” Psychological Science, 19(1), 12-17

[8] Han, S., and Northoff, G. (2008). “Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(August 2008), 646-654.