Some important differences between the meaning of wisdom in East and West

Mikko
5 min readNov 12, 2023

TL;DR What is considered liberation in the East is called insanity in the West. What is considered liberation in the West, is considered an illusion in the East. Furthermore, holding firmly to the illusion as if it was, in fact, real, is considered in the East an utter waste of this precious life.

While East and West may sometimes appear superficially similar, in many ways, once the differences are made apparent, these two cultures could not be further from one another.

This will now be explained in detail through several superficial similarities, which under closer inspection reveal themselves as gross differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

The intention of this article is not at all to say what is right or wrong, but simply to highlight readily occurring observations about the differences in the way the concept of wisdom appears in the East versus the West.

Regardless if you find Eastern or Western wisdom traditions more practical and beneficial, these differences are something that can be very beneficial for us to clearly understand.

Both Eastern and Western cultures conceptualize wisdom

Whereas in Eastern culture, wisdom is conceptualized as an effort to bring us closer to our true nature, in Western culture, wisdom is conceptualized almost exclusively as an effort to understand and control the ego as well as the external world.

The Western approach of controlling ego here refers to the process commonly known as self-development. In this process, the current self criticizes the past self in an effort to control the future self. Conversely, in the East, any attempt to control ego in such a way is seen as a supplementary practice at best.

Both Eastern and Western cultures have wisdom traditions

Whereas in Eastern cultures, in a series of progressively more subtle techniques, reason (the use of syllogisms) is the first step towards wisdom, Western cultures typically use syllogisms as the be-all-end-all of wisdom. The exception to this is the Western New Age movement, and whatever remnants we can find from Western ancestral traditions. In some interpretations of quantum physics and cognitive sciences, we start to see signs of increasingly subtle methods being used.

To highlight the significance of this difference between the two cultures, in Tibetan there is a saying that a syllogism at best ends up being like the last night’s wet dream. In the West, for the most part, the syllogism is considered the wisdom gold standard.

Both Eastern and Western cultures have the tradition of cultivating wisdom

Here the phrase “dissolution of eco clinging” comes into play. Without understanding the meaning of this, it is not possible to understand Eastern wisdom at all. The distinction here is between the ego, and clinging to the ego.

Eastern wisdom is not saying that ego is problematic, but it’s saying that clinging to ego’s reality is problematic. Most Eastern wisdom traditions consider ego to exist merely as a moment by moment result of causes and conditions. For example, Indian wisdom traditions tend to use the The Five Faces of the Ego to explain how this moment by moment arising of the ego can be experienced by anyone.

Dissolution of eco clinging here refers to what could be characterised as moment by moment dissolution of ego’s moment by moment reality.

The contrasting term “development of ego clinging” here refers to what could be characterised as actively working to develop clinging to ego’s reality.

The term “cultivation” here has the primary meaning of taking something, for example, the impermanence of all things, and then contemplating on that until it becomes a lived experience.

NOTE: It is critically important to understand clearly what these terms mean and what they don’t mean. These are not theoretical frameworks or ideas, but all of this talks about lived experience.

Whereas in Eastern cultures, the intention of cultivating wisdom is focused on the dissolution of ego clinging, in Western cultures a different approach is taken. In the West, there are two approaches to this.

For example, in the wisdom tradition of quantum mechanics, there is no focus on either the dissolution of eco clinging or development of ego clinging. The second common Western approach, the far more prominent one, focuses on the development of ego clinging. In effect, most Western methods are ego clinging.

Western wisdom does acknowledge dissolution of eco clinging, but never as an outcome of cultivating wisdom, nor as something one should seek after. But instead, oftentimes ends up dealing with it as a mental disorder

Both of these Western approaches are in stark contrast with the East, where the focus of cultivating wisdom is on dissolution of eco clinging.

Both Eastern and Western cultures acknowledge dissolution of eco clinging

Whereas in Eastern cultures, dissolution of eco clinging is considered a goal of cultivating wisdom, in Western cultures it is considered a mental disorder.

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) highlights this difference very clearly.

Both Eastern and Western cultures conceptualize liberation

Whereas in Eastern cultures, liberation refers to liberation from ego, in the Western cultures liberation refers to the fortification of ego through the ability to decide which labels apply to oneself, and which do not.

This is highlighted by Western cultural curiosities such as the case where a biological male with a common appearance of a male, becomes offended for being referred to as “he”.

The other way to understand this is through the contrast between what is referred to by Western philosophers as positive and negative liberty. While positive liberty has a more traditional sense of the word liberty, the meaning of negative liberty refers to how we are free to eat what we want, watch what we want, and indulge in myriad ways as per our preferences.

To summarize, the first major difference we find here is that the Western interpretation of positive liberty focuses on being able to decide which labels apply to oneself and which do not, and on the right one has to consequently become offended if others do not comply with one’s expectations in this regard.

The second major difference we find is that where Western cultures prominently focus on negative liberty, such as being able to watch whatever one wants whenever one wants, Eastern cultures tend to see negative liberty as a gross manifestation of that which we should liberate from.

While Westerners make their lives about the attainment of negative liberty, Eastern conceptualization of wisdom makes life about the attainment of negative liberty, as well as the positive one.

Conclusion

Whereas wisdom in Eastern culture tends to focus on liberation through spiritualism, Western culture tends to focus on liberation through materialism.

Because of this, when Westerners initially become curious about Eastern spiritual ideas, those ideas become immediately captured by the ego, in a sense they become ego, and whatever spiritual potential there may have been associated with those ideas becomes material potential.

This is called spiritual materialism. Anyone interested in understanding, practicing, teaching, or otherwise communicating Eastern wisdom in the context of Western culture will have to be able to break through this spiritual materialism.

If you found this article useful, why not do whatever you like to help share it so that others can benefit from it in the same way you did?

❤️

--

--

Mikko

Worked with machine intelligence for 15 years, and built the interwebs for 25. Nothing here is my own.