Can We Understand the Oriental Mind?


“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

–Lao Tzu

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”


“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”


“Nothing hurts a good soul and a kind heart more than to live amongst people who cannot understand it.”

Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib

It could be a rhetorical question asked by someone who doesn’t really expect an answer. It could even be a derisive query from someone who thinks that the “oriental mind” is a myth and thus understanding such a “mind” is a non-issue at all. In fact, in the present post-modern era called the Age of Information or the Third-Wave Civilization, the sweeping cultural influence of western science and technology has reached global proportion eclipsing what still remains in non-western cultural vestiges. What then is the sense in problematizing the “oriental mind”? Besides, a closer look at the matter brings us to the concept of the “orient” which geographically points to continental Asia that horizontally runs from the eastern and southeastern frontiers of Europe to the Pacific Ocean. To think of a monolithic type of people called “oriental” is highly inaccurate as we consider the multi-racial Asian stocks from the Arabic, the Caucasian and the Indic to the Mongolian and the Malayo-Polynesian among others.

Or perhaps there has been a distillation of certain dominant intellectual and emotional characters in this tremendously multi-variegated Asian racial stocks that have evolved through time. In this connection, the superficial aspect of physico-racial differences doesn’t seriously count at all. It might even be of the essence to explore the issue of the “oriental mind” against the backdrop of the prominent Asian wisdom traditions that dominated past mainstream civilizations in this part of the globe and have in the process been generally absorbed actively or latently within the collective consciousness of the typical Asian whether s/he is Arabic, Hindu, Caucasian, Mongol or Malay. With the typical Asian in mind, we are treading on an idealism of Platonic variety–an amalgam of different virtuous qualities that constitute a philosophical Asian. Let’s call this the “Asian mind”.

But how do we understand the Asian mind? What do we mean by the word “understand” in the present context? In the western philosophical context which is basically discursive, critical and analytic, to understand is for someone to capture in unambiguous and precise terms what is being said by another. In this sense, the issue of understanding is purely on the discursive level. Meaningfulness is gauged in an exclusively linguistic focal point. One speaks, the other listens; one explains , the other clarifies and ascertains; one expresses her/his thoughts, the other understands. And now we rehearse the original question at hand: Can we understand the oriental mind? Taking the question in the western context is very limited for its fundamental concern is simply focused on utterances. In other words, the key issue here  lies on what is said and one’s understanding of it is wholly hermeneutical, i.e., a matter of correct interpretation which largely depends on one’s mastery of a common language-game whereof both the speaker and the addressee are “natives”. This is the point where west is west and east is east, so to speak.

Western understanding is linguistic while eastern understanding goes beyond the sphere of the spoken words. The “occidental mind” understands manifest statements while the oriental mind doesn’t stop at what is spoken but tries to “get into” the realm of the other person who speaks. Understanding in the oriental sense is an act of probing into the other’s inner person with a deep concern on where the latter is coming from as s/he utters what comes out of her/his mind. The major concern of oriental understanding is therefore the unpronounced, i.e., internal, motivation of the other person in her/his utterance. If this is how we understand the meaning of “understand” in the question, “Can we understand the oriental mind?”, surely we can indeed understand the oriental mind.

The oriental mind’s presupposition is: We speak from experience. What therefore matters more is not solely what is spoken of (though of course it has also its own degree of importance) but the experience–shallow or deep–that leads to the utterance. In this sense, the oriental mind is not quick to criticize and judge on the basis of what is said. What has been said could sound very offensive on the basis of a superficial evaluation but normally, the oriental mind doesn’t get offended. The oriental mind is an exploring mind for it traces the depth of experience from which an offensive utterance emanated. This condition further describes the oriental mind as non-confrontational. The oriental mind is not offended and at the same time never offensive. It is not because s/he is scared to get into trouble; s/he simply believes that offenses and troublesome events don’t solve problems but add more troubles and hence, more inconveniences, difficulties and distress. The oriental mind doesn’t put too much magnitude on words that have been said but on the experience–past or present–from which the person is coming while expressing her/his point.

The oriental mind is not only peaceable but tranquil amidst conflict and dissent. Discourse may lead to a linguistic understanding of what is being said but the oriental mind is more used to being reflective on serious issues with all the pros and cons considered. It doesn’t however mean that s/he doesn’t get discursive. Discourse is something normal in the human condition but the oriental mind puts more importance on reflection, even on meditation to refresh the mental capacity and get to a much better and more enlightening insights. The oriental mind is therefore not only reflective but meditative. In the process, s/he doesn’t only capture the “atomic” elements of a particular experience but also the total scenario where these elements are located as well as the past experiences–distant or recent–to which such particular experience is connected and hence a part of a much larger circumstance. In this way, reflection and meditation make the oriental mind holistic. S/he doesn’t only see particular trees in a forest but likewise the entire landscape where the whole forest is located.

In this situation, the oriental mind is more synthetic than analytic. Of course, the whole is made up of parts but what is the use of the parts if they are not put together to constitute the functional reality of an implement that serves life? This very thought makes the oriental mind pragmatic. What matters is not all discourse but action that enhances life. Inaction in a reflective/meditative state is not an end in itself but a significant path to meaningful action. True to the mystical character of the pragmatic oriental mind is the notion that “he who speaks doesn’t know and he who knows doesn’t speak.” With this in mind, the silent moment comes and it’s time for me to quit talking.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa 29 April 2015

“Be Water, My Friend”

bruce lee

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee

When philosophy gets more personal, it traverses the frontiers of its academic mooring. In this case, it opens up the alley of communicating a suggestion, an appeal, an invitation or a challenge spoken on the “I-Thou” plane (with apologies to Martin Buber). At a certain point, it holds in abeyance its typically critical posture and gets up to the level of the very human and highlights the wisdom of love or “sophophilia” (with apologies to Emanuel Levinas) rather than the conventional love of wisdom (philosophia). Having this point of departure in mind leads philosophizing to an approach that makes one reflect on issues without the need to get defensive while anticipating the nasty comments of antagonistic kibitzers going ballistic. And philosophy becomes sympathetic and friendly.

Philosophy then assumes the bearing of a trustworthy fountainhead whose tenacity has been honed by an unceasing train of theorizing and counter-theorizing within the rich tapestry of human experience. Without hesitancy nor trepidation, philosophy may thus spell out a challenge which, when taken as it comes, primes up the very philosophical spirit of the one who is being challenged. In the entire gamut of such a scenario, no one is reckoned as offensive or offended. On a positive note, this condition locates philosophy at the forefront of human intellectual activities where dogmatism never finds a cozy space while openmindedness has always been given unlimited access. The philosophical terrain being an open field of inquiry doesn’t have sharp edges but only smooth surfaces and rounded corners  that accommodate the orderly flow of ideas whose meanings need to be clarified to facilitate understanding. Hence, philosophy as a friendly endeavor speaks out while people listen.  It invites protagonists in the drama of life to pour out their most cherished thoughts into the sea of contending views and let them gush through the cerebral tributaries of the reflective enthusiasts. And with an air of confident spontaneity despite the lack of actual personal encounter, it voices out a bidding to those whom it considers as friends: “Be water, my friend!”

But from where does such a bidding emanate? What has happened to humanity at the height of modern civilization that such “a voice is heard in the wilderness”? Is it really humanity’s perennial curse to create and embrace one macrocosmic dogmatism after the other? At a certain point of stubborn advocacy that defies rationality and openness, we persistently clamor for tolerance and broadmindedness which allows us to conceive new and fresh ideas that define the raison d’etre of that particular historic moment. Then we start anew to institutionalize the most popularly accepted notions of the epoch and erect dogmatic edifices in their honor. And the clock of progress stops once more at the expense of rationality and openness. The cycle continues–a proof that we have never learned to cope with the intricacies and complexities of life since time immemorial. Seemingly, we have continually failed to understand and imbibe the imminence of openmindedness, responsiveness and most significantly, flexibility. We are a stubborn bunch whose unyielding will in most cases is just an egotistical manifestation of an unbendable pride. Worst of all, nobody dares to holler, “Be water, my friend!”

The well-fortified stronghold of our socio-cultural paradigm expresses itself in unyielding metanarratives that clog our minds to the point of paralysis.  Petrification takes effect and our lives get confined within the narrow parameters of how we define our respective worlds. We close and seal off the cages of our imprisonment and transform the lush forest of human wisdom into a wasteland, even a desert, for the stream of free-flowing creativity has been dried up and no living water flows to nourish the field. In many instances, we are irrationally rigid and unrelenting as we stand our ground in defense of a belief fraught with loopholes. We have mastered not the art of reasoning but that of rationalization and in the process pile up close-ended arguments we never wanted to be challenged. True to our being children of “hard modernity,” many of us have actually lost the cerebral flexibility that originally characterizes the essence of our humanness. This era has disappointingly failed to sit down and listen to new voices that emanate from emerging experiential spheres of our time. “Liquid modernity” (with apologies to Zygmunt Bauman) has yet to find an authentic niche in our present reality. The challenge remains: “Be water–be flexible, openminded, tolerant, approachable–my friend!”

© Ruel F. Pepa, 22 April 2015

Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat?


“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
— Alan Turing, Computing machinery and intelligence

“Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.”
— Ray Kurzweil

The present discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) is not a technical one and hence starts off with an uncomplicated definition based on a non-technical understanding of artificial intelligence as software intelligence found in non-human systems that “think and act rationally” like humans. We find the simplest types of such systems in the most modern appliances and equipment that make chores in households and offices easy and even enjoyable. Their most sophisticated types though are harnessed and utilized in the complex field of robotic science and technology which has been experiencing unprecedented velocity in the creation of remarkably new and more complex systems that unceasingly transcend their very recent predecessors. The path of the field’s advancement seems to be boundless and the issue of having the best is deemed irrelevant in a situation where something better perennially emerges.

People have witnessed a lot of amazing technological inventions and innovations in the multifaceted performances of artificial intelligence systems ever since the earliest stages of their development. Activities previously done with a lot of manual and muscular efforts are now accomplished with no sweat and just at the tip of one’s finger. I would venture to say that artificial intelligence is among the highest scientific and technological achievements of humanity in the post-modern civilization. As useful systems fundamentally designed to facilitate human productive activities, AI-based tools/implements/instruments should be viewed positively and with an air of appreciation and praise to the geniuses behind their creation. From this point of view, there is nothing to worry about AI as it is fully under human control generally for the purpose of work facilitation. Like when fire-making was first discovered and later enhanced with the invention of match and lighter, AI systems are basically facilitative. Humanity has benefitted a lot from the use of fire in so many practical purposes in the contexts of the household and the industry as well.

The positive aspect of AI is best depicted in the 1999 Robin-Williams-starrer movie The Bicentennial Man which is based on the 1993 novel The Positronic Man  co-authored by the celebrated science fictionist Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. The highly sophisticated robot–an android, to be specific, having been designed to look and act like human–which is later called Andrew Martin first arrives at the posh mansion of the wealthy Martin  family for functional and facilitative purposes. As the story develops, Andrew Martin undergoes several upgrading–both external and internal–until the point where he develops self-consciousness and already acts spontaneously like human and with not an iota of non-human traces anymore. The story unilaterally dwells on the good side of humanity as Andrew in his most fully developed “humanness” is the personification of a cultured, non-violent, sober, rational and sympathetic person.

We might opine that despite the leaps and bounds seen in the achievements of robotic science and technology, humanity could yet be thousands and thousands of miles away from the realization of an Andrew Martin, i.e., if such point is ever truly realizable. But taking the matter hypothetically and imagining such a possibility, is it more rational to think of the immoral side of an android which is in diametrical opposition to the amiable “personality” of Andrew Martin in the movie? If the process basically starts off in programming, is it more rational to consider the possibility of a sinister conspiracy to create and programme diabolical androids designed to destroy significant segments of humanity for the evil programmers to take full control of planet Earth? This is the dark side of AI whose fiendish potentiality is not far-fetched. It is like fire which on the one hand is absolutely advantageous but also harmful on the other hand if tapped for criminal purposes. In this sense, it is reasonable to think that AI is both an opportunity and a threat.

But is there really something new in this circumstance when since time immemorial human beings in general are personifications of opportunities and threats toward each other? Why do we get troubled by the emerging power of AI which could on the one hand be constructive yet destructive on the other, while we fully know that the basic stuff of life is largely  characterized by both construction and destruction? Are we worried that humanity will soon be threatened by the dark side of AI systems when the truth of the matter is long before the advent of AI, humanity has always been threatened by the evil forces of totalitarian powers well-entrenched in governments and big capitalist empires in control of  nations’ economies? Future AI systems employed and mobilized in the service of these political and economic powers will certainly heighten the degree of their oppressive domination and intensify the common people’s oppression. In this penultimate condition, large-scale chaos will multiply in geometric proportion until the final annihilation of the human species on planet Earth. Without sounding like a biblical prophet, we seem to be heading toward that direction.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 15 April 2015

“We Don’t Get It”

got it

“Sometimes we don’t know what we want until we don’t get it.”
—  Sloane Crosley

“‘Getting it’ is being able to project the probable results of your current actions and ridding yourself of the potential death threat.”
— Frank Regan, We Don’t Get It: Essays on Nature’s Indifference

We see the dots and we see them very clearly but we just fail to connect them. We fail to read the message of totality where all elements are supposed to connect with each other. We don’t have a holistic perception of the entirety of world events because in a lot of times we only get fixated on an isolated instance that we think is the most important while the rest are of minor significance. And if the former is fixed at the right moment, everything will get better. We think we live in a world of fragmented, disconnected events. We have never learned to look at reality as a web of interconnected happenings and that’s precisely the reason we fail to understand why there are breakdowns in the world in general and in our individual lives in particular. We fail to understand life. We don’t get it.

By and large, our focal point is our individual lives with all their immediate desires, wishes and needs. In attending to these personal matters, we don’t care at all whether others would be detrimentally affected or not. We always tend to prioritize our own personal condition over those of others’. In fact, in most instances, we tend to believe that our respective individual concerns are so imminent that it’s not necessary to care about those of the others’. Even the possibility of stepping on the toes of others while satisfying our needs is not something we believe we ought to  seriously care about. In this sense, we only understand our own personal situation and not the others’. The general condition of life in this world is so complex that we are convinced we just don’t need to understand it. We don’t need to get it. In fact, we don’t actually get it.

Each of us is so tightly enclosed within our shells so that what matters are only those within the subjective sphere. One says, “There is nothing beyond my world” which gives us the notion that there is nothing outside of one’s conception of the world.  There is therefore a dismal failure of the individual to see the reality of the Other as well as of  the larger world whose changes–whether good or bad–depend on the interactive presence of people in such a world. And we likewise fail to cope with the changes because we have been so engrossed with our own private circumstances while things pass by in time and space. We have long ignored the larger reality outside the walls of our skulls and we wake up one morning without an iota of idea of what we need to do.  Now we are face to face with the realization that not only us but multitudes of other humans like us are the real protagonists in the ever transforming and unfolding drama of life on planet Earth. Suddenly, we have come to realize  that each of us is a part not only of a global but of a grander cosmic network. And now, we are beginning to get it.

At the end of the day, we get to the conclusion that we need to know the true connections of things and events out in the world. The way towards this knowledge does not only involve one’s willingness to break the shell of her/his solipsistic confinement but a genuine desire to get her/himself involved in an honest-to-goodness process of investigation and discovery that at least toes the basics of the scientific method. This trajectory realistically leads us to a more comprehensive understanding of  the world and the interconnected components within it that make such a world go round. And now, we don’t only see the dots but also how they connect with each other.  In fact, not a single one of them is in isolation. We may not be able as yet to explain the deeper and more complex aspects of some connections but the axiomatic presupposition of their interconnectedness is the foundational bedrock of whatever we wish to further explore with the intent to understand more and better the whys and wherefores of events that pop up every now and then.

With the mental framework that we have thus far achieved, it is not, after all, the end of the world even when we say at the moment, “We don’t get it”. We don’t get it as yet but on the basis of the presupposition of interconnectedness that we now accept as an indispensable premise, we are enthusiastic and confident that something will come out in the exploration that we intend to do or are actually doing here and now  with the expectation that sooner or later, we will get it.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 08 April 2015