Acquired mind-body unity through self-cultivation

 In the Preface of The Body – Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, Yuasa Yasuo writes: “It has already been five years since I published Modern Japanese philosophy and existential thought. Mr Shimizu Yoshiharu, a representative from the publisher and an old friend … asked if I had a theme to suggest for another volume in a projected series on Japanese thought. At the time, I simply proposed “the body … since I had become aware of the unique view of the body in the Japanese philosophers studied in my previous book.”

Modern Japanese philosophy is an embodied enterprise in a way that modern western philosophy typically is not.”

As mentioned in Yuasa’s short biography and the overview of his works, it was during his comparative study between Japanese philosophy and existentialism that Yuasa had felt that “some element in the modern Japanese philosophers he had analyzed fitted uncomfortably with most western notions of “philosophy.” After much research, Thomas Kasulis explains, he had “finally put his finger on the issue: Modern Japanese philosophy is an embodied enterprise in a way that modern western philosophy typically is not. Furthermore, the understanding of the body in the two cultural traditions arise from different assumptions … In thinking about the mind and body, the modern western problem has been to identify what connects the two (note the language of external relation and what), but in the Asian (not just Japanese) case, the problem has usually been how mind and body are in a changing rather than fixed relation (note the language of internal relation and how). That is, the goal in traditional Asian philosophical thinking was not to connect the mind and body – they are already assumed to be intrinsically connected – but instead to make the overlap ever greater, with the ideal being the unity of bodymind.”

Then, after five years of further research, involving the study of contemporary Japanese thinkers such as Nishida and Watsuji, traditional Buddhist teachers such as Kukai and Dogen, and, in the West, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty as well as depth psychology and neurophysiology, Yuasa developed this first insight in The Body – Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, where he stated his two main goals as follows: “I had two concerns. One was to discover the historical origin for the unique view of the body found in modern Japanese philosophy. What I especially wanted to consider was the role of personal cultivation in Eastern religions like Buddhism … Second, I wanted to reevaluate the traditional Eastern body-mind theories from a contemporary perspective. I have long been interested in the relationships among Eastern thought, depth psychology, and psychiatry – an interest generated through my study of existentialism …

Eastern philosophies generally treat mind-body unity as an achievement rather than an essential relation

In contrast with the West, where, especially since Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans (mind) and res extensa (matter), mind and body are asserted as being separate, in Asian traditions there is no sharp distinction between mind and body. This is also true of most indigenous cultures.

In Asia, especially East Asia, “although the mind and body may be conceptually distinguishable from some perspectives, they are not assumed to be ontologically distinct.” Kasulis, however, notes that “One could argue, for example, that even Spinoza, with his theory about the two modes of a single substance, would be sympathetic so such a thesis.”

More significant, then, is Yuasa’s next insight, which, Kasulis notes, “is not so easily ingested into the Western tradition: Eastern philosophies generally treat mind-body unity as an achievement rather than an essential relation.” This explains why “meditation and philosophical insight are inseparable in the Eastern traditions: wisdom must be physically as well as intellectually developed. Truth is not only a way of thinking about the world; it is a mode of being in the world, part of which includes one’s own bodily existence. Thus, meditation and thinking are not to be separated.”

And because it is a way of being, rather than just a conceptual “theory,” the achievement of the unity of mind and body (body-mind, as the East calls it) “can be tested by deeds. This point explains why satori in Zen Buddhism is verified by action rather than by asserted propositions. Furthermore, this achieved unity accounts for the immediacy and physicality in Zen descriptions of enlightenment: the Zen Buddhist’s goal is said to be knowing the truth as one knows the water to be cold when one drinks it. That is, knowledge of the truth is a psychophysical awareness beyond mere intellection.”

Yuasa’s clear insight allows us to get a “better grasp of thenondualism central to so many Asian traditions. In conceiving an integration of body and mind, the various Eastern philosophies undercut such Western dichotomies as spirit-mind, subjectivity-objectivity, and theory-praxis. The Asian philosophers are not merely posing an alternative metaphysics. Instead, their task is what Yuasa, following C G Jung calls metapsychics, an approach examined in detail” in the book.

Western methodologies limit them to investigating only the universal or normal state of affairs

Descartes’s assertion of the separation of mind and body is usually said to have arisen out of his being under pressure to provide a “base of certainty” for the budding scientific research carried out in his time, associated in part at least with Newtonian physics. It has also been said to be an attempt by Descartes to put an end to the violence fuelled by the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants raging in his time. He had a personal experience of this conflict as his family was Roman Catholic while the Poitou region where he lived was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots. The Cartesian mind-body dualism, however, which was controversial at the time, was not radically new. It had roots in Antiquity in the identification of “being” with the abstract forms of Plato’s doctrine of “Ideas,” on which the predominant Western idealist philosophical tradition rested.

Kasulis note that where, in the West, a unity of mind and body is “envisioned, it has typically been thought to occur via an essential, substantial, unchanging link (such as the pineal gland, the soul, or even the brain), not via the evolution of the mind-body unity found in Eastern thought.” 

Yuasa suggests an altogether different reason for the difference between East and West with regard to the question of the duality, or non-duality, of mind and body: in the case of Western philosophers and scientists, “their respective methodologies limit them to investigating only the universal or normal state of affairs. They assume, that is, the connection between the mind and body must be constant, (not developed) and universal (not variable among different people). Since they do not consider exceptional personal achievements, the body-mind unity remains for them a theoretical possibility rather than a state actualized by exemplary individuals such as religious and artistic masters.”

In fact, there is ambiguity in the Western position: Kasulis says that “It is as if the grid of Western thought has a place for the concept of an achieved body-mind unity, but that place is hidden behind the crosshatching of the Western concepts. The Western tradition can recognize the possibility but its concepts intersect so that a blindspot occurs precisely where the body-mind unity can be found – in the enlightened state achieved through years of spiritual and physical cultivation. Therefore, at present at least, we cannot focus sharply on the phenomenon itself within our Western frameworks; we can only approach it.” Kasulis recognises that“Yuasa’s careful study of Western phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and neurophysiology reveals no inherent logical objection to such an idea. In fact, these three disciplines hint that such a unity is theoretically possible. Why, then, has the Western tradition not formally recognized this possibility?

The main thrust of Western intellectual history has avoided the discussion of the perfected human being.

In the context of a culture that, in common with the oldest indigenous populations, regard human beings as having to adjust to what nature provides for us, there is in Asia a tradition of self-cultivation whereby each individual is invited to develop his/her physical and spiritual potential abilities through a path of practice. With the ancient Middle-Eastern notion of “man” as being given dominion over nature, with the corollary that “man” knows best, there is no such need to self-cultivate in order to adjust to nature’s requirements. The many schools that originally arose in Antiquity – Stoics, Epicurians, Pythagorians, etc. – faded during the Middle Ages, and had gone by the time of Erasmus. Kasulis, with Yuasa, states: “The main thrust of Western intellectual history has avoided the discussion of the perfected human being. The focus has been rather on the universal, not the exceptional. Yuasa finds today’s Western thinkers more open to discussing the exceptional than were their predecessors, but, oddly, they examine mainly the negative side, that of the abnormal or diseased. Modern Western neurophysiology an and psychoanalysis have opened the door to the extraordinary in human life, but only, as it were, the back door of the subnormal instead of the front door of the supernatural.” These modern scientific disciplines are willing to acknowledge that there are cases when disease is found with no physical condition that can account for it, and that is paramount to a recognition of the ability for the mind to act on the body. But this recognition has still to be applied to the same ability in the context of a self-cultivation that will enhance the physical, intellectual, and spiritual capacities of otherwise ordinary human beings. In other words, though there are now rare groups of scientists and philosophers open to the study of paranormal phenomena as well as the study of altered states of consciousness brought about by psychedelics, mainstream psychology and neurophysiology still leave them out of their field of research. 

The current development of Christian process theology based on the views of Alfred N. Whitehead’s process philosophy could re-introduce a need for a self-cultivation that would enhance its followers’s ability to interact with the divine now located in nature’s processes. Process theology shares the non-dualistic panentheist view of a divine present in all things. In fact, the very notion that each of us is, as such, also a “process,” an activity, rather than a static entity, offers process theologians the opportunity of arguing for the need to embrace a similar path of self-cultivation. To fill the gap left by the loss of faith in an omnipotent God in charge of the cosmos, the co-creativity between humans and the divine that has been proposed requires that we are able to “participate” in God’s consciousness. How could individuals stuck in the current Western self-centred calculative mode of thinking be able to properly interact with the divine in the creative dynamism of the cosmos?

Emphasis on the universal human condition instead of the perfected state also found in Western philosophical investigations. 

Even thoughcontemporary existentialism does accept “the recognition of embodiment, authenticity, the unity of thought and action, and the ideal of freedom,” terms familiar to any practitioner of an Eastern path of self-cultivation, “still the emphasis falls on the universal human condition instead of on the perfected state.  “Existentialism emphasizes, for example, two choices: we may either be authentic to our situation, recognizing our inherent freedom, or we may either be immersed in bad faith, denying what we are. Little discussion is offered, however, of the process by which we can gradually change what we existentially are by opening new options previously unavailable to us” (Kasulis).

Kasulis regards Yuasa’s treatment of comparative philosophy as one of his greatest contributions. “His analysis respects the fundamental divergence between traditional Eastern and Western thought, yet simultaneously points the way to meaningful dialogue.” He concludes: “In brief, what most distinguishes Eastern from Western mind-body theories is a methological decision as to which phenomena should be analyzed. For the modern Western tradition, a mind-body theory is primarily concerned with the empirically observable correlations between mental and somatic phenomena. In the Japanese tradition, however, the mind-body theories generally focus on how a disciplined practice allows one to attain body-mind unity.”

In concrete terms, “in studying the Western mind-body problem, it is appropriate to investigate the act of raising one’s arm, for example. What is the relation between mental intention and the somatic movement? In the Japanese theories, however, learning to hit a baseball would be a more appropriate example. What are the relationships among the intellectual theory of the swing, the somatic practice of the swing, and the integrated achievement of the skill? In this contrast, we again see the difference between concentrating on an intrinsic connection versus an acquired mind-body unity” (Kasulis).


Thomas P. Kasulis – Editor’s Introduction of Yuasa Yasuo’s The Body – Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory

East Pagoda (Danjōgaran on Mt Koya)