The philosophies of the east have arisen, not unlike those of the occidental cultures, from a host of different influences and over a vast time-span that reaches back to the misty edge of prehistory. Beliefs of tremendous antiquity have been evidenced through archaeological discoveries spanning the regions of the globe from India to Japan. Some were clearly carried eastwards from the Cradle of Civilization in Mesopotamia whilst others can only have been derived independently, the product of more local minds and inspiration.
In each case it is possible to detect beliefs and understandings of the world around us that have been part of a common frame existing virtually everywhere on the planet. These beliefs are represented in the tribal shamanism of nomadic hunting cultures and the philosophy of animism from which it derives. They can be discerned in the Vedic scriptures which form the bedrock of Hinduism, in the ancient Bon religion of Tibet and the archaic Wu priesthood of China, as well as in aspects of primitive Shinto belief, strands of which are still evident in modern Japan.
Yet out of this common mould arose philosophies that are peculiar to the eastern mind and its attitude concerning life and death. It is almost inconceivable that a Gautama Buddha, a Lao Tzu, the founder of Chinese Tao ism, a Confucius, or a Hui Neng, the sixth Chinese Patriarch who gave the oriental world the concept of Zen, would have arisen in the western hemisphere.
Most of the philosophies of the east not only claim great antiquity but also exert dynamic influences on modern life. Hinduism and Buddhism are a veritable part of the everyday round of living and dying amongst vast millions in the Indian subcontinent and much of South-East Asia. In Japan and Korea religious observances are an essential prerequisite to many of the activities of the secular world. This was also true in China until such traditions were driven out by the impositions of Communism, but these deep-rooted instincts may yet stage their come back as liberalization proceeds.
One of the keys to the success and remarkable tenacity of the eastern philosophies has been the ability to adapt, to compromise, and to meld comfortably with the beliefs of others. Many of the older faiths, whose appeal was in danger of becoming passé, embraced Buddhism and Confucianism, the great driving forces of missionary zeal in the eastern hemisphere. They achieved this symbiosis unfettered by the restraint that has too often punished Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the great bastions of monotheism.
It is these distinctions, in part, which stimulate us in the west with such a fascination and curiosity about the wisdom of the east, not so much alien as quintessentially exotic.