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Shower of light on Eastern philosophy


LIGHT FROM THE EAST: A Gathering of Asian Wisdom, by Frank MacHovec. Stone Bridge Press, 175 pp., 2005, $16.95 (paper).

The notes to this book tell us that author Frank MacHovec is a retired psychologist who began his study of Eastern philosophies as a Marine during the Korean War, one who wanted to understand the mind of the enemy.

If MacHovec understands the value of Eastern ideas after over five decades in their company, it is from a realist perspective.

Accordingly, there are no levitating sadhus, silver spaceships, spells, or doors to the fourth dimension here, though you will find the book a kind of navigational chart that will help you trace concepts and practices back to their sources in the East.

The author seems to imply that mastery of the self — the realization of a “state in which the external world no longer has dominion” — seldom comes in an unaided flash.

A method, practice or deliberate cultivation of mind is generally required. The book balances a digest of such ideas and practices like yogic meditation, siddhi and feng shui, with profiles of Eastern religions and modern organizations like Falun Gong. Some texts, such as the “Tao Teh Ching” and the 64 Hexagrams from the “I Ching,” are reproduced in their entirety.

Some remedial work on our patchy knowledge of the East is clearly long overdue. Somehow its teachings have become muddled; instead of illuminating us, their profuseness and the random manner of their requisitioning by the West have only addled us. We suspect there are threads connecting ideas and practices, but lacking the time or insight to connect the dots, we remain disabled in the abstract.

“Light from the East” offers us the chance to do a touch of caretaking, to organize all these fuzzy ideas, to see how the pieces fit together. In extracts from the “Tao Teh Ching,” for example, we see without being told, how Tao laid the groundwork for Zen.

In one sutra called “Less Is More,” we hear the words “Strong attachments and great wealth risk loss.” Tao confronts excess with moderation, and a master is able to pronounce with utter confidence that “To value only beauty is in itself a kind of ugliness,” or that “The world belongs to those who know how to let go of it.”

Eminently quotable texts like this, of course, are in danger of being anthologized into collections of aphorisms for every occasion, or worse still, more slim volumes to place in the corporate library beside titles like “The Art of War” or “Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings.”

MacHovec, in fact, ventures to suggest that the “I Ching” may be “the world’s oldest human relations manual.” Such titles are precursors of the teeming self-help titles we see on the shelves in every bookstore.

The gentle virtues of Taoism may seem as remote from present-day China as the Saxon verses of Cedric the Rueful are from urban Britain, but there is a place in modern life for ancient ways of thinking from the East, though it is one that, as the author asserts, should complement, “not supplant, psychotherapy.”

Interestingly, MacHovec contends that it is the West that is more social and group-oriented in its spiritual practices, “using shared experiences such as hymn singing, praying, rituals” and listening to edifying sermons on moral behavior.

The East, meanwhile, is more individualistic, focusing on meditation and improving concentration to promote the ethical ideal of character.

Mercifully, MacHovec’s erudition doesn’t crush the joy out of reading his text. Carefully transcending the tangled world of scholarship, the author, in the time-honored way of the East, tells us its stories and lets us draw our own conclusions.

MacHovec returns us to a time before religious sects, castes and dissenting orders appropriated ideas to promote their own agendas. Here are concepts blessedly free from dogma or intolerance. MacHovec quotes the words the Buddha asked his followers to say when they went out to teach the dharma: “This is what we believe. Whether or not you accept it, peace be with you.”

Enjoy this distillate from the East, this gathering of Asian wisdom. Refresh yourself at its spiritual wellsprings.