I was a military dependent for part of my youth. Half-way through my eighth grade year, the Air Force sent my family to Japan where I finished middle school and spent my first year in high school. Prior to that, I'd lived exclusively in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas but for a brief six-month "tour" in California (sixth grade). Though a small change, I savored it, and it prepared me for a wider world beyond those narrow experiences -- for living in the Far East.
I was quickly captivated by Oriental culture, though how and why it would later prove to be such a defining experience for me, I was too young to know. It's been over forty years now, and I can't imagine how Japan has changed in the meantime. But, I can tell you that the first thing that struck me then was the profound social courtesy, the humility, of the Japanese people to neighbor and stranger alike.
They made me feel like an honored guest, and I did my best to live up to the kindness and grace they bestowed on me always -- even at the age of fourteen. I can't recall any rudeness from any Japanese in the year and a half I spent there, and I had many personal experiences with them. They made me feel valued -- even important, as superficial as that may sound from the social perspective here.
Because of those feelings, I had an immense respect for their culture. They offered me respect in ways I'd never known. It wasn't always personal, but when it was, it was even more gracious. At least, it felt that way having been raised in a southern United States where many are suspicious and afraid of strangers far beyond any professed tolerance. The Japanese, like anyone else, share that quality to a degree, though you would never have known it on the surface.
Beneath the facade of my own upbringing, I intuited a thinking so exotic, it somehow managed to seize my inmost being. Little did I know then, it was one of those synchronistic "accidents" in life that provides a gradient for a more individual interpretation of the human spirit. I've probably idealized it, though you may understand why...
I was fortunate enough to have been befriended by a half-Korean schoolmate who spoke fluent Japanese, having lived in Japan for some years. Since he grew up a native Korean, he gave me a unique perspective, not only on Japanese culture but on the Oriental mind.
It was one which considered life in the strangest ways compared to the Western viewpoint. As a "half-breed" he was deeply affected by the fear and prejudice of being different both in Korea and Japan, and he shared those realities which stereotype all who are forced to confront their own differences in cultures of whatever majority persuasion. Skin color and ideas of "racial purity" are a trigger for the projected fear of the unconscious all over the world, even within dark-skinned cultures who've fallen prey to the blacker influences of Western insecurities.
I remember that what confused me so about Oriental thinking (and also attracted me to it) was my friend's curious perception of opposites. Logical paradoxes seemed so fluid as not to bother him in the least. It was a very peculiar mind-set to me then, having been raised among Baptists and Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Historically, in the West, we call that tolerance, though to paraphrase Goethe, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and his American ideal of religious freedom: "They're fighting, so they say, for freedom's rights./More closely scanned, its slave with slave who fights."
In any event, my experiences there gave me many things to think about as I matured, not the least of which was the persistence of intuitions and feelings that would take decades to elaborate. The dark, unconscious influences I ingested from Japanese culture grew clearer when I later became acquainted with Jung's psychology.
One of his basic concepts which especially captured my interest concerned religion as a compensation for the conscious life of a society. He wrote about the individual nature of what we call Eastern philosophy and its relation to a culture which developed more collectively than our conventional notions of ourselves in the West.
Conversely, our more surface individualism is compensated by an equally collective religious tradition. Strange as it may seem from a superficial view, those disparities describe the unconscious animal tendencies in all who think of themselves as civilized human beings.
So different is the history of Oriental thought from ours that generations of clergymen and philosophers have struggled to define their concepts. Volumes have been written attempting to translate their ideas of God or Tao or The Way into understandable terms -- one of the reasons we often refer to them more as philosophical than religious. They just don't concur with our notions of what religion is. It's no wonder.
Joseph Campbell once stated that Christianity is based on a recognition of the opposites, while Oriental philosophy is based on knowledge of them. Jung has described the introverted nature of Eastern thought as against our more extraverted thinking in the West. Something about living on opposite sides of the planet (both physically and mentally) has compelled nature to balance us as a whole, even as she balances each of its inhabitants.
But, as Jung stated, the idea is not to conform to foreign philosophies ill-suited to our own development. For better or worse, we've been assigned the task of confronting the opposites in terms of our own inheritance. We can learn from Oriental philosophy, but knowledge of the opposites consists in understanding our religious history from an inner perspective. As Eastern philosophy proves, that's where the knowledge of them lies.
Today, the apple of Western wealth and technology is dangled before the Oriental mind, and just as Jung warned of the schizophrenic character of adopting foreign philosophies, it represents a dangerous split from their own heritage -- even as it increases ours. He's shown how unconscious compensations, where the opposites meet, create a tangled knot of misunderstanding and aggression for all who remain unaware of them.
The barely concealed greed, the insatiable hunger for material wealth, the co-opting of science for those ends, optimistically (and ignorantly) referred to today as global cooperation, will be a dangerous thing in the tangled knots of declining spiritual values in both West and East. Greed can simulate tolerance -- it's called diplomacy, salesmanship, expanding markets, and a thousand other euphemisms describing our misunderstanding of how our minds work beneath conscious desires.
When the East achieves equality with the Western ideal of wealth and technology (still under the guise of our Christian one-sideness, unconscious fear and insecurity), all will be thrown back on themselves to consider what it means in terms of human history. What will the centuries of religious compensations have produced then? Global regression?
Goethe, the pagan poet of the West, echoes the strange modern predicament describing even Eastern priorities: "To what the mind most gloriously conceives/An alien, more alien substance cleaves."