Modern Eastern Philosophy and the Problem of Body and Mind


For many centuries, the problem of 'Body and Mind' has created a central debate in Western philosophies.

Eastern Philosophies, on the other hand, treated the problem of Body and Mind as related to a more general subject of philosophical consideration: that of 'Life' (because Life is the source of both Body and Mind).

The emergence of new philosophical movements in Eastern studies (1), supported by widely published dialogues between philosophers from East and West (2) helped in clarifying modern eastern perspectives and brought various aspects of the debate to a common understanding.

Two But Non-separate

The relationship between Body and Mind is expressed in current Eastern view by a a concept called

'The Oneness of Body and Mind'.

Perhaps the original expression of this 'Oneness' can shed a better understanding of its meaning, referred to in Japanese as (Shiki-Shin-Fu-Ni). The character for 'Shiki' stands for the material or physical and 'Shin' for the mental, while 'Fu-Ni' means inseparable (literally: Two But Not Two). Here, by the word 'Two', the seemingly two aspects of physical and mental phenomena are distinguishable as such: physical and mental. However, by the following expression 'Not Two'—both aspects are simultaneously identified as inseparable and indivisible.

Dialectical Monism is the common umbrella for this view of inseparability of the physical and mental, and is found in Taoism, Zen, and in Nichiren Buddhism.

To illustrate this perspective of indivisibility of Body and Mind, an extract of a dialogue (2003) between professor Guy Bourgeault, University of Montreal, and Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, gives the following explanation(3)

BOURGEAULT: Now we can study and measure brain function or activity according to ordinary physical and chemical rules. For instance today we use lithium to treat manic-depression by reducing and controlling excessive deviations of anxiety. And this brings us back to manifest continuity—in spite of ruptures—of matter and life, of matter and consciousness.

IKEDA: In the treatment of manic depression you just mentioned, the mind is a unified psychological system. Lithium physically and chemically influences the brain, the ner- vous system and other bodily organs, which comprise a unified physiological system. Physical and chemical changes in the body influence mental state. By the same token, anxiety and worry influence hormone secretion thus affecting physical and chemical conditions such as body temperature. The psychological and physical systems, and the concept of 'Two But Not Two' considers them indivisibly one. A similar relationship exists between the individual and the environment.

From the microcosm to the macrocosm

Nichiren, a philosopher of the 13th century Japan, left an enormous volume of writings, from which the following passage expresses a holistic view of existence:

'Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind and the self and environment of all sentient beings, as well as all insentient beings including plants, sky, earth, and even the minutest particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena'.(4)

This view is not different in essence from the holistic roots of Dialectical Monism, and it holds that the reality of all phenomena constitutes a unified whole. Some attempts were made to unify the Eastern holistic view with the Western dialectical approaches positing 'Universal Dialectic'. James Q (2008) explains that 'In positing a universal dialectic, dialectical monism says something about 'how reality is'. This path, however, invariably suggests the concept of 'The Supreme Ultimate' of reality, and we find that the original problem of individual's Body and Mind - as examined by Western philosophy—is slip- ping away somehow and becoming distant from the focus of the study.

Body, Mind and Environment

In order to focus back on the microcosm: the individual (and subsequently on the essen- tial question of Body and Mind), modern Buddhism suggests using common vocabulary acknowledged by both Eastern and Western philosophies. In fact, in Nichiren's above mentioned passage about interconnectedness of life phenomena, the Individual's (Body and Mind) is viewed as interconnected with the whole of the Environment. 'The Environment' is understood here as our surrounding of both living beings and nature. Following this perspective, the essential question becomes not mere 'body-mind' relationships but 'Body, Mind and the Environment', because neither body nor mind would have existed without their inseparable relationship with the Environment.

The Environment has not occupied a prominent position in the elementary debate about Mind and Body in Western philosophy. Introducing the 'Environment' to the debate about Body and Mind may become more convincing when the word is accepted to cover the integral effect of cultural, social as well as natural surroundings, indivisible in reality from the existence of the Individual:

Like individuals, environments too, differ markedly from each other. Beyond their in- herent differences, they are affected - for good or bad - by human behaviour. At the same time, various environment — natural, psychological, social and cultural — play a formative part in human development [...] the living subject and its environment are indivisibly one.(5)

Is current Philosophy failing humanity by ignoring the Environment?

The historical interaction between philosophy and science developed variety of theories

and arguments which were essential to the benefit of humanity's progress. Philosophy has a major influence—and hence: obligations—in the course how people think and react.

Taking the Body-Mind problem into consideration, a widespread view based on bias to- wards either the material or the mental would produce consequent social and cultural effects which can develop into heated atmosphere and tension. To make the situation worse, we are faced with the indifference of philosophers to the Environment, or with practically denying the interconnectedness of living beings and their environment. There is a serious indication that at a time of grave environmental changes, people's minds are heavily polarised into two camps: one denying man-made causes in environmental destruction, and the other supporting their view on the oneness of people's activities and their consequences in nature.

But if certain effects of environmental changes are man-made, and if active steps can be taken to reduce or evade future risks, then this possibility poses a serious philosophical debate.

The background meaning of 'taking action against current and future environmental de- struction' is that man can decide on own future and can even change what is predicted as a future destiny. There is a hidden clash here with some philosophical views about man's limitations and inability to take command to change the course of the future. Does 'free- dom of choice' and individual's 'freewill debate' in the philosophy of mind ring a bell here?

The concept of 'Oneness of Individual, Society and Environment' is found as being an essential teaching perhaps in all indigenous beliefs. This leaves Western philosophy heavily polarised in ignoring focus on the social and natural environment as an important 'living sphere'. To illustrate how serious of the problem of the Environment is becoming alarm- ing, scientists who advocate the interconnectedness of man made causes and environmental consequences are targeted not only with harassment, but with death threats.  In such a tragic situation, dividing humanity, we find - astonishingly enough—that philosophy of mind generously spends time and resources on studying conceivability of imaginary environments where the laws supporting our lives do not apply, or on creatures such as mythological zombies.

The Oneness of 'Body-Mind-Environment' eliminating pZombies

The concept of inseparability of Body-Mind-Environment imposes a strict condition on 'Conceivability and Possibility' in the philosophy of mind. Any suggestion of a concept which violates the natural laws operating within the Environment (laws which are extend- ed also to the Body) makes the suggestion simply an unacceptable waste of time.

The proposition of p-zombies can be easily demolished through the principle of 'Natural Selection'. The simple and elegant observation made by Charles Darwin about variations among populations of an organism allows for a situation in which certain mutations could occur in some individuals or a group, turning them into consciousness-less being, p-zombies, but with human bodies as ours. However, survival follows strict laws: the environment (in which both zombies and human live) sets conditions on the possibility of reproduction.

The effect of disease: Organisms cannot survive without a sufficiently strong immune system to overcome diseases, bacteria and viruses, being constantly active within a web of all competing organisms. The external danger of viral diseases can be extended in this consideration to animals attacks, when the feeling of fear (lacking in zombies) can aid humans in avoiding death. Environmental challenges and naturally propagating diseases would affect both organisms of human and the zombie. Without feeling the symptoms and pain, zombies have no consciousness on their inwardly decaying body, while humans use the signal of pain, fever, and other bodily changes to act and search for a solution within a society based on transfer of knowledge and compassion, a feeling also lacking in zombies.

The effect on internal malfunction: Additionally, human organisms have a natural tendency for deviation from nominal function. Experiencing malfunction of internal organs (such as kidney failure, liver cancer ...etc) would be subjected to both humans and zom- bies. Consciousness of pain, and the feeling of care and compassion would—again— prompt humans to react and collectively struggle for survival. For philosophical zombies, it is not just the matter of 'pretending that they feel pain when they don't', because cancer spreading in their organisms for example, would terminate them without their knowledge or consciousness. Zombies, lacking the qualia of pain and feeling of danger or desire for self preservation will be—according to Natural Selection—wiped out. Before getting to the age of reproduction, a zombie-model of organism, lacking consciousness and feelings, would inwardly collapse or get destroyed by a non-compromising process of survival in the natural world.

An example how the principle of the 'Body-Mind-Environment' can act as an 'Ockham Razor' in philosophy of mind is its eliminating of hypothetical imagination such as expressed in the following:

For example, it seems conceivable that an object could travel faster than a billion me- ters per second. This hypothesis is physically and naturally impossible, because it contradicts the laws of physics and the laws of nature. This case may be metaphysically possible, however [...] it seems that God could have created a world in which an object traveled faster than a billion meters a second. So, in this case, although conceivability does not mirror natural possibility, it may well mirror metaphysical possibility. (David Chalmers (6))

Discarding our real environment and inventing unrealistic structure of zombies does not serve investigation into the reality of global threats humanity is facing, including environmental destruction caused by deluded philosophical concepts of separation of Body-Mind-Environment (and which are currently widespread in society). The size of articles and debate about imaginary p-zombies is one example of how current philosophy is failing humanity.

The Oneness of 'Body-Mind-Environment' and Physicalism

The surrounding 'Environment', from which the Individual is inseparable, includes all phenomena of nature. It is clear that the same physical laws, which govern one's body, such as gravity, fluid mechanics, chemical reactions ... etc ... are essentially functioning in the Environment at large. The fact that the same physical laws are invariably shared be- tween the individual's 'body' and the 'natural world'—brings Eastern views (on the One- ness of Body-Mind-Environment) close to Physicalism. However, this narrow agreement quickly disappears, because Eastern philosophies reject reductionism of mental states to mere physical origination.

Physicalism accepts that the physical can affect the mental (alcohol, mood altering plants...etc) but sets an arbitrary one way direction to this interaction, denying the possibility of mental state affecting the physical realm. Mental states (including emotions, desires, instincts, volition) are features of physically living 'living organisms', and these mental features are shared in general between various manifestations of life. As far as physicalism cannot give a definition of what Life is, physicalists suggestion that mental states of life do not affect the physical environment—and which is the very fertile ground for life itself—such a suggestion is invalid.

Mental states, such as anger, sadness, depression, joy, anxiety ... etc ... are causes which directly activate the brain into producing relevant chemicals:

The human body is like a compact but highly diversified pharmaceutical plant. The endocrine glands secrete all kinds of hormones, while endorphins in the brain act as natural painkillers. The body produces white blood cells that combat disease—causing bacteria and enzymes that affect chemical reactions.(7)

The two way interaction of mental and physical is essential in Eastern view; as stated before: 'Physical and chemical changes in the body influence mental state. By the same token, anxiety and worry influence hormone secretion thus affecting physical and chemical conditions such as body temperature. The psychological and physical systems, and the concept of 'Two But Not Two' considers them indivisibly one. A similar relationship exists between the individual and the environment'.


Modern philosophical views on the problem of Body and Mind, necessitate the acknowledgement of the inseparability of Body-Mind-Environment, integrating thus the individual's physical and mental aspects with their root of existence, being the environmental aspect of society and nature.


1/  Examples: 'The Institute of Oriental Philosophy:', Boston Research Center for the 21 Century

2/  Various published dialogues, such as: The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: ISBN: 0870115154, On Being Human, Simard Ikeda Bourgeault, ISBN:097232675 and others.

3/  On Being Human, Simard Ikeda Bourgeault, pp.164/165

4/  The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, pp.3, Soka Gakkai 1999 Shinanomachi Tokyo 160 - 8583 Japan

5/   Human Rights in the Twenty First Century, pp.76 Athayde-Ikeda dialogue, 2009 ISBN 9781845119881

6/   Conceivability and Possibility Oxford University Press 2002. pp145.

7/ On Being Human, Simard Ikeda Bourgeault, pp.20