There have been numerous dichotomies made between the East and the West, and numerous things focused on such as the belief in Heaven versus reincarnation. However, once noticed, it becomes strikingly clear that a major distinction in the two traditions (though there are many traditions of spirituality stemming from the East, while the main tradition remaining originating in the “western world” is that of Abrahamic origin) is in their focus.
Eastern philosophies are in many ways crude forms of science, similar to the Greek Atomists and Platonists who wished to understand and define that which surrounded them, they also have ethics that are by-en-large humanistic and don’t revolve worship of a personal deity (though there are borderline cases and exceptions of course). Its main focus is knowledge and compassion. I’d like to combine the two together and say the primary motive of Eastern philosophy is liberation. From bodily pains, desire and from ignorance – this is particularly the case with Buddhism but it is also applicable to Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism in varying ways.
Abrahamic texts and their faiths are primarily egotistical and self-centered however. Their focus is primarily on individual escape from death; worship and obedience of a deity who can grant said desire. It is not fundamentally based on either the desire to gain knowledge or on the collective dissolution of suffering. Therefore while Eastern religions (or philosophies depending on definition and form of belief and practice) focus on liberation Western religions focus on salvation – not only salvation of consciousness, but the focus on and “salvation” in this life and the next of the very Ego that Eastern faiths wish to liberate us from and an appreciation of modern science I argue would naturally decintegrate. The very symbol of Christianity – the cross – is a symbol promising eternal life to those who are loyal to the faith. Therefore, along with the main focus Christians by-en-large tend to have, the focus of Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths is not to an ethical system, but salvation of the self or a particular group. This is seen quite clearly in Christianity and Islam, but also in Judaism. Judaism focuses on a contract made with God between him and the Hebrew people to maintain their longevity as a race and their prosperity, therefore it is innately self-centered.
One could argue all religions and social philosophies are self-centered because they deal with human beings and how they should live as to live prosperously. However, there is a fundamental difference between the Egotistical desire to “live well” or “live forever” being the fundamental focus of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the social focus of the Eastern faiths. With the latter, there is a tendancy to focus on Negative Utility (particularly Buddhism) to improve society and increase utility – so though it is “humanistic” in that if focuses on humans, it is not Egoist in the sense if focuses on the Self – in fact Buddhism in particular preaches that the Self is an illusion of our constitution, and we are (subjectively) nothing more than a continuation of experiences grouped together by a continuing consciousness.
This also is the primary distinction ‘tween Utilitarianism and Hedonism. Hedonism is the focus on pleasure of the self, while Utilitarianism is the belief one must calculate and act soberly (most of the time) to increase communal prosperity and for all sentient beings or creatures who can feel pain depending on the variation. It rejects the Ego, while Christianity and the rest of the Western faiths embrace it through the fantasy of eternal life and favoritism with God in the case of the Jewish people. Eastern philosophies and Utilitarianism also share a common bond of care for animals, deeming them to be equals with humans because they too can suffer. While Abrahamic faiths function as the ultimate justification for barbarism and delusions, including of course use of animals (though as a Utilitarian I believe that consumption of animal flesh is ethical as long as the animal was treated well) for Adam was given stewardship over the Garden.
The eastern faiths primary concern is to view beings through their capacity to suffer and liberate them of said suffering. The western faiths view of human beings is their potential and nature to sin and their aim is to eradicate sin to appease God. By appeasing God they serve their ultimate purpose and ascend into Heaven. Whether appeasing God or eternal salvation is their ultimate motivation psychologically is debatable and I would argue depends upton the individual. However, what is not debatable is that the main concern of the Christian (and Muslim and Jew) is not universal prosperity and justice on Earth.
There is also another fundamental distinction in the faiths. While Christianity, Islam and Judaism are more-or-less “optimistic” (that is they preach either eternal salvation or a just and prosperous life lived through obedience to God’s commandments and the world being made by a all-good and knowing creator.) the Eastern faiths have a tendency to be sober, morbid (once again with some variability) and pessimistic depicting reality as a fundamentally flawed thing (even making ambiguous claims that existence is “nothingness” or a void as Buddhism claims, though once again the statements meaning is debatable) that has beings whose primary trait is suffering. Suffering is inevitable and without purpose or redeeming quality much of time, and the Easterners claim the only escape from it is a combination of meditation and moral acts. Though this too could be deemed a type of Egotism, when one analyzes the Eastern texts it becomes clear the main motivation is not the end of one’s own suffering, but the end of all suffering. The Buddhists call to serenity is to wish tranquility to all sentient beings. It is to eradicate the Self or Ego, not to appease it as it is with the western faith. In this sense Christianity works very-well with Capitalism, though followers of Christ say (or once did) they are against the riches of this Earth – yes, they are not interested, or so they say, in this Earth’s riches, but they are interested in riches or reward of a higher, supposedly eternal nature.
While the Western faiths focus on worship of a single God, the Eastern faiths focus on practice of a “way” or “path.” This is seen in particular with Confucianism and Taoism but also with Hinduism and Buddhism. Though there are gods in some variances of Hinduism, obedience to them is not the primary concern of the faith. It is to escape ignorance (achieve liberation) and go on one’s individualized spiritual path. One of the reason why (though I could be wrong about this) there are so many gods in Hinduism is that they incorporated the gods of all surrounding faiths, while the single “unifying” or “ultimate” god some Hindus worship is the Brahman or the Ishma. However, worship to their gods perhaps could be deemed closer to the Greeks’ worship as ritual and giving thanks for life’s gifts. Rather than being deemed the ultimate purpose their lives have as seen in the Christian and Muslim faiths.
That is not to say that the Eastern faiths are without fault. Many of them are immaterialist in nature and give no scientific and reliable way to overcome the fundamental social problems of this world that only the materialist and scientific method can. They can however give very good counsel on the subjective side of human existence. They also have numerous awful particular creeds or statements as the Western faiths do, however, the focus here was in wider views of existence and purpose in this essay, not particular statements on birth control or vegetarianism for example. In conclusion, while the Western faiths compel the more desperate and unstable parts of the human psychology, despite their flaws, the majority of elements in the majority of the eastern faiths (the exception perhaps being some trends in Hinduism) focus on the psychology of selflessness, compassion, materialism, unity and attached to the values of general empiricism, skepticism – seen in not regarding their faiths as “holy” or “sacred” (another major distinction ‘tween the two hemispheres I almost forgot to mention) – and social utility they still provide wisdom to our everyday lives.