What Can Indian Or Eastern Thinking Do For Us?


Thursday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen, a Chinese Zen master (known as Jōshū in Japanese), “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Zhaozhou answered, “Wú” (in Japanese, Mu) – Aitken, Robert, ed. and trans. (1991). The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan).

When I was young my grandmother would tell me stories. We’d sit in the darkness and I would hear takes of gods and demons, of warriors and families. Stories that I barely remember now, but that once were all around me.

We grow up and learn different stories – ones that involve maths and English and we start to read Western literature because that’s what is in libraries and bookshops. And it’s good reading and fun and well written and we leave the myths and legends and the old stuff behind as something that’s no longer relevant to the way we live now.

Is that a mistake?

I was reminded that there are other ways of thinking when I saw a paper by Francis Laleman, Vijay Pereira & Ashish Malik titled Understanding cultural singularities of ‘Indianness’ in an intercultural business setting shared on social media. In this paper we’re introduced to the concept of tetralemmic logical operators. But what are those?

Western thinking is highly influenced by Greek logic, in particular bipolar logic structures that go back to Aristotle. A Problem Structuring Method in Operations Research called Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) explicitly uses bipolar operators to think about choices. A bipolar approach is about two extremes, about Yes and No, This or That, Black or White A or B. Choices that are one or the other.

A tetralemmic or quarternary division is a little weird because it has four options. I see this as Yes, No, both Yes and No, and neither Yes nor No. Confusing? Not if you think about any conversation in real life where one person says yes but you know they really mean no or if they say no but you know they’re trying to get to yes. Real life is full of situations that are non-binary. Laleman et al’s paper suggests that “Indianness seems to indicate a natural preference for logical arguments” of the form seen above – very different to traditional Western thinking. So is that helpful?

The quote that starts this post is a famous Zen koan – a question that makes you think. Where did it come from?

There is a story from the Mahabharata, the old Indian epic, about five brothers and a war between family. One of the brothers, Yudhishtira, always spoke the truth but one occasion, to win the war, he said an untruth. The brothers won the war, lived long lives and when they died took a path to heaven.

They walked up a mountain, a steep pathway, the five brothers and a dog. The other four brothers slipped and fell as the path wound its way higher and higher until only Yudhishtira and the dog were left. He reached the top but had to go through a cave and there he saw his brothers in hell, being tormented and punished. He went through the cave, accompanied by the dog, and came out the other end and then ascended to heaven. He reached heaven and saw the vanquished members of his family, the ones who had caused him harm and stolen their kingdom – happy in heaven – while his brothers were in hell.

This story is from memory, from the fragments of narrative from my grandmother and from story books, perhaps mixed up in my mind, and you be asking yourself now, what is the point? What is the punchline? What’s the moral of the story?

Well, for starters, the dog goes to heaven.

But does it have Buddha nature – a soul? Yes – because it’s in heaven – and No – because it’s a dog.

But what this story also gives you is an insight into a world that is not bipolar. In this world, it’s not just that the good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell and that’s the end of that forever and ever.

It’s that even the really good people, the ones who tell just one lie in their lives, pass through hell, even for a moment, because of the bad they have done. And the ones that have done really bad things, the greedy and the vindictive, get to heaven after serving their time. The other brothers eventually make it to heaven and everyone is reunited. So it’s not about heaven or hell, but heaven and hell and we all experience a bit of both.

So this got me wondering – what else is there that I’ve missed by looking at a purely Western approach to my area of interest – the art of making better decisions. Laleman et al’s paper points to a few more concepts such as that of Karma Yoga or right action – something that perhaps explains why I am interested in this subject although I had never considered it before. So is there value in looking at my research area through this “other” lens, is there value in Indian or Eastern approaches to thinking about areas long dominated by prevailing systems of thought?

How would one go about doing this?

Well, in a collection of essays called Rethink : leading voices on life after crisis and how we can make a better world edited by Amol Rajan, the Dalai Lama writes about how he’d quite like to bring this kind of thinking into focus. So if he thinks it’s worth doing… maybe it is.

Let me think about that some more.


Karthik Suresh

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