Asian Identity and Asian Cultures

Paulos Mar Gregorios

Culture: Internal and External 

Culture is an extremely nebulous term. For the sake of clarity, we will begin with a distinction between internal culture and external culture, or personal culture and culture as a human social artifact. The two are related to each other. 

Internal or personal culture is a structuring of the intellect, a shaping of the mind and will, a development of tastes and sensitivity, a cultivation of attitudes resulting in an altered type of behaviour experiencing and interpretation of experiencing. We speak of someone as a cultured man, meaning that he is learned and cultivated, has acquired refinement of taste and sharper sensitivities, and has adequate restraint and self-control to make his behaviour noble. 

External Culture on the other hand is humanity's way of structuring reality, both social and natural, a way of dealing with each other and with strangers, a network of structured relations and unwritten rules of behaviour, rites and forms of worship, art, music, literature, dance, drama, handicrafts, architecture, dress, customs and manners, and the like. It refers to social conduct, human relations, and the totality of modifications wrought by human action on the inherited environment.  

External culture is shaped by internal culture and vice versa. One receives its vitality and dynamic quality from the other and is in close symbolic and creative interaction with each other. External culture creates new needs, activities and expectations in internal culture and vice versa. 

I am Indebted to Prof. Venant Cauchy of Montreal University's Department of philosophy for the distinction and the relation between internal and external culture.  

The Five Levels of Culture 

But culture is a question that goes deeper-- to issues of meaning, identity, and self-understanding.  

Our identity as Koreans, Japanese, Chinese Indians, Sri Lankans etc. has many levels-- only a few of which we are consciously aware of. Our conscious awareness is only a small segment of our self-awareness. I suggest that there are at least five levels of this self which we can identify. 

1.     I am aware that I am Paulos Gregorios, a particular individual with a personal ancestry, personal history, a projected personal image, a particular kind of experience and training. That is the most obvious of my identity level-- my conscious awareness  

2.     There is a second level-- my personal unconscious. Into this level has gone all that I have done, said and experienced, particularly those elements which I do not retain in my conscious awareness, but comes up in dreams, affects my behavior, determines my allergies and inhibitions, my affinities and interests. Much of it is related to my birth trauma and Infancy experience.

3.     Then there is the racial unconscious, within which there are the specific experiences of my ancestors as a tribe or as a nation, as well as the things that are at a deeper level, derived from the experience of the human race as it emerges from its animal past and goes through the twilight of human consciousness. This third level is what Jung called the collective unconscious or the racial memory. This level is a much more powerful factor in our identity than we are often willing to concede.

4.     Even below this third level of the collective unconscious is the level that some call the Psychoid material or the level at which we have an integral relation to and participate in the history of the whole created order—animal, plant, and inorganic. Eastern Christian fathers like Gregory of Nyssa claim that a human person incorporates within oneself the organic and the inorganic; the animal, the vegetable, and the material. The human mind in its deeper level remembers our unity with all the three worlds of creation—animal, plant, and matter. This unconscious awareness is in our brain and in our flesh. But to ignore it and reduce awareness to mere conscious awareness has been part of the cause of the ecological catastrophe.

5.     At the deepest level, the human body-mind is aware of the source of its origin. What emerges in religion is this deepest level of awareness. The 'primitive' human consciousness was more immediately aware of this than the modern ‘rational' mind which concentrates on conscious awareness. Some western thinkers, both Marxist and Western liberal, have sought to find the origin of religion in some intellectual or emotional activity of early man--like the fear of the elements. Religious awareness has been a most powerful factor in the development of the human species, precisely because its roots were not in thought or feeling, but in something deeper-- the "body meaning", the deepest level of awareness. Awareness of the Divine as the source of our being did not come through a process of rationalization, but comes from the most ancient part of our brain which retains the most deeply held memories of our species.  

Regaining the Lost Foundation of Culture 

We are aware that we come from the Divine and that we need to find that foundation again. This deepest awareness can be denied and negated by conscious awareness. That is what has in fact happened as a result of the Enlightenment. In Buddhism and Taoism, the conscious analysis may ignore any discussion of God. But Pratitya-samutpada doctrine in Madhyamika Buddhism clearly states that the theory of conditioned interdependent co-origination of the world refers only to our present experience and not to the actual origin of all beings. In other words, Buddhism doesn't deny the divine origin of all existence. And in Taoism, both Tao as well as YinYang are divine names similar to Father and Son in Christianity or To on and Logos in Greek pagan Philosophy.  

The point in speaking about these five levels is to say that culture is not a product of only the conscious awareness of the individual, but rather a product of the five levels of the human mind. Asian cultures are especially expressive of these five levels and this is not the time to go into much greater detail on the nature of culture. It has to be affirmed, however, that if the liberation of the Asian mind from its captivity to the European Enlightenment is to become a fact, we will have to deal with more than merely the rational criteria of conscious awareness, but will have to evolve ways of giving expression to our Christian faith in terms of all the five levels of our Asian awareness.