Impressions Of East Asia: Spirituality And Science

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL
(Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 171-2.
I'm writing this on the airplane going home from Japan after the second meeting of the 3 year bioethics project, with Darryl and Jayapaul, supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education grant. I left Israel with a sore throat and fever; and conflicting advice from two doctors. One gave me antibiotics just in case of bacterial infection but said it was probably just a virus and told me not to worry and enjoy the trip. The other urged caution and suggested I postpone the trip. This is an example of how we really have to make our own health decisions, and believing that illness is most dangerous when we take it too seriously I decided to fly as planned.

Now I'm mostly glad for my decision, but worried that maybe I brought an Israeli flu to Japan. But perhaps my fever affected my frame of mind in Bangkok, where I spent a day on my way to Japan, because my impressions of Bangkok were not too favourable: crowded, noisy, polluted by the mad rush to post-modernity which has swept the world. I saw people wearing gauze mouth-and-nose masks. This is done in Japan by people with colds who don't want to infect others. But my Thai guide, Taun, (very cheap and worthwhile) told me it was done in Bangkok to protect oneself from air pollution.

At day's end I saw vast numbers of women buying prepared meals to take home to their families. Taun told me that they have to travel a long way home after a day's work in the city and have no time or energy to cook. In Asia's rush to post-modernity I sense a repetition of the dehumanization of life, of Europe's "industrial revolution" of two to three hundred years ago. I am reminded of Blake's poetic lines: "I walked down the chartered streets, down where the chartered Thames doth flow. A mark on every face I see, marks of weakness, marks of woe". Or Wordsworth's lines: "The world is too much with us. Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

Of course I'm not saying that poverty is good either. But we don't have to go to the other extreme. A few years ago I was making very little money. My family was very poor, at least by Israeli standards. We went for 2-1/2 months without electricity. We even did the laundry by all members taking turns dancing in a child's bathtub filled with water, laundry and soap powder. The children did homework by candlelight. But now they remember those days saying they were the best days of their lives.

The romantic poets mourned the spirituality which industrialization destroyed. I have been told that there is great spirituality in Thailand. But unfortunately I have not had the time to seek it. But I've seen a little more of Japan now. And in Japan I feel that the high-tech post-modernity and the super formality are only a surface veneer hiding - as at home in Israel - a deep spirituality. In Kyoto, hosted by Masahiro, we discussed Judaism and Buddhism in the beautiful Nichibunken International Institute of Japanese Studies, which has the most ideal conditions for research I have yet seen: high on a hillside, pleasant gardens, an extensive library in Japanese and English and quiet! (In Israel quiet libraries are rare). And in the city of Kyoto itself you can walk among the crassest post-modern materialism - shops selling high-tech junk, computer game parlors and discotheques - and suddenly be surprised by the joy of leafy green spots and ancient Shinto shrines.

I was most pleasantly surprised by Tsukuba, however. When I was there last time, 3 years ago, I got the mistaken impression that Tsukuba Science city was cold, dry, highly technological but spiritually a desert like Beer Sheva where I work. But I was very wrong. I live in a very spiritual place, Kiriat Arba, Hebron, where the Biblical fathers and mothers - Avraham, Sara, Yitshak, Rivka, Yaakov, Leah - are buried. We also believe that Adam and Hava (Eve) are also there and that Hebron is the gate to the spiritual Garden of Eden. Only we who live there - Jews and Muslims alike - can sense and perhaps partially understand the spiritual force (Kl?) which belongs to the top of Mount Hebron, and which keeps us there in spite of our difficulties.

I thought our spiritual Japanese Sister City would be Kyoto and certainly not Tsukuba. But as I said I was wrong about Tsukuba, where I found deep spiritual sensitivity, especially in the Biology and the Medical faculties. Although many people give secular, historical and legal reasons for the Japanese refusal to allow major organ transplants, Professor S. Shoji, a neurologist, talked at the Tsukuba Bioethics Roundtable about spiritual beliefs - having to do with the restlessness of souls whose bodies were mutilated - underlying the reluctance of Japanese families to allow organ donation from brain-dead relatives. Although we may agree or disagree with people's beliefs we first must understand what they believe, so Professor Shoji's talk was extremely important.

There is a myth which says that science and religion have to be opposed to one another. In my humble personal experience this myth, at home in Israel at any rate, seems to be most common in Liberal Arts faculties, especially among philosophers who have not studied either science or religion and who feel threatened by any discussion of anything which they have not studied. I don't mind if people are atheists: indeed I respect any opinion which people arrive at after sincere deep enquiry and study. But in Israel we have many philosophers who are against the Jewish religion but who don't even know what they think they are against because they have never studied the difficult language and logic of the Talmud, nor do they even know how to read the special typeface ("Rashi") in which thousands of religious books are printed. I still have not managed to understand how one can be against something which one doesn't even know how to read. But perhaps someday one of my Israeli philosophical colleagues will be kind enough to explain this point of epistemology. Philosophers even have a dogma which says that biology cannot explain human thought and actions. One of the famous teachers of this dogma was the Oxford philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, who taught that science and human action belong to two different "levels of discourse" which we are supposedly forbidden to mix. But this dogma was never proved. I think it's just an excuse for not studying science just as philosophers have other excuses for not studying religion. (On the other hand, there are philosophers today who are seriously contributing to the development of concepts in neurobiology. See the leading article in Nature 381 (1996), 97.)

I got the impression that many Japanese intellectuals also lack knowledge of their spiritual tradition. But as I said people in biology and medicine are often genuinely interested in trying to understand the more mysterious meaning of their science. This is one reason why I think the bioethics of the future will come from biologists, physicians and nurses and not so much from philosophers even though I myself am unfortunately limited intellectually by three degrees in Western philosophy.

I am flying home on ANA (All Nippon Airline) by way of London where I will change planes for Israel. I notice we take a detour leaving Japan, avoiding North Korea. El Al, the Israeli airline has to avoid flying over many Muslim countries. Conflict is part of life, and I was happy to find that a number of people in Japan agreed with me that although it is tempting to stick to Bioethics at Leisure, in pleasant academic environments, we must also pursue Bioethics in Crisis, learning how to be ethical in emergency medicine, disaster relief and in conflict - sometimes violent - between peoples. These things are threatening so it is tempting to try to avoid facing them in the same way as many philosophers are threatened and try to avoid facing science and religion. But I think we have to overcome our fears if we want to do real bioethics.

The issue of "Asian ethics", which has often been discussed in these pages, comes up again in this issue, in numerous papers from the Roundtable. I think that to put things in perspective we have to remember that we have to some extent been developing a negative reaction and attempt to defend ourselves from Western, especially American cultural imperialism. American economic and military might, together with the power of television and the conceptual scheme inherent in the English language, whose internationalization was also partially due to the British Empire, have made ideas of Western Ethics familiar all over the world. Among these are many ideas which pass as "ethics" but are really economics. An example is the "Living Will" and other legal and conceptual tricks for terminating treatment for geriatric patients; a good way to save money for health insurance systems and call it "ethics". The reaction against such Western ideas comes from healthy sources and should be explored sympathetically. What is good in the Asian Ethics movement is the attempt at such an exploration.

Atsushi Asai's paper in this issue is in my opinion a clear and important statement of questions which Japanese medical ethics is currently facing. I think it is obvious that while the Japanese are very sophisticated about Western bioethics, they will work out their own solutions in their own ways. Isn't this what is meant by "Asian Ethics"?


Go back to EJAIB November 1996
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet:
http://eubios.info/index.html