The Balance of Spiritual Combat – China’s Cultural Challenge to the West in the 21st Century

© Terry Boardman   This essay appeared as an article in “New View” magazine Winter 2005/6



The Crucible of the 13th Century

Many have recognised the great debt owed by western natural science to the spiritual stream of what has been called Islam, but which in fact is far broader than that of just the 7th century Arab conquerors of the Middle East, since it includes the fruits of the much more sophisticated and long-developed cultures of the region – Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia. To a very large degree, western natural science is the product of this Middle Eastern culture – the offspring of the intercourse between Christian Crusaders and Muslim Holy Warriors in a martial age. When peoples fight, there is enmity, hatred, and rejection, but there can also be respect, mutual learning, and even love between individuals in the groups involved. Like teenagers getting to know each other, they ‘bounce off’ each other, sometimes literally, aggressively. Self-knowledge can result from such struggles with ‘the other’, until, like Parzival and his Eastern opponent Feirifis in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s great epic, one realises that the other is actually part of oneself, one’s own brother in fact.

In addition to the physical wars waged by the Crusaders against ‘the infidel’ during the 200 years of the period of the Crusades, there were also spiritual battles fought by the intellectual defenders of Christendom. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and the Scholastics felt that they had to refute – in the strongest possible terms – the powerful seductions of the Middle Eastern, not merely Islamic, philosophy of Averroes and Avicenna which had entered western culture via the schools of Islamic Spain. Men like Albertus Magnus (1208-1280) and Thomas Aquinas felt that all that was new and ‘progressive’ about western culture – which was connected with the sanctity of the individual soul and its relation to Christ – would be fatally undermined by what were essentially pre-Christian ideas re-cast in Islamic form by Muslim philosophers: these ideas held that the individual would once again be subsumed within the group; after death the individual soul would lose its being, like a drop in the cosmic ocean. There can be no doubt that the Scholastics were right to wage that struggle and if they had lost it the consequences for European, and indeed human, civilisation would have been dire indeed. As it was, the consequences were difficult enough, because the Middle Eastern yearning for the transcendent Father did make its way into the heads of such as Roger Bacon (1214-1294) and William of Occam (1285-1349) and ultimately transformed itself into the longing to know with the intellect the overarching, all-powerful world of Nature; this search for the Divinity in Nature would eventually, in the 17th century, give rise to  the western form of natural science. However, just as the military Crusaders were losing their own battles against the Muslim armies of Saladin and later, the Mamelukes, so the intellectual Crusaders of the 13th century, the European Scholastics, succeeded in stemming the tide of Muslim Middle Eastern thought long enough for mediaeval Christendom to create a culture that would enable the individual soul to feel its self-worth before the Father, Christ, and the spiritual world. This victory was ultimately to contribute greatly to individual Europeans being able, at the end of the Middle Ages, to break free from what had become the stifling spiritual control exercised by the Papacy, the self-appointed guardian of Catholic Christendom.

Another, equally vital, contribution to the spiritual liberation of European humanity came from another, more hidden, direction. It was also the result of the meeting between the Christian West and the Middle Eastern world that lasted for some 700 years. The encounter had begun after the death of the Prophet Mohammed with the eruption of the Muslim Holy War against the byzantine ‘infidels’ in the mid-7th century, and culminated with the ejection of the western Crusaders from the Middle East at the end of the 13th century. This other contribution, working by more subterranean cultural channels, resulted in works such as the “Parzival” of von Eschenbach, inspired by his mysterious teacher, his kinsman Kiot of Katalang’n who found in Toledo the star wisdom of the pre-Christian Middle Eastern astronomer Flegetanis, written in Arabic. Then there were the Knights Templars’ social, cultural and economic initiatives and the effects they had on the souls of many; there was the barbarous persecution of the Cathars and other “heretical” groups, most of whom had their spiritual roots in the Middle East and sought a Christianity more inspired by the Holy Spirit that could speak to the individual, free from church-controlled dogma. In the early 17th century would emerge the legend of the journeyings in the Middle East of Christian Rosenkreutz and the mysterious Rosicrucian movement he was supposed to have founded; indeed, much of what has come to be called ‘western’, as distinct from Indian or East Asian, traditional esotericism owes its origins to the Middle East, to Egypt and not least to contact with the Kabbalistic and esoteric teachings of the Jewish people, which both pointed to an inner way of salvation that the individual could take, as well as to the relation between the individual soul and the world of Nature and Cosmos. It is now generally recognised that the European natural science that emerged in the 17th century has its roots as much in this secretive Middle Eastern heritage of hermeticism and alchemy as it does in the rediscovery of  Greece and Rome.

There were two sides then, to the Middle Eastern spiritual influence that came towards the West in that 700 year period – an exoteric intellectual one, seen predominantly in the works of Averroes and Avicenna, which had to be resisted if the fragile seeds of Christian individuality in the soul were not to be overwhelmed, and a more mystical esoteric one, which sought to develop a deeper interiority in western souls that could help them understand themselves and their relation to the divine without having to depend on Church dogma (this would also be one of the main sources of the Protestant Reformation).

From Mongolia…..

 However, during the culmination of that particular East-West meeting, in the mid-13th century, the West momentarily came into direct contact with something even more powerful and elemental than Middle Eastern spirituality. It was suddenly confronted by the awesome forces of the ‘Far East’ – awesome, because they were not dualistic in the theocratic sense of Middle Eastern culture. Here there was no powerful sense of sin and separation from the Divine, no collective yearning for a transcendent Father or an individual overshadowing by the Holy Spirit as the result of hard spiritual training, but rather, spiritual-physical, monodic immanence in the culture of a people seemingly possessed by a spiritual power and a sense of unity that moved them with elemental force. Writing in the late 15th century, the esoteric writer Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim referred to the beginning of the 13th century as the onset of the Age of the Mars (dated by Trithemius 1171-1525), governed by the warlike Archangel Samael. European humanity suddenly and with shock for the first time  perceived the people of the Far East in the form of the Mongols and their very martial arts, and through contact with them, Europeans also learned about the land of China and even Japan. Against these truly overwhelming forces of the Far East, both the Middle Eastern Islamic and the Christian European cultures seemed outwardly powerless as army after army, town after town, went down to ignominious defeat or utter destruction: the Scourge of God seemed to be upon them.

The effect of that shock was so great upon the European mind that some Europeans spent the next 200 years trying to fathom what this cultural phenomenon was and where it originated. It is indeed one of the greatest ironies of history that this desire to understand and find the Far East was ultimately to lead Europeans to America! However, despite some slender contact with China and Japan in the early modern period, referred to by Trithemius as the Age of the Moon Archangel Gabriel (1525-1879), it was not until the onset of the Age of the Sun Archangel Michael (1879-2233) that more wide-ranging contacts with the Far East really developed. During the early modern period between Trithemius’ ‘Mars’ and ‘Sun’ epochs, the West (c.1600-1880) got to know the truly ‘middle’ eastern culture of India (1), with which previously, it had only come into direct contact as a result of the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

The spiritual influence of India upon the West was considerable in the 20th century, culminating perhaps with the hippy generation of the 1960s and 70s who are now, middle-aged, in positions of authority in the western world. Many are those in the West who, when they think ‘spirituality’, think immediately of yoga, of TM (transcendental meditation), of Hare Krishna, of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Rajneesh or other Indian gurus, and who, when they need release from the pressures and uncertainties of their busy modern lives, turn to ancient Indian philosophies or gurus for solace and certitude. Compared to the seemingly monochrome and book-bound iconoclastic abstractions of Judaism and Islam, the highly coloured Indian spirituality appears  as all one of all-embracing feeling, of warmth, even passion and sensuality – multiplicity in unity, ten thousand Gods as One. For very many westerners who are comfortable with the idea of pluralism, the spirituality of their own culture in the Christianity of the churches or the cold rationalism of western philosophers and natural scientists cannot compete with the spiritual efficacy of the heart that still beats within the culture of India. Even Thought for the Day, the religious slot on the BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme, now has its Sikh and Hindu pundits giving prognostications about the moral dilemmas of the modern world.

As yet, Thought for the Day features no such Taoist or Confucian pundit, but as we enter  the 21st century, ‘the West’ – by which is meant that part of humanity that has for centuries been profoundly affected by Christianity, even if only of the Church – is facing an even greater challenge to its identity than that of the ‘Middle’ East. 700 years after the culmination of the meeting with the Islamic Middle East, which resulted in European natural science, not to mention trends in art and music such as Gothic architecture and abstract arabesques in music, and 700 years after that first brief contact with a Mongoloid people, the West is now beginning to engage intimately with the world’s oldest living civilisation – China, which now accounts for a fifth of the world’s population, and with those cultures already profoundly affected by Chinese civilisation – Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam. Until recently, most Western citizens only contacted these cultures at a distance, mostly through the agency of war (Japan, Korea, Vietnam) and the contact was mostly one way: East Asia imitated western socio-economic and cultural forms. In the 21st century, this contact will increasingly be mutual – eyeball to eyeball.

…via Japan….

Japan’s modernisation in the 19th century was led by the samurai class who had dominated the nation since that same martial 13th century and so Japan has already been in the vanguard of this East Asian wave for a century (and has been the most westernised as a result). Japanese Zen Buddhism since the 1950s, martial arts since the 1960s, Japanese architecture, fashion, food and business practices in the 1980s and street culture and movies in the 1990s, not to mention the all-pervasive karaoke  -all these have  had a significant effect on varied groups within western society: intellectuals, artists, scientists, as well as street-fighting and computer game-playing youth. Japanese business and managerial practices have had both salutary and negative effects on western business culture. The example, much vaunted in the 1980s, of the ‘successes’ of the Japanese education system has been almost entirely negative in the West as politicians ignorant of the realities of Japanese educational practice scrambled to get their own peoples to accept more government control of education and to emulate high Japanese scores in maths and science tests that, it was believed, would ensure economic victory in the saurian battle of national economies so ardently fought by the Japanese business class. The Japanese example contributed greatly to the introduction in the 1980s of Britain’s first ever standardised National Curriculum in which the State presumed to tell teachers what to teach. This was carried through by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which trumpeted itself as the party of liberty and individual freedom. If teachers themselves are shackled by government as to what they see fit to teach, how can their pupils be educated to think freely? But such an absurdity was overlooked by politicians who were mesmerised by the seeming success of Japan’s economy. History, however, moves on; despite Japan’s faltering recovery in the last couple of years, it is now felt by western business and media pundits that the economic threat from Japan has receded. Typical of Mars, the ever erratic planet, it has been Japan’s military destiny throughout the ages to have been spectacularly successful in dramatic attack, but not so good in sustaining momentum. It was not Japanese martial skill but the tropical storms of the kamikaze (lit. ‘divine wind’) that saved Japan from Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281. Having had its day in the sun in the 1970s and 80s and having helped to set China and S.E.Asia on the road to a modern capitalist economy by its investments, its loans, and its know-how, Japan is now felt by many western observers to have been a passing 20th century phenomenon, rather like a kamikaze itself, but now becalmed. All eyes are on China, and the coming decades.

…to China : Enter the Dragon ?

An aggressive, thrusting, and modernising China has violated the ancient and static culture of Tibet in much the same way that China’s own ancient and static culture was violated by an equally aggressive and modernising Japan between 1894 and 1945. This enforced modernisation of Tibet has had the signal effect of exporting Tibetan Buddhism throughout the West, where it is now the fastest-growing form of Buddhism and the one that, for many of those westerners interested in the topic, almost has a monopoly when it comes to ideas about reincarnation and karma. For a sensual spirituality, go to the Indians; for knowledge of reincarnation, ask the Tibetans; for an aesthetic, even spartan spirituality, turn to the Japanese – such is the path for western spiritual consumers down the aisles of the Asian spiritual supermarket. But for the ingredients for the main course, the culinary expert is increasingly being felt to be China.
Taoism, the I Ching (the Book of Changes), the philosophy of Yin-Yang, Chinese astrology, Feng Shui (telluric energies within the Earth and the biosphere), Chinese medicine and its knowledge of chi, acupuncture, Tai Chi, Kung Fu and other Chinese martial arts, etheric life streams within the body – all these ancient and profound forms of spiritual knowledge represent a powerful magnet for westerners, artists and scientists alike, and constitute both a great challenge and a great opportunity for Western culture. Artists are drawn to the dynamic flexibility and purity of form in these ideas as much as to their seemingly eternal verity; scientists focus on their non-theistic impersonality that can often, though by no means always, be rendered in highly abstract forms that are thought to support western scientific intuitions or at least have something in common with them.

In meeting this cornucopia of East Asian wisdom, one senses that the West, as it had to do 700 years ago when it engaged with the world of Islam at the time of the Crusades, will have both to resist and to constructively engage with different aspects of it. The East in general, from Palestine to Japan, tends to undervalue the worth of the individual vis-à-vis the collective. The West cannot afford to be overwhelmed in this regard by East Asian thinking today any more than it was by Middle Eastern thinking in the 13th century. By that time, the main epoch of the West’s ‘basic training’ in rational and intellectual development was drawing to a close; Christian Europe, schooled by Catholic monks and scholars, had learned to think for itself. Since the 15th century, western society has with great difficulty been trying to learn how to wed moral conscience to that rational and intellectual heritage. If the rationalist thinking of western philosophy is rooted in the logic of the head, a symbolic and shadowy abstract head-knowledge largely based on Arabic translations from the Greek, then Indian thinking can be said to be a thinking drawing on the colourful and rhythmical complexity of the heart and lungs, while East Asian thinking is pre-eminently one that reflects the metabolism and the organs below the solar plexus. It is a “thinking” from the guts, from the hara, as the Japanese say – the place where forces of destruction and creation pre-eminently take place in the human organism. It is thus endowed with an unconscious will, with an almost magical and irresistible power that stems from long past ages of human history when a subordinate’s will would be directly imprinted by his master’s speech. The Japanese have a word for the spiritual power of speech – kotodama (literally, the soul of speech). This is no mere western-style rhetoricising or beautification. It has more in common with magical incantation. A faint echo of it can still be heard in Japanese temples and shrines and even in the speeches of politicians in the Japanese Diet, where indeed, it may be on its way, historically, to degenerating into empty rhetoric, but the feeling for that willpower in speech and for the sacred magic of speech can still be felt. Something of this ancient power of speech was evident in the way Adolf Hitler sought to control the will of his audiences in Nazi Germany. The feeling that this way of working directly into people’s unconscious will is no longer historically ‘legitimate’ was what convinced so many westerners that Hitler’s way was fundamentally wrong, even evil, since it was seeking to regress the moral and spiritual progress made in the West since the 13th century. It was seeking to negate individual moral conscience and the value of the individual spirit.

Real and False Crusades in the 21st Century

In this 21st century there will need to be a new generation of western spiritual ‘Knights Templar’ – politically incorrect though this may sound – to defend the key spiritual achievements of the West. These achievements are not, of course, simply those of the churches, but rather, have to do with the very concept of the individual spirit, which is unbound by any bodily or genetic attachment. They also have to do with the fragile beginnings of the individual conscience that has been developing since the 15th century. Traditional East Asian thought hardly recognises the ‘I’, which, in Indian thought begins to be visible. East Asian thought respects the ‘We’ that relates to blood and soil, the spiritual being that is felt to be moving within blood, soil, climate, and language – in other words, that is a direct experience of the people’s spirit, traditionally associated with their spiritual ancestors.

 It could, of course, be argued that people everywhere feel something of this – we all have some kind of sense of what we mean by, for example, “Englishness” – but few westerners feel it as intensely as East Asians, where attachment to blood group, family and people runs very deep indeed. It is not a mere nationalistic, intellectually devised ideology, as with the more intellectual European rightists, who too often turn their hate-filled ideas against other peoples, but something much less conscious, something that resides in the ancient force of love for family, tribe and ethnic group that long ago was located in the blood. It might seem strange to speak of love and then think of the samurai, Genghis Khan, and Japanese atrocities in World War II, but there is actually no contradiction. In the traditional East Asian community one lived in love, that is, or was, unity with the communal All; one felt totally part of the community; there was little individual alienation as in the West. One has to be in East Asia to feel the remains of this communal love. Violence against others in East Asia is often violence against members of other groups who are perceived to have offended against one’s shared communal love. Western nationalism, by contrast, is all too often a reflection of the hatred and isolation felt by individuals who lack  conscience in Western society, and a subconscious desire to get beyond this isolation into a substitute family. This fear and loathing felt by individuals in the West is projected outwards against others in the form of aggressive nationalisms such as we have seen in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, or on English, French, and German streets. This is no value judgment; it is a reflection of a world archetype: light, love, warmth and respect in the communal East; darkness, fear, cold and hatred in the individualistic West.* The surprising result of living within this East-West archetype is that the greatest examples of collective pride and arrogance can sometimes be seen in communitarian East Asia, while the greatest examples of compassion for others unrelated to oneself can occur in the individualistic West. Just as there will need to be new, non-military Crusaders, however, to defend the very precious, if still relatively few, genuinely new  spiritual achievements of western culture, there will also need to be the builders of bridges between the West and East Asia, new Templars perhaps – those who can find a way, as the Templars did, for Asian wisdom to illuminate the still delicate western spiritual achievements without destroying them. These bridge builders will need to speak without sentimentality, without political correctness, but with a respectful directness, and with the interests of humanity at heart, not those of any one particular ethnic group. If this becomes possible, then humanity will be enabled to see how the problematic culture of the West fits into the vast panorama of the evolution of human consciousness, and that western culture truly has its own worth, and a reason to exist and develop further, which is something that many Asian thinkers as well as their western acolytes seriously question. Westerners may also gain fresh insights from Chinese wisdom of the nature of the living world, the nature of movement and dynamic flow. Despite the Chinese inclination towards the concrete image, the practical and material, their age-old knowledge of flow and movement in the natural world (especially evident in the Book of Changes, I Ching, arguably the most profound non-theistic collection of wisdom) can play a part in helping westerners to overcome the static sterility of western science which tends to be body-bound and brain-bound, obsessed with calculation and fixative quanta.

From the Near East and the Middle East, the West learned astronomical and astrological star wisdom, as is only too clear not only from the lives of Copernicus, Kepler, and Brahe, but also from Shakespeare’s plays and the astrological interests of Isaac Newton. It learned not only how to calculate planetary distances and orbits round the sun, but also how the different planetary and zodiacal influences were directly related to the various parts of the human body. From East Asia, the West is about to learn something of “flow wisdom”, the knowledge of the living body and the living Earth, not the dissected dead body and dead Earth. But as with the star wisdom of the Middle East, this ‘new’ biological wisdom from East Asia will not be a Christianised wisdom. Unfortunately, a western science based not on death but on life,  such as was represented by Goethe, Rudolf Steiner and others – has been unable to penetrate western culture widely over the last 100 years for a variety of reasons. Perhaps an East Asian knowledge of life force, if interpreted rightly, will nevertheless contribute to developing perception of the life that surrounds and upholds our world and all of us. Perhaps it can also help us in the West to overcome our fixation on the Cross, on what is fixed to quantifiable matter, and while it may not illuminate the nature of the Christ Being and the Christ Event, it may indeed help to focus westerners’ attention on the nature of livingness and rhythm.

For its part, East Asia can learn from the West the knowledge of the physical (mineral) body, the physical (mineral) world and of the individual Ego that develops in relation to that minerality. This wisdom of the individual Ego (which the Buddha himself possessed but East Asia as a whole has yet to internalise) shows that one becomes an individual only by becoming sick and alone and that paradoxically this sickness and individuation is actually a necessary – indeed essential – part of humanity’s journey on this physical plane. While some East Asians and Chinese were drawn for a period to Indian Buddhism’s call to free oneself from this physical world, their cultures in general are very much drawn to the qualities of earthly life. What those who were spiritually ready for it received from Buddhism was its teaching of love and compassion in this physical human life, a life that is often so painful. This Mahayana Buddhism of the post-Christian centuries, eventually rejected in its homeland of India, spoke to the hearts of many in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia and was received like a soothing balm.

In 1274, the year of the death of St Thomas Aquinas, the distance travelled by the Mongol armies, the area ruled by Kublai Khan, was almost the same as that over which were found adherents to the teachings of Mani (216-276), who had died a thousand years before. In the third century Mani had founded the first truly Eurasian religion in the Christian era. He saw it as syncretic and cosmopolitan. The Christ, he taught, was at the centre of a colossal struggle between spiritual light and spiritual darkness, and the aim was to enlighten darkness and evil from within, not to destroy it from without. So conditioned are people today by centuries of misinformation and negative propaganda from ecclesiastical authorities (notably St. Augustine) and scholars that the words ‘Manichaeism’ or ‘Manichaean’ are used almost exclusively as derogatory terms for narrow minded and simple dualistc thinking by many who may know little or nothing about Mani and what he taught. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Mani himself, whose teaching was complex and multi-faceted. He was put to death in the Sassanian Persian city of Gondishapur in 276, a city which some 400 years later would become a hothouse of Eurasian intellectual and scientific endeavour. Located near the modern city of Dizful in the border region where Iraq and Iran fought their long deadly war in the 1980s, it was also the city from where the black and white game of chess was introduced to the West.

A long and complex esoteric thread leads from Mani through to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in the 13th century. In Parzival Wolfram created an archetypal figure who, while still representing the martial chivalric hero beloved of that feudal age, anticipated the modern human being, able to marry conscience with reasoned thinking. Parzival’s conscience enabled him to re-cognise the mighty and invincible Eastern warrior Feirifis as his brother, part of himself. Through the darkness of struggle against the other, through engaging with him, the westerner Parzival and the easterner Feirifis reach the light of mutual recognition: they truly see each other. This spiritual seeing Eschenbach called the land of Anschau (literally. ‘seeing’ or ‘beholding’ in the spirit). In the 21st century of the Christian era, Manichaeism, the Christianity of Eurasia, may be about to arise again in a new form, as those in different Eastern and Western spiritual streams seek to find common spiritual and cultural ‘ground’ and overcome the isolating chasms of misunderstanding and ignorance that keep them apart. Westerners will strive with East Asians, East Asians with Westerners. There will be those short-sighted or malevolent people in both cultures, no doubt, who will seek to turn this striving into physical war and bitter enmity. One sees signs of this already in the statements of such as foreign policy specialist and former Presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (in his book The Grand Chessboard, 1997). Brzezinski has for some years now been urging policymakers and media hacks to look upon Central Asia as the chessboard of the 21st century where the crucial power games will be fought out and where the USA will vie with China and Russia for control of the vast resources of what he calls the “Heartland of the world”, consciously echoing the British imperial geopolitical strategist Halford Mackinder 100 years ago, This is Brzezinski’s  view of the Eurasian continent, a view he of course considers to be ‘realistic’, but only genuine insight into spiritual and historical realities – in short, individual and cultural self-knowledge – will serve to illuminate spiritual blinkeredness or sheer malevolence.

If sufficient insight is forthcoming in this cosmopolitan Sun Age of Michael, then we can hope that by the end of this era (c.2233, according to Trithemius), the Brzezinkis will not have succeeded and enough East Asians and Westerners will have arrived in Anschau together to create the basis for harmony in the future destiny of the Eurasian continent.


1. Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt are more accurately described by the now largely obsolete term ‘the Near East’. However, since the terms Near and Far East are Eurocentric, perhaps West Asia, Central Asia (including the Indian subcontinent), and East Asia might be more appropriate.

© Terry Boardman

 This page was first uploaded on 27th Feb 2006.  Last updated 1.7.2012