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5 Eastern Philosophers You Should Know

The name Confucius is a familiar one in the world of philosophy. For most people, the famous Chinese thinker conjures wisdom and morality, and although his teachings date as far back as the fifth century BCE, his perspective on the importance of a harmonious relationship between the individual and society remains as relevant as ever today.

But Confucius is only one of many Eastern philosophers whose influence has been felt around the world. Since antiquity, great thinkers and spiritual leaders such as Gautama Buddha, Lao Tzu, and others have imparted meaningful insights on how to live a happy and fulfilled life from within. Read on to learn more about the lives and lessons of five prominent Eastern philosophers worth exploring.


Lao Tzu

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.

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Lao Tzu, also known as Laozi, was a Chinese philosopher believed to have lived between the third and sixth centuries BCE. He is often credited with founding Taoism (or Daoism), a philosophy and religion whose core principles are detachment (or inaction — letting things happen as they may), simplicity, and living in harmony with nature. Lao Tzu is thought to have been a contemporary and even a teacher of Confucius.

According to Lao Tzu’s teachings, the Tao (or Dao) is the way of the universe. Taoism teaches that all living creatures thrive when living in a state of harmony with the universe and its energy (its “ch'i,” or “qi”). To obtain this version of totality, Lao Tzu taught that we must let go of conventional societal concerns and instead find a rhythm with the Tao. The school of thought is still relevant to this day, and Taoism has been influential throughout centuries of Chinese culture, art, and religion.

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.

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Zhuangzi

Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.

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Zhuangzi, also known as Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou, was a Chinese philosopher in the fourth century BCE. His study and interpretation of Taoism is considered the most comprehensive and influential of the time, and his eponymous work Zhuangzi is considered one of Taoism’s definitive texts.

The philosopher’s beliefs can most simply be summed up in the modern phrase “go with the flow.” Building on Lao Tzu’s belief of inaction, Zhuangzi felt that humans’ pursuit should never go against the universe’s inherent procession — that things should be left to follow their own course. A truly virtuous person, he said, should be free from the limitations of circumstance, personal belongings, traditions, and ambition. His teachings had a major influence on the development of Chinese Buddhism as well as on centuries of Chinese art and literature.

Despite his image as a great and wise teacher, Zhuangzi was also seen as an unpredictable and unkempt eccentric — though with a good sense of humor about it all. When faced with his own death, Zhuangzi did not believe that burying his body should be prioritized over leaving it out to let nature take its course. Above ground with the buzzards or below with the worms, he believed, is all the same.

To the most trivial actions, attach the devotion and mindfulness of a hundred monks. To matters of life and death, attach a sense of humor.

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Zhu Xi

Wash away your old opinions to let new ideas in.

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Zhu Xi was a 12th-century philosopher, historian, politician, and poet who lived and made his mark during China’s Song dynasty. He was devoted to investigating philosophical questions about humanity’s relation to the larger universe, as well as how we can develop moral superiority. His work in these areas helped form what is known as neo-Confucianism, a revival of Confucian thinking that took place between the 11th and 18th centuries. Because of this, his influence on Chinese intellectual life is generally considered second only to Confucius’ influence.

Zhu Xi’s philosophies prized sincerity, logic, and consistency. His pontifications about our place in the universe hinged on a combination of the formless, or the “li” (the underlying order of nature), and the “qi,” or the formed material energy of the world. Zhu Xi believed the inherent li was pure by default and was at risk of being corrupted by the impurities of qi, or external forces. In his teachings, he emphasized the importance of deeply examining all things in order to perfect our knowledge; through this process, he believed the human mind and the universe could together eliminate ethical imperfections.

There is no fixed shape to the preservation of perfect balance; it depends on the circumstances of the moment.

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Dalai Lama

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

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The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet and the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that began in the seventh century CE. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama; it is the religion’s belief that each leader is a reincarnation of the first, who died in 1475. The current Dalai Lama was chosen when he was just 2 years old.

The Dalai Lama’s core beliefs center on compassion, tolerance, peace, and contentment, and these tenets have been central to not only his teachings, but also his global legacy. The leader’s nonviolent attempt at stopping the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989; the Nobel committee noted his willingness to compromise and reconcile despite harsh conditions. To this day, the Dalai Lama travels around the world to promote peace and nonviolence.

True change is within; leave the outside as it is.

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Gautama Buddha

Conquer anger with love, evil with good, meanness with generosity, and lies with truth.

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The Buddha, also commonly known by his birth name, Siddhartha Gautama, is the founder of Buddhism and one of the most important spiritual thinkers in history. Gautama was born near the border of Nepal and India, and though not much is known for certain about his life, which was sometime between the sixth century and fourth century BCE, there are many stories that contribute to his legend. It’s believed he was raised in luxury and shielded from much of life’s hardships until his late 20s. At this time, he witnessed the reality of human suffering and decided to live an ascetic life to discover how to live in peace even among the world’s pain.

The Buddha developed and taught the Four Noble Truths: The first is that life is full of suffering; the second is that suffering is caused by human desire; the third is that we have the power to free ourselves of desire and therefore suffering; and the fourth is the way to achieve this freedom. He went on to teach many his way, with the end goal of enlightenment, or the elimination of all ego. Buddha remains a celebrated figure for his reexamination of the rigidity and ritual of human life, and for inspiring people to seek higher levels of human consciousness.

Wisdom is born of meditation; without meditation wisdom is lost.

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Photo credit: Beboy_ltd/ iStoc

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About the Author
Nicole Villeneuve
Nicole is a writer, thrift store lover, and group-chat meme spammer based in Ontario, Canada.
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