East vs. West: Spiritual Smackdown

As an American living in Asia, I often experienced cultural disconnects.  A peer or friend would make a comment so obviously based on assumptions or values I didn’t share that I realized that my own values and assumptions must sound equally foreign to them.

Last year, a colleague in India made a statement that I found very unsettling.  He said:  “When we focus on results nothing changes.  When we focus on change we see results.”  Since this claim was made in a business setting in a results-driven culture, I was taken aback.  I had to ask him to repeat it several times, yet it still flew in the face of everything I believe as a business person.  I really was at a loss how to respond to someone who believed that.  Was he really saying you should get an A for effort and that results didn’t matter?  If so, that explained a lot about the results I was seeing from his group!

In talking with another colleague from India, I shared the mantra of our mutual colleague with him, and that I thought he was taking an idea of non-attachment from Hindu spiritualism and perhaps misapplying it to a work setting.  He agreed, and as a fellow Hindu he understood the concept better than I did.  We could both agree in principle that the idea of taking “right action” or doing the right thing regardless of personal reward was a common principle or value between our cultures, having the integrity to do what is right, even if it’s not immediately advantageous.  Yet, there was definitely more to what my first colleague was saying than just that.  His holy texts were leading down a different thought path than the way we look at things in the good old U.S. of A.

Hindu temple at Benaras University in Varanasi.

A few months later, while vacationing in India, I read a saying from the Bhagavad Gita engraved in the temple wall at the Vishwanath temple at Benaras University in Varanasi:  “Thou hast power to act only, not over the result thereof.  Act thou therefore without prospect of the result and without succumbing to inaction.”  This seemed like a slightly more palatable version of the same thing my colleague had said.  Even so, it sounds great if you are meditating, but I wouldn’t take it into a performance review with your boss or client.  “Sorry, guys.  I only had power to act, but my results are totally out of my control.”  That sounds like a recipe for unemployment.

On the flip side, it also occurred to me that our American focus on results must make us sound like total control freaks by contrast.  And maybe we are.  After all, our founding Puritan parents certainly fit that mold.  The American dream is basically a lesson in controlling your results through your actions – hard work pays off.  Rags to riches.  Cinderella story.  The little guy gets ahead.  We aren’t content with our lot in life – that’s the American entrepeneurial spirit, right?

Mormonism is a religion with deeply American roots; the more I travel the world the more I see those American roots exposed.  For most global converts, American values are one of the elements that attracts a person to our faith:

  • Autonomy rather than duty.  Many converts align more strongly with their new Mormon family, breaking with their cultural or familial values – even breaking with their actual families.
  • Egalitarian views.  Even in racist or hierarchical cultures that require submissive behaviors, we are all equals in the sight of God within the church.
  • A belief that hard work yields tangible results.  Whether we are talking about self-reliance or the focus on works as a vital part of faith, this belief is deeply engrained in Mormonism and in American culture.

Ladies can’t get a break in Balinese Hinduism either.

Looking at other Hindu texts, there are nuances to this idea of detachment from results that we almost never hear in Mormonism, certainly not in the workplace, and seldom in American discourse:

“Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice.  Better than knowledge is meditation.  But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.”  ~The Bhagavad Gita

And a trip to the unemployment line!

“A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.”  ~The Bhagavad Gita

‘Tis better to give than to receive – so I suppose we can all get behind this one.  However, in a work setting, this might be replaced with Quid pro Quo, at least when working with clients.  We don’t give our services or goods away for free.

“One should perform karma with nonchalance without expecting the benefits because sooner or later one shall definitely get the fruits.”  ~Rig Veda

This one is more aligned with American values in that you do get something for your efforts, but you can’t control when.  In this sentiment, efforts do eventually pay off.

“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Also aligned with our American values.  This one is just a call to do something, anything, and not just sit still waiting for good things to happen.  It’s a call to action!  And we do love action.

“One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.”  ~Veda Upanishads

These guys are in stage 4 of life and have renounced all worldly goods. If you take their picture, though, be prepared to fork over a few rupees.

“To the illumined man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.”  ~Bhagavad Gita

This is another one about not attaching value to things.  However, try depositing a clod of dirt in your bank account and see if they’ll let you withdraw gold in exchange.

A few questions to consider as East meets West:

  • What is the difference between detaching from the outcomes of our actions and just not getting anything done?  How do we take right action if there is no regard for outcomes?  Isn’t expected outcome how we judge what is right action?
  • Are Americans too materialistic?  Does materialism taint our spirituality within Mormonism or Christianity?  Or is that an American value that is tempered by our faith?
  • Should we strive to let go of outcomes (take no thought for the morrow) or should our actions be done to achieve outcomes?



  1. Mark Brown says:

    When I read this the first thing I thought of was Peter Drucker’s process-oriented approach to manufacturing. If you do all the little things right on the assembly line, there is little need for QA at the end of the line. Of course, his ideas first took hold in the Japanese car industry!

    I don’t know if materialism is a good word for what we sometimes get wrong. More like an undue focus on superficial and unreliable indicators. Home teaching numbers can be terribly misleading. I’ve lived in wards with good home teaching reports month after month and yet the ward members related to each other like strangers. And one of the best wards I’ve ever lived in had HT percentage in the single digits, yet they were remarkable in the way they pulled together and cared for one another.

    A numbers guy for a mission president is the absolute worst. I much prefer the approach suggested by Elder Oaks, that we work hard and do our best, but recognize that we cannot control the outcome.

  2. If you start with the assumption that Americans are too materialistic it’s easier to see that THE American outcome goal is almost myopically focused materialistic gain and largely in denial about the resulting undesirable outcomes such as environmental, spiritual, stress, safety, time and attention costs. Also it becomes very complicated to predict how others will react to these actions.

  3. marginalizedmormon says:

    this is one of my favorite areas of ‘study’; it can often be disconcerting–

  4. Cool post! I would love to see more conversation like this in Mormon circles.

    It’s important to me to remember that Jesus was an Eastern philosopher. He taught that “The kingdom of heaven is within you” and that the only way to a brighter (enlightened) life is to lose one’s self, to deny one’s self. Joseph Smith, one of Jesus’s greatest disciples and prophets (IMO), taught that fear is the opposite of faith. These and many other of Jesus’ teachings ring in harmony with the essence of many eastern philosophies. The approach may seem “detached” to the extreme, but Jesus taught and lived it. So did his contemporary followers. e.g. no purse scrip, throw down nets, lilies in field, etc.

    I began a meditation practice (not as regularly as I would like) about 8 months ago. Now I read the scriptures and hear Jesus begging me to release my ego, my pride, and sense of entitlement. To instead drink freely, eat freely, and be filled for eternity. Text book Eastern philosophy goodness.

    I love that many Eastern philosophies invite followers to reverence the interplay of souls and value all creation as glorious. For me, I hear a similar and powerful teaching in God’s declaration that “the worth of souls is great.” And of course, Satan peddles his telestial falsehood that ‘souls are finite, a thing for trade, purchase, slaughter, and gain.’ This is what worries me most about capitalist ego and materialism. It is slow to see as God does.

  5. But then again, I have yet to release myself from the fear and worry I just described above. :)

  6. I began a meditation practice (not as regularly as I would like) about 8 months ago. Now I read the scriptures and hear Jesus begging me to release my ego, my pride, and sense of entitlement. To instead drink freely, eat freely, and be filled for eternity.

    Well said. Yes this is where it leads.

  7. Interesting thoughts. I love the portion of your post that Howard quoted above (“…release my ego, my pride, and sense of entitlement..”) That is exactly what I hear when working on my meditation practice.

    Is anyone aware of any scholarship (or blog posts) discussing possible parallels between LDS theology/rituals and those associated with Eastern religions? I’ve been wondering about this as I’ve started a meditation/yoga practice and have noted parallels between the 7 chakras and portions of the initiatory in the temple, as well as different yoga poses and certain actions we take during the endowment ceremony. Given that the shavasana portion of yoga/meditation is aimed toward experiencing “enlightenment” – maybe in Mormon terms it would all be about personal revelation and receiving light and knowledge from on high? Maybe all of our Mormon rituals (i.e. sacrament, temple ceremony) could be viewed as “guided meditations” aimed toward assisting us achieve “enlightenment”? I can’t be the only one who has run across these pretty obvious parallels…hopefully someone smarter than me has written up a great analysis somewhere?

  8. I’m currently reading a very interesting book along these lines – Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. It’s a discussion about what goes without being said in different cultures and how our own cultural norms can cause us to misread situations in other cultures. Their particular focus is on the text of the Bible. It’s fascinating to see a completely different perspective on familiar stories. (For example, I never thought of the Widow’s Mite as a cautionary tale about what not to do, rather than an example we should all follow.)

    The authors of the book tend to imply that Eastern culture’s take is the correct one, not just from a historical perspective, but from a moral one as well. I don’t actually agree with them on some of their examples, but on others I can see where they’re coming from. Regardless, I appreciate getting a glimpse from other perspectives so I can analyze and think about what really feels right and makes sense to me. Sometimes I don’t end up changing my mind, but I do at other times, and always I feel like I understand others a little better and am more able to be tolerant of their different views.

  9. Great comment Maria! D&C 85:6 and 3Nephi 11:3 offer descriptions of kundalini energy causing bones and frames to quake as revelation was being received. What is the halo in early christian art depicting if it isn’t the aura of the crown chakra?

  10. As a result of having served my mission in Japan, I found myself drawn to Buddhism in a way that hadn’t happened (and still hasn’t happened after all these years) with Protestantism. In many ways, I see Mormonism (the theology, especially) as much closer philosophically to Eastern religions than to Western religions, speaking very broadly.

    I also see a distinct tension between that philosophical foundation and the cultural basis of so much that goes on in the LDS Church in the US and other Western countries.

  11. A few years ago I was prompted to pick up a book on tape by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. I didn’t get it at all, so I stopped after 10 minutes and returned it to the library. Later while working on being “grateful in all things” and trying to not be critical I was guided to pick it up again and I got it! It was like having a personal mentor on developing a soft heart. I feel like westerners are very good at making lists, but if you really want to put things into practice and move from logical understanding of what you should do, to actually feeling it in your heart and doing it, eastern religions are extremely helpful. I think truth all comes from the same source, but those who took down the notes from heaven were influenced by their culture in how they wrote it down. Here are two other authors who have helped me and show that the gospel isn’t quite so different from eastern thought. I think what is different is Babylonian thought.
    THE YOGA OF CHRIST. By Philip G. McLemore.

    Click to access 146-30-45.pdf

    Approaching Zion by Hugh W. Nibley

  12. T.S. Elliott says:

    For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

  13. This post reminds me of a classic BCC post from several years back, “Thanks were given: The Sneaky Genius of Thomas Spencer Monson and Kung Fu Panda.” Definitely worth a second read.

  14. Amen, Amy. That is a great post.

  15. Meldrum the Less says:


    Your remark fascinates me, that you see a philosophical closeness between Japanese Buddhism and Mormonism. I too served my mission in Japan and had three native companions. I don’t really understand Buddhism and some might contend that I don’t understand Mormonism either. I would have thought the opposite. Could you elaborate what points you find to be closely related?

    Maybe you could relate it to the different sects of Buddhism; the Soka Gakkai sect and the modern correlation movement? (Just kidding, that last crack could get me booted if the booter understood it). Actually I gained a new perspective of the “Soks” when my daughter’s violin teacher for most of high school (and concert master of a symphony in a large city) turned out to be of this faith and my daughter has played duets with him at their festivals.

  16. Angela C says:

    Mandy – thanks for that book recommendation. I’ve got it on my kindle now!

  17. We have certainly seen the results-oriented shift in our church over the past century. In the early 20th century, we had church leaders who had educational backgrounds, science, etc. It was a more scholarly time. But this has shifted. As per a post here on BCC a couple of years ago, out of 101 of the highest Church leaders, backgrounds include Business (54%), Law (23%), Medicine (9%), Accounting (8%) and Education (7%).

    And as described by Armand Mauss nearly 2 decades ago in “The Angel and the Beehive” (p 84), “The near-total disappearance of leaders with the more scientific or scholarly orientation from the topmost ranks of the church leadership thus implies that with the passage of time there would be a corresponding diminution within that leadership of their collective capacity to accommodate diversity, relativity, or ambiguity in church policies or programs, to say nothing of doctrines. Such a leadership would naturally me increasingly hospitable to retrenchment in the face of growing ambiguity about what assimilated Mormonism really “stands for” in the modern world.”

    This is certainly true in Mormonism today, 2 decades later. As out leadership has become almost entirely comprised of people from business and law, it is natural that we have become hyper-focused on reports and programs and numbers. It is natural that we see using billions of $ on a mall as a better use of money than anything else. It is natural that we rely on Handbooks and guidelines and have corporate standards for type-fonts used. It is natural that we have even trademarked the religious experience – when Bonneville International explains:

    Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action. We call this uniquely powerful brand of creative “HeartSell”® – strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.

    It is nothing sinister or nefarious, but it just reflects the background of our current generation of leaders.

    But it is leaving the membership hungry. Many, many posts over the past years I have read have to do with a yearning for a more “Eastern” experience, whether they use those words or not. Members love Mormonism, but are left unfulfilled with the increasingly corporate nature of the Church.

  18. Meldrum the Less says:

    Many young people may be yearning for a whole lot of other experiences including Eastern experience. But the largest group that is left unfulfilled, in my limited experience, is our youth who yearn for science. Our departments at Utah schools in Science and Engineering are large. This contingency of youth are marginalized in areas of religious thought with our simplistic correlated material; this at our peril.

    One of the problems with Eastern religions and societies is that they didn’t keep up. They were out-competed and then eclipsed by the West. Science and technology drove this, along with greed and lust for power. For example, why did Columbus a European and not some Kim Boo Os an Chinese explorer “discover” America to be followed by the Chinese equivalent of conquistadors and pilgrims and all the rest? Gun power, after all was invented in China and used for fireworks, taken to Europe and used to propel metal projectiles to win wars. My son in college explained the big picture to me once and it was directly related to their philosophies and values and I have forgotten the details.

    How can we bring together the best of both? That is the challenge.

  19. The best of gun powder and eastern philosophy?

  20. Thanks for the post. I think that various world religions offer perspectives that help our own spirituality and help us appreciate our LDS faith by looking at it from non-traditional perspectives. It is a rich field ready to harvest!

    During a very productive faith crisis I was having a long while back, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism as a break from studying Utah/Mormon history. It dawned on me that many of the spiritual struggles that both I and my fellow LDS graduate students were experiencing were based in part on our adherence to our own egos. “We” couldn’t possibly be part of an organization that had engaged in politically incorrect practices such as denying blacks ordination, plural marriage, etc. “We” had started to look at Latter-day Saints of the past as “other.” And we caught ourselves smugly discussing the mistakes and problems of the Mormon past like we had all of the answers. Well, we didn’t then and we still don’t. But some of us realized that we were being poor students of history and completely uncharitable to our predecessors, whose only real mistake was being as human as we were, thereby completely failing the standard we had set for them.

    I am afraid that many educated Latter-day Saints also fall into an ego trap. Most make their way out of it, but a few don’t. I think a dose of the Zen teaching of the “empty vessel” could save many of them pain and heartache. Let Hugh Nibley remind us to “Have faith that there is more than you know.”

  21. Old Man,
    It’s gratifying to know you’re open to other perspectives but I strongly doubt significant ego reduction leads to embracing Mormon doctrine, history and leaders because enlightenment and divine connection normally accompanies it bypassing any need to mortalize spirituality in the form of religion.

  22. “enlightenment and divine connection normally accompanies it bypassing any need to mortalize spirituality in the form of religion.”

    or not

    Many of the most enlightened throughout history didn’t reject or bypass religion. Many of them worked within and transformed it – and I think that is true of many who never made the history books and died in relative anonymity.

    I also think there are and have been very good examples among the apostles in my lifetime.

  23. Many of the most enlightened throughout history didn’t reject or bypass religion. Well this statement doesn’t really follow from mine making it something of a twisted straw man Ray. I suggested ego reduction plus enlightenment and divine connection bypasses that person’s need for mortal religion. Ego reduction is something much, much more profound than learning to be humble which I think is what Old Man was getting at, it includes the loss of boundaries between the self and other becoming one with the universe and perhaps even one with God. You believe apostles in your lifetime have experienced this??? They all seemed pretty grounded to me. Care to share who?

  24. “You believe apostles in your lifetime have experienced this???”


    “Care to share who?”


  25. Angela, you answer your own questions through your side commentary, which is focused on employment, bank account balances, and the like. Our heart (and efforts) are spent in pursuit of what we treasure. Empirically, corporate behaviors are linked to increased wealth. They are not, however, linked to increased wisdom, increased wonder, increased wholeness, or other ‘w’ synonyms for what might be treasured. Other heart-states (like that quoted by your colleague) are so linked.

  26. Yeah I was going to say the same thing: Eastern philosophies are not often geared toward wealth accumulation or the bottom line, which is what American business is most focused on, so there is probably little applicability between those two worlds, because of their divergent goals. If you want an Eastern philosophy that is applicable to American business models, try Sun Tzu.

    On the other hand, I think American business could benefit from an influx of some traditional Eastern philosophy. for example, I once worked for an employer of a successful midsize company that refused to take the company public, despite constant advice and intense outside pressure to do so. His idea was that having shareholders would require him to focus on quarterly shareholder reports that missed long term solutions by focusing on short term results. I think that is a much more Eastern approach to business and perhaps more visionary, though maybe less profitable in the short run.

    I just recently posted on the intersection between Karma and Mormonism over at Nine Moons:


  27. To answer Angela’s questions directly:

    ■What is the difference between detaching from the outcomes of our actions and just not getting anything done? How do we take right action if there is no regard for outcomes? Isn’t expected outcome how we judge what is right action?

    I think Eastern philosophical traditions have a good answer for this that is probably better than anything I can come up with, but to me, “detaching from the outcomes” does not really mean that we do nothing or act stupidly. The idea is to take correct action regardless of the outcome, which is really just another way of saying: “Do what is right let the consequence follow.” does that sound familiar at all?

    Judging whether something is right by expected outcome is really a recipe for disaster in some instances. For example I had a law partner once who would become furious with judges who would rule on motions with an eye toward how the ruling would affect the result of the case, rather than just making the correct ruling on that particular motion, as was required by the law. This is similar to an umpire in baseball calling balls and strikes, not based on whether the pitch actually is in the strike zone, but rather based on whether the team at bat is ahead or behind in the game. We would all agree that is not right or ethical, would we not?

    ■Are Americans too materialistic? Does materialism taint our spirituality within Mormonism or Christianity? Or is that an American value that is tempered by our faith?

    The answers are obvious, yes, yes and hopefully yes.

    ■Should we strive to let go of outcomes (take no thought for the morrow) or should our actions be done to achieve outcomes?

    I think being true followers of Christ will eventually require us to let go of outcomes, just as we will eventually forsake the law of tithing for the law of consecration. But we are not there yet.

  28. I remember a teaching I had in a figure drawing class I was taking in college. A simple method she used, and taught us to use, to review our work was to look at the drawing upside down. This freed the mind from the shorthand of reading/seeing symbols (“this is am arm”, “here is a nose”, etc) to seeing shapes, forms, volume. For me, eastern thinking has served in much the same way. I’m looking at the same “drawing” but in a way freed from my many layered stereotypes.

  29. David Naas says:

    “Quid pro Quo”. Ah yes. whenever I come across that phrase, I seem to hear the voice of Templeton The Rat (from Charlotte’s Web) saying, “What’s in it for ME, Charlotte?”

    Americans are certainly too materialistic, and as “the American religion”, Mormons can easily tend that way. One must recall that in the rest of the world, lands not so blessed as the USA, sincere, diligent effort is not guaranteed success. (It really isn’t in the USA either, but we like to think that way.)

    Too often, Americans confuse their own organization, plans, efforts, with those of God. It is unfortunate that we *have* been so successful, for rampant success breeds hubris, not a holy quality.

    However, this too shall pass. I was once told prophetically, “Prepare to be humiliated.” At the4 time, I took offence, not realizing what was meant — either humble yourself, or God will do it for you. Believe me, it is far better to humble yourself. Which means, in part, letting go of the illusion of being in control; trust God, look up, lift up others, uplift others.

  30. This is one of my favorite hindu concepts. We do sing Do what is right LET the consequence follow–we do know that we should do what is right regardless of the consequence because let’s face it no good deed goes unpunished. We know bad things happen to good people..kinda. Yet we frequently talk about the blessings of commandments, assume certain blessings, experience huge disappointment when blessings don’t come when and how we like. We measure too early and possibly the wrong things. Things like prosperity gospel creep in. We read “who hath sinned this man or his parents” and we find ourselves wondering if we have sinned…as if we can’t comprehend God may want us to learn, not be punished. We read that God made their backs strong to bear the burdens and we pray and pray and pray that the burdens will just be removed.

    Frequently inspiration comes to me in teensy pieces. I make a boatload of assumptions and reasonable guesses as to why I should do X and what it means for this this and this. U worry about where it’s going and what that means for my presumed alternate path. 20 years later it’s clear how that choice fell very nicely into an entirely new path going into a completely different dimension. Abish thought she was inviting her people to learn and had she measured the results BEFORE they woke…how would that have gone. How about those lovely pacifists who seem to lose a few loved ones…but more are converted. that’s a tough trade off. really tough.

    Results based thinking is so easily affected by every new study or thought or article. Is alcohol healthy or unhealthy? or do we not drink it because we are the Lord’s? If the word of wisdom IS a law of health, does that mean we will be healthy today?

    we read about the sons of alma and mosiah being stuck in prison and starving as missionaries, but think we should never miscarry or foreclose on a house or divorce or have any other truly awful thing happen because we did, after all, stay awake MOST of the time in seminary. We read about manna. Goodness manna! who could live that way? Can you really just do what is right and receive whatever it is God wants to give you? without sneaking in a Christmas list because he might just forget something or not notice what you REALLY need?

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