The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Exoteric refers to knowledge that is outside of and independent from anyone's experience and can be ascertained by anyone; cf. common sense. It is distinguished from internal esoteric knowledge. Exoteric relates to "external reality" as opposed to one's own thoughts or feelings. It is knowledge that is public as opposed to secret or cabalistic. It is not required that exoteric knowledge come easily or automatically, but it should be referenceable or reproducible.
Most philosophical and religious belief systems presume that reality must be independent of what an individual makes of it. However, even before the days of Plato, a prominent alternate theory of knowledge insisted that the perceived outside reality is merely an internal fabrication of the observer and that it has no existence or substance outside the imagination of the observer. The Buddha's statement: "All that we are arises from what we have thought" (Dhammapada 1.1) is reminiscent of this.
The Japanese swords master Miyamoto Musashi, for example, in his The Book of Five Rings, noted that when he teaches people martial arts, "since [he] generally makes them learn such things as have actual relevance to addressing [deeper principles], there is no such thing as a distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric."
The term exoteric is mostly used in conjunction with religions and spirituality (as "esoteric" is often associated with esoteric spirituality), in which the teachings shift the believer's focus away from the exploration of the inner self and towards the adherence to rules, laws and an individual God.
The term exoteric may also reflect the notion of a divine identity outside and different from the identity of a human, whereas the esoteric notion claims that the divine is to be discovered within the human identity. One step further, the pantheistic notion suggests that the divine and the material world are one and the same.