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Essay/Term paper: Taoism and buddhism

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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Taoism and Buddhism

Taoism is one of the two great philosophical and religious traditions that
originated in China. The other religion native to China is Confucianism. Both
Taoism and Confucianism began at about the same time, around the sixth century
B.C.E. China's third great religion, Buddhism, came to China from India around
the second century of the common era. Together, these three faiths have shaped
Chinese life and thought for nearly twenty-five hundred years (Hartz 3).

One dominate concept in Taoism and Buddhism is the belief in some form of
reincarnation. The idea that life does not end when one dies is an integral part
of these religions and the culture of the Chinese people. Reincarnation, life
after death, beliefs are not standardized. Each religion has a different way of
applying this concept to its beliefs. This paper will describe the
reincarnation concepts as they apply to Taoism and Buddhism, and then provide a
comparison of the two.

The goal in Taoism is to achieve tao, to find the way. Tao is the ultimate
reality, a presence that existed before the universe was formed and which
continues to guide the world and everything in it. Tao is sometimes identified
as the Mother, or the source of all things. That source is not a god or a
supreme being, as Taoism is not monotheistic. The focus is not to worship one
god, but instead on coming into harmony with tao (Hartz, 8).

Tao is the essence of everything that is right, and complications exist
only because people choose to complicate their own lives. Desire, ambition,
fame, and selfishness are seen as hindrances to a harmonious life. It is only
when a person rids himself of all desires can tao be achieved. By shunning
every earthly distraction, the Taoist is able to concentrate on life itself. The
longer the person's life, the more saintly the person is presumed to have become.
Eventually the hope is to become immortal, to achieve tao, to have reached the
deeper life. This is the after life for a Taoist, to be in harmony with the
universe, to have achieved tao (Head1, 65).

To understand the relationship between life, and the Taoism concept of life
and death, the origin of the word tao must be understood. The Chinese character
for tao is a combination of two characters that represent the words head and
foot. The character for foot represents the idea of a person's direction or
path. The character for head represents the idea of conscious choice. The
character for head also suggests a beginning, and foot, an ending. Thus the
character for tao also conveys the continuing course of the universe, the circle
of heaven and earth. Finally, the character for tao represents the Taoist idea
that the eternal Tao is both moving and unmoving. The head in the character
means the beginning, the source of all things, or Tao itself, which never moves
or changes; the foot is the movement on the path (Harts 9).

Taoism upholds the belief in the survival of the spirit after death. "To
have attained the human form must be always a source of joy. And then to
undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to, what
comparable bliss is that! Therefore it is that the truly wise rejoice in, that
which can never be lost, but endures always" (Leek 190). Taoist believe birth
is not a beginning, death is not an end. There is an existence without limit.
There is continuity without a starting point. Applying reincarnation theory to
Taoism is the belief that the soul never dies, a person's soul is eternal. "You
see death in contrast to life; and both are unreal - both are a changing and
seeming. Your soul does not glide out of a familiar sea into an unfamiliar
ocean. That which is real in you, your soul, can never pass away, and this fear
is no part of her" (Head2 199).

In the writings of The Tao Te King, tao is described as having existed
before heaven and earth. Tao is formless, stands alone without change and
reaches everywhere without harm. The Taoist is told to use the light that is
inside to revert to the natural clearness of sight. By divesting oneself of all
external distractions and desires, only then can one achieve tao. In ancient
days a Taoist that had transcended birth and death, achieved tao, was said to
have cut the Thread of Life (Kapleau 13).

The soul, or spirit, is Taoism does not die at death. The soul is not
reborn, it migrates to another life. This process, the Taoist version of
reincarnation, is repeated until tao is achieved. The following translation
from The Tao Te King best summarizes the the theory behind tao and how a Taoist
can achieve Tao.

The Great Way is very smooth, but the people love the by-paths. . . The
wearing of gay embroidered robes, the carrying of sharp swords,
fastidiousness in food and drink, superabundance of property and
wealth: - this I call flaunting robbery; most assuredly it is not
Tao. . . He who acts in accordance with Tao, becomes one with Tao.
. . Being akin to Heaven, he possesses Tao. Possessed of Tao,
he endures forever. . . Being great (Tao) passes on; passing on,
it becomes remote; having become remote, it returns (Head3 109).


The followers of the Buddha believe life goes on and on in many
reincarnations or rebirths. The eternal hope for all followers of Buddha is that
through reincarnation one comes back into successively better lives - until one
achieves the goal of being free from pain and suffering and not having to come
back again. This wheel of rebirth, known as samsara, goes on forever or until
one achieves Nirvana. The Buddhist definition of Nirvana is "the highest state
of spiritual bliss, as absolute immortality through absorption of the soul into
itself, but preserving individuality" (Head1 57).

Birth is not the beginning and death is not the end. This cycle of life
has no beginning and can go on forever without an end. The ultimate goal for
every Buddhist, Nirvana, represents total enlightenment and liberation. Only
through achieving this goal is one liberated from the never ending round of
birth, death, and rebirth (Head3 73).

Transmigration, the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, involves
not the reincarnation of a spirit but the rebirth of a consciousness containing
the seeds of good and evil deeds. Buddhism's world of transmigration encompasses
three stages. The first stage in concerned with desire, which goes against the
teachings of Buddha, is the lowest form and involves a rebirth into any number
of hells. The second stage is one in which animals dominate. But after many
reincarnations in this stage the spirit becomes more and more human, until one
attains a deep spiritual understanding. At this point in the second stage the
Buddhist gradually begins to abandon materialism and seek a contemplative life.
The Buddhist in the third stage is ultimately able to put his ego to the side
and become pure spirit, having no perception of the material world. This stage
requires one to move from perception to non-perception. And so, through many
stages of spiritual evolution and numerous reincarnations, the Buddhist reaches
the state of Nirvana (Leek 171).

The transition from one stage to another, or the progression within a stage
is based on the actions of the Buddhist. All actions are simply the display of
thought, the will of man. This will is caused by character, and character is
manufactured from karma. Karma means action or doing. Any kind of intentional
action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as karma. All good and bad
actions constitute karma. As is the karma, so is the will of the man. A
person's karma determines what he deserves and what goals can be achieved. The
Buddhists past life actions determine present standing in life and current
actions determine the next life, all is determined by the Buddhist's karma
(Kapleau 20).

Buddha developed a doctrine known as the Four Noble Truths based on his
experience and inspiration about the nature of life. These truths are the basis
for all schools of Buddhism. The fourth truth describes the way to overcome
personal desire through the Eightfold Path. Buddha called his path the Middle
Way, because it lies between a life of luxury and a life of poverty. Not
everyone can reach the goal of Nirvana, but every Buddhist is at least on the
path toward enlightenment. To achieve Nirvana the Buddhist must follow the
steps of the Eightfold Path.

1. Right Knowledge is knowledge of what life is all about; knowledge of
the Four Noble Truths is basic to any further growth as a Buddhist.
2. Right Aspiration means a clear devotion to being on the Path toward
3. Right Speech involves both clarity of what is said and speaking
kindly and without malice.
4. Right Behavior involves reflecting on one's behavior and the reasons
for it. It also involves five basic laws of behavior for Buddhists:
not to kill, steal, lie, drink intoxicants, or commit sexual offenses.
5. Right Livelihood involves choosing an occupation that keeps an
individual on the Path;
that is, a path that promotes life and well-being, rather than the
accumulation of a lot of money.
6. Right Effort means training the will and curbing selfish passions and
wants. It also means placing oneself along the Path toward Enlightenment.
7. Right Mindfulness implies continuing self-examination and awareness.
8. Right Concentration is the final goal to be absorbed into a state of
Nirvana (Comptons).

Compliance to the path does not guarantee reaching Nirvana, but it is the
only path that leads to Nirvana. Only through following this path established
by Buddha does a Buddhist have a chance to reach enlightenment, to free oneself
from the continuous rounds of birth, death and rebirth, to have reached the
ultimate goal - to be absorbed into a state of Nirvana.


The goal in both Taoism and Buddhism is to reach the ultimate goal, to
transcend life on earth as a physical being, to achieve harmony with nature and
the universe. The ultimate goal for both religions is to achieve immortality.
The Taoist called this ultimate goal Tao, while the Buddhist seek Nirvana.
Whatever the name, the followers of these religions believe there is an
existence beyond life which can be achieved provided the right path or behavior
is followed.

The path to Tao and Nirvana are similar, yet different. Both believe there
is an inner light which guides a person in the right direction to the ultimate
goal. Personal desires must be forsaken to enable the inner light to guide a
person to achieve eternal bliss. "The teaching regarding the inner light is
just as prominent in the Taoist schools as it is among the practices of
Buddhism" (Politella 36). The inner light concept is similar, but the actual
path is the difference between Taoism and Buddhism. The path toward
enlightenment for the Buddhist was defined by Buddha in his Eightfold Path.
Only through following this path does the Buddhist reach Nirvana. The path to
Tao is individual, it comes from within. No one can define a path for the
Taoist, it must come from the inner light. "Tao means way, but in the original
and succeeding manuscripts no direct path is explored or expounded. Desire,
ambition, fame, and selfishness are seen as complications. That idea is
consistent with Buddhist teachings; it is the personal life of each individual
that gives Taoism its special form" (Leek 188).

Taoism and Buddhism perceive life, death and rebirth as a continuous cycle.
This cycle has no beginning and no end. The soul is eternal, yet the soul is
not the object of reincarnation. Taoist believe the soul is not reborn, it
"migrates to another life" (Head3 109). Buddhist also believe the soul is not
reborn, but instead a "consciousness containing the seeds of good and evil
deeds" is the object of rebirth (Leek 171).

One major difference between Taoism and Buddhism is the concept of karma to
the Buddhist. This idea that all actions are the display of thought, the will
of man, is known as karma. Karma determines the Buddhist actions and position
in life. A person's karma limits the goals which can be achieved. Karma
determines where in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth the consciousness
returns. This return can be in the form of an animal or human, and the Buddhist
must progress through a hierarchy to achieve Nirvana (Leek 171). The Taoist has
no concept similar to karma, and no mention of the soul migrating to an animal
form. The determining factor to one's life is contained in the individual
behavior for the Taoist. By forsaking personal desires in life, by
concentrating of the self, a longer life is prolonged. Eventually, by following
the inner light, immortality can be achieved.

The similarities between Taoism and Buddhism in the belief of life after
death far outweigh the differences. Both religions believe the individual must
focus on the self to achieve the ultimate goal. To focus on oneself, all
desires and personal ambitions must be forsaken. One must focus on the self and
the proper way of life to reach immortality. The cycle of life continues
indefinitely until the Thread of Life is broken. Only through proper living, by
following the correct path guided by the inner light, can one achieve the
ultimate goal of Tao or Nirvana.

By Rick Dempster


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