Asian belief systems do not closely relate to Christian mentality. Their terms sound foreign and mystical to us. Yet Asia has several very distinct worldviews that deal with life, death, and sin in its own peculiar fashion. Two of the most prominent are Buddhism and Taoism. They are intricately woven into the history of Asia. But if we look deeper – those ideas may have had a certain impact on how we perceive the world as well.
What do we know about the Asian worldview except for what we usually see on popular TV? Of course, we do possess some vague notions of Asian spirituality—the importance of meditation and the positive impacts of mindfulness. No wonder the two most common Asian philosophies, Taoism and Buddhism, are often consequently mixed together because both dwell of these practices. But in reality, those are two very different trees that just have some intersecting branches. Which religion does not speak about immortality after all?
History of Buddhism and Taoism
So what is the first difference between Taoism and Buddhism? Let us look into their past. Though both religions have emerged around 5–6th century B.C, they have evolved under different circumstances and in different areas: one in China, the other—in India.
Chinese lore considers Lao Tzu, a respected philosopher, to be the founder of the religion. This honored man lived and worked as a state librarian around 5–6 century B.C. He was interested in studying life and natural events around him. With time, he came to an idea that harmony and balance are crucial things that keep our world going. People’s selfishness, greed, and corruption are dangerous because they destroy everything. Modern researchers consider that Lao Tzu was not the real founder of Tao; in Tao Te Ching (“The Book of the Way”), he has described some already known beliefs using beautiful poetry (Robinet, 1997). Taoism very quickly gained popularity. It was at its peak during the Chinese Tang dynasty. Later, its influence went downhill. As Buddhist monks came to the state, the battle between Taoism vs Buddhism began. But Tao, or the Road, still has significant cultural influence in China even in our day and age. It is obvious even for a casual observer—just see some fantasy Chinese TV series.
Buddhism has also emerged around 5 century B.C. in India. Its founder was a prince, not a simple philosopher. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. He was a son of a small-state Rajah in Eastern India. His life had a drastic turn after he suddenly had his revelations about the world and fate—he left his palace to become a traveling teacher and soon gathered followers. He is said to have reached his ultimate goal—Nirvana after death. Consequently, his followers began calling him Gautama Buddha.
When the founder of Buddhism had passed away, many new branches of Buddhism were developed. They spread quickly conquering India, China, and even Southeast Asia. Both religions soon became powerful in their own right. In some countries, both belief systems coexisted peacefully; in others, for instance, during the Joseon dynasty in Korea, Buddhism was sometimes persecuted. The Buddhism vs Taoism competition never really subsided in other countries as well.
Main Concept of Taoism and Buddhism
Depending on how you look at both religions, they are similar and not at the same time:
- the focus is on the soul rather than the body;
- afterlife and reincarnation are important in both;
- the goal is to achieve immortality;
- meditation and righteous life are vital.
Still, a Buddhist views life very differently from a devout Taoist.
The complex path of Buddhism
Prince Siddhartha once realized: life is suffering. Emotions, desires, and selfishness lead to it. Illnesses are also an inescapable part of life. All living beings go through the cycle of life. The soul gets born into a new body that grows, gets ill and dies. Then it gets reborn again, unable to escape the Samsara—the wheel of reincarnations. The ultimate aim is escaping this ever-cycling existence. Buddhism has instructions: learn four noble truths while strictly following a Noble Eightfold Path.
What are the eight roads that form this complex path of the Buddha? Here they are:
There is only one proper way of learning. Only this correct knowledge would help a novice understand those four noble truths.
What we think and feel is crucial. Adverse emotions such as hate, greed, or envy, have to be suppressed. Desires are also a bad influence. A quiet, peaceful life without violence is the proper goal.
Words can harm. So it is important to remember their power. A virtuous person never pronounces anything harmful or aggressive towards people.
There are several acts that no follower of Buddha is allowed to do: killing, stealing, drinking alcohol, forcing sex, and lying.
- Honest work.
Despite Buddhist monks being traditionally poor without any desire for riches, regular Buddhists can earn money. But they should gain their wealth through legal means. Legal also means completely moral.
- Strength of will
A traveler that steps on this perilous path needs a strong will. It is undoubtedly hard to suppress emotions and desires without a certain inner strength.
This is a crucial concept for many practices in the East, not just the teachings of Buddha. Mindfulness means being aware of all that is happening around, both inside and outside the body. A mindful person sees everything objectively, without bias. A clear mind becomes one’s power.
We have finally reached the last aspect. It is hard to achieve all of the above goals without proper focus and concentration. Correct concentration is achieved through practicing meditation. During meditation, one’s mind clears all superficial things. As a result, one’s spiritual strength slowly grows.
Nirvana shines at the end of the tunnel of suffering. Here lies freedom from Samsara—together with immortality.
Taoism and Harmony
Another crucial difference between Taoism and Buddhism lies in how they fashion their metaphorical paths. Unlike Buddhism, Tao is a more straightforward and optimistic. While Nirvana is the end to suffering, Tao leads to an increase in the goodness and balance in our chaotic world. There are inner good qualities in everything and everyone initially. The meaning of Tao is not only about goodness and balance, though. This term also means the origin of the world. The present world is complicated, so the road to it is also difficult. To walk this way means to be following the ultimate law of all living beings. Each person has to figure out how to achieve harmony themselves. It wasn’t initially so hard. Everything was simple before humans with their emotions came about. But when humans make an effort to right the world’s precious balance, they become one with the slightly appeased universe. The fact that they also gain immortality for their own souls should not be forgotten either.
Further investigation reveals how different the views of those two philosophies actually are.
One of the recurring similarities between Buddhism and Taoism is both religions believe in life after death. All souls undergo transmigration—they leave their old bodies for new ones. This process is also known as reincarnation. Life does not end with death. Any life is just a stage in an endless circle of being constantly reborn as a new living being. But though this particular idea is common, the explanations differ.
In Taoism, immortality is the intrinsic quality of any soul. It is powerful, can cross time and space (Difference Between, 2010). That is why it gets reborn from body to body until Tao if finally achieved. There is hidden goodness, an inner light in everyone. It is a natural guide. The one who follows it makes themselves and their world better. The mind gets free of all evil influences. This way Tao is reached successfully.
The belief of the Buddhists is different. They view reincarnation as a part of eternal suffering connected with Samsara. Nirvana is the final state of it. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the soul of a human would be reborn as such. Depending on one’s actions—karma—a soul can be reborn as an animal. Good deeds can prevent this, while evil ones increase the likelihood of one being reborn as a worm or a fox. There are three stages of transmigration, according to this system.
The first stage is hell. It is populated by souls who refuse to accept Buddhist teachings and forgo everything that those teachings stand for.
You get to be reborn as an animal at the second stage. A soul that used to do something decidedly evil would transmigrate into animal forms. Unlike hell, at this stage, a soul can slowly acquire human-like features. It has a chance to be reborn as a human in a while.
If the spirit practices chastity and subdues selfishness and lust, its fate can change. It reaches the final stage where it would initially go through multiple spiritual shifts. But with practice, not only would it be reborn as a human—it would have a chance to attain Nirvana.
The concept of action, or karma, is central to these ideas. What your soul was doing in the past determines your present life. And what you are doing now can determine how your next reincarnation lives. Such actions are not always physical, even thoughts and words can influence what you are reborn into. There is no fate; only certain consequences of how we go through our lives.
Taoists also believe in karma, but they have rituals and practices that are supposed to “clean” it. Buddhists have nothing of the sort.
Mentality affects the perception of health and treatment. Tao and Buddhism agree on that, but their approaches differ. For pupils of Prince Gautama, illness is just a part of the general suffering that is life. There are two ways to fight it. For some, meditation can become a tool to pinpoint where the problem stems from. Concentration can help in understanding one’s body and environment (Knierim T., 2010). It is quite possible that by doing good deeds, a person can get better naturally. Second, Buddhists allow using medicine. As Buddhists abhor killing living things, they use only natural, herbal medicines to treat people.
Taoists in their turn do not view illness as a normal part of life. If someone is ill, it means that their body is just broken somehow. In the natural world, there are two opposite forces: Yin and the Yang. The balance of those two forces forms our world. If the Yin-Yang pair is out of balance, it influences Chi—the inner energy of the body. It can stop circulating around the body and stops in some particular place. Treating illnesses means restoring normal Chi and balance. Have you heard of Tai Chi? This practice directly stems from these ideas, as its main idea is exactly about finding harmony between energies.
The marriage of two souls is a direct consequence of trying to balance everything in the Taoist worldview. Here, a woman is Yin, and the man is Yang. When Yin and Yang meet, they create harmony. To be married is to follow Tao and create a new future road—for marriage also means children. A harmonious marriage is as important as harmony in nature. It is best to avoid conflicts between spouses. Both should be calm, loving, and have respect. Care for each other is essential. Partners should sincerely accept each other by forgetting pride and selfishness. No marriage can be viable without both sacrifice and mutual support.
For a regular Buddhist, marriage is not particularly necessary. Marriage is important mostly because sex outside of matrimony is considered a sin. Still, marriage has its own purposes. First is procreation. Having children is important not only for an individual couple but for society as a whole. Children support their parents. Family traditions are important as well (Gamage C., 1998). A second purpose is to satisfy all of one’s five senses. In a successful marriage, both partners possess several essential qualities. First, both need to have faith—they have to understand and believe each other. Three other qualities—virtue, generosity, and wisdom stem from this first requirement.
We have covered many aspects of the two main Asian worldviews and found a lot of vital differences, as well as some striking similarities. When a Buddhist and a Taoist look at life—they see opposite things. For one person, it is all suffering; the other sees creation that once was perfect, then just stumbled out of balance. Immortality here is not a real goal. It is just a method for making everything better, one soul at a time. A believer in Buddha frees the world from themselves altogether. The one who follows the shining inner path of Tao wants to return the Earth in its initial balance by making themselves worthy.