Friday, April 29, 2011

Essay: Similarities and Differences between Buddhism and Taoism

In the past few years I took some university courses. One Humanities course was titled ‘East Meets West’. I thought it might be of general interest to convert some of my essays into blogs. This example looked at the question: 
What are the most fundamental similarities and differences between Buddhism and Taoism?

Buddhism and Taoism have many similarities with some fundamental differences.  They were both based on the teachings of two particular master sages born in Asia more than 2500 years ago.  They are both concerned with the correct paths for right-thinking people and both preach simplicity and contemplation.  Yet Taoism is more concerned with the riddle of life here and now while Buddhism is more concerned with breaking the eternal cycle of pain and suffering.  Taoism’s basic teachings are mystical aphorisms for contemplation; while Buddhism presents many laws and precepts that can be followed to affect a person’s karma or destiny.
Buddhism is generally based on the teachings of a very real person named Siddhartha Gautama.  The dates for his birth and death are commonly given as 563 BCE to 483 BCE.  He became known as a Buddha or the Awakened One after his personal enlightenment.  His teachings were written down by others a few hundred years after his death.  While different schools of thought – such as the greater vehicle of the Mahayana Tradition and the Zen monks with their contemplative puzzles – have interpreted and expanded Buddha’s teachings in many ways, these schools are all based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
In Siddhartha’s early life he had lived a pampered life hidden from the pain of others.  Later, he spent years struggling with ritual and ascetic practices without ever overcoming the suffering of human existence.  Finally he sat under a tree, meditated, cleared his mind and looked within himself.  With his insight he saw the folly of struggle and realized the middle path.  He overcame the temptations of Mara.  He saw all that there was to be known and was ready to take the path to the ultimate stage of Nirvana; but he hesitated.  He was now ready to leave this earth of dirt and suffering but in the past he had pledged to bring peace to the world.
The Buddha realized that there many who would welcome his message of the way to overcome pain and suffering; he knew that there were many who could overcome Samsara or the eternal wheel of birth, death and reincarnation.  He stepped back from the brink and began to teach others his Middle Way.
 Taoism is based on the writings and ideas of Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), who was said to be a contemporary of Confucius. Some scholars have disputed the existence of a single historical person; since, once again, his teachings were written down and reinterpreted a few centuries after his death.  Chuang Tzu was the most famous interpreter and recorder of the teachings of Lao-Tse
Lao-Tse saw himself as the Old Master showing others the path to contemplation and enlightenment.  Just as Siddhartha Gautama stopped on the path to enlightenment, Lao-tse stopped on his path to the Western mountains.  At the urging of a gatekeeper, Lao-Tse stopped for three days and wrote the small book of teachings that would bear his name.  This book illustrated the methods for people to achieve inner peace and calmness.  Like the teachings of Buddha, his words seem simple and at first glance many of his concepts seem quite easy to understand. In practice though it has been quite hard for people to understand and follow his simple words.
Neither Buddhism and and Taoism spend much time worrying about the details of earthly existence.  The disciple Malunkyaputta[1], noted a number of points that the Buddha had not discussed.  These included whether the world is eternal or infinite and if the soul exists without the body.  Buddha said discussing these moot points is like a man who has been shot with an arrow and then does not want it taken out until he has learnt the name and caste of the man who wounded him.  Buddha said that “I have not explained what I have not explained… and what have I explained?”  He had explained misery, “the origin of misery, the cessation of misery, and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I explained”.  Everything else was of much less importance.
Buddha’s offerings to his disciples included an Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths.  He provided practical hints for meditation.  Other earthly details were not for him to worry about.  For his disciples, the knowledge of details was to be achieved through self-awareness, observation and meditation.
Similarly, Lao-Tse taught the power of repose and acceptance.  He said that great things are achieved by becoming as tranquil as still water.  He warned about gaining too much useless knowledge.  He wrote that the “reason that it is difficult for the people to live in peace / Is because of too much knowledge.”  He was a master of keeping things simple.  As it is written in one translation:
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Perhaps the biggest difference between these two religious paths is that Taoism seems more concerned with what is happening here and now.  Lao-Tse provided advice for governors regarding their relations with their country’s people.  He was concerned with living with the Tao of nature in the world we currently inhabit.  Buddha is concerned with stopping the endless cycle of reincarnation.  He was more concerned with inner peace and what comes at the end of this current existence.  His advice to princes and kings is simply to give everything away and prepare for the next world.
Buddhism is concerned with achieving a state of Nirvana or perfect peace of the mind.  Taoism is concerned with achieving acceptance of the nature of Tao which is the fundamental nature of the universe.
In conclusion, both Lao-Tse and Buddha taught the power of inner peace, acceptance and contemplation.  Buddha was more concerned with escaping from the pain of this world.  Lao-Tse was more concerned with overcoming by acceptance and the lack of struggle.

References used in this Essay
Lin Yutang. (ed) The Wisdom of China and India
New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1955.
Novak, Philip. The World's Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions
San Francisco, USA: HarperSanFrancisco 1994
Tao Te Ching as translated by Stephen Mitchell Tao Ching
Harper Perennial; compact edition
(Quotation from this translation was retrieved

[1] This paragraph largely based on Page 63 and 64 of The World’s Wisdom.
[2] Stephen Mitchell translation chapter 67.

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