Buddhism and Taoism: a millennial dialogue

- through Francois Leclercq

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At fabiendefaye.fr

Buddhism and Taoism have historically competed for influence in China, resulting in a complex and mutually rewarding relationship between the two traditions. The interplay between Buddhism and Taoism is often hailed as a unique feature of China's religious and philosophical history. Each tradition has had a substantial impact on the other, resulting in partial synthesis, dialogue and absorption of concepts and practices. This interaction has been going on for more than two millennia and, with the renewed interest in spirituality in China, is more relevant than ever.

Since Taoism is one of China's few great “local” spiritual traditions, I hope here to explore the historical context of this interaction and exactly what major philosophical and ideological concepts were interchanged and synchronized.

Historical context

From a critical and historical point of view, Taoism can trace its fundamental ideas back to the Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BCE). It even has folkloric aspects that could be traced to prehistoric China, when shamanic and mythical magicians tapped into the power of ancestral spirits and natural cosmic energies to understand fate and divine the future. The semi-legendary founder Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius. Its basic text, the Daode Jingwas compiled in the third century BCE, and the oldest extant versions, the Guodian Laozi unearthed in Jingmen, Hubei province in 1993, and the Daode Jing the Mawangdui manuscripts, unearthed in 1973, date to around 300 BCE and the second century BCE respectively.

The informal following that Laozi founded emerged as a philosophical and religious movement (complete with the name " Daojia”) at the turn of the common era, during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–9 CE, 25–220 CE). It incorporated the teachings of I Chingthe School of Naturalists (yin-yangjia), and the teachings of the successor texts of the Daode Jingsuch as Zhuangzi. Meanwhile, Buddhism was founded around 2 years ago in India and came to the Han court, with one of the earliest foreign missionaries being people such as the Parthian An Shigao (fl. c. 600– 148 CE). This meant that Taoism and Buddhism first interacted around the same time that they emerged as formal bodies of religious practice that were distinct ancient systems of folk religion or ancestor worship.

Buddhism's popularity among Chinese scholars and the imperial court grew rapidly, but part of its appeal was due to the practical translation habits of Chinese and foreign monks - many of the religions' terms and vocabulary were assimilated into each other for reasons of conceptual clarity. Some even thought that Buddhism was a non-Sinitic expression of Taoism. An example of Buddhist terms that have been assimilated into Taoism is wu, which can be translated as “nothingness”, “emptiness” or “non-being”. Buddhist and Taoist interpreters and writers have equated it with Kong (Sanskrit: shunyata), which refers to the idea that all phenomena are void of inherent existence, and can be translated as "void" or "emptiness".

Strips of Guodian Laozioldest known copy of Daodejing. At baike.baidu.com

Over the centuries, from the collapse of the Han until the Sui dynasty (581-618), there was a growing feeling among Chinese Buddhists that they did not have quite the right doctrine, and even then that Taoism was going from strength to strength. , it appeared necessary to go to the original source of the teachings. This “philosophical decoupling” of Buddhism and Taoism culminated in the journeys of Chinese pilgrims to India during the Tang dynasty (618-907). These pilgrims, including Xuanzang and Yijing, traveled to India to study Buddhism and bring Buddhist teachings and texts back to China. John R. McRae argues that these Chinese pilgrims played a crucial role in the spread of Buddhism in China and that their travels also contributed to the emergence of a genuine dialogue between Buddhism and Taoism as distinct religions with distinct doctrines. different. (McRae 2003, 21-27)

Throughout their travels, Chinese pilgrim monks encountered a diversity of Buddhist teachings and practices which they brought back to China and shared with Buddhists and Taoists. Xuanzang is renowned for his Chinese translations of many Buddhist texts, including the heart sutra and Diamond Sutra. These translations helped introduce Chinese readers and scholars to new Buddhist concepts and ideas. Additionally, the Buddhist teachings encountered by pilgrims to India were often influential. For example, Yijing's travelogues reveal his reverence for the monastic discipline and meditation techniques of the Indian Buddhists he encountered. (Tansen 2006)

Philosophical notions

Buddhism and Taoism share a number of concepts that enjoy philosophical affinity, despite their separate origins. Both traditions stress the importance of attaining spiritual enlightenment or liberation. However, their respective cosmologies and nature of this so-called enlightenment or liberation are different.

For example, the Taoist concept of Dao and the Buddhist concept of Dharma stress the importance of understanding the nature of reality in order to gain spiritual liberation. (Wright 1959, 36) According to Chad Hansen, the Taoist view of the universe is that it is a process of change governed by the Tao, the way of nature, which is the fundamental principle underlying all reality, and a central tenet of Taoism is to live in harmony with it. (Hansen 2000, 105) Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of understanding the truth of reality in order to achieve spiritual liberation. However, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which lead to enlightenment. (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2010, 25-29)

Moreover, the notion of non-action (wuwei) in Taoism and the Middle Way (zhongdao) in Buddhism are important concepts that connect Taoism and Buddhism. Laozi and Future Taoist Writers Defined wuwei as acting in harmony with the natural course of the universe, without effort or imposition, while the Buddha taught as a fundamental principle the Middle Way. While the Noble Eightfold Path is a unique Buddhist schema, the Middle Way principle of avoiding extreme perspectives and actions (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2010, 13) is very much in line with the ideal of an unforced life. . Both the Middle Way and wuwei advocating moderation in one's actions and beliefs, mutually agreeing to a natural way of life aligned with reality or the law of the universe: the Dharma or the Dao.

At buddhaweekly.com

Religious practices

Beyond the somewhat academic discussions of doctrinal differences, Chinese religious practices have undoubtedly been influenced by the interaction between Buddhism and Taoism. Even today, many Chinese adhere to “both” Buddhism and Taoism in the sense that their religious practices often combine elements of both traditions. Phenomenologically, scholars and researchers have found that it is not easy to identify where one ends and the other begins.

Over the centuries, Taoist philosophers have incorporated Buddhist practices such as meditation into the body of Taoist philosophy. Buddhist philosophers were also inspired by Taoist concepts such as the meaning of nature and the unity of polarities, integrating these ideas into their own philosophical schools.

Ancestor worship is another such primary practice and is an integral part of traditional Chinese religion. It is believed that ancestors can influence the lives of their descendants, and they are frequently honored with rituals and gifts. Ancestor worship in China is influenced by both Buddhism and Taoism. Taoism is said to emphasize the natural world and the connection between the living and the dead, while Buddhism emphasizes karma and the idea that actions in this life can have consequences in the future lives. (Teiser 1988, 3-25) The ingenuity of Buddhism was to take the ancestral worldview which, on the surface, was opposed to fundamental Buddhist ideas such as rebirth and no-self (Anatta), and harmonize it so that Buddhism remains relevant to the inherited spiritual needs of Chinese devotees.

The interplay between Buddhism and Taoism in China is perhaps the best-known example of Chinese religious development. It has been notoriously difficult to classify for Western-trained philosophers and historians of religion, with the different periods variously referred to as "syncretism", "exclusivism" and varying degrees of pluralism. What is clear is that these were distinct concepts competing for influence and resulting in new ideas and practices that eventually enriched both religions. It is this mutual influence or “coming together” that has perhaps left a greater legacy on Chinese religion today than Buddhism or Taoism could have had on their own.

The references

Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2010. The Noble Eightfold Path. Colombo: Buddhist Publishing Society.

Hansen, Chad. 2000. A Taoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Laozi. 2009. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin and Todd Barton. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

McRae, John R. 2003. Seeing through Zen: encounter, transformation and genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Teiser, Stephen F. 1988. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wright, Arthur F. 1971. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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