Taoism and Buddhism are the two great philosophical and religious traditions that originated in China. Taoism began the sixth century BCE. And Buddhism came to China from India around the second century of the Common Era. These two religions have shaped Chinese life and thought for nearly twenty-five hundred years. One dominant concept in Taoism and Buddhism is the belief in some form of reincarnation. The idea that life does not end when one die is an integral part of these religions and the culture of the Chinese people.
Reincarnations, life after death, and beliefs are not standardized. Each religion has a different way of applying this concept to its beliefs. This paper will discuss the reincarnation concepts as they apply to Taoism and Buddhism, and then provide a comparison of both.
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 to come into harmony with Tao. 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. One can only achieve Tao if he rids himself of all desires. By shunning every earthly distraction, the Taoist is able to concentrate on the self. The longer the person’s life, the more saintly the person is presumed to become. Eventually the hope is to become immortal, to achieve Tao, to reach the deeper life. This is the after life for a Taoist, to be in harmony with the universe, and to have achieved Tao.
The origin of the word Tao can explain the relationship between life, and the Taoism concept of life and death. The Chinese character for Tao is a combination of two characters that represent the words as 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. Taoism upholds the belief in the survival of the spirit after death. Taoist believes birth is not a beginning, and 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.
In the writings of the Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching, Tao is described as having existed before heaven and earth. Tao is formless, it 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.
In Taoism, the soul or spirit does not die at death. The soul is not reborn, it simply migrates to another life. This process, the Taoist version of reincarnation, is repeated until Tao is achieved. The following translation from the Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching summarizes the theory behind Tao and how a Taoist can achieve Tao.
The Great Tao flows everywhere. It may go left or right. All things depend on it for life, and it does not turn away from them. It accomplishes its task, but dies not claim credit for it. It clothes and feeds all things but does not claim to be master over them. Always without desires, it may be called the Small. All things come to it and it does not master them; it may be called the Great. Therefore (the sage) never strives himself for the great, and thereby the great is achieved.
The followers of the Buddha believe that 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 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.”
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, is to accomplish total enlightenment and liberation. By achieving this goal, one can be liberated from the never ending round of birth, death, and rebirth.
Transmigration, the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, does not involve the reincarnation of a spirit, but only the rebirth of a consciousness containing the seeds of good and evil deeds. Buddhism’s world of transmigration encompasses three stages. The first stage concerns with desire, which goes against the teachings of Buddha. It is the lowest form and involves a rebirth into hell. 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 deeper spiritual understanding. At this point the Buddhist gradually begins to abandon materialism and seek a contemplative life. In the third stage, the Buddhist is 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.
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 is caused by the person’s character, and character is manufactured from karma. Karma means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action, such as mental, verbal or physical action, is regarded as karma. All good and bad actions constitute karma. A person’s karma determines what he deserves and what goals can be achieved. What the Buddhist does in his past life determines his present standing in life and that determines his next life.
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.
Step 1: “Right Understanding” is knowledge of what life is all about; knowledge of the Four Noble Truths is basic to any further growth as a Buddhist. It includes the true understanding of ourselves, of our real motives, of our hopes and fears, envies and hatreds.
Step 2: “Right Thought” is those thoughts that are free from lust, form ill-will, and from cruelty. It means a clear devotion to being on the Path toward Enlightenment.
Step 3: “Right Speech” involves both clarity of what is said and speaking kindly and without malice. It avoids harsh language and foolish talk. It is the speech which is true, kind, efficacious and to the point.
Step 4: “Right Action” involves reflecting on one’s behavior and the reasons for it. It also involves five basic laws of actions for Buddhists: not to kill, steal, lie, drink intoxicants, or commit sexual offenses.
“Kill not, for pity’-sake, and lest ye stay
The meanest thing upon its upward way.
Give freely and receive, but take from none
By greed, or force, or fraud, what is his own.
Bear not false witness, slander not, nor lie;
Truth is the speech of inward purity.
Shun drugs and drink which work the wit abuse;
Clear minds, clean bodies need no Soma Juice.
Touch not thy neighbor’s wife, neither commit
Sins of the flesh, unlawful and unfit.” – (Light of Asia)
Step 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. It would exclude the professions of soldier, fisherman, hunter, or any profession that kills, harms or promotes the hurting of any living being.
Step 6: “Right Effort” is the effort to avoid wrong conditioning factors. It means training the will and curbing selfish passions and wants. It also means placing oneself along the Path toward Enlightenment.
Step 7: “Right Mindfulness” implies continuing self-examination and awareness.
“When a wise man, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness (mindfulness) and understanding,
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.” –(Samyutta-Nikaya 1, 13)
Step 8: “Right Concentration” is the final goal to be absorbed into a state of Nirvana. It is the kind of mental concentration which is presented in every wholesome state of consciousness, and hence is accompanied by at least Right Thought, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness.
Compliance to the path does not guarantee reaching Nirvana, but it is the only path that leads to Nirvana. Only by following this path, a Buddhist could 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 purpose in both Taoism and Buddhism is to reach the ultimate goal, to transcend life on earth as a physical being, and 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 seeks Nirvana. The followers of both religions believe there is an existence beyond life that can be achieved following the right path or behavior.
The path to Tao and Nirvana are similar, yet different. Both believe that there is an Inner Light, which guides a person in the right direction to the ultimate goal. Personal desires must be forsaken in order for 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. The Inner Light concept is similar, but the actual path is different between Taoism and Buddhism. The path toward enlightenment for the Buddhist was defined by Buddha in his Eightfold Path. The Buddhist can only reach Nirvana by following this path. On the other hand, 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.
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 believes the soul is not reborn, it “migrates to another life.” Buddhist also believes the soul is not reborn, but instead a “consciousness containing the seeds of good and evil deeds” is the object of rebirth.
One major difference between Taoism and Buddhism is the concept of karma. Karma refers to the idea that actions are the display of thought, the will of man. Karma determines the Buddhist actions and position in life. A person’s karma limits the goals that he can achieve. 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. The Taoist has no concept similar to karma, and Taoism does not mention 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, and by focusing on the self, one can live longer. 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, and by following the correct path guided by the Inner Light, can one achieve the ultimate goal of Tao or Nirvana.
Robert G. Henricks, “Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching – Translated. With an introduction and commentary”, The Bodley Head, London, 1989.
Dolly Facter, “The Doctrine of Buddha”, Phiosophical Library Inc., NY, 1965.
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