10 A Comparative Look At Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism Throughout history, great civilizations and people have risen and fallen, and during their fleeting existence, religious activities have assumed important functions in those societies. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Islam, are three legacies left by great men, which still have a profound affect on society.
Like with all human inventions, though, these three philosophies are all relative to each other : They are comparable in their simplicity of beliefs, the emphasis they placed on the role of women within their society, and the transformation into different sects in later years; but differ from each other in their emphasis in each field respectively. The basic doctrines of these three philosophies can be readily compared with each other. They each carry their tenets in a basic, simple format which is easy to understand and follow. Their beliefs also provide an ethical code encompassed within their beliefs, and each has an objective to attain through simple means.
In Buddhism, the fundamental beliefs are to recognize life as cycle of birth and rebirth, and to overcome this cycle to attain Nirvana. The fundamental beliefs of Buddhism are contained in The Four Noble Truths, which are : 1. Life is suffering, 2. Suffering is caused by desire, 3.
The way to end suffering is to end desire, 4. The way to end desire is to avoid the extremes of a life vulgar materialism and of self-torture, and to follow the Middle Path(Eightfold Path).1 Following the Middle Path, to Buddha is the way to overcome the painful cycle of life, and are relatively simple practices. They are thus: 1.
Right understanding, or views: recognizing that material security does not bring peace of mind and that rituals do not erase the effects of pass acts; 2.Right motives: the quality of the drive behind the thinking and being free from carnal thirst, malevolence, cruelty, etc…
; 3.Right speech: not indulging in cruel and harsh talk, thereby being able to establish a link between ‘right motives’ and ‘right action’; 4.Right action: any actions that proceed from an unobstructed mind. This also includes abstaining from unwholesome actions and performing those which are beneficial; 5.
Right means of livelihood: the idea of not harming living things through any means, and to abstain from indulging in anything which would cloud the mind; 6.Right effort: efforts taken to encourage the development of of the other paths and to discourage any hindrances; 7.Right mindfulness: to prevent the excessive development of of one path at the expense of another; 8.Right meditation: to quiet the mind and present true pictures to the mind of any hindrances to the Middle Path.
2 The Middle Path, as seen above, is an ethical code for a relatively simple life of performing good deeds, not harming yourself and others, and maintaining ethical thoughts and frame of mind. By following the Middle Path, a person would eventually reach enlightenment and be able to achieve Nirvana. To the Buddha, Nirvana is the extinction of self hood and a final reunion with the Great World Soul3. Similar to Buddhism, Islam is also a simple faith with simple teachings, with an easily obtainable objective.
Islam’s beliefs though are held in a monotheistic framework ,and in what is known as the “Five Pillars of Islam.” The supreme deity of Islam is Allah and obeying the will of Allah is done by following the “Five Pillars of Islam.” They are thus: 1.Every Muslim must utter “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet”; 2.
Every Muslim must pray five times a day and publicly on Friday at noon; 3.Every Muslim must give alms(charity) to the poor and unfortunate; 4.During the holy month of the Ramadan, every Muslim must fast from dawn to sunset; and 5.Every Muslim must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
4 Along with the “Five Pillars”, Muslims(followers of the Islam faith) must also abstain from eating pork, gambling, drinking alcoholic beverages, and engaging in dishonest behavior. These “rules” are the basic laws a Muslim must obey, and they do not require too much effort from the individual or put a strain on the individual. By following them and by obeying the will of Allah, a Muslim is guaranteed a place in an eternal paradise filled with sensual delights. This eternal paradise is the objective of those who are faithful to Allah and Islam.
Confucianism is also similar to the others, in its simplicity in teachings and adherence. First Confucianism deals with the rational cosmic order and the organization of worldly affairs. Confucian belief is that all humans were endowed with their own Dao(Way), which was dependent on their role in life, and it was the individuals duty to live accordingly to their Dao, and not to ignore it. And by following their Dao accordingly, then their own affairs and those of the community would prosper.
From this philosophy comes the concept of duty and humanity. In the concept of duty, the individual sacrifices his personal interests and desires for the “good” of the family, community, and state. With the concept of humanity, this consists of compassion and empathy for others.5 These are the central concepts of Confucianism, where the objective of its followers is for the affairs of the state, community, and individual to be prosperous and harmonious.
Though Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism share the common ground of simplicity in teachings and adherence, they differ from each other sharply. First is the emphasis of each philosophy. Buddhism is sometimes called a reinterpretation of Hinduism, but is not a religion. Buddhism does not emphasize a god, nor the need to worship a god, but the adherence to an ethical lifestyle.
On the otherhand, Islam is a religion(called a “Religion of The Book”) and emphasizes a supreme deity, Allah, and the need to obey his will. Whereas Confucianism as a philosophy, does not emphasize a higher metaphysical order(other than the Dao), nor does it emphasize the necessity to worship a deity. Confucianism is also not a reinterpretation of the some other religion or philosophy, either. Confucianism can be seen as a political philosophy, because Confucius’ philosophy took shape during China’s “Spring and Autumn Period”- a period of quarrelling and fighting among regional political leaders.
6 Confucius looked to the Golden Age of Zhou, in lamentation and inspiration of his philosophy. He is quoted to have said: The practice of the Great Way, the illustrious men of the Three Dynasties – these I shall never know in person. And yet they inspire my ambition..
7 Thus each philosophy’s emphasis is the difference, in the similarities of each one. With Buddhism, its emphasis is on a mere ethical lifestyle. With Islam, it is obedience to and adhering to the will of a deity, Allah. And finally with Confucianism, emphasizing the “greater good” of the state and community.
Another difference between Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism, is the ultimate objective(or “salvation” as some may have it) of each philosophy. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to defeat the painful cycle of life and attain enlightenment(Bodhi). On attaining bodhi, the individual can reach the final reunion with the Great World Soul(Nirvana). This is not like a heavenly salvation, nor an eternal paradise.
Nirvana is “likened to a dreamless sleep or to a ‘blowing out'(as of a candle).”8 Islam, on the otherhand, does not emphasize a heavenly salvation, nor an eternal sleep nor a Great World Soul. Islam does, however, offer the hope of attaining a place in an eternal paradise of sensual delights, through devotion and worship of Allah. The sensual delights probably consisted of pleasures not found in the geograhical region of the Arabian desert.
Thus, Confucianism is totally different from both Buddhism and Islam. Confucianism does not offer a reunion with the Great World Soul, nor does it offer an eternal paradise of sensual delights: It does offer to the individual, if one lives according to his Dao, the hope to have the affairs of society(state, community, and individual) to be in order and prosperous. In all, each philosophy does emphasize an objective ,or form of “salvation”, though each one differs dramatically : Buddhism, with its abstract Nirvana; Islam, with an eternal paradise; and Confucianism, with the secular prosperity of the state, community, and individual. Another similar aspect which Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism share is the vulgarization ,or sectionalism, each experienced later in the centuries.
Each underwent a transformation, years after the founding individual had died. For Buddhism, it was the division into the two sects, Mahayana and Theravada(Hinayana). Later the Mahayana sect became further transformed into four other sects. Like Buddhism, Islam also underwent a transformation into two factions, the Shi’ites and the Sunnites.
Confucianism, like Buddhism and Islam, underwent a form of modification into Neo-Confucianism. With Neo-Confucianism, two new schools appeared. The School of Reason and School of Mind. Their transformation, though, affected each one differently.
For Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism, their shared aspect of modification is also the differences between them, as to how it affected each one individually. For Buddhism, the modification of the belief became a complete vulgarization of Buddha’s original belief. Buddhism went from an ethical philosophy to a Salvationist religion. Buddhism split into two sects Mahayana and Therevada(Hinayana), with Therevada maintaing the traditional beliefs and Mahayana becoming the Salvationist religion of Buddhism.
It emphasized the worship and devotion to Buddha as a God, Nirvana as a heavenly salvation, and the worship of bodhisattvas(those who achieved bodhi) as saints. Mahayana was furthered divided into four sects which further degenerated Buddha’s original message: Chan-emphasized meditation could bring enlightenment instantly; Pureland-emphasized Nirvana as a form of heavenly salvation; Tantrism-emphasized the use of special gestures and symbols to call upon mystical powers; and White Lotus-emphasized the second coming of the Buddha and and to rebel against existing regimes.9 These beliefs along with the Mahayana completely altered Buddha’s original message. For Islam, it did not undergo such a dramatic change as Buddhism.
For Islam, the religion divide into two sects: The Sunnites and the Shi’ites. The two factions retained the original teachings of Mohammed, but struggled over who should lead the Islamic nation, after the death of Mohammed. Like Buddhism and Islam, Confucianism also underwent a change and appeared as Neo-Confucianism. With Neo-Confucianism, the nature of thinking and learning changed.
The School of Reason and the School of Mind were the two current sects of “New” Confucian thinking. The School of Mind emphasized instrospection and self-learning ,while the School of reason emphasized education for all and investigation into all matters, but both were abstract and enjoyed a fleeting popularity. Thus the changes to Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism were very different in the effects each had on the ideology. Another shared principle between Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism, is the endorsement of the inequality of the sexes.
Specifically, the low social status that the women procured in each society. In Buddhism, though women could join the monasteries, there was a secondary(if not menial) status of women. As Buddha had written to one of his followers, Ananda: Women are soon angered, Ananda; women are full of passion, Ananda; women are envious, Ananda; women are stupid, Ananda. That is the reason, Ananda, that the cause, why women have no place in public assemblies, do not carry on a business, and do not earn their living by any profession.
10 In Islamic society, women were no better off than their earlier Buddhist counterparts. Islamic culture encouraged the cloistering of women at home and prohibiting the social contacts with males outside the family. Also, the women were often required to dress in a custom, which would cover their entire body. This is probably due more to custom than religion, because in the Koran men were admonished to treat women with respect and women were allowed to own property.
They were, however, better off than their Buddhist and Confucian counterparts. Confucianism also did little to encourage the equality of men and women. Confucius did not belittle or denigrate the importance of the woman’s role as a mother and a homemaker, but it is evident that in his hierarchal Five Relationships, that he acknowledged that women took a secondary status in society. His Five Relationships are: 1.
Emperor to subjects 2.Father to son 3.Husband to wife 4.Elder Brother to younger brother 5.
Elder Friend to younger friend.11 From Confucius’ Five Relationships, it is obvious that women had a role of little importance in the daily rituals of society. For Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism, the shared ideology of the lowly stature of women is common to all three, though custom more than religious ideology affected the status of women in society. Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism are legacies left by three very great and very different individuals.
Each philosophy, though different, shared certain aspects between each other: Simplicity in beliefs and adherence as an ethical philosophy, the emphasis of the low status of women in each society, and the fact that each became modified ,or vulgarized, to suit the needs of its followers. But their shared aspects are also what contrasts each of them, in that each emphasized the different needs of man and his society.