The following is an essay that is a comparison of Buddhism to Daoism
A Tale of Two Temples
“All things come to flower and fullness and then return to the root from which they grew.
To return to the root from which they grew is perfect stillness.
In attaining stillness they fulfill their destiny. In turning back they join the...”
In turning back they join the what? Do they return to the Dao or to the Buddha? As one begins to unfold the differences between the Eastern religions, it becomes more apparent the similarities that bind the religions of Daoism and Buddhism. Buddhism, based on seeking enlightenment, and Daoism, searching to find balance, must share some likenesses in their equally difficult journeys of self-discovery. The two religions are similar in ideals, practice, and even join together in the religion of Chan Buddhism.
The principles of the two converge when the feeling of a higher state of being is involved. Contrary to common knowledge, Buddhism and Daoism aren’t religions in the same sense as, say, Judaism or Christianity. In their purest, original forms, both are a set of standards of living to become one with the nature which is intangible (Seeger 134). There are 7 ideas that are essential to Daoism; they are called the 7 “pillars” (Too 15). The concepts of the two belief systems are so complex that the fifth pillar of Daoism is quite similar to Buddhist beliefs. To understand everything, including one’s place in the universe, deep meditation is required in the two (Too 20). The first pillar of Daoism directly relates to Buddhism. The concept is that the material world and the spiritual world exist simultaneously, with the nothing existing where there is something. In Buddhism matter is void and the emptiness is form (Too 16). The way to become one with the flow of nature, the Dao, is to be a generally good person. In the Buddhist eight-fold path, one finds enlightenment at the end of acting good in all areas of life (Too 135). The seventh and most important pillar says that all beings’ ultimate goal should be the return to the source, which can be described as reaching divine enlightenment, much like Buddhism (Too 21). Through meditation and good behavior, then, one’s tangible world will combine with the intangible world in both belief systems. Buddhist and Daoist ideologies match succinctly when it comes to the final, most important goal and get to the goal.
But how does one reach this dream, goal, of perfect understanding? Temples were erected to teach each philosophy, though in both systems, the path to enlightenment was meant to be walked alone. Even modern day, though, when one travels to a religious place in China, he/she is likely to see all of the following: a Kuan Yin, a Buddha, and an altar to the ancestors, all alongside an array of other village gods (Lum). Why is there such a jumble of different Buddhist and Daoist ideas and symbols in temples (Seeger 134)? In practice, villagers and lay folk deviated further and further from the original idea of a godless universe. Deities were added on from many religions so that the people could receive direction on their path to wisdom (Palmer 16). In this way, both Daoism and Buddhism have become religions in every sense of the word. The peasants, with their hard daily struggles and challenges, needed someone who could hear them and help them out. Thus, the Buddhist bodhisattva (an enlightened being that stays on Earth to help) Avalokitesvara – meaning in Hindu, the lord who hears the cries of the world – became very popular in China, but with the name Kuan Yin – the Chinese translation (Palmer 4). The Daoists believed that Kuan Yin was the Queen Mother of the West, an important figure, mentioned in the Dao De Zhing and even formed cults in her honor (Palmer 16). The most common legend of how Kuan Yin came to be was the one in which she was the princess, Miao Shan. She had run away from home to become a nun. She prayed for seven years and thought only good thoughts and thus became perfect (Palmer 27). Henceforth, the god became a goddess and was worshipped by Daoists. Buddhism and Daoism both diverged from their original purpose when they came to China. They now even share a common god/goddess, Kuan Yin.
As the two came together in temples, a new sect emerged from Buddhism called Chan (The Chinese word for Zen, the most commonly known name) Buddhism. The third pillar of Daoism is that the universe is constantly changing, and that we are born and we die, and then our body becomes the earth etc., in a never-ending cycle. A belief in Mahayana Buddhism, one of the main sects in China, is that a bit of the Buddha exists in everyone. The Chan belief is that when one dies, and the body is gone, the spirit never leaves the universe, like in Buddhism. Even as one dies, and his/her form changes, like in Daoism, the collective spirit stays here and the same. There is no point in seeking enlightenment or looking to become one with the source, because you are the source (Seeger 145). Chan Buddhism directly correlates to both Buddhism and Daoism.
Daoism and Buddhism have been intertwined like a piece of rope ever since their concepts were “revealed.” It is not unreasonable, then, that the distinctions between the two slowly were erased with Chinese peasants as both became religions with a wide variety of gods and goddesses, including Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Again this occurred with the combination of the two religions in the form of Chan Buddhism. Buddhism and Daoism have drastically changed, but what really matters is that the ideals of enlightenment and self-improvement have remained the same.
Carpenter, Frances. Tales of a Chinese Grandmother. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1998. p. 37.
Lum, William. Personal interview. June 5, 2002.
Palmer, Martin, et. Al. Kuan Yin. San Francisco: Thorsons, 1995. pp. 4-5, 16, 27.
Seeger, Elizabeth. Eastern Religions. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973. pp. 97, 131, 134, 145.
Too, Lillian. Lillian Too’s Chinese Wisdom. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2001. pp. 15-16, 20-21, 135.