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Taoism vs Buddhism: Primary Differences and Similarities

January 8, 2019
HandMadeWritings Staff

This paper makes an attempt to identify the key similarities and differences between these two eastern religions, focusing on their central tenets and the overall impact on culture.

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Taoism is a religion and philosophical tradition that originated in China around 550 B.C. and is based on the philosophical ideas of Lao Tzu. It now has approximately 20−30 million followers, mostly in China, Korea, and Japan. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a religion from ancient India, dating back to the sixth century B.C. and has its foundation on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. An offshoot of Hinduism, Buddhism now has around 500 million followers globally, making it the fourth-largest religion in the world. (Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, 2018; ReligionFacts, 2018.)

Major differences between Taoism and Buddhism

How do Taoism and Buddhism differ from each other? Both religions were founded around the same time and emphasize the need to help the soul become free from its physical condition. In Buddhism, however, there is no god and everyone has to seek the truth on their own. In this way, it resembles more of a philosophy than a religion. The Buddhists believe that everything is characterized by constant change and people have to break free from their ties to the world. According to karma, a central tenet of Buddhism, all actions have consequences. Buddhists share a belief in the goal of overcoming suffering and rebirth by attaining enlightenment, known as Nirvana. In contrast, Taoists worship deities, even if Tao itself is not a god but rather the natural order of the universe that guides everything impersonally. The main goal of Taoists is to achieve balance in life and reach immortality through Tao. For them, the concept of sin doesn’t exist, people are equal, and all creatures should be respected. (SpiritualRay, 2018.)

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While reincarnation plays a role in both religions, Buddhists want to break the cycle of reincarnation and Taoists believe that the soul is eternal and will eventually become one with Tao. What is understood by reincarnation is also markedly different. For Buddhists, it doesn’t entail a belief in the existence of a soul of or any life after death. The teachings of Taoism are meant to help people connect to the energy of the universe and become one with it. For Buddhists, nirvana is the highest form of enlightenment and the ultimate goal in life. It can only be attained by living morally, respecting all life forms, and letting go of one’s attachments to this world. Adherents to both religions use temples and shrines as a place of worship. (TheyDiffer.com, 2018.) It’s a common misconception that both Taoism and Buddhism believe in life after death. While true for Taoism, Buddhists don’t share the belief that we continue to exist after death. According to Buddhists, belief in an eternal soul is a misconception of the human consciousness. There are some differences between the two main branches, Theravada and Mahayana but they both share the same idea called anatta which refers to the doctrine of non-self. Based on this doctrine, there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul in any living beings. Anatta is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism along with dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanence). For Buddhists, a life cycle has no beginning or an ending which means that life, death, and rebirth are perceived as a continuous cycle.

According to Taoism, the soul or spirit can never die. It will only move to another body which is to reborn as a different person. This rebirth cycle will be repeated until one obtains Tao. Taoists say that every person possesses an inner light which guides us back to a clear mind and pulls away from distractions. Following this inner light is the only way to attain Tao. Taoists also believe that the human soul has the ability to travel through space and time and become immortal after reaching Tao. (ReligionFacts, 2018.)

One of the main concepts in both religions is emptiness. In Taoism, emptiness has two meanings. The first one relates to the qualities of the Tao where it’s seen as the opposite of fullness. In this sense, it’s closer to the concept of emptiness in Buddhism. The second one has more to do with each individual’s state of mind, or the inner realization that is characterized by simplicity, patience, and restraint. It’s thus associated with a lack of worldly desires and includes actions that arise out of this state of mind. In Buddhism, the concept of emptiness, also known as void or openness, relies on the understanding that no separate and permanent entities exist in our world. Instead, everything is the result of an infinite number of causes and conditions. (O’Brien B., 2018.) This is described as a product of dependent origination, a key principle of Buddhist teachings claiming that no beings or phenomena can exist independently of other beings and phenomena. For Buddhists, therefore, nothing is absolute and the self is only an illusion caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. (Reninger E., 2017.)

What separates the Buddhist idea about the cycles of life from the one held by Taoists is that there is no teaching of a first cause. How did all of this causing and ceasing to exist began in the first place? It’s neither explained nor discussed in the Buddhist philosophy. Rather, they stress the understanding of nature as we can perceive it in our time instead of speculating what might have been in the past or what might happen in the future. All things are the way they are because they’re conditioned by other things. The self is an illusion and nothing is permanent because of constant change. (Reninger E., 2017.)

According to the Taoist beliefs, Tao is the first cause of the universe, a force that flows through all life that exists. The primal forces of the feminine and the masculine, or the yin and the yang, have an important role in the Taoist creation myth. They are, by their nature, opposing qualities but still equal in all respects and remain separate entities forever. At the beginning of time, there was only chaos. This elemental cosmos laid dormant for thousands of years in the form of an egg. Once the incubation period was complete, the egg hatched and the heavens and the earth came into existence. The lighter and purer substances floated upward and became the heavens, named yang. The heavier and more impure substances descended and became the earth, named yin. From these same forces, Pangu was born. Together with the assistance of four other creatures, Pangu as the first living being created the world as we know it today. (HowStuffWorks, 2017.) This is in contrast with Buddhism which lacks any creation myth. Given that, Taoism shares the belief that our world has an organizing principle with most of the world’s religions. In Buddhism, however, there is no creative force that appears first and gives life to everything that exists. It simply chooses not to speculate such things as it doesn’t change anything. To the Buddhists, the self doesn’t even exist so it’s meaningless to consider any reasons for our existence. Most Buddhists are satisfied with the naturalist approach of science and don’t believe in the supernatural.

If we look at the differences between Taoism and Buddhism from beyond the scope of beliefs and religion, the two also have distinct approaches to handling problems in life such as those concerning health. According to Taoism, there is a natural order to everything in this world, and one must understand the nature first before solving any problems. The concept of yin and yang states that our reality is binary and comprised of the combination of two opposite elements. When these two elements are balanced, together they form the entirety of what exists. Taoists believe that they have to conquer the defectiveness of the human soul by obtaining a balance of oneself. A mysterious force or energy called Chi was introduced to describe a force that has set the world and everything in it into motion. (HowStuffWorks, 2007.) Chi exists in everyone’s body and it’s believed that it has the ability to heal illnesses.

Tai Chi, a Chinese exercise and internal martial art, is based on the concept of yin and yang which can help circulate and balance the Chi in our bodies. Tai chi is practiced for both its health benefits and defense training purposes. For Taoists, illnesses are caused by an imbalance of Chi which is controlled by the circulation of energy in the body. (TheGuardian, 2017.) Buddhist beliefs differ from this in the sense that they consider illnesses part of life that should be accepted as they come. Buddhists pursue meditation as a path toward liberation and awakening, ultimately reaching Nirvana. Meditation is seen as a way to take responsibility for one’s states of mind. It thus has the ability to transform the mind, and the meditation techniques can develop one’s concentration, emotional positivity, clarity, and calmness after seeing of the true nature of things. Unlike Taoists who heal their illnesses by balancing the opposing forces and conducting Chi, Buddhists use medications. However, Buddhists emphasize the nature of life and prefer herbal medications extracted and purified from plants. (TheBuddhistCentre, 2018.)

When it comes to relationships, Taoists see women representing Yin and men representing Yang, and the way to harmony means that a woman and a man should get in a relationship and commit to each other. A balance is achieved when the man accepts the yin chi from the woman and the woman receives yang chi from the man. Sometimes, the concept of marriage is linked with Tao in the sense that marriage can be seen as a path towards the future and new life can be created through marriage. Babies are perceived as new life and the hope for the future. Because Taoists stress the importance of a balance between opposing forces, the relationship between a husband and a wife should also be characterized by a peaceful harmony. This means that conflicts and serious arguments should be avoided as much as possible. The couple can achieve this harmony by behaving in a loving and caring manner and by showing empathy, humility, and compassion for one another. To achieve this state of mind, one has to practice self-reflection and emotional control and try to understand other people. (Huffington Post, 2012.) For Buddhists, marriage is a choice and there is no obligation for them to marry. In Buddhism, marriage is often considered a secular affair instead of a sacrament. Cohabitation is allowed as long as it makes both individuals happy. Unhappiness can prevent the couple from reaching enlightenment. Divorce and remarrying are allowed and can even be regarded as compassionate actions if they make the individuals happier and reduces their suffering. Those who choose to get married can obtain blessings from the monks at their local temple. (BBC, 2017.)

Overall, Taoism and Buddhism seem to have many similarities as ancient eastern religions that provide guidance for people on how to live good lives, behave ethically, and develop kindness and compassion for other people. When looking at the end goals, however, there are sharp differences. Achieving Nirvana is not the same as attaining Tao because Buddhists dismiss the whole existence of self and Taoists believe in the immortality of the soul. This is the most profound difference between them as it affects everything else. It means that they view the concept of rebirth differently, and it also affects how they consider social practices such and relationships and marriage.

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