As a form of religious philosophy Daoism (Taoism) has special characteristics which can be illuminated only through comparison with other religions.
An established religion has characteristics which are distinctively different from those of other religions. Besides such external forms, as church organization, religious doctrines and canon, as well as its conception of the sacred, its characteristics should be reflected in the theoretical system which forms the core of the religion. This theoretical system usually contains a body of basic ideals and conceptual schema. For instance, the ultimate reality of the Buddhist belief, as embodied in the concepts of self-denial, transcendentalism and nirvana, is the insignia which distinguishes it from other religions. The three doctrines of the medieval Christianity--namely, "the existence of God," "the resurrection of the soul" and "free will"--form its religious philosophy and conceptual schema. If that be the case, does Daoist philosophy contain any doctrines and tenets which differ from those of other religions? I think it does, especially in the earlier form of Daoism (Taoism). Whilst almost all religions ask the question, "what happens after the demise of a person?" Daoism (Taoism) wanted to know "why humans don't die?" This basic question serves as the key to the theoretical system of Daoism (Taoism). All this shows that it has characteristics different from those of other religions. The early form of Daoism (Taoism) held that its body of belief was made up of the tenet of "the ascent of the three in one," that is, "the unity of heaven, earth, and man for the attainment of the Great Peace" (tian-di-ren, sanzhe heyi yi zhi taiping); "the blending of the essence, breath, and shen to become a saint" (jing-qi-shen, sanzhe hunyi er cheng shenxian). From this it evolves into "non-death and eternal life" (zhong-shen busi), "resurrection of the bodies" (routi feisheng), and "transformation of the breath into the three pure ones" (qihua sanqing), thus forming the basis of Daoism (Taoism).
To understand the tenets of the Buddhist philosophy, one must know the meaning of nirvana. Hence, a Russian Buddhist scholar17 wrote a book analyzing the meaning of nirvana. In Mou zhongsan's book,18 he analyzed the concept of nirvana from the Chinese Buddhist viewpoint. In studying Christianity, one should analyze the concept of "God." Thus, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) in his The City of God,19 formulated his thesis regarding the 'godliness' of the 'Almighty'. In his Shenxue Dazhu-an?° Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) put forward five parameters to prove that "God exists." In Daoist philosophy, the basic concept is breath (qi), the existence of which may be proved by the following.
First% the unity of the three in one refers to the unity of heaven, earth and man, and the reason why "heaven, earth and man" can be unified is due to the fact that the breaths of Tian-di-ren are the same. The three Jing-qi-shen (essence, breath, and god) blend to become one, and the reason why Jingqishen can be fused in one is due to the fact that the breaths of the Jingqishen are the same.
Second, the so-called one breath giving birth to the three pure ones means the three most respected worthies of Daoism (Taoism) were the manifestations of the breath, or the three layers of the most sacred heaven were manifested by breath, or qi. This also shows how the basic concept of Daoism (Taoism) came to be formed.
Third, although dao (the way) is the highest form of Daoist doctrine. its early period identified three circumstances under which the relationship between dao and qi was highlighted. The first circumstance was that dao is more basic than qi, but dao cannot be isolated from qi.
Another circumstance showed that qi is more basic than dao, because Daoism (Taoism) used qi as its prime mover--for example, Liu Xie in his A He Huo Lun21 (On the Extinction of Illusion), while citing Sampo-lun2 (The Three Breakthroughs), said "qi is the prime mover of dao." The third circumstance was the synthesis that dao is qi--for example, Tao Hongjing in his Yangsheng Yanminglu23 cited Fuqijing24 (Breathtaking Scripture) that "dao is qi." In studying the philosophical basis of the Daoist canon, if one could analyze the meaning of qi and the conceptual base upon which it is built, one would be able to gain further insight into the various salient features of Daoism (Taoism).
Hegel in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy25 said, "the difference in cultures is due to the difference in the systems of ideas." If we compare Daoism (Taoism) with other religious systems, the doctrines formulated by Daoist ideas, and the school of thought which formed the basis of these doctrines, we would be able to understand more clearly the characteristics of Daoism (Taoism). Although Daoism (Taoism) is indigenous to the Chinese, it actually owes its development to the inspiration of Buddhism when the latter spread to China. Thus, we are able to identify the rival relationship between Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism) as one of its special characteristics.
The earliest Daoist scripture, Taiping Jing, on the one hand, shows that it was influenced by Buddhism. For example, it relates to the question of conformity, a concept which was already in use in traditional Chinese thought. But in Taiping Jing this was discussed in such a detailed and outstanding manner that it became obvious that it was influenced by the Hinayanist Zen Buddhist concept of "mind control" or "control of desire." On the other hand, the scripture also shows that it was antagonistic to Buddhism. For example, Taiping Jings satirical expression, "the way of the four destructions" (sihui zhi xing), was clearly aimed at Buddhism. It also put forward the argument that "one's burden is one's responsibility" (chengfu) as a direct confrontation to the Buddhist concept of "reincarnation" (laishi baoying). After the Eastern Jin, Daoism (Taoism) gradually developed into a full-fledged religion. It had a theoretical system of its own, and consequently its differentiation from Buddhism became more and more pronounced. At that time, the differences between Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism) might be related to the following problems: (i) life and death and the form of god; (ii) the cause and effect of one's deeds and misdeeds (yinguo baoying); and (¡ii) this-worldly and other-worldly orientations. By analyzing of all these issues, we would be able to appreciate the special characteristics of Daoism (Taoism) as a religion.
In comparing Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism), we may encounter yet another question: why does not Daoism (Taoism) become a world religion as did Buddhism rather than remaining merely a Chinese religion? From the historical point of view, it is possible that Daoism (Taoism) could have spread to Korea at the end of the Northern and the Southern dynasties. Sanguo Shiji26 (The History of the Three Kingdoms)
recorded how Daoism (Taoism) spread to Korea at the beginning of the Tang dynasty but, shortly afterwards, Buddhism became popular in Korea and very soon it outran Daoism (Taoism), which thence forward ceased to retain its foothold there. During the same period, Daoism (Taoism) passed through Korea to Japan, where it might have exercised some influence on Japan's Shinto, though this does not mean that the development of Shinto was due to the Daoist influence. Unlike Buddhism, however, Daoism (Taoism) also failed to spread its wing over Japan. In history Daoism (Taoism) had even less influence on other countries (notwithstanding its continuing impact on Chinese devotees who made their homes outside China).
In my opinion, the main reason why Daoism (Taoism) could not become a world religion is that it not only contains defects in its system of beliefs and practices, but also carries a heavy load of sentiments which are peculiarly Chinese. The goal Daoism (Taoism) seeks to achieve is "non-death and eternal life" and "the sanctification of bodies." All this differs from the monotheistic doctrine that "the soul does not die." On the one hand, its theoretical arguments, such as "the sanctification of bodies" and "non-death and eternal life" are too crude and difficult to be absorbed. Consequently, Daoism (Taoism) had no alternative but to take in some Buddhist ideas, such as "when the form ceases, its spirit remains" (xingjin shen bu mie) and "the three kalpas* wheel of karma" (somshi lunhui). Thus, the spread of Daoism (Taoism) has been seriously restricted, whereas wherever it goes Buddhism has been able to take the place of Daoism (Taoism) wherever the latter goes. On the other hand, Daoism (Taoism) is too closely related to science. For the sake of preserving life, ensuring "non-death and eternal life" and sanctifying the dead it emphasizes a great deal of physical conditioning for lifting the breath (qi) of material reality to the highest level. Consequently, China's science and technology, especially medicine, came to be developed alongside Daoism (Taoism). Daoism (Taoism)'s use of science was bound to curtail its dynamism as a religion. Thus, the "non-science" and "anti-science" components, in conjunction with the basic qualities of science, began to contradict each other. Religion usually emphasizes "other-worldly orientations," but Daoism (Taoism) seems to insist instead on "this-worldly orientations" instead. Its adherents believe that they could blend "the three (jing, qi, shen) to become saints" (sanzhe heyi er cheng xian). But as a religious system Daoism (Taoism) also advocates the unity of the three (tian, di, ren) in one to ensure the Great Peace (sanzhe heyi er zhi taiping) and for this reason can be a potent disruptive force in the political process. In thus fabricating the supernatural world of the saints, Daoism (Taoism) hopes to translate the real world into an ideal one—this undeniably is a conflict of ideas.
The study of the characteristics of Daoism (Taoism) is of great importance for it enables us to understand the difference between Daoism (Taoism) and other religions. By analyzing its characteristics we are able to illuminate the salient features of Chinese culture, psychology and philosophy, as well as the direction of developments in science and technology, medicine and hygiene, and the ensuing shortcomings hidden therein. For a people to succeed in development, they must know not only the present and the future, but also the past. They must come to grips not only with the reality of political life and economic exigencies, but also with their traditional culture, religious belief and pattern of thought. Herein lies the reason why serious research must be conducted on Daoism (Taoism) so as to enable us to understand its role as a Chinese religion.
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