Week Thirteen

Taoism
It is always present in you. You can use it anyway you want.


— Lao-tzu
Taoism is one of the two great philosophical and religious traditions
that originated in China. The other philosophy native to China is
Confucianism. Both Taoism and Confucianism began at about the same time,
around the sixth century B.C. China’s third great religion, Buddhism, came
to China from India around the second century of the common era. Together,
these three faiths have shaped Chinese life and thought for nearly twenty-
five hundred years. One dominate concept in Taoism and Buddhism is the
belief in some form of reincarnation. The idea that life does not end
when one dies is an integral part of these religions and the culture of
the Chinese people. Although not accepted by our beliefs, its
understanding helps build strength in our own religion. Reincarnation,
life after death, beliefs are not standardized between the religions.
Each religion has a different way of applying this concept to its beliefs.

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Ignorance of these beliefs is a sign of weakness in the mind. To truly
understand ones own religion, one must also understand those concepts of
the other religions of the world. Hopefully this will be an enlightenment
on the reincarnation concepts as they apply to Taoism and Buddhism.

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 with Christians, for Taoism is
not monotheistic. The focus is not to worship one god, but instead on
coming 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. It is only when one rids himself of all
desires can tao be achieved. By shunning every earthly distraction, the
Taoist is able to concentrate on life itself. The longer the one’s life,
the closer to tao one is presumed to have become. Eventually the hope is
to become immortal, to achieve tao, to have reached the deeper life. This
is the afterlife for a Taoist — to be in harmony with the universe.

To understand the relationship between life and the Taoism concept of
life and death, the origin of the word tao must be understood. The
Chinese character for tao is a combination of two characters that
represent the words head and foot. The character for foot represents a
person’s direction or path. The character for head represents a 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 notion 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. To
have attained the human form must be always a source of joy for the Taoist.

It is truly a reason to rejoice because despite whatever is lost, life
always endures. Taoists believe 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. It is possible to
see death in contrast to life; both are unreal and changing. One’s soul
does not leave the world into the unknown, for it can never go away.
Therefore there is no fear to come with death.

In the writings of The Tao Te 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, one can achieve tao. In
ancient days, a Taoist that had transcended birth and death and achieved
tao was said to have cut the Thread of Life. The soul, or spirit, is
Taoism does not die at death. The soul is not reborn, it migrates to
another life. This process, the Taoist version of reincarnation, is
repeated until tao is achieved.

The followers of the Buddha believe life goes on through a repitition of
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 or until one achieves Nirvana. The Buddhist
definition of Nirvana can be summerized as the highest state of spiritual
bliss, absolute immortality through absorption of the soul into itself,
while 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, represents total enlightenment and liberation.

Only through achieving this goal is one liberated from the never ending
cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Transmigration, the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and rebirth,
involves not the reincarnation of a spirit but the rebirth of a
consciousness containing the seeds of good and evil deeds. Buddhism’s
world of transmigration encompasses three stages. The first stage in
concerned with desire, which goes against the teachings of Buddha and is
the lowest form and involves a rebirth into any number of hells. 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 deep spiritual understanding. At this point in the second
stage the Buddhist gradually begins to abandon materialism and seek a
contemplative life. The Buddhist in the third stage is ultimately able to
put his ego to the side and become a 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 will is caused by character,
and character is manufactured from karma. Karma means action or doing.
Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is
regarded as karma. All good and bad actions constitute karma. As is the
karma, so is the will of the man. A person’s karma determines what he
deserves and what goals can be achieved. The Buddhists past life actions
determine present standing in life and current actions determine the next
life — all is determined by the Buddhist’s karma.

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 this
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 Noble Eightfold Path. The path
consists of knowledge of the truth; the intention to resist evil; saying
nothing to hurt others; respecting life, morality, and property; holding a
job that does not injure others; striving to free ones mind of evil;
controlling one’s feelings and thoughts; and practicing proper forms of
concentration.

Compliance to the path does not guarantee reaching Nirvana, but it is
the only path that leads to Nirvana. Only through following this path
established by Buddha does a Buddhist 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 goal in both Taoism and Buddhism is to reach the ultimate goal, to
transcend life on earth as a physical being, 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 seek Nirvana. Whatever the name, the followers of these
religions believe there is an existence beyond life which can be achieved
provided the right path or behavior is followed.

The path to Tao and Nirvana are similar, yet different. Both believe
there is an inner light which guides a person in the right direction to
the ultimate goal. Personal desires must be forsaken to enable the inner
light to guide a person to achieve eternal bliss. The teachings that
discuss the inner light of a person are as well renowned in the Tao
philosophy as that of the Buddhist. The inner light that is sought is
similar, but the actual path is the primary difference between Taoism and
Buddhism. The path toward enlightenment for the Buddhist was defined by
Buddha in his Eightfold Path. Only through following this path does the
Buddhist reach Nirvana. The path to Tao is individual, it comes from
within. No one can define a path for the Taoist, it must come from within.

Tao means the way, but this way is never taught. Desire, ambition, fame,
and selfishness are seen as complications to the end. 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 believe the soul is
not reborn. Instead it migrates to another life. Buddhist also believe
the soul is not reborn, but instead consciousness is the object of rebirth.


One major difference between Taoism and Buddhism is the concept of karma
to the Buddhist. This idea that all actions are the display of thought,
the will of man, is known as karma. Karma determines the Buddhist actions
and position in life. A person’s karma limits the goals which can be
achieved. 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 no mention of
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, by concentrating of the self, a longer life is
prolonged. 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, by following the correct path guided by the inner light,
can one achieve the ultimate goal of Tao or Nirvana.


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