Taoism Philosophy of Mind in China Conceptual and Theoretical Matters Historical Developments: The Classical Period Historical Developments: Han Cosmology Historical Developments: The Buddhist Period Historical Developments: The Neo-Confucian Period Bibliography Introduction: Conceptual and Theoretical Matters Classical Chinese theory of mind is similar to Western folk psychology in that both mirror their respective background view of language. They differ in ways that fit those folk theories of language. The core Chinese concept is xin (the heart-mind). As the translation suggests, Chinese folk psychology lacked a contrast between cognitive and affective states ([representative ideas, cognition, reason, beliefs] versus [desires, motives, emotions, feelings]). The xin guides action, but not via beliefs and desires.

It takes input from the world and guides action in light of it. Most thinkers share those core beliefs. Herbert Fingarette argued that Chinese (Confucius at least) had no psychological theory. Along with the absence of belief-desire explanation of action, they do not offer psychological (inner mental representation) explanations of language (meaning). We find neither the focus on an inner world populated with mental objects nor any preoccupation with questions of the correspondence of the subjective and objective worlds. Fingarette explained this as reflecting an appreciation of the deep conventional nature of both linguistic and moral meaning.

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He saw this reflected in the Confucian focus on li (ritual) and its emphasis on sociology and history rather than psychology. The meaning, the very existence, of a handshake depends on a historical convention. It rests on no mental acts such as sincerity or intent. The latter may accompany the conventional act and give it a kind of aesthetic grace, but they do not explain it. Fingarette overstates the point, of course. It may not be psychologistic in its linguistic or moral theory, but Confucianism still presupposes a psychology, albeit not the familiar individualist, mental or cognitive psychology.

Its account of human function in conventional, historical society presupposes some behavioral and dispositional traits. Most Chinese thinkers indeed appear to presuppose that humans are social, not egoistic or individualistic. The xin coordinates our behavior with others. Thinkers differed in their attitude toward this natural social faculty. Some thought we should reform this tendency and try harder to become egoists, but most approved of the basic goodness of people.

Most also assumed that social discourse influenced how the heart-mind guides our cooperation. If discourse programs the heart-mind, it must have a dispositional capacity to internalize the programming. Humans accumulate and transmit conventional dao-s (guiding discoursesways). We teach them to our children and address them to each other. The heart-mind then executes the guidance in any dao it learns when triggered (e.g., by the sense organs).

Again thinkers differed in their attitude toward this shared outlook. Some thought we should minimize or eliminate the controlling effect of such conventions on human behavior. Others focused on how we should reform the social discourse that we use collectively in programming each others xin. Typically, thinkers in the former group had some theory of the innate or hard-wired programming of the xin. Some in the latter camp had either a blank page or a negative view of the heart-minds innate patterns of response. For some thinkers, the sense organs delivered a processed input to the heart-mind as a distinction: salty and sour, sweet and bitter, red or black or white or green and so forth.

Most had thin theories, at best, of how the senses contributed to guidance. While it is tempting to suppose that they assumed the input was an amorphous flow of qualia that the heart-mind sorted into categories (relevant either to its innate or social programming). However, given the lack of analysis of the content of the sensory input, we should probably conservatively assume they took the nave realist view that the senses simply make distinctions in the world. We can be sure only that the xin did trigger reactions to discourse-relevant stimuli. Reflecting the theory of xin, the implicit theory of language made no distinction between describing and prescribing. Chinese thinkers assumed the core function of language is guiding behavior. Representational features served that prescriptive goal.

In executing guidance, we have to identify relevant things in context. If the discourse describes some behavior toward ones elder, one needs a way correctly to identify the elder and what counts as the prescribed behavior. Correct action according to a conventional dao must also take into account other descriptions of the situation such as urgent, normal, etc. These issues lay behind Confucian theories of rectifying names. The psychological theory (like the linguistic) did not take on a sentential form. Classical Chinese language had no belief-grammar, i.e., forms such as X believes that P (where P is a proposition).

The closest grammatical counterpart focuses on the term, not the sentence and point to the different function of xin. Where Westerners would say He believes (that) it is good classical Chinese would either use He goods it or He, yi (with regard to) it, wei (deems:regards) good. Similarly zhi (to know) takes noun phrases, not sentences, as object. The closest counterpart to propositional knowledge would be He knows its being (deemed as) good. The xin guides action in the world in virtue of the categories it assigns to things, but it does not house mental or linguistic pictures of facts.

Technically, the attitude was what philosophers a de re attitude. The subject was in the world not in the mind. The context of use picked out the intended item. The attitude consisted of projecting the mental category or concept on the actual thing. We distinguish this functional role best by talking about a disposition rather than a belief. It is a disposition to assign some reality to a category. The requisite faculty of the heart-mind (or the senses) is the ability to discriminate or distinguish T from not-T, e.g., good from bad, human being from thief.

We might, alternately, think of Chinese belief and knowledge as predicate attitudes rather than propositional attitudes. Predicate attitudes are the heart-minds function. A basic judgment is, thus, neither a picture nor representation of some metaphysically complex fact. Its essence is picking out what counts as X in the situation (where X is a term in the guiding discourse). The context fixes the object and the heart-mind assigns it to a relevant category. Hence, Chinese folk theory places a (learned or innate) ability to make distinctions correctly in following a dao in the central place Western folk psychology places ideas. They implicitly understood correctness as conformity to the social-historical norm. One of the projects of some Chinese philosophers was trying to provide a natural or objective ground of dao.

Western ideas are analogous to mental pictographs in a language of thought. The composite pictures formed out of these mental images (beliefs) were the mental counterparts of facts. Truth was correspondence between the picture and the fact. Pictures play a role in Chinese folk theory of language but not of mind. Chinese understood their written characters as having evolved from pictographs.

They had scant reason to think of grammatical strings of characters as pictures of anything. Chinese folk linguistics recognized that history and community usage determined the reference of the characters. They did not appeal to the pictographic quality or any associated mental image individuals might have. Language and conventions are valuable because they store inherited guidance. The social-historical tradition, not individual psychology, grounds meaning. Some thinkers became skeptical of claims about the sages and the constancy of their guidance, but they did not abandon the assumption that public language guides us.

Typically, they either advocated reforming the guiding discourse (dao) or reverting to natural, pre-linguistic behavior patterns. Language rested neither on cognition nor private, individual subjectivity. Chinese philosophy of mind played mainly an application (execution of instructions) role in Chinese theory of language. Chinese theory of language centered on counterparts of reference or denotation. To have mastered a term was for the xin and senses working together to be able to distinguish or divide realities correctly. Correctly was the rub because the standard of correctness was discourse.

It threatened a regresswe need a discourse to guide our practical interpretation of discourse. Philosophy of mind played a role in various attempted solutions. Chinese philosophers mostly agreed (except for innatists) that actual distinguishing would be relative to past training, experience, assumptions and situation. However, they did not regard experience as a mental concept in the classic Western sense of the being a subjective or private content. An important concept in philosophy of mind was, therefore, de (virtuosity). One classic formulation identified de as embodied, inner dao. De though inner, was more a set of dispositions than a mental content.

The link seemed to be that when we learn a daos content, it produces de. Good de comes from successful teaching of a dao. When you follow dao, you need not have the discourse playing internally. We best view it as the behavioral ability to conform to the intended pattern of actionthe path (performance dao). It would be second nature.

We may think of de, accordingly, as both learned and natural. We can distinguish Chinese thought from Indo-European thought, then, not only in its blending affective and cognitive functions, but also in its avoiding the nuts and bolts of Western mind-body analysis. Talk of inner and outer did distinguish the psychological from the social, but it did not mean inner was mental content. The xin has a physical and temporal location and consists of dispositions to make distinctions in guiding action. It is not a set of inherently representational ideas (mental pictograms). Similarly, we find no clear counterpart to the Indo-European conception of the faculty of reason.

Euclidean method in geometry and the formulation of the syllogism in logic informed this Indo-European concept. Absent this apparatus, Chinese thinkers characterized the heart-mind as either properly or improperly trained, virtuous, skilled, reliable, etc. Prima facie, however, these were social standards threatened circularity. The heart-mind required some kind of mastery of a body of practical knowledge. Chinese thinkers explored norm realism mainly through an innatist strategy.

Innatists sought to picture the heart-minds distinctions as matching norms or moral patterns implicit in the natural stasis or harmony of the world. Return to Outline Historical Developments: The Classical Period Confucius indirectly addressed philosophy of mind questions in his theory of education. He shaped the moral debate in a way that fundamentally influenced the classical conception of xin (heart-mind). Confucius discourse dao was the classical syllabus, including most notably history, poetry and ritual. On one hand, we can think of these as training the xin to proper performance.

On the other, the question of how to interpret the texts into action seemed to require a prior interpretive capacity of xin. Confucius appealed to a tantalizingly vague intuitive ability that he called ren (humanity). A person with ren can translate guiding discourse into performance correctlyi.e., can execute or follow a dao. Confucius left open whether ren was innate or acquired in studythough the latter seems more likely to have been his position. It was, in any case, the position of Chinas first philosophical critic, the anti-Confucian Mozi.

Again concern with philosophy of mind was subordinate to Mozis normative concerns. He saw moral character as plastic. Natural human communion (especially our tendency to emulate superiors) shaped it. Thus, we could cultivate utilitarian behavioral tendencies by having social models enunciate and act on a utilitarian social discourse. The influence of social models would also determine the interpretation of the discourse.

Interpretation takes the form of indexical pro and con reactionsshi (this:right:assent) and fei (not this:wrong:dissent). The attitudes when associated with terms pick out the reality (object, action, etc.) relevant to the discourse guidance. We thus train the heart-mind to make distinctions that guide its choices and thereby our behaviorspecifically in following a utilitarian symbolic guide. Utilitarian standards also should guide practical interpretation (execution or performance) of the discourse. At this point in Chinese thought, the heart-mind became the focus of more systematic theorizingmuch of it in reaction to Mozis issues.

The moral issue and the threat of a relativist regress in the picture led to a nativist reaction. On the one hand, thinkers wanted to imagine ways to free themselves from the implicit social determinism. On the other, moralists want a more absolute basis for ethical distinctions and actions. Several thinkers may have joined a trend of interest in cultivating the heart-mind. Mencius theory is the best known within the moralist trend.

He analyzed the heart-mind as consisting of four natural moral inclinations. These normally mature just as seeds grows into plants. Therefore, the resulting virtues (benevolence, morality, ritual, and knowledge) were natural. Mencius thus avoided having to treat the ren intuition as a learned product a social dao. It is a de that signals a natural dao.

This view allowed Mencius to defend Confucian ritual indirectly against Mozis accusation that it relied on an optional and, thus, changeable tradition. Mencius strategy, however, presupposed that a linguistic dao could either distort or reinforce the heart-mind’s innate program. In principle, we do not need to prop up moral virtue educationally. Linguistic shaping, other than countering linguistic distortion, therefore, ran an unnecessary risk. It endangered the natural growth of the moral dispositions.

The shi (this:right:assent) and fei (not this:wrong:dissent) dispositions necessary for sage-like moral behavior should develop naturally. His theory did not imply that we know moral theory at birth, but that they develop or mature as the physical body does and in response to ordinary moral situations. The heart-mind functions by issuing shi-fei (this-not this) directives that are right in the concrete situations in which we find ourselves. It does not need or generate ethical theory or hypothetical choices. The xins intuitions are situational and implicitly harmonious with nature.

A well-known advocate with the natural spontaneity or freedom motivation was the Taoist, Laozi. He analyzed the psychology of socialization at a different level. Learning names was training us to make distinctions and to have desires of what society considered the appropriate sort. Both the distinctions and the desires were right only according to the conventions of the language community. Learning language not only meant losing ones natural spontaneity, it was and subjecting oneself to control by a social-historical perspective. We allowed society to control our desires.

His famous slogan, wu-wei, enjoined us to avoid actions motivated by such socialized desires. We achieve that negative by forgetting socially instilled distinctionsby forgetting language! His implicit ideal had some affinities with that of Mencius except that his conception of the natural realm of psychological dispositions was considerably less ambitious in moral terms. Interpreters usually suppose that he assumed there would be a range of natural desires left even if socialized ones were subtracted. These would be enough to sustain small, non-aggressive, agrarian villages. In them, people would lack the curiosity even to visit neighboring villages. This primitivism still requires that there is a natural level of harmonious impulses to action, but not nearly enough to sustain Mencius unified moral empire.

The LATER MOHISTS became skeptical of the neutral status of these allegedly natural heart-mind states. They noted that even a thief may claim that his behavior was natural. They watered down the conventionalism of Mozi by appealing to objectively accessible similarities and differences in nature. Our language ought to reflect these clusters of similarity. They did little epistemology especially of the senses, but supposedly, like Mozi, would have appealed to the testimony ordinary people relying on their eyes and ears.

Others (See ZHUANGZI) insisted that any apparent patterns of similarity and difference were always perspectival and relative to some prior purpose, standards or value attitude. Linguistics did shape heart-mind attitudes but neither reliably or accurately carves the world into its real parts. The Later Mohists had given a cluster of definitions of zhi (to know). One of these seemed close to consciousnessor rather to point to the lack of any such concept. Zhi was the capacity to know. In dreaming the zhi did not zhi and we took (something) as so.

They analyzed the key function of the heart-mind as the capacity to discriminate linguistic intention. Zhuangzi takes a step beyond Laozi in his theory of emotions. Zhuangzi discusses the passions and emotions that were raw, pre-social inputs from reality. He suggested a pragmatic attitude toward themwe cannot know what purpose they have, but without them, there would be no reference for the I. Without the ‘I’, there would be neither choosing nor objects of choice. Like Hume, he argued that while we have these inputs and feel there must be some organizing true ruler, we get no input (qing) from any such ruler. We simply have the inputs themselves (happiness, anger, sorrow, joy, fear). We cannot suppose that the physical heart is such a ruler, because it is no more natural than the other organs and joints of the body.

Training and history condition a hearts judgments. Ul …


Throughout history, Taoism has been one of the most influential
religions of Eastern culture. This is certainly one of the most unique
of all religions. Many Taoists, in fact, do not even consider it a
religion; and in many ways it is not. Taoists make no claim that the
Tao exists.1 That is what essentially separates Taoism from the rest of
the world religions: there is no heated debate or battle over Taoist
doctrine; there have been no crusades to spread the religion. The very
essence of Taoism is quite the opposite. Taoisms uniqueness and
open-endedness have allowed the religion to flourish almost undisturbed
and unchanged for over two thousand years.

The founder of Taoism was a man named Lao Tzu, who lived around the
year 604 B.C.E. According to Chinese legend, Lao Tzu was an archivist
in the imperial library at Lo Yang was known for his knowledge, although
he never taught.2 When Lao Tzu left his position at the library, he
went to the Chinese province of Chou. At the border, however, he was
stopped and forced to write down his teachings. During this time, he
wrote the Tao Te Ching, the major scripture of Taoism.3
After Lao Tzus death, a man named Yang Chu (440-366 B.C.E.) took up
his teachings.4 A naturalist and philosopher, Yang Chu believed highly
in self-regard and survival as the core of human nature and direction.

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His ideals were personal integrity and self-protection, and said that he
was unwilling to pluck one hair from his head even if all humanity were
to benefit from it.5
The next influential Taoist philosopher was Chang Tzu, who lived from
350-275 B.C.E. He defined existence using Lao Tzus teachings.6 He
wrote fifty-two books in response to the Tao Te Ching, thirty-three of
which still survive today.7 Using exaggeration and fantasy, he
illustrated Lao Tzus teachings and how the Tao acted in nature. His
theories spoke of a cosmic unity which encompasses all reality and
guides it naturally, without force, to its proper end.8
The Yin and Yang theory became part of Taoist philosophy around 300
B.C.E. when they were mentioned in the Hsi tzu, an appendix to the I
Ching.9 Yin and Yang are defined as the two forces in nature. They are
often called the two breaths or chi.10 Yin is the feminine
principle, representing darkness, coolness, and dampness; Yang is the
masculine principle, representing brightness, warmth, and dryness.11
Neither principle is good or bad; they are not opposites, but each is
needed to maintain stability in the universe.12 This belief holds that
everything is defined through opposition; consequently, the virtues of
balance and understanding are highly valued.13
Taoism became an official religion between 100 and 200 C.E.14 Due to
competition from Buddhism, Taoists adopted many Buddhist beliefs.
During this pivotal point in the religions history, searching for
self-knowledge and wisdom were replaced by searching for solutions to
sorrows and other physical problems.15 Alchemy and superstition became
highly popular during this period of time, as Taoists tried to escape
reality rather than to control the artificial and unnatural. Many
Taoists used magic and the concept of Tao to try to extend the physical
life rather than to focus on the afterlife.16 Gradually the religion
becomes more complicated, with a wide pantheon of gods and a ruling
The leader Chang Ling took the title Heavenly Teacher in 200 C.E. He
created a dynasty of high priests who manipulated Taoism to support a
superstitious doctrine of magic and mysticism.18 Seizing higher power
as a religious leader, he pioneered a merging of Taoism and
Zoroastrianism into a system called Five Bushels of Rice Taoism.
Eventually this developed into a society based on Mazdaism, a
Zoroastrian sect, where every believer was charged five bushels of
rice.19 Although the believers followed the basic Zoroastrian worship
format, they worshipped different gods: the Tao instead of Ahura-Mazda,
and the various Chinese folk gods in place of the Persian Angels.20
Three hundred years later, the philosopher Honen moved away from
Mazdaism and combined Taoism with Buddhism. This simplified religion he
created became known as the Pure Land School, or Amidaism. Gradually,
however, Taoism again became tied to magic, and it failed as a
religion.21 Today, only its original philosophies survive and there are
very few followers of Taoism, mostly found in Taiwan.22 Although
Taoisms religious practices deteriorated with advancing Western
influence, its philosophical aspects have outlasted those of
Confucianism and Zen Buddhism.23
For centuries, Taoism has been known as the Way of Harmony.24 This is
because Taoists believe that the Tao leads all nature toward a natural
balance. The Tao, however, is not considered to be a deity or a ruler:
it may reign but it does not rule.25 This is reflected in seven basic
statements.26 The first states that the Tao is nature. This means that
the Tao is the way of everything, the movement of everything in nature,
and all existence. The second statement is that the Tao is knowledge,
meaning that the Tao is the utmost form of understanding and wisdom and
that to understand it means to understand all. The third statement says
that the Tao is Goodness. This indicates that the Tao is the path
toward virtue, and the highest virtue of these is conforming to the
Tao. The fourth statement is that the Tao is imminent. This means that
the Tao is the source of all reality and that the Tao is inseparable.
The fifth statement tells that the Tao is being, or the process of
becoming, which characterizes reality. The sixth holds that the Tao is
felt in passiveness, not in activity. The final statement asserts that
the Tao is individual and unique for every person. Therefore, no person
can truly know the Tao outside themselves. As the Tao Te Ching states:
The ways that can be walked are not the eternal way.

The names that can be named are not the eternal name.

The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures.

The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.

Always be without desire
in order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
Always have desire
so that you may observe its manifestations.27
In essence, the universe is a pattern which cannot exist without any
part of it. Therefore, trying to alter the Tao through action is
essentially trying to destroy the balance of the universe.28
Taoists have a very simple definition of virtue, called Teh. For a
Taoist, the only virtue is to find unity with the Tao.29 This
contradicts Western religious thought because Westerners believe in
peace and salvation through action. Taoists, however, believe that
unity with the Tao requires no effort but rather passive existence
without work; by finding unity with the Tao, one can therefore find
heaven. This is explained in Lao Tzus doctrine of the three treasures,
those being love, balance, and humility.30 Love stems from and results
in kindness and consideration for others. Balance can be found through
self-control and moderation. Humility results from self-esteem and
happiness in ones status.

The Taoist path to salvation is called Wu Wei, meaning the principle
of non-action.”31 The way to attain unity with the Tao involves no
effort, ambition, discipline, or education. Therefore, each person has
an equal opportunity to attain balance. It involves a surrender to
nature: since every person is by definition part of the Tao, there is no
need or reason to seek it elsewhere. Furthermore, everyone has direct
access to the Tao because the Tao is connected to reality, and everyone
is a part of reality.32 In summary, there is no need to seek answers
outside of oneself. Through non-action the answer is revealed through
ones own existence.

Taoism is different from any other Eastern religion. According to
Lawrence Durrell, Taoism is such a privileged brand of eastern
philosophy that one would be right to regard it as an aesthetic view of
the universe rather than a purely institutional one.33 Thus, as Taoism
is a religion of non-action, Lao Tzu and his followers discouraged the
practice of rituals. As a result, Taoism has no tangible rituals.
Early Taoists, in fact, were far more concerned with everyday life than
with celebrations or worship.34 Taoists prefer to leave the question of
God unanswered.35
Taoist rituals did flourish, however, around and during the 900s.36
During this time lavish temples were built, complex rituals were
practiced, and colorful festivals were celebrated.37 The closest
lasting action in Taoism to rituals is the idea of wu-hsing.38 This is
the set of notions called the five phases (wu-hsing) or powers
(wu-te): water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.39 This concept help
philosophers build a system of correspondences and participations which
link all macrocosmic and microcosmic phenomena. Thus all seasons,
colors, directions, musical tones, animals, and other aspects of nature
correspond to the five major inner organs of the human body.40 Because
of this, many Taoists believed that the essences relating to their
respective phases nourished the organs of the body; this supposedly led
to longevity.41
Several sects of Taoism emerged during the eleventh and twelfth
centuries. Among them were: the Tai-i (Supreme Unity) sect, founded by
Hsiao Pao-chen in approximately 1140; the Chenta Tao (Perfect and Great
Tao) sect, founded by Liu Te-jen in 1142; and the Chan-chen (Perfect
Realization) sect, founded in 1163 by Wang Che.41 The Chan-chen
became very popular, and small groups of monks from this sect survived
until the twentieth century.42
Taoism has been affected largely by Confucianism, and vice versa. The
two religions grew up together and compose a Yin-Yang themselves.
Confucianism works for the public welfare, Taoism concerns the
individual.43 Confucianism emphasized sensibility and gentility, while
the latter encouraged spontaneity.44 While the two religions are
fundamentally different, they rely upon each other to create a balance
of their differences. Because of this, many people believe in and
practice both Confucianism and Taoism. Neither probably would have
survived if the other had never existed.

Taoism is in itself a very difficult religion to define. Little is
known of its founder or its origins, and it has no clear doctrine or
method of worship.45 The whole concept of Tao is extremely abstract and
therefore cannot be fully explained, only understood. The religion may
hold a completely different meaning for each person–it may be a form of
philosophy, religion, or magic.46 The religion has guided countless
individuals through life and toward union with the Tao. As it has
influenced the past through its writings, Taoism may influence the world
for generations more with its wisdom.

1.Bettencourt, Jerome: Comparative World Religions: Notes. Oxnard:
Semester 1994-95.

2.Durrell, Lawrence: A Smile in the Minds Eye. New York: Universe

3.Goetz, Philip (Ed.): Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Vol. 28.

Taoism. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991.

4.Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

5.Pastva, Loretta: Great Religions of the World. Winona, Minnesota:
Marys Press, 1986.

6.Smullyan, Raymond: The Tao Is Silent. San Francisco: HarperCollins
Publishers, 1977.

7.Watts, Alan: Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books,

1 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books,
1975), p. 5.

2 Jerome Bettencourt, Comparative World Religions: Notes (Oxnard: Fall
Semester 1994-95).

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Philip Goetz, Ed., Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th Edition, Vol. 28:
Taoism (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991), p. 399
10 Ibid., p. 398
11 Bettencourt.

12 Goetz, p. 398.

13 Bettencourt.

14 Ibid.

15 Loretta Pastva, Great Religions of the World (Winona, Minnesota:
Saint Marys Press, 1986), p. 117.

16 Ibid.

17 Bettencourt.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Goetz, p. 407
23 Bettencourt.

24 Ibid.

25 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books,
1975), p. 51.

26 Bettencourt.7
27 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers,
1977), p. 59.

28 Watts, p. 51.

29 Bettencourt.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Lawrence Durrell, A Smile in the Minds Eye (New York: Universe
Books, 1982), p. 18.

34 Pastva, p. 117.
35 Durrell, p. 19.

36 Pastva, p. 117.

37 Ibid.

38 Goetz, p. 399.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., p. 404.

42 Ibid.

43 Pastva, p. 115
44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.


Word Count: 2039 is one of the two great philosophical and religious
traditions that originated in China. The other religion native
to China is Confucianism. Both Taoism and Confucianism
began at about the same time, around the sixth century
B.C.E. 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 (Hartz 3). 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.

Reincarnation, life after death, beliefs are not standardized.

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Each religion has a different way of applying this concept to
its beliefs. This paper will describe the reincarnation
concepts as they apply to Taoism and Buddhism, and then
provide a comparison of the two. Taoism 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 Taoism is not monotheistic. The focus is
not to worship one god, but instead on coming into
harmony with tao (Hartz, 8). 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 1
hindrances to a harmonious life. It is only when a person
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 person’s life, the more saintly
the person is presumed to have become. Eventually the
hope is to become immortal, to achieve tao, to have
reached the deeper life. This is the after life for a Taoist, to
be in harmony with the universe, to have achieved tao
(Head1, 65). 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 the
idea of a person’s direction or path. The character for head
represents the idea of 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 idea 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 (Harts 9). 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. And then to
undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look
forward to, what comparable bliss is that! Therefore it is
that the truly wise rejoice in, that which can never be lost,
but endures always” (Leek 190). Taoist believe birth is not
a beginning, death is not an end. There is an existence
without limit. There is 2 continuity without a starting point.

Applying reincarnation theory to Taoism is the belief that
the soul never dies, a person’s soul is eternal. “You see
death in contrast to life; and both are unreal – both are a
changing and seeming. Your soul does not glide out of a
familiar sea into an unfamiliar ocean. That which is real in
you, your soul, can never pass away, and this fear is no
part of her” (Head2 199). In the writings of The Tao Te
King, tao is described as having existed before heaven and
earth. Tao is formless, 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, only then can one achieve tao. In ancient days a
Taoist that had transcended birth and death, achieved tao,
was said to have cut the Thread of Life (Kapleau 13). 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 following translation from The Tao Te King
best summarizes the the theory behind tao and how a
Taoist can achieve Tao. The Great Way is very smooth,
but the people love the by-paths. . . The wearing of gay
embroidered robes, the carrying of sharp swords,
fastidiousness in food and drink, superabundance of
property and wealth: – this I call flaunting robbery; most
assuredly it is not Tao. . . He who acts in accordance with
Tao, becomes one with Tao. . . Being akin to Heaven, he
possesses Tao. Possessed of Tao, he endures forever. . .

Being great (Tao) passes on; passing on, it becomes
remote; having become remote, it returns (Head3 109). 3
Buddhism The followers of the Buddha believe life goes on
and on in many 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 is “the highest
state of spiritual bliss, as absolute immortality through
absorption of the soul into itself, but preserving
individuality” (Head1 57). 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 round of birth, death, and rebirth
(Head3 73). 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, 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 4 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 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 (Leek 171). 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 (Kapleau 20). 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 his 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
Eightfold Path. 5 1. Right Knowledge is knowledge of what
life is all about; knowledge of the Four Noble Truths is
basic to any further growth as a Buddhist. 2. Right
Aspiration means a clear devotion to being on the Path
toward Enlightenment. 3. Right Speech involves both clarity
of what is said and speaking kindly and without malice. 4.

Right Behavior involves reflecting on one’s behavior and the
reasons for it. It also involves five basic laws of behavior
for Buddhists: not to kill, steal, lie, drink intoxicants, or
commit sexual offenses. 5. Right Livelihood involves
choosing an occupation that keeps an individual on the
Path; that is, a path that promotes life and well-being,
rather than the accumulation of a lot of money. 6. Right
Effort means training the will and curbing selfish passions
and wants. It also means placing oneself along the Path
toward Enlightenment. 7. Right Mindfulness implies
continuing self-examination and awareness. 8. Right
Concentration is the final goal to be absorbed into a state
of Nirvana (Comptons). 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. Comparison 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 teaching 6 regarding
the inner light is just as prominent in the Taoist schools as it
is among the practices of Buddhism” (Politella 36). The
inner light concept is similar, but the actual path is the
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 the inner light. “Tao
means way, but in the original and succeeding manuscripts
no direct path is explored or expounded. Desire, ambition,
fame, and selfishness are seen as complications. That idea
is consistent with Buddhist teachings; it is the personal life
of each individual that gives Taoism its special form” (Leek
188). 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, it
“migrates to another life” (Head3 109). Buddhist also
believe the soul is not reborn, but instead a “consciousness
containing the seeds of good and evil deeds” is the object
of rebirth (Leek 171). 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 7 Buddhist must
progress through a hierarchy to achieve Nirvana (Leek
171). 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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