Taoism of China & Zen philosophy of Japan


By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

In the West including America, more and more people are turning to mysticism or spiritualism. Among these, there is a revival of interest in Taoism and Zen philosophy.

Mysticism is a belief characterised by self-delusion of thought that one is in touch with some unseen higher authority or power. Spirituality on the hand, is a state of being dedicated to God (religion) or a dedication to spiritual (pertaining to the spirit or the soul) values in contrast to material or physical ones. Spiritually should not be confused with religion.

To understand Taoism and Zen philosophy we need to understand a bit of Buddhism, which is a form of spiritualism and religion. Buddhism though a religion is not theological. It has no God to rely on. The central theme of Buddhism is the message of universal salvation based on the idea of the fundamental oneness of all beings.

TAOISM. Though the concept of Tao existed in China since ancient times (3,000 BCE), the Chinese religion was animism, with ancestor worship as gods. This was replaced by ‘Dualism’ of the ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ at the end of Shang Dynasty (ca.1122 BCE).

The concept of Yin is the bright warm female. Women were considered embodiments of Yin energy and therefore passive and nurturing. The concept of Yang on the other hand, is a dynamic, dark secretive male.

These two opposite forces or energies complemented each other to form a creative force that created Heaven, Earth and the universe. In this philosophy women were subordinate to men. They were expected to live in obedience to fathers when girls; to husbands when married and to sons when old.

The symbol of Yin and Yang is a circle divided in two embryonic shapes placed together in opposite directions. One is black and the other white. The duality signifies life and lies in the soul of human beings to achieve perfect harmony.

At about 604 BCE, Taoism made its appearance. Tao (pronounced Dow) has its nearest English equivalent as ‘path’ or ‘way.’ Its founder was Lao Toe or Lao Tze (604- 531 BCE). It means ‘old philosopher’ or ‘old boy.’ His real name was Li Uhr. He was a contemporary of Confucius (Kong Qiu Zi) who was also his disciple.

Taoism’s anagram is Yin and Yang born 1,500 years ago. It became a state religion in 440 BCE. With the end of Ching Dynasty in 1911 BCE, Taoism ceased to be a state religion but it is still practised by 20 million followers especially in Taiwan, North America and Canada where acupuncture, herbal medicine and martial arts flourish.

In China even after the Communist victory, Taoism, with Confucianism (551 BCE) continued to shape individual Chinese philosophy. Taoism’s focus is on Nature and it complements Confucian Societal doctrine.

Taoism that started as a psycho-philosophical way of life evolved into a religion in 440 BCE. Taoism is a godless religion. Taoists do not believe that a god created the universe. They do
not pray as there is no god to listen to their prayers or to act upon them.

Taoist spiritualism is simple. Be good. They rightly believe that all human beings are born righteous. Bad people are incidental and environmental. Their simple doctrine is ‘be kind to
others so that some of them, if not all will return the compliment’.
Taoists seek answers to life’s problems through inner meditation, not with rituals and prayers to a god. Their goal is to become one with Tao. The essence of Taoism is ‘Tao, the way to the truth.

Tao is not a person but a ‘force’. Tao flows through all life and is the first-cause of the universe. Taoists follow the art of – ‘wu wei’ that is to let nature take its course such as allowing water to find its own way.

All life stems from Tao (Yin and Yang). These two competing opposite energies are found in all things but must be kept ‘in balance’ as excess of one energy is harmful. When these two forces are in balance within the human body, only then an ideal human being can exist.

Tao never dies. In Taoism time is cyclical, not linear as in Western thinking. Following the traditional belief in Taoism, every Chinese after death wants to be an important ancestor.

For centuries the Chinese believed that only their emperor could communicate with Tao. The emperor thus became ‘Emperor Tao’ until he was made a mere human by the communist victory in 1950. Mao then became a Chinese Tao.

ZEN PHILOSOPHY – the Japanese Buddhism. The Japanese have a deep-rooted and very gifted tendency to borrow from other cultures, then readapt and transform what they have borrowed into a distinct culture, philosophy and religion which suit them best. As an Example, following the American occupation they are now playing baseball as if they invented the game.

Zen philosophy was developed from a harmonious synthesis of Taoism’s focus on nature, Confucius’ practical advice on people to live in harmony in here and now and not to concern themselves with what would happen after death, and Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana.

Confucius says as we do not know enough about man and how could we know about God. In essence, Zen philosophy is an atheistic philosophy leading to the modern concept of spiritualism.

Buddhism came to Japan from China via Korea in the middle of the 6th century. The Mahayana Buddhism which was introduced to Japan in the fully developed form such as Tendai, Shingon and Zen transformed and remained uniquely Japanese.

In 806 CE, two Japanese monks, Kobo-daishi and Dengyo-daishi returned from a study sojourn in China. They founded two new sects of Buddhism on Chinese models – Shingon and Tendai respectively. Both had their headquarters on mountains near the city of Heian (now Kyoto).

In 1141 CE, another branch of Japanese Buddhism emerged. This is best known outside Japan. Its founders were Eisai (1141-1215) and Dogen (1200-1253). Both were trained at the Tedai ‘seminary’ on Mount Hiei (Hieizan) in China.

During his second visit Eisai became acquainted with Xu’an Huaichang, master of the Linji sect of Chan – a school of Buddhism which lays emphasis on intense meditation. He returned to Japan to found a sect based on the doctrines of Linji Chan or Rinzai Zen in Japanese. The word –‘chan’ was corrupted from the Sanskrit word dhyan (meditation).

‘Zen’ is a Japanese articulation of Chan. Dogen also returned to establish a Japanese Buddhist sect of Cuotong chan. It is known as Soto Zen in Japanese.
Zen Buddhism in Japan lays its emphasis on meditation and the experience of ‘awakening’ with a degree of devotion to celestial buddhas (those who have attained nirvana) and budhisttvas (those who are willing to postpone their entrance to nirvana in order to aid his fellow men towards salvation), especially Amitabh (Amituo in Chinese and Amida in Japanese) and Maitreya (Mike Fo).

Zen is a philosophy of spirit of self-reliance on oneself (not to rely on a God). There is no deity or special doctrines. Zen is a practical religion and a communal discipline. It has only one goal. That is to achieve enlightenment (nirvana) in this lifetime.

Zen Buddhism was adapted to co-exist with the indigenous Japanese religion of ‘Shinto’ in the same way Vaisnavite Hinduism was adapted to coexist with the indigenous ‘Sanamahi’ religion of the Meitei of Manipur.

Shinto is Japanese articulation of Chinese Shen (spirit). It is called the ‘way of the gods or spirits’. Confucianism and Taoism also made their impact on this Japanese religion.

Buddhism and Shinto fit each other like a hand in a glove. Shinto is ‘life religion’ and Buddhism is ‘dead religion’. Shinto focuses on matters pertaining to this world. The majority of Japanese weddings are held according to Shinto rites while the majority of funerals are Buddhists.

Once I went to Japan to attend an international conference on sexual diseases. While visiting the Tokyo Tower, there was a small Shinto shrine at the base. I asked the woman guide why as Buddhists they still follow Shinto.

She said: ‘It is because Shinto religion does not say what happens to the Japanese after death but Buddhism does as it gives more emphasis on salvation and the possibility of an afterlife’. The ‘pure land’ sect of Mahayana Buddhism was founded to meet this need.

The ‘pure land’ of Buddhism is a celestial paradise presided over by Amiga Buddha. The tradition of ‘Pure land’ Buddhism, found particularly in China, Japan and Tibet holds the view that if a believer in good faith, chants the name of the celestial Buddha Amitabh at the moment of death, the latter will visit him/her along with a host of celestial buddhisttvas.

Amitabh will then guide the devotee to a rebirth in ‘sukhvati’ (Sanskrit), the heavenly ‘pure land’ like the Hindu swarg, the Christian paradise or the Islamic Jannut. There, free from earthly distractions he/she can prepare for nirvana which is guaranteed to all who are able to come to the Pure Land.

The main theme of Zen philosophy is mastering one’s mind and releasing a distorted sense of reality (God).

The writer is based in the UK
Email: imsingh@onetel.com
Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk


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