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Daoism’s Influence on Chan Buddhism in China Research Paper


In China, many philosophers and writers admit an evident connection between the ideas of Daoism and Buddhism. Daoism (also known as Taoism) is one of the oldest philosophical systems that began in China. It was introduced by the Han people at the end of the 5th century A.D. and became an influential factor in Chinese culture, science, psychology, and customs.1 Buddhism arrived in China later and had to encounter with the already offered Daoism traditions and rules. The necessity to live and respect two different philosophies, a new direction, was introduced.

It was called Chan Buddhism, the product of Daoism and Buddhism developed in China. It was important for the citizens to recognize and consider all core concepts of Daoism and investigate the Chinese environment to create one powerful idea. Though it was “a radical reaffirmation of the primacy of embodied practice”,2 Chan Buddhism promoted harmony between a human body and mind. However, to comprehend the peculiarities of Chan Buddhism, it is necessary to discuss the multifarious influences of Daoism on Buddhism.

In this paper, the impact of Daoism on Chan Buddhism will be discussed in terms of these two philosophies’ arrivals and development in China and the understanding of such concepts as individualism, meditation, emptiness, and knowledge. Daoism’s influence on Buddhism cannot be neglected because it proves the power and importance of traditions Chinese people respected and respect for an extended period.

To comprehend the connection between Daoism and Buddhism and the possible influence of the former on the latter, it is expected to identify the main concepts of Taoism in Chinese philosophy and culture first. Tang defines religion as a social phenomenon with the help of which historical development and cultural preferences could be understood and investigated.3 China is the country known by its religious variety; however, Taoism remains its only indigenous religion. It promoted spiritual harmony and humanistic ideals.

According to Taoists, there was a need to have sage, who was able to bring social order to its people and its government.4 It was necessary to find a balance between what people wanted to do and what they had to do. It was not an easy task to be a devoted Chinese citizen. It was necessary to follow the rules but never forget about personal freedoms and interests. At the same time, people had to stay natural and free themselves from their selfish thoughts and behaviors that could embrace the desired simplicity of human life. The supporters of Taoism had to know how to embrace novelties and changes instead of fighting them.5 Therefore, Taoists prepared people for various actions and unpredictable outcomes. In addition to some clear thoughts and beliefs, Taoists developed a metaphysical study in terms of which the importance of learning the mystery, known as Hsuan-Hsueh, could not be diminished.6 In other words, Daoism in China has deep and influential roots. Therefore, its impact on every new philosophy and religion that came to China was evident.

The arrival of Buddhism in China during the Han Dynasty’s ruling was explained by the development of trans-Eurasian trade.7 Buddhism was originated from Indian beliefs and lifestyles. An Indian monk, Bodhidharma, came to southeast China by sea. His attempts to persuade the current Emperor Wu-Ti Liang and accept the esoteric ways of thinking failed.8 What he needed was the support of other Chinese schools. Taoists were the first philosophers, who welcomed Buddhism in China. Although Taoist concepts and terms were used to interpret Buddhism, the foreigners were lucky to have such support and recognition. It was necessary to connect their thoughts with the theory of mystery learning. The success of Buddhism practice in China was explained by the possibility of neither being in one specific place nor being dependent on certain textual studies but gain understanding through personal practices and attitudes.9

People, who believed that reading promoted weak vital energy and supported the idea of acting as the possibility to realize themselves, create the school known as Chan Buddhism. Gautama Buddha was the founder of Buddhism in India. It was a young prince who refused all his powers and richness to solve the suffering and the inevitability of death. After not eating and mortifying himself for a couple of years, he defined himself as Enlightened and began teaching other people. He became a sage for millions of people. Taoists found such attitudes to understanding the essence of human life clear and working enough to pay attention to it. Therefore, Buddhism had one idea in common with Daoism to be recognized and supported in China. However, the development of that school was not an easy process.

The Chinese transformation of Buddhism was complicated. Still, the results of those transformations proved the possibility of being changed from “an Indian religion of non-ego” to “a humanistic religion” in China.10 As well as in Indian, the Chinese Buddha was defined as a deity. However, the main difference was the presence of three aspects of understanding Buddha’s power in human life. The same “triple” attitude to the development of Chan Buddhism was offered by Wing-Tsit Chan in his discussions of Buddhism transformations in China. The development of religion occurred in three crucial stages, where the influence of Daoism was irreversible.

First, the growth of the Pure Land School was observed.11 It was beginning when Chinese people met Buddhism for the first time. Before Buddha, in China, two emperors were defined as the worth of worshipping because of their awareness of the secrets of immortality. The Pure Land was introduced as an opportunity for people to save their souls and use retribution as a means of justice for everyone regardless of their statuses, income levels, and heritage. The hope of rebirth was presented to everyone. However, Chinese people could not accept Indian Buddhism without any respect for their leaders and deities. Therefore, Daoism’s impact was recognized in the presence of several Chinese leaders as experts in life after death or immortal life.

Another critical stage of the development of Buddhism in China was characterized by propagating the doctrine of universal salvation12 Tao-Sheng introduced Buddhism in China from its first arrival. He paid attention to the role of nirvana in the understanding of life and death. He believed that certain people had all chances to become sages for other people. He believed in the power of certain people, but not all of them. Still, he could not develop his thoughts in a vacuum. Taoists were involved in numerous discussions about human nature and the importance of becoming a sage one day. Taoists wanted to prove that every person on earth had a chance of having an indestructible spirit. As a result, the doctrine developed by a Buddhist Tao-Sheng about the indestructibility of a spirit was improved by the goodness of all men’s nature. Daoism helped to promote the triumph of a man in Buddhism.

Finally, the time of Chan came. The doctrine of the Chinese Meditation School was even more revolutionary than the Tao-Sheng doctrine. Chan Buddhism was based on the necessity to look into the personal mind and see its own Buddha’s nature there.13 Chan supporters believed that people could achieve salvation only if they abandon all organizations and past beliefs and accept a sacred trust. Daoism was not perfect, but it was just. Therefore, such methods of shouting at followers or even cutting off their fingers were appropriate to make them forget about their habits and rules and open their minds to a new way of thinking.14

In addition to the already mentioned impact of Daoism on Chan Buddhism, it is also possible to admit that individualism in Buddhism could be explained by the presence of Daoism in religion. Buddhism was based on radical agnosticism and the necessity to analyze the human mind regarding the teachings and thoughts of sages. At the same time, Buddhists believed that the recognition of individualism and personal needs is the core of their belief. It was compared to the mysticism of Daoism and the importance of spiritual guidance.15 Buddhism was one of the possible forms of a free and happy life. However, it was not enough for Chinese people to concentrate on suffering and immortality. Taoists wanted to teach people how to achieve spiritual harmony with no harm because in case that state could be achieved, immortality could be attained. Chan Buddhism was based on individual needs that made people think about different outcomes and further interpretation of the events that could teach other generations.

With the development of Buddhism in China, it was necessary to think about the methods with the help of which people could gain knowledge and comprehend the basics of the chosen religion. Many Indian religions were based on meditation. In Chan Buddhism, meditation was used as a practical experience with the help of which people could sacrifice and pray. It was the only true activity available to people and approved by its philosophy.16 Buddhism schools had several yoga manuals. When Buddhism was introduced in China, it was expected that all those scriptures and manuals were translated. However, in many cases, the translations were done under the control of Daoism representatives. Therefore, many concepts and meanings were still taken from Daoism just to be clear for its people. Meditation and yoga remained to be the activities that arrived from India. Still, Taoists’ impact could not be neglected because Daoism made Buddhism available and comprehensive for the Chinese people in the second century.

In a short period, Chan Buddhism was available and supported by many Chinese people. It was hard to comprehend how it could co-exist with such strong religions as Daoism and Confucianism. Still, it was based on knowledge, and that knowledge helped to comprehend what true salvation really meant. Many people could not define reality from illusions.17 They did not understand what they had to strive for and why they had to do all those things. Buddhism helped to provide Daoism with meaning. “It is knowledge not of an object but of the mind, and no knowledge of its nature but penetrating knowledge that mind is not an object, has no nature, indeed, that it is empty, nothing at all.”18 Emptiness and knowledge became the two main characteristics of Chan Buddhism in China. It was not too complicated to accept a new truth. It was a challenge to make people believe that everything discussed above could happen with each of them.

In general, the analysis of the peculiarities of Daoism and Buddhism and their development in China shows that these two religions have many things in common. Both of them support the idea of individuality in a certain sense. Though Daoism is an indigenous philosophy, and Buddhism is a foreign philosophy, they had many supporters and opponents during different centuries. Without any doubt, Daoism had a certain impact on the development of Chan Buddhism in China. It could be explained by the fact that before Buddhism, Chinese people were evident supporters of Daoism. They believed that immortality could be achieved. However, they did not have appropriate directions and examples. The example that came from India in Buddhism was an effective means to show how individualism, mind control, spirituality, and sagehood could be achieved. Daoism and Buddhism were two religions that depicted the development of the whole nation. They helped to teach generations and support even the weakest believers.

Bibliography

Allen, Barry. “The Virtual and the Vacant-Emptiness and Knowledge in Chan and Daoism.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37, no. 3 (2010): 457-471.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Chan, Wing-Tsit. Philosophy East &West 7, no. 3/4 (1958): 107-116. Web.

Knaul, Livia. “Chuang-Tzu and the Chinese Ancestry of Chan Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 13 (1986): 411-428.

Shan, Chun. Major Aspects of Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Dao of Inner Saint and Outer King. New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

Shih, Hu. English Writings of Hu Shih: Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History, Volume 2. Edited by Chih-Ping Chou. Princeton: Springer, 2013.

Tang, Yijie. Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Chinese Culture. New York: Springer, 2015.

Yi, Wu. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 12 (1985): 131-154. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Yijie Tang, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Chinese Culture (New York: Springer, 2015), 173.
  2. “Chan Buddhism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Web.
  3. Tang, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Chinese Culture, 159.
  4. Wing-Tsit Chan, “Transformation of Buddhism in China,” Philosophy East &West 7, no. 3/4 (1958): 110, Web.
  5. Chun Shan, Major Aspects of Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Dao of Inner Saint and Outer King (New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012), 78.
  6. Wu Yi, “On Chinese Chan in Relation to Taoism,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 12 (1985): 139, Web.
  7. “Chan Buddhism,” Web.
  8. Hu Shih, English Writings of Hu Shih: Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History, Volume 2, ed. Chih-Ping Chou (Princeton: Springer, 2013): 103.
  9. “Chan Buddhism,” Web.
  10. Chan, “Transformation of Buddhism in China,” 107.
  11. Ibid., 109.
  12. Chan, “Transformation of Buddhism in China,” 110.
  13. Ibid., 112.
  14. Ibid., 113.
  15. Livia Knaul, “Chuang-Tzu and the Chinese Ancestry of Chan Buddhism,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 13 (1986): 413.
  16. Hu Shih, English Writings of Hu Shih, 104.
  17. Barry Allen, “The Virtual and the Vacant-Emptiness and Knowledge in Chan and Daoism,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37, no. 3 (2010): 457.
  18. Ibid., 458.
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