Throughout history, man has sought to understand his place in existence. He has sought to define his purpose and the main reason for life. Religion has provided the answers to these questions albeit through varied approaches. Christianity, Buddhism and Daoism each provide different interpretations of the goal of existence but it is only through an examination of all these worldviews that one creates an even more integrated and holistic picture of the goal of human existence.
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How the three religions look at it
As the name suggests, Daoism is derived from the term ‘Dao’ which literally and philosophically means ‘the way’. All Daoists strive to follow the way; they look to achieve harmony by avoiding actions that bring out personal gain. This is the ultimate goal of human existence.
Just like Dao who came to enlighten the earth and to teach man how to allow things in the universe to follow their natural coarse then all followers must strive to do the same. In other words the ultimate goal of human life in Daoist circles it to create harmony. People must keep away from selfishness and take control of their materialist desires because this upsets the natural flow of things. Instead, one must strive to live virtuously or practice good deeds so that one can achieve immortality.
To these followers, one must practice virtue so as to reap rewards of immortality from one’s gods. Not only do believers get immortality for their good deeds but they also achieve better health by sustaining energy in their bodies. In other words they get to live longer through the practice of channeling their energies (Despeux, 179).
This worldview is very insightful and unique because not only does it emphasize the importance of balance, but is also shows the relationship between human beings and their natural environment.
Unlike Christianity which mostly centers on man and his relationship with God, or Buddhism which focuses on man’s inner elements, Daoism allows one to understand the link between the earth, the heavens, man and the natural. Indeed these believers often say that the Dao stresses the natural course of everything so man must let other things remain natural.
This point of view contributes towards a better understanding of the goal of human existence because it inculcates one’s surrounding. The environment is simply not made up of other human beings but also possesses plants, minerals and other forms of matter. This kind of doctrine allows one to know man’s place in his environment. It causes one to question any motives that are superficial and exploitative in nature and thus helps to prolong or create a better humanity.
Nature can only sustain itself to a certain extent. When man continues to pursue his various developments without thinking about his effects on nature then nature will bite back at him by being unable to sustain him. Therefore, man considers himself to be truly wealthy if he is rich in virtue, his surrounding is rich with diversity and if living forms are growing well (Despeux, 180).
On the other hand, Buddhism teaches that the main goal of human existence is to awaken to the ‘Dharma’ which means truth. In this context, truth refers to the impermanence of all living things. The teacher of this faith – Buddha was sitting under a tree and he observed everything around him such as the birds, plants and even the tree that he was sitting under. The Dharma soon realized that everything that has life would lose it. That observation caused him to be deeply humbled because he now saw that everything was transient.
He was filled with compassion for these living things because he realized that there was a common link between all of them. Buddha noted that human beings tend to suffer because they never really know how impermanent their lives are. They are in conflict with this truth hence the reason why they always find it hard to come to terms with the loss of a loved one or with natural progressions in life.
If everyone can awaken to the truth and realize that their lives are impermanent then there will be no suffering. According to this religious view, man’s goal is to find the truth of impermanence. When he does this then he becomes filled with compassion and immediately transforms his outlook towards the life that is around him(The Dalai Lama, 35).
This worldview is quite unique because it allows one to understand the importance of delineating oneself from day to day existence. It causes one to look at the bigger picture and thus refrain from suffering even when external conditions seem difficult and troublesome. In essence, Buddhism illustrates that man exists for a season; he, like all other living things is impermanent. In other words, it stresses the importance of living in the moment rather than frantically chasing the future.
It provides an explanation as to why man tends to dwell on himself. He is always under the false understanding that he has tomorrow and so if he acquires all he can today then he will be set in the future. Such a person becomes ego –conscious or dwells on his ego by fuelling it through desire. This person cannot see that all these things are superficial and are a mere cover up of the domination of the ego.
When individuals are ignorant about their real nature and the interdependence of nature then they are likely to believe the guise that they have great power. It is only by focusing on the act of selflessness that one can become enlightened and eliminate the problem of this falsehood. The principle therefore provides a solution towards the problem of materialism (The Dalai Lama, 17).
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Buddhism, through its teaching on the truth of impermanence as the ultimate goal of human life, also illustrates the important connection between the mind and the senses, emotions and reactions. As one continues to focus on the external, one continues to fuel the ego and the mind will keep on racing and dwelling on external things.
However, as one starts to rest one’s mind and experience the sense of being, then one becomes aware of the present. The process of meditation which is commonly practiced in Buddhism causes the mind to simply watch and experience the senses rather than to try and control them and the end effect is less or no suffering.
In Christianity, the ultimate goal of human existence is to pursue holiness. In the beginning, God created man and he did so in his own image. God desired that man would remain pure in his sight eternally but something happened to change that i.e. sin. Sin blocked man from fully reaching God’s great will and thus contributed to his immense displeasure with man.
God therefore instated certain mechanisms in order to correct this state by sending his only begotten son. It is only through salvation that one can be redeemed from this imperfect state (Wallace & Rusk, 59). In other words, sin is destroyed through the sacrifices made by Jesus Christ-God’s son and man can therefore be reconciled back to his creator and live life as it was originally designed. God had a glorious plan for his creation and man was made to serve him.
Comparison of Christianity, Buddhism and Daoism on the ultimate goal of human existence
All three religions tend to stress the insignificance of man with regard to the ultimate goal of life. In Daoism, man is only part of the whole; he is part of the universe and his significance is not greater or less than that of everything else in it.
If man pursues the ultimate goal of practicing virtue then he can live a much better and fulfilled life (Despeux, 180). Similarly, Buddhism stresses the insignificance of man in terms of time. The ultimate goal is to become aware of the truth or the impermanence of life. Since man does not have the ability to control time then he is only temporary.
Human beings tend to suffer when they focus on their own happiness over that of others. This suffering comes in the form of guilt, conflict, pain upon loss and many more. It is only through achievement of the ultimate goal or it is only through a deeper understanding of the fleeting nature of life that one can be fully liberated. Therefore, according to Buddhists, man must be humbled by his insignificance in the realm of time (The Dalai Lama, 70).
Since he really has no control over it then he should accept that reality. Christianity looks at the insignificance of man in a different light. It compares man not to his environment as is the case in Daoism or to time as is the case in Buddhism, but it focuses on the insignificance of man in relation to his creator. Since man was created By God, then he must not depend on his own understanding.
His ways are imperfect and full of wrong doings so he must look towards God for guidance (Wallace & Rusk, 59). The comparison here is between man and his creator rather than man and his universe. In fact, it can be argued that in Christian doctrine, man is much greater than other components of his environment because he was bestowed with the responsibility of taking care of it.
Also, man has intellectual abilities that allowed him to comprehend and appreciate God’s gift. Those capabilities make man special and distinct from other creatures. Nonetheless, this does not make him greater than his creator. Man’s sinful ways make him imperfect in the eyes of God and he is therefore inferior in this context.
The insignificance of man to God can also be witnessed through several Bible teaching such as one found in the Book of psalms 39: 4-7 (Wallace & Rusk, 59). It is stated here that man has no control over what happens tomorrow as life by its very nature is very unpredictable. Plans and investments made are done in vain because no one really knows what the future will bring.
In the fifth verse, the psalmist acknowledges how weak and frail he is before God. His life is like a breath which fades away in an instant. In the sixth verse, it has been described that toiling and laboring is done in vain. All these assertions illustrate just how man is insignificant relative to God. It is only through the pursuance of the ultimate goal that man can deal with that insignificance.
All three religions frown upon materialism in all its ways and forms especially in light of the ultimate goal of human existence. However, some religions focus more on this element than others. For instance Buddhism’s very foundation is based upon this premise and that is the reason why the ultimate goal of human life as proposed by these followers mostly centers on living a non materialistic life.
Since impermanence of life plays a fundamental goal in this religion then material goals have no place in human life (The Dalai Lama, 27). In Buddhism, the ego deceives man to think that he has ultimate control over his life. It is demanding and hysterical and always calculating how it can cause man to win in a certain situation. Buddha states that this kind of materialism is not natural to the human existence and is actually a form of deception.
The doctrine holds that wisdom, the inner spiritual voice or the discriminating awakening is what allows man to discern the truth. Materialism in all its forms can simply be eradicated if man pursues the ultimate goal of his existence which is awakening to truth. Those people who have achieved this goal always have a strong wise guide who causes them to discern the difference between materialist tendencies of the ego and the truth of the inner wise guide.
In this regard, there is absolutely no place for materialism as it is represents the exact opposite of what the ultimate goal of humanity strives for. Daoism is almost as committed to abandonment of materialism in humanity as Buddhism. In Daoism, it has been explained that the ultimate goal is to practice virtue so as to maintain balance in the universe.
This balance is brought about by the struggle between two forces i.e. Yin and Yang. Yin is a feminine force which is soft, cold and mild. Yang is the exact opposite because it represents a masculine force which is hot, hard and ambitious. These forces always tend to struggle against one another and it is only through the maintenance of balance that harmony can be restored. By striving for the ultimate human goal (practicing virtue), one can ensure that the balance between these excesses is minimized.
Given the background of sources of disharmony in the universe, it is crucial to understand where materialism enters into the debate. Daoists hold that one of the excesses of nature’s opposite forces is Yang. This force is aggressive and hot; it is also self centered. Exploitation of other things for personal gain and getting interest and profit causes nature to move more towards the qualities of Yang than Yin and this means an imbalance.
It is only by minimizing this human desire that one can live harmoniously with nature (Despeux, 180). Daoism therefore shows that materialism has no place in the way things are. In Christianity, materialism is also talked about and discouraged albeit in an interpretive way. Selfish ambition becomes sin and this is often depicted through materialism.
Even Jesus himself stated that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark, 10:25). In this verse, Jesus was not saying that all rich people are doomed to condemnation; he was simply affirming that their materialistic nature is what leads them to greater sin and prevents them from reaching the ultimate goal of humanity which is holiness.
As one looks at interpretations of the ultimate purpose of human existence across the three religions, one immediately realizes that there is one religion that takes on a very different premise from the others. While Buddhism and Daoism tend to look at humanity’s goal from a moral relativist stance, Christianity dwells on an absolute perspective.
In Christianity, the ultimate goal is transform man from his state of sinfulness to a state of holiness. In order to achieve this, one must accept that Jesus Christ is the only true way and he is the only one who can save man. Otherwise, one will be judged and punished by God for continuing to live in sin (Wallace & Rusk, 59).
On the other hand, Daoism simply dwells on practicing virtue as the ultimate goal so as to maintain harmony. There is no strong distinction between moral wrongs and rights so there is no need to judge anyone. Furthermore, in Daoism, there is no need for a savior because there was no personified creator who built the universe so man’s existence was not divinely designed.
In fact, Christianity rejects assertions made by Daoism followers that practicing virtue will cause one to be aligned with Dao or the ‘true way’. They believe that Jesus is the true way because he is the only one who can deal with sin. Buddhism also differs from Christianity in terms of the ultimate goal of existence because it simply focuses on awakening to the impermanence of life.
This faith places the responsibility for transformation upon man himself as he is the one who will discern components of the ego. Once again, a concept of moral relativity can be detected in these principles. Buddhism goes beyond any right or wrong because its focuses on the compassion and acceptance of the flawed state of the human being. On the other hand, in Christianity, there is a right and wrong way of life and only Christ transforms.
The three religions – Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity have different worldviews concerning the ultimate goals of human existence because they focus on maintenance of harmony, awakening to the truth and holiness respectively.
However, these perspectives do posses certain similarities because they all involve acknowledgement of the weakness and insignificance of man and the disrespect of materialism. However, Buddhist and Daoist teaching on this ultimate goal differ from Christianity because the latter is absolutist while the other religions are relativist.
Despeux, Catherin. Taoism: the enduring tradition. Chinese religions journal, 33(2005): 178-180
Wallace, Richard. & Rusk, Damaris. Moral transformation: the original Christian paradigm of salvation. New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011
Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s little book of inner peace. London: Snow Lion Publishers, 2005