Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are three major philosophical practices in Asia. Buddhism originated in India while Taoism and Confucianism originated in China. These practices offer belief systems that focus on the truth without enforcing strict practices. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are often grouped together as religions by some; however, they focus more on philosophy, discipline, the emphasis on non-violent means, and the attainment of inner peace than on divine beings and rituals. They differ in terms of their teachings on how to attain these goals and their attitude toward reincarnation. This compare and contrast essay tackles the similarities and differences between their philosophies, theologies, and practices.
About the Three Ethical Religions
Buddhism was established by Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince in 6th century B.C., often called Buddha, which means “the Enlightened one (Buddhism n.p.).” Thus, Buddhism can trace its roots back to Hinduism (Buddhism n.p.). Like Hinduism, Buddhism’s ultimate goal is Nirvana or Enlightenment. According to the teachings of Gautama, humans can escape the cycle of reincarnation by denouncing earthly desires and focusing on meditation and self-discipline (Buddhism n.p.). Aside from the goal of escaping reincarnation, Buddhism rejects the caste system. It also places emphasis on non-violent means, especially in political activism. Buddhism has become quite popular in western countries, particularly for those who do not practice religion in the United States but wish to cultivate their spirituality.
Taoism or Daoism is a Chinese religion that is based on the writings of Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Taoism n.p.). Tao Te Ching is believed to have been written between the 3rd and 4th century B.C., however Taoism did not become an organized religion until around 142 A.D. (Taoism n.p.). The philosophy of Taoism revolves around the concept of Tao, which the “way” or the correct way to behave and lead others (Taoism n.p.). Taoism is more than just a religion in ancient China as Taoists were proactively engaged in Chinese politics.
Confucianism is based on the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher from 772 to 476 BC (Mark n.p.). It is one of the Hundred Schools of Thought with the most followers. The teachings of Confucianism revolve around the belief that humans are innately good, and those who do not choose to do good simply was ignorant of a moral code (Mark n.p.). Confucianism has a more complex philosophical system as it believes in the concept of Tian (heaven), Yin and Yang, the Five Constants and Four Virtues (Mark n.p.). Confucius and other Confucian scholars were also highly engaged in politics and tried to influence leaders to end wars.
Comparison of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism
The three ethical religions are popular for their practical philosophies. Often, these religions are topics of philosophy papers. They each put emphasis on the philosophies as opposed to rituals, such that followers of these religions are free to do their own practices that they believe help them achieve their goal. In their essence, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism all strive to achieve the ultimate good. However, their definitions of “good” varies.
Buddhism defines good as Nirvana or enlightenment, which when achieved, allows humans escape the cycle of reincarnation. According to the teachings of Buddha, enlightenment can only be achieved by denouncing earthly desires, which in turn can be achieved through meditation and self-discipline (Buddhism n.p.). Its basic tenets are quite simple: nothing is fixed or permanent; actions have consequences; change is possible (Buddhism n.p.). Buddhism does not have a strict dogma, that the lack of dogma has become its dogma.
Similar to Buddhism, Taoism also does not promote specific morality. The goal of Taoism is to return to a mode of existence that is aligned with nature (Taoism n.p.). This basic philosophy is governed by the concept of “Tao” which is translated as the “way” or “path,” or in other words, the appropriate way to act (Taoism n.p.). Taoism, however, does not impose outward or social standards when it speaks of the “appropriate” way to act (Taoism n.p.). Rather, it is concerned with inward morality, with harmony with nature. This is where Taoism diverges from Confucianism.
Confucianism, in contrast with the first two religions, is concerned with outward morality and responsibilities. Although these are anchored in the belief that humans are innately good, Confucianism suggests a moral code and standard of conduct (Mark n.p.). According to Confucianism, ignorance of the moral code and standard of conduct will result in a person choosing wrong actions over right ones.
Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, like most religions, aim for the attainment of the ultimate good. However, their concepts of ‘good,’ as well as the requirements or methods for attaining it vary.
What differentiates these ethical religions from Western religions is their relationship with divine beings. Buddhism does not believe or worship divine beings. However, one sect of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism has many bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) and believe in Cosmic Buddha (Buddhism n.p.). However, the bodhisattvas and Cosmic Buddha were not considered to be the source of all goodness (Buddhism n.p.). Rather, the bodhisattvas were examples to emulate. The philosophy and teachings of Buddha with regard to enlightenment remains the guiding concept in Buddhism.
Taoism is similar with Buddhism’s theology in that it does not believe in one divine being as the creator or source of all goodness. However, Taoism believes in deities who govern certain aspects of life and creation (Taoism n.p.). Taoist immortals are another type of divine being in Taoist beliefs. These are ancestors who die a natural death at the end of a completed life cycle (Taoism n.p.). They may become benefactors to the succeeding generations of their family. Although deities and immortals may judge and inflict punishment on humans, they ultimately do not have power over Tao.
Confucianism draws its theology from Buddhism and Taoism. The concept of “Tian” is the closest to a divine Confucianism gets (Mark n.p.). Tian, according to Confucian texts, seems to exhibit qualities of fate, nature, and deity (Mark n.p.). Like Buddhism and Taoism, Confucianism does not draw its concept of goodness from a divine being. In contrast, goodness and harmony comes from humans.
In terms of their concept of divine beings, all three agree in that there is no divine being that exists beyond the creation of the universe. They also agree that divine beings do not have power over the fate of humans. Ultimately, goodness and harmony come from humans.
Instead of rituals and gods, Buddhism teaches practical ways for people to achieve self-discipline and enlightenment. Different sects of Buddhism developed prayer chants to help individuals meditate (Buddhism n.p.). However, as Buddhism does not require its followers to accept all teachings of Buddha, chanting of these prayers are optional (Buddhism n.p.). Aside from meditation, the only other “practice” imposed by Buddhism is its emphasis on non-violent acts.
In contrast to Buddhism, Taoism has elaborate rituals that are done in sacred spaces (Taoism n.p.). These rituals consist of different stages purification, invocation of the deities, prayers, consecration and offerings, hymns, dances, and perambulations (Taoism n.p.). They are also performed by a Taoist priest, and sometimes with assistants for more elaborate rituals (Taoism n.p.).
The most prevalent practice in Confucianism is ancestor worship. It is the commemoration of, communication with, and sacrifice to deceased ancestors (Mark n.p.). However, this practice is rooted more in Chinese culture, on which Confucianism itself is based. Most notably, in Confucianism, the rituals performed to worship the deities are no different. Confucians also often perform rituals that include commemorating, communicating, and sacrificing to a deity.
Among the three ethical religions, Buddhism is the only one who is most lenient when it comes to rituals and practices. Both Taoism and Confucianism have strict and elaborate rituals, unlike Buddhism whose only ritual is meditation. However, it is worth noting that the practice of rituals do not overshadow the philosophical teachings of each ethical religion.
As this compare and contrast essay example shows, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism share similarities in their foundational elements, specifically in striving for the ultimate good that is cultivated from within one’s person. However, they vary in their concepts of divine being and deities and their attitude toward rituals and practices. Still, in all three ethical religions, their philosophy that involves cultivating oneself toward goodness is what prevails. Aside from this topic being a great ground for easy compare and contrast essay, you can also use this as a topic in writing your philosophy paper.
“Buddhism.” Religion Library, Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/library/buddhism.
Mark, Joshua. “Confucianism.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Confucianism/.
“Taoism.” Religion Library, Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/library/taoism/ritual-worship-devotion-symbolism/worship-and-devotion-in-daily-life.