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Reincarnation: Taoism And Buddhism

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Taoism 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 (Legge1, 124). 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. 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.

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 (Legge 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 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 (Legge2, 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 also suggests a beginning, and a 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 (Cooper, 122). 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 that birth is not a beginning and death is not an end. There is an existence without limit. 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 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" (Legge2, 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 (Cooper, 13). The soul, or spirit, in 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 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 (Cooper, 109).

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" (Reat, 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 (Reat, 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 is 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 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 a pure spirit, having no perception of the material world. This stage requires one to move from perception to non-perception.

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