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Religion: East and Southeast Asia

Religion: East and Southeast Asia

When speaking of religion in East and Southeast Asia, a series of unique problems arises. What the West views as religion in Asia might well pass as philosophy and vice versa. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy views religion as oscillating between two extremes:

total reference to supernaturalism (religion is the belief in and worship of a divine transcendent reality that creates and controls all things without deviation from its will); total reference to humanistic ideals (religion is any attempt to construct ideals and values toward which one can enthusiastically strive and with which one can regulate one's conduct). (Angeles, p. 262)

Hence, the philosophy of religion studies a variety of topics from existence of "god" and moral thought to the relationships between church and state, science and religion, and philosophy and religion. Geddes MacGregor explains that the expression "philosophy of religion" arises from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

So religion, which Hegel tended to see as a sort of "baby philosophy" using picture-imagery rather than intellectual understanding, called for philosophical inspection along with everything else and was indeed peculiarly deserving of such philosophical scrutiny since it was to be regarded as a sort of kindergarten philosophy. (pp. 483484)

Julia Ching also struggles with the fuzzy borders of philosophy and religion. She writes:

In discussing the continuum between the heavenly (or cosmic-natural) and the human orders, we are also discussing a theme common to both religion and philosophy. This happens because the lines of demarcation between religion and philosophy are not so clear in the Chinese traditionthe situation resembles that in Europe before the eighteenth century, that is before a parting of the ways between philosophy and its erstwhile mentor, theology. (p. 8)

Ching tries to resolve this dilemma by use of both a history of religions and history of ideas approach.

Ninian Smart takes religion to a civilizational level with "philosophical" and "doctrinal" dimensions. The ultimate meanings of life are examples of the philosophical dimensions, while daily rituals are part of the doctrinal dimensions (p. 17). Likewise, Willard G. Oxtoby asks the following questions: "Are there not philosophies that share with religion the contemplation of ultimate reality? Do not both enterprises seek to map out the good that people should seek in their conduct?" (p. 454). Oxtoby sees philosophy as an individual intellectual endeavor alongside religion as a collective ritualized force. The Western world invented the word religion to correspond to Christianity through the Latin word religio (religion), which carried with it the idea of "piety," "faith," and "action" (p. 449). He concludes that religion is

a sense of power beyond the human, apprehended rationally as well as emotionally, appreciated corporately as well as individually, celebrated ritually and symbolically as well as discursively, transmitted as a tradition in conventionalized forms and formulations that offer people an interpretation of experience, a view of life and death, a guide to conduct and an orientation to meaning and purpose in the world. (p. 454)

Rather than a hierarchy between philosophy and religion, the East sees co-constitutive relationships. The Chinese concept of yin-yang stood in for a complex crossing of experiences that encompassed rituals of everyday life, ethical behavior, heavens and hells, birth and death ceremonies, ancestors, cosmologies, and ideas about nature, health, and society. Collectively, yin-yang served the function of both religion and philosophy. Hence, there could be a religion of philosophy or a philosophy of religion.

The way that yin and yang are connected is unique to East Asia. Unlike a Hegelian-inspired conflictual world of culminations and overcomings of antipodes, the East embraces mutually conditioning linked opposites that are harmonious in both matter and spirit. The polarities of yin and yang are fundamental to the relationships within and between Eastern religions/philosophies such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Although Confucianism and Daoism are indigenous to China, they reach throughout Korea into Japan and south into Vietnam. Likewise, Indian Buddhism traversed the Silk Roads in the first century to pass throughout China and Thailand into the Far East.

The Daoist Yin-Yang

The principles of yin and yang were associated with both the Yijing of the twenty-third century b.c.e. and Laozi, the sixth century b.c.e. Daoist philosopher. Yin is dark, yang is light, yin is night, yang is day, yin is cold, yang is hot. One yin and one yang make the Dao (yiyin yiyang zhiwei dao ). The Chinese characters tell the tale: yin represents the constitution of the moon while yang represents the constitution of the sun. They are eternal partners in a cosmological relationship that governs every action and event in life. Yin-yang is the clearest expression of an ancient Chinese life of equilibrium. This polar coupling had a profound impact on Confucius and Confucianism, especially in terms of virtues and their coexistence.

Laozi believed that the yin-yang balance was key to the workings of the universe. To be mutable like water was the path to longevity. A single drop of water can go where no army canthrough a crack in a mighty wall. In Dao de jing (The Book of the Way and the Book of Virtue ), the philosophy of Dao shines forth. The best leader is the one who lags behind; the best teacher is the one who does not try to instruct anyone. Following his own philosophy, Laozi departed from an overly administered city life for the quiet confines of a mountain retreat far away from the Confucian bureaucracy.

Zhuangzi, a follower of Laozi, explicated many Daoist principles in terms of parables. He embraced Laozi's principle of wuwei (nonaction): the best action is no action. Recounting the ebb and tide of life, Zhuangzi tells the story of a trip to the mountains. One day, he sees a gigantic tree with plush foliage. When a woodcutter passed up the tree, Zhuangzi asked why. The reply was that the tree had no use. Zhuangzi concluded that because of its uselessness, the tree could live. Later on, Zhuangzi stopped by a friend's home in the valley. The friend had two geese, one that cackled and one that did not. The friend instructed his son to kill and prepare the goose that did not cackle. The following day, Zhuangzi's students asked of him: "Yesterday, there was a tree on the mountain that gets to live out the years Heaven gave it because of its worthlessness. Now there's our host's goose that gets killed because of its worthlessness. What position would you take in such a case, Master?" (Watson, p. 209). Zhuangzi answers that he might stand halfway between worth and worthlessness: "climb up on the Way and its Virtues and go drifting and wandering, neither praised nor damned, now a dragon, now a snake, shifting with the times, never willing to hold to one course only" (Watson, p. 209). Zhuangzi extols a middle path: "Now up, now down, taking harmony for your measure, drifting and wandering with the ancestor of the ten thousand things, treating things as things but not letting them treat you as a thingthen how could you get into any trouble?" (Watson, p. 210). Following from Laozi and Zhuangzi is a distinction between philosophical and religious Daoism. The study of the classical texts of Daoism caught the court's eye in the Han dynasty, where the term daojia (philosophical Daoism) was first introduced. As an exemplar for political rule, philosophical Daoism emphasized following the Dao through both meditation and the union of thought and action. Although Confucianism was proclaimed the official religion/philosophy of the Han, Daoism became popular while leading the path to the development of daojiao (religious Daoism) that revered a deified Laozi. Religious Daoism strove for immortality through various practices including meditation, alchemy, breathing, and sexual practices. The intermingling of official classical religions and popular versions is an important point of convergence. Endymion Wilkinson writes:

To the extent that historians are concerned with questions of value and belief, they cannot afford to ignore the history of Chinese religion in all its many formspopular or elite, public or private, formal or informal, common or esoteric, home-grown or imported, secret or open. (pp. 570571)

The impact that Daoism had on both Confucianism and Buddhism should not be overlooked. In the Wei (220265 c.e.) and Jin (265420 c.e.) dynasties, Daoism emerged again through a melding of Confucian ideas. Daoism may also have paved the way for Buddhism coming into China, especially with its emphasis on meditation. Buddhist monks, Daoist priests, and Confucian masters flourished at Lushan (Lu Mountain). Their interactions were reciprocal, especially in popular forms.

Three Teachings Are One

In coping with the diverse interweaving of religious and philosophical traditions of both popular and court forms, China originated an amalgamated version called the "three teachings" of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This combination filtered through the rest of East and Southeast Asia. In a most general description, Confucianism represented social order and good daily conduct, Daoism represented an ambivalent response to this structure with a focus on longevity, and Buddhism represented a meditative bliss that looked beyond the material world. Although Buddhism is alien to China, it mediated Confucian virtuousness and Daoist cosmology. Stemming from the basic Chinese trinity of heaven (tian ) earth (di ) and humanity (rendao ), three becomes a crucial number. Human beings represent the number three as they stand between heaven and earth (tiandi zhijian ). Han philosophers saw the first three dynasties of Xia, Shang, and Zhou as aligning with loyalty, respect, and refinement. Although Confucianism was often the official state religion, sanjiao heyi (the three teachings are one) became a popular expression throughout Chinese history. Wolfram Eberhard writes: "Confucianism is the religion of filial piety (xiao ); popular Taoism has to do with the individual's position in the community, with whose ceremonial purification it is charged; finally, Buddhism is a way of looking at death and at the meaning of life in general" (p. 289).

The creative interpolation of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in the third to the seventh century found an uncanny revival in the eighteenth-century Qing dynasty, where inquisitive Manchu rulers allowed many religions to exist together. While Buddhism stood between Confucianism and Daoism in the first century, it also disappeared at various times. During the Six Dynasties, especially from 386587 c.e., Confucian texts were interpreted through Daoism. This is the same time that several Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese. While Daoism was accepted during the late Ming, it was rejected in the Qing in favor of Confucianism and Buddhism. Stephen Little argues that the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (ruled 13681398), dissuaded organized religion while promoting the unity of the three teachings: "This concept, namely that Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were different paths to the same goal, attained increased popularity during the Song [9601279] and Jin [11151234] dynasties, although its roots can be traced to the Six Dynasties period [222589]" (p. 27).

Modern China

With the influx of Western colonialism in East and Southeast Asia in the modern era, many Asian countries began to reject religions of any sort. Embracing Marxism, Mao Zedong (18931976) saw religion in general as an opiate of the people. It was a dangerous ideology that concealed the true relations of power within society. Ironically some see Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought as a type of "religious worldview" with rituals and sacred scriptures. Smart sees Mao as creating a new religion that "harnessed some of the emotions and thoughts of Daoism (the anarchism of Laozi, the alchemy of right commitment) and of Buddhism (the Pure Land, but here and now, and Mao as a celestial Buddha but right here in Beijing)" (p. 448). In the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Daoist and Buddhist temples that were gutted during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s were rebuilt in rural China, which still houses 70 percent of the population. With the recent resurrection of the Taishan (Tai Mountain) Daoist temple system that incorporates Confucian morality ledgers and Buddhist hells, China is recovering fundamental elements of its religious-philosophical heritage.


The impact of Chinese religion was felt with full force in both Korea and Japan. Korea was under direct Chinese rule from 193 to 37 b.c.e. with an influence that persisted for centuries. Monks such as Wonhyo (617686) and Uisang (625702) were crucial to the establishment of Buddhism in Korea. In particular, Uisang had a reciprocal relationship on the Chinese Huayan (Flower Garland) monk Fazang. Korean shamanism blended with both Confucianism and Buddhism. Smart writes:

Korean thinkers also made important contributions to the debates of the Neo-Confucian tradition, especially in the sixteenth century, through the writings of Yi T'oegye and Yi Yulgok. The former developed the thinking of Zhuxi arguing that the priority of principle to material force as ethical rather than ontological. Yi Yulgok argued for the determining character of material force and he objected to the notion that li [principle] is always unchanging and pure, since it and material force are correlatives. (p. 133)

These strongly ingrained traditional Confucian positions of the classical world were juxtaposed to the modern world with the Japanese invasion and the onslaught of Christian missionaries. During the Choson dynasty (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) Korean Confucianism forbade Buddhism from entering the capital city, while the Korean court frowned upon Catholicism. After the Korean-Japanese treaty of 1876, Japanese Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren came to Korea. The Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910 greatly altered the sense of traditional religions. Smart sees a division between "individualistic religions" such as Son (Zen ) Buddhism and Protestantism on one hand and traditional Confucianism on the other. A resulting political split would follow: individual religions tended toward democracy and traditional religions tended toward military dictatorship. Smart also sees this as a way of understanding the fracture between North Korea (traditional) and South Korea (individualistic).

With the popularity of evangelical Protestantism, South Korea saw the rise of Sun Myung Moon in 1954. Smart writes of the Unification Church:

Its tenets involve a reinterpretation of the Bible; loyalty to Mr. Moon as possiblythat is, if he fulfills his destinythe new Messiah; a new system of marriage designed to unite members in a large Family of which Mr. Moon and his wife are the True Parents; and the hope of unifying the world and the world's religions in a single harmony (in combat however with Communism, which is seen as the present chief manifestation of evil in the world). (pp. 453454)


The long history of Japanese religion held to the anchor of Shinto as a primitive system based upon kami (spirits) that inhabited every thing, person, or place. Somewhere between 538 and 552 c.e., Buddhism came into Japan. Prince Shotoku Taishi (574622) solidified Japan's hold on Buddhism by commissioning scholars to return from China with Mahayana texts including the Lotus Sutra. Shotoku combined Confucian court ranking with the Three Jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha) and belief in kami. Although Japan mediated political relations with various forms of Buddhism, monastic-level Buddhism also flourished at various times. In the Nara period (710784), Emperor Shomu ordered the construction of a bronze Buddha at Todaiji Temple in Nara to embellish the imperial capital. With a growing number of Buddhist sects developing in Japan, Buddhist monks came under close government control. Relaxing these laws, Emperor Kammu shifted the capital to Heian. Monks were encouraged to bring new Buddhisms from China in order to bless the new capital. During the Heian period (7941185), Saicho (767822) brought Tendai (Celestial Platform) Buddhism from China. As a Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) School, it focused on the Lotis Sutra as a source for obtaining buddhahood for all of humanity. Likewise, Kukai (774835) brought Shingon (True Word) Buddhism from China. Appealing to the aristocracy, it emphasized magic and incantations while including mandalas (sacred diagrams) and mantras (sacred syllables). In the Kamakura period (11921333) and beyond, Zen Buddhism appealed to the samurai because of its discipline and meditative search for satori (awakening), while Pure Land became the religion of the peasants.

During the Kokugaku (national learning) movement in the Tokugawa Shogunate, scholars such as Motoori Norinaga (17301801) saw three distinct periods of Japanese religion: a primordial period of purity, a period tainted by foreigners, and a period of the resurrection of the ancient world. After Chushingura (the treasury of loyal retainers) in 1703, the stage was set for the reemergence of Shinto as a state religion and the future restoration of the Meiji emperor. The Ako ronin avenged their fallen Lord Asano by killing Lord Kira. In doing so, they upheld the duty of samurai honor that appeared secondary in their minds to Tokugawa's law. Although punished by death, the forty-seven ronin motivated townsfolk and onlookers to evaluate seriously the balance of Confucian virtues: property, righteousness, and benevolence. During imperial Japan of World War II, both Shinto and Buddhism were revived as a component of Bushido (the way of the warrior), the most notorious wartime manifestation being the kamikaze (divine wind) suicide bombers.

After 1945, Buddhism returned somewhat to a more classical stance, largely through the efforts of thinkers such as Daisetz Suzuki (18701966). Alongside this, Nichiren Shoshu (followers of Nichiren) reemerged (from the thirteenth-century tradition) with the supreme goal of happiness. Stemming from this, the Soka Gakkai (value-creation society) emphasized world peace achieved through chanting and devotion to the Lotus Sutra.

Impact on Southeast Asia

Charles F. Keyes describes mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) as the "crossroad of religions" whereby "a large diversity of autochthonous tribal religions are intermingled with Hinduism, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as the modern secular faith of Marxist-Leninism" (p. 512). The complex blending of early primitive religious practices and those influenced by China over several centuries were reshaped by political change in the twentieth century.

Because of the Han conquest between 124 b.c.e. and 43 c.e., Vietnam looked to China for religious guidance with the influx of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This influence remained long after Vietnam's independence from China in the eleventh century. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand were shaped by Indian Hinduism and Buddhism up to the fifteenth century. Traditional tribal societies that relied on archaic rituals and Sino-Indian religions were slowly changed by Christian missionaries. As new agricultural systems emerged, adherence to folk culture began to wane.

According to James J. Fox, island cultures of Southeast Asia (Malaysia, the Philippines, and Java) were similarly influenced by Chinese and Indian traditions alongside Islam. In the late twentieth century, about 90 percent of Indonesia's population was Muslim, while the Philippines still were predominantly Catholic. Even in the early 2000s, the eclectic blend of religions focuses on a type of animism with the predominance of life force in every creature. In collectively describing the spirit of Southeast Asia, Fox writes:

Equally, the same spiritual premises may promote notions of achievement. A recurrent image of life involves the metaphor of the "journey of achievement." Myths recount the founding journeys of the ancestors, folk tales extol the attainments of heroic journeys, and dreams and séances can take the form of a spiritual journey. Furthermore, many societies encourage a period of journeying in early adulthood as a means of gaining knowledge, wealth, fame, and experience. (p. 526)

In the twentieth century, various religious movements emerged in the island cultures of Southeast Asia to address the effects of globalization on ancient cultures. James J. Peacock categorizes these movements into three groups: Hindu-Buddhism, Muslim, and Christian movements. For example, Budi Utomo (high endeavor) in Java and Bali sought to reestablish religious beliefs against a growing Western technology and value system that replaced traditional beliefs of Javanist-Hindu-Buddhists. As Peacock relates: "Looking to India's Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi as inspirations in the revival of these traditions, Budi Utomo was controlled by the aristocracy and intelligentsia and never gained a broad popular following, although it had amassed some ten thousand members within a year of its founding [1908]" (p. 527). Much more widespread, the Muslim movements ranged from Indonesia to Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Because of the completion of the Suez Canal in 1870, many Asian Muslims were able to travel easily to Mecca in the Middle East. The reciprocal influence of modern interpretations of Islam led to the founding of the Kaum Muda (new faction). With emphasis on textual exegesis, this movement spread from Singapore to Indonesia. With this entrenchment, Christianity gained a strong foothold in the Philippines. Summarizing the complex political interconnections of religious groups, Peacock writes of the early 2000s: "In Indonesia, the Muslims have generally acted as an oppositional force complementing the government, while the Hindu-Buddhist streams have either fed into the Javanist-oriented national culture and government or provided personal fulfillment outside the governmental arena" (p. 529).

See also Chinese Thought ; Christianity: Asia ; Confucianism ; Daoism ; Japanese Philosophy, Japanese Thought ; Philosophy of Religion .


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Jay Goulding

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