Daoism and Buddhism

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Modern scholars use the term Daoism to denote a wide variety of Chinese social groups and attitudes. Almost any activity engaged in by the elite that was not associated with governance has been labeled Daoist. In this entry, the term will be restricted to the Daoist religion, here defined as the collection of cognate and loosely organized Chinese religious organizations, first attested during the first century c.e., that "practiced the Dao" (Way) and traced their understandings to revelations emanating from the Dao at various times in human history. The most important among these revelations was that of the deified Laozi, who brought new understandings of the text historically ascribed to him, the Daode jing (The Way and Its Power), to Zhang Daoling, the first Celestial Master and founder of Zhengyi (Correct Unity) Daoism, in 142 c.e. Likewise, the term Daoist will refer to those—generally priests, but also a few lay practitioners—who devoted their lives to Daoist practice.

These are necessarily vague definitions, for Daoism was never a single ism, since its organization, doctrines, practices, and even history were constantly being reimagined; nor did it require, except in its earliest stages, strict adherence to a creed. In the process of its unstructured development, Daoist practice came to incorporate a wide spectrum of beliefs, attitudes, and goals, all allegedly finding their source in the Dao. In fact, the endurance of the religion in Chinese society stemmed from its permeable belief system and relative lack of organizational structure. These features softened the religion's outlines and allowed for strategies of eclecticism and co-option that assured the spread of Daoism, though Daoists were few, throughout two millennia of Chinese history.

As the Chinese struggled to understand the Buddhist religion, they naturally did so on their own terms, most often through recourse to indigenous traditions of practice and worship. Buddhist sūtras had to be translated into Chinese, and Buddhist doctrine had to be explained in native terms. Daoism either informed or recorded native understandings by adapting Buddhist doctrine and practice to its own uses. As a result, literally everywhere one looks in the record of Chinese Buddhism—ritual, iconography, monastic economy, philosophy, and even translation and the creation of sūtras—one finds elements that might be elucidated by reference to Daoist parallels. While successive dynasties, and some Buddhists as well, sought to clarify the boundaries between the two religions, beyond the walls of the monastery this attempt proved less than successful.

Proponents of the Daoist religion brought further political pressures on Buddhism. Often, Daoist organizations defined themselves with respect to devotees of popular sects and Buddhists, whose practices did not accord with theirs. By redefining the doctrines and practices of other religions in their own terms, such Daoist groups would attempt to supplant them. In the case of Buddhism, the goal was to replace the foreign religion with a "more authentic" Chinese version. Several imperial moves to repress the Buddhist religion are directly traceable to this attempted co-option.

The interplay of Buddhism and Daoism can thus be characterized as a complex dance of appropriation and accommodation, interspersed with periods of suspicion and antipathy. This entry will present in diachronic perspective a few of the highlights of this diverse history.

First to sixth centuries c.e.

The earliest interactions between the two religious complexes reveal Chinese attempts to naturalize the foreign religion. The putative use of "Daoist" terms to translate early Buddhist scriptures has perhaps been overemphasized, since the Daoism of the first to the third centuries could claim little unique religious terminology beyond that found in the Daode jing, the Zhuangzi, and other widely used texts. It is nonetheless significant that both religions drew upon a common fund of Chinese terms, with their established connotations, to express their central concepts. For example, Buddhist vihāra, or monasteries, and Daoist meditation chambers were both called jingshe, a term that originally designated a pure chamber used in preparation for ancestral sacrifice and that later referred to a Confucian study hall.

Several of the earliest mentions of Buddhism in Chinese historical texts record that the Han emperor Huan (r. 147–167) performed joint sacrifices to the deified Laozi, the Yellow Emperor, and the Buddha. Around the same time, the notion arose that Laozi, who was reputed to have disappeared in the west after composing his Daode jing, had become the Buddha. This legend was repeated, and greatly expanded, in Daoist sources, including a circular distributed among Zhengyi groups in northern China in 255, to show the superiority of Daoist practices over those crafted specifically for unruly barbarians. Around 300, a scripture was produced, the Huahu jing (Scripture of [Laozi's] Conversion of the Barbarians). This text, with later accretions, continued to play a role in religious controversy into the fourteenth century. Versions of the legend were also taken up in early Buddhist apologetic treatises and indigenously composed sūtras, where it was argued that Laozi and other venerated figures of Chinese history were in fact disciples of the Buddha.

By the latter half of the fourth century, Daoist scriptural traditions originating in the south reveal the extent to which Buddhism had come to transform Chinese worldviews. The Shangqing (Upper Purity) scriptures revealed to Yang Xi (ca. 330–386) show vague traces of Buddhist concepts, such as rebirth. Several hagiographies granted to Yang mention the practice of Buddhism, though these are clearly regarded as only one way to approach the proper study of transcendence found in Daoist scriptures. In addition, Yang's transcripts include a series of oral instructions from celestial beings that borrow heavily from the early Chinese Buddhist Sishier zhang jing (Scripture in Forty-two Sections). Descriptive flourishes in Shangqing depictions of deities and heavenly locales also betray new emphases introduced with Buddhism.

The Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) scriptures, compiled during the late fourth and early fifth centuries, represent an attempt at religious synthesis that encompassed both Buddhism and early forms of Daoism. Lingbao cosmology, soteriology, attitudes toward scripture, ecclesiastical organization, and ritual practice all were adapted from the Buddhism that is attested to in the works of such early translators as Zhi Qian (fl. 220–250) and Kang Senghui (d. 280). Most strikingly, the Lingbao scriptures contain reworked passages from the works of these translators, as well as passages drawn from earlier Daoist texts, all purportedly revealed in their original form, in earlier world-systems. In this way, the Lingbao scriptures were portrayed as replacing all earlier sources of religious knowledge, and they were so represented to the emperors of the Liu-Song dynasty (420–479).

Scholars have yet to fully explore what this remarkable synthesis can reveal of the Buddhist practice of this period. What is clear is that the idea of saṂsĀra, with its various postmortem destinies and salvation through transfer of merit, was already widely accepted among the Chinese populace. The Lingbao scriptures did not, however, hold nirvĀṆa as a goal. Rather, salvific practice was aimed at securing either rebirth into the heavens or into a favorable earthly destination, such as the family of a "prince or marquis." This acceptance of nearly all aspects of Buddhist soteriology except nirvana was to characterize Daoism from this time forward. In the competition for ritual patronage, Daoists would claim that Buddhism was the "religion of death," while their practices were dedicated to "life." Insofar as the ritual practice of Daoism took its initial form in these early Lingbao texts, such attitudes toward Buddhism became a feature of future interactions between the two religions.

Sixth to tenth centuries

One might construct a history of the vicissitudes of the two religions on the basis of imperial patronage, beginning with Liang Wudi's (r. 502–549) suppression of Daoism, through Zhou Wudi's (r. 560–578) attempt to ban Buddhism, the Sui emperors' support of Buddhism, and the favoritism toward Daoism shown by the early Tang emperors, who held that they were descended from Laozi. This account, however, would misrepresent the intense interactions between Buddhism and Daoism during this period. While Buddhists composed new sūtras that foretold the apocalyptic decline of the dharma, provided charms for personal protection, accommodated Chinese filial practice or announced the potential utility of Buddhism as a support for the state, Daoists produced a number of lengthy scriptures, such as the Yebao yinyuan jing (Scripture on Karmic Retribution and Conditions) and the Benji jing (Scripture on the Origin Point), that exposed similar Daoist concerns while also elaborating Daoist versions of key Buddhist concepts. These doctrinal developments were catalogued in Daojiao yishu (Pivot of the Dao), which contains sections on "the three vehicles," the fashen (dharmakāya), and Dao-nature, which can be compared to Buddha-nature.

In terms of both doctrine and practice, the Tang dynasty saw further efforts to harmonize the "Three Religions"—Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Imperial patronage and efforts at control resulted in doctrinal and organizational systematization for both Buddhism and Daoism. Daoists created initiation grades based on the canonical organization of their scriptural traditions and constructed monasteries throughout the kingdom, leading to the emergence of a fully-formed monastic Daoism. Monasteries were the sites of large-scale ritual performances, such as the Buddhist Ullambana ritual and the Daoist Retreat of the Yellow Registers, based on a procedure found in the early Lingbao scriptures. Both of these rites were designed to secure the release of the dead from the hells and guide them into more fortunate paths of rebirth or ascension into the heavens. In this and other respects, one begins to see, at least among the elite classes for whom there is a written record, the beginnings of competition between Buddhist and Daoist priests to provide ritual services that were often quite similar in aim and content.

Eleventh to fourteenth centuries

With the better documentation provided by the widespread use of printing and the spread of literacy, an extremely lively religious scene becomes apparent. Daoism's shift from court to local centers, noticed by modern scholars, is perhaps merely the result of increased documentation revealing what had been occurring beneath the surface all along. While elite practitioners continued to be enamored of distinctive practices leading to personal transcendence, as found in Chan or Daoist Inner Alchemy, it now becomes apparent how thoroughly Buddhism and Daoism had blended at the local level. In both Buddhist and Daoist contexts, there are examples of minor Buddhist deities cast in the role of protector deities in local cults; rites of "universal salvation" whereby the dead were rescued from the hells and brought into the ritual space for transfer; and ritual masters who embodied deities and caused child-mediums to become possessed by diseasedemons, so that these might be interrogated and expelled. This latter practice derives from Tantric rituals, with their warrior deities and therapeutic aims.

Just as local gods were added to the Daoist pantheon, new modes of scriptural production and lay association were incorporated into Daoism and began to play a central role in the development of Chinese religious life. An example is the cult of the god Wenchang, a local deity from Sichuan later recognized officially as the god of literature. A book detailing his epiphanies and support of the "Three Religions" of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism was revealed by spirit-writing in 1181.

One of the several influential schools of Daoism begun during this period was Quanzhen (Way of Complete Perfection), founded by Wang Zhe (1112–1170). Quanzhen, which is the dominant form of officially recognized Daoism in modern China, teaches celibacy, asceticism, strict monasticism, moral instruction, and self perfection through inner alchemy. In many ways, Quanzhen self-consciously modeled itself on Chan Buddhism. Quanzhen masters gained the patronage of the Mongol Yuan rulers and, during the mid-thirteenth century, were accused by Buddhists of occupying monasteries, running them as Daoist institutions, and spreading a version of the Huahu jing. The literary legacy of Quanzhen Daoism is vast and includes volumes of didactic verse and dialogic records similar to Chan yulu.

Another influential school was the Qingwei (Pure Tenuity) school of ritual practice, which incorporated Tantric rites, mudrĀ, and maṆḌala practice into traditional Daoist cosmogenic transformation rituals. These ritual innovations have been preserved by Zhengyi practitioners into the twenty-first century.

Fifteenth century to the present

The ethnically Han emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) tended to favor Daoism, but strove to bring all public religious expression under strict regulation. They gave official approval to the Zhengyi school over Quanzhen, which had dominated the previous period, and they patronized the printing of the Daoist canon in 1445 and a supplement in 1598. These remain major resources upon which scholars and practicing Daoists alike rely. Nonetheless, such official oversight tends to purge from the official records much that is vital to understanding the growth of the religion.

Elite neo-Confucians of this period adapted both Buddhist and Daoist thought to their own ends. In some cases, such as that of Lin Zhao'en (1517–1598), a self-styled "Master of the Three Teachings," attempts were made to popularize these beliefs. Lin's "Three in One Teaching," influential throughout southeastern China for about 150 years, was meant to eliminate all other denominations under a Confucianism supported by the subsidiary doctrines of Buddhism and Daoism.

More problematic from the state's point of view was the proliferation of lay, scripturally-based, sectarian groups such as the White Lotus Society. Such groups, unlike the Wenchang cult, cannot be categorized as other than eclectic. These societies based their practice of scriptural recitation and meditation on scriptures that innovated freely with beliefs and practices extracted from the canonical writings of both Buddhism and Daoism, overlain with "Confucian" moral concerns that by this time had become the property of both religions. Sectarian scriptures and personalized fortunes in verse form were often produced through spirit-writing sessions conducted in Daoist and, to a lesser extent, Buddhist temples. Such new religious groups, patronized even by officials and their wives, provided an alternative to institutionalized religion.

Qing dynasty (1644–1911) efforts at control were no more successful than those of preceding dynasties. While Tibetan Buddhism was the religion of the Qing emperors, recognition was given, as it is in China today, to the two Daoist schools Zhengyi and Quanzhen. But the tendencies toward simplification and syncretism of the preceding centuries precluded categorical taming of the vibrant religious scene. For instance, while modern Quanzhen venerates Wang Changyue (d. 1680), the officially-recognized first abbot of the Baiyun guan in Beijing, another influential patriarch of the school, Min Yide (1758–1836), is perhaps better representative of the times, and certainly better remembered today. While fulfilling his father's wishes and serving as an official in Yunnan, Min supposedly met the mysterious Man of the Way of Chicken-foot Mountain, who bestowed upon him the inner alchemical practices of the Heart School of West India through two scriptures. One of these concerns the methods of salvation propounded by the three sages—Confucius, Laozi, and Śākyamuni—while the other was a dhĀraṆĪ text spoken by the Buddha. In addition, Min received a Northern Dipper meditation text containing mantras to be pronounced in imitation of Sanskrit.

In contemporary China, Taiwan, and other Chinese communities, there are continued official attempts to distinguish Daoism from Buddhism through the creation of governing organizations, the registration of priests, and local oversight—all familiar in the history of Chinese religion. Nonetheless, the most prominent characteristic of Chinese religion as it is practiced and imagined remains its eclectic, all-embracing character.

See also:Apocrypha; Confucianism and Buddhism; Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


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Stephen R. Bokenkamp