THEORIES OF LIFE AND DEATH IN CONFUCIANISM, BUDDHISM, AND DAOISM: AN OUTLINE
Theories of life and death in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (Taoism) can be discussed by comparing the following: (1) Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) and (2) Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism).*
Confucianism and Daoism
Confucianism regards both life and death as a responsibility to society, while Daoism (Taoism) holds that both life and death should be in conformity to nature.
The fundamental concept of the Confucian view of life and death is: "Life and death are determined by fate, and wealth and nobleness are determined by heaven," thereby emphasizing life rather than death. Confucius once said, "How can one know about death before he knows clearly about life?" In one's lifetime, one should fulfill one's responsibility in realizing the ideal of a harmonious society. "It is man who can find and develop ways and ideas, and not vice versa." Man should consider it his duty to testify to the workings of the "way of heaven." Heaven pursues its eternal movement, and a gentleman should make unremitting efforts to improve himself." Since Confucianism lays more emphasis on responsibility in one's lifetime, it neglects the world after death. According to Confucianism, man can be "immortal." Zuo Zhuan proposes that man can be "immortal in three ways": to set a fine example in virtue; to achieve a great career; and to leave behind great writings.
This "immortality," in spirit only, has social and ethical significance, but has not direct connection with life. When Zhang Zai, a famous Confucianist in the Song Dynasty, wrote Xi Ming, his final sentences were: "When living, I work with the social trend; and, when I am gone, the world will be in peace." When living, man should try his best to fulfill his social responsibility and strive to realize an ideal society. One should ask oneself "to set a goal for the world, to live for the people, to study sages of the past, and to work for a peaceful world in the future." This idea of Zhang Zai is actually what Confucius sought after as "the way of heaven prevailing all over the world" and also the "three programs and eight items" in Da Xue and the idea of Great Harmony in Li Ji--Li Yun (Book of Rites). If a man does what he can to fulfill his responsibility before his death, he will feel composed and have no qualms when he leaves this world.
Therefore, Confucianism does not lay too much emphasis on death. To realize one's idea, one can "end one's life for benevolence" and "give one's life for righteousness." This thought once exerted profound influence on China's literati and officialdom in feudal society. Before his execution, Wen Tianxiang, a national hero in China's history, wrote the following on his clothing belt: "Confucius teaches benevolence and Mencius teaches righteousness. For the sake of righteousness, perfect benevolence could be attained. What else can a man learn from the sages? After my death, I will feel no qualms at all." In the last analysis, life in Confucianism is to fulfill one's responsibility to society and death is the same. If one fulfilled his social responsibility before death, he will die "immortal."
The founder of Daoism (Taoism), Laozi (Lao Tzu), did not much discuss the issue of life and death. At one place in his work, he touched upon the issue as "enjoying longevity," a notion which has something to do with his idea that, if one does not play too much emphasis on his life, it may be easier for him to preserve his thought. However, Zhuang Zhou (Zhuangzi) discussed this issue and considered both life and death as natural phenomena. When living, one should do everything in conformity to the law of nature and not seek anything beyond one's ability. In Ying Di Wang (Fit for Emperors and Kings), there is a story in which Hundun (Chaos) was killed when he helped to bore seven openings for seeing, hearing, eating and breathing. According to Zhuangzi, "death" is nothing but a "rest." "When death befalls me, I begin my rest." So when his wife died, he sang to the beating of bronze bowls. But there were "Perfect Men" or "Godly Men" who were beyond life and death. They could attain a state in which "both heaven and earth exist with them and all things are one with them." However, this "living beyond life and death" is somewhat different from "living in eternity" and it is only meant for a "spiritual state."
By the Wei and Jin dynasties, the Metaphysical School became popular and was often referred to as "New Daoism (Taoism)." It developed the thought of Laozi (Lao Tzu) and particularly that of Zhuangzi. In Zuang Zi as interpreted by Guo Xiang, both life and death were but different states in which all things existed. To life, life is life, but to death, life is death; to life, death is death, but to death, death is life. So whenever life or death is mentioned, people just give out different views from different viewpoints. Since life and death are both states in which all things exist, when living, one should live in composure and, when dying, one should die in composure. This idea of Guo Xiang was evidently derived from that of Zhuangzi.
Another philosopher named Zhang Zhan interpreted the work of Lie Zi (Great Thinkers in Ancient China). He thought that everything had its beginning and end, sometimes gathered together and sometimes dispersed. The life of anything was supposed to be its beginning: "gathering takes a certain shape." The death of anything was supposed to be its end: "when dispersing, things go to nothingness." "By life is meant an air that gathers temporarily the ether of anything. Temporary gathering will eventually disperse and temporary ether will finally go to nothingness." Therefore, man should know his source and his final destination, namely deliverance. Both Guo Xiang and Zhang Zhan were influenced by the Daoist thought that both life and death were but natural phenomena.
Buddhism and Daoism
Almost all religions seek to solve the problem of what will happen to man after his death, but Daoism (Taoism) in China alone chooses to tackle the problem of "how can man avoid death." The basic belief of Daoism (Taoism) is "living in eternity" and for "the body of flesh to become immortal." Tai Ping Jing states, "Daoism (Taoism) has all along taught conservation. Man can live in eternity and get away from death." Laozi (Lao Tzu) Xiang Er Zhu also says, "The reason people are converted to Daoism (Taoism) is the wish to live in eternity." Therefore, finding a solution to the question of life and death, seeking deliverance and immortality, and finally reaching the state of "living in eternity" are the characteristics of Daoism (Taoism).
Xiao Dao Lun, published in the North Zhou Dynasty, quoted The Preface to Laozi (Lao Tzu) written by Ge Xun, "Daoism (Taoism) preaches life, while Buddhism preaches death." San Tian Nei Jie Jing also said, "Lao Jun (Daoist Buddha) advocates achieving life and Sakyamuni advocates achieving death." According to Buddhism, the sufferings and pains of man lie in "being in life." Being in life means the spirit is associated with flesh and cannot be freed, that is, the spirit is still in the circle of samsara (wheel of life) before it reaches nirvana. Only when the spirit leaves the flesh can it arrive at the state of nothingness and he delivered from the sea of bitterness.
Daoism (Taoism) advocates realizing immortality in the flesh, that is, a body combined with spirit achieves immortality. In this way, man can leave bitter reality and enter the world of immortality. When commenting on the difference between Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism on the issue of life and death, the Daoist monk Qi said, "The wonder of Daoist teachings lies in the seeking of oneness through intense meditation, in achieving immortality without dying. The essence of Buddhist teachings leads to meditation by ridding oneself of miscellaneous disturbing thoughts, by seeking no life and naming death clay eternity. I never heard of not dying by seeking death." Tang Falin also said in Bian Zheng Lun (Book of Dialectics), "Wai Er Yi said that Lao Jun elaborates the preaching of living in eternity with no life or death. Sakyamuni establishes the religion of eternal nothingness with no life or death. Nei Er Yu said that Li Ran explains the essence of both life and death: "Fearing life that troubles life will bring about grey hairs. Sakyamuni reveals the sign that explains both life and death. Going to the final nothingness that silences nothingness will honor the body in gold." Buddhism advocates "no life," for whenever there is life there is death. Daoism (Taoism) advocates "no death," for "no death" means living in eternity. Though their views are totally different, both Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism) seek deliverance by dealing with the issue of life and death.
*Translated by Hou Mingjun
Life and Death
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THEORIES OF LIFE AND DEATH IN CONFUCIANISM, BUDDHISM, AND DAOISM: AN OUTLINE