Updated: 12 Dec 2012
Comparison of Eastern Faiths
Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto
The nature of God/gods — a comparison of Hinduism and Buddhism
Superficially, Hinduism appears to be a true polytheistic religion. Countless deities, gods, goddesses, and incarnations abound, and are defined in sacred Hindu texts, such as the Regveda, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads. Yet the Hindu acknowledges a "supreme reality" in Brahman. (Smith 60) Two fundamentally different perceptions of God (Brahman) persist. On the first hand, God is personal, and affects physical change in the world. This view is evidenced in the Hindu trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. (Smith 62) On the other hand, God is transpersonal, i.e. He is aloof from the world (Smith 62-63) and couldn't care less about individual human existence. The pliability of Hinduism allows both schools of thought to coexist — it even allows for the possibility that God is both personal and transpersonal. The believer in a personal God would be more convinced that God is actively involved in his life, and thus, concerned about his life-purpose.
Theravada Buddhism, in stark contrast with Hinduism, does not worship any deities or gods, and does not place emphasis on rituals or worship. Most Buddhists do not perceive of a personal God the way Abrahamic religions do, but similarities abound between nirvana and a "Godhead." (Smith 114-115) Buddha once said, "[t]here is, O monks, an Unborn, neither become nor created nor formed … Were there not, there would be no deliverance from the formed, the made, the compounded…" (114) He is making a distinction here between our lives on earth, and the immovable, permanence of the supreme Reality. (115) In traditional Theravada Buddhism, divine powers do not have any influence on an individual's path to Nirvana, while Mahayana Buddhism teaches that "human aspirations are supported by divine powers and the grace they bestow." (126) By emphasizing a "life-purpose" supported by the divine, Mahayana Buddhism is more in line with typical Hindu thought than is Theravada Buddhism, which does not recognize a creator-God..
Personal or social religious goals — a comparison of Taoism and Shinto
Shinto, the oldest and one of the major religions of Japan, tells us that proximate achievement is just as important as ultimate achievement. Shinto emphasizes the "here and now" and stresses immediate happiness, whereas other prominent religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, downplay earthly happiness and set their sights on happiness in the afterlife. A Shintoist learns to commune with the natural world; harmony with nature and man's surroundings is an ideal of Shinto. (Earhart 1115) One particular personal goal of Shinto that stands out is the "emphasis [that] is placed on cleanliness and purification." (Earhart 1087) Physical cleanliness helps a follower of Shinto live a harmonious life with his environment. Purification rites are essential to Shinto, but are not limited to bodily purification.
Taoism, like Shinto, also touts the importance of cleanliness and purification, but places special emphasis on Tao, loosely defined as the "source and order in the universe…" (Overmyer in Earhart 999) Evident from the beginnings of Taoism is the Tai-ping-jing (the Scripture of Great Peace and Prosperity). In it lies the foundations for personal and social goals; among them are commandments to share what one has accumulated. (999-1000) For instance, the Tai-ping-jing forbids the accumulation of earthly riches and encourages those who are blessed to help those who are broken. (1000) This law is applicable in the spiritual sense, too. The accumulation of both De (inner vitality) and Tao ["the source of order in the universe" (Overmyer in Earhart 999)] are to be shunned. The Taoist is encouraged to share his spiritual wealth with others who are less fortunate.
Life-patterns or codes of ethical behavior — a comparison of the Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Taoism
Confucianism as we know it today did not originate with the historical figure Confucius, but rather with eleventh century Chinese scholars who were worried about Buddhism's influence in China. (Overmyer in Earhart 1009) Confucianism can be thought of as a social order, a religion, a philosophy, or any combination of the three — Confucius himself placed greater emphasis on humanity and sociology than on spiritual matters. (993) Cornerstones in Confucian ethical behavior includes filial piety (to possess love and respect for one's parents and ancestors, loyalty, and humaneness. (Overmyer in Earhart 1036-37; Lester in Earhart 886)
Taoist ethics are quite similar to Confucian ethics — indeed there is much co-mingling. In 300 B.C.E. a Taoist code of ethics appeared in the form of the Lao-zi (literally "venerable philosopher" or "Grand Old Master." (Overmyer in Earhart 1071; Smith 196-197) It can be likened to a self-help book in that it taught one how to live successfully and with grace – all within the confines of the Tao. (1071) The Lao-zi also promulgated the concept of "non-interference", that is, living without trying to improve things that cannot be fixed. (1036) It seems passive, and on the surface, contradictory to the Taoist commandments of sharing spiritual and material wealth.
Confucianism and Taoism both indicate that harmony and peace on earth are goals of their teachings and codes of ethical behavior. (886) Taoism's, Confucianism's, and Buddhism's schools of thought have been influencing each other for centuries – for instance, much of Confucian thought is borrowed from Taoism and Buddhism. (1009) There has been a certain syncretism (i.e. pluralism) in China in that people don't follow just one religion but participate in various facets and rituals of aforementioned religions. ("Module 3: The Religions of China and Japan: Commentary") The interoperability of these religions is due in part to their focus on human behavior and their deemphasis on specific gods and deities.
Ranks or functions — a comparison of Shinto and Confucianism
Confucianism as a religion has little or no "priesthood" or religious ranks, evidenced implicitly by its apparent absence from our texts. However, the doctrine it espoused taught social order within distinct ranks. Explains Daniel Overmyer: "Confucianism emphasized the principle of social harmony through a set of hierarchical relationships in which the subordinate person (such as a son) is obedient and loyal, and the higher person (such a father) is benevolent and protective." (1097) Confucius was concerned with keeping the social order not primarily with laws but by thought and non-coercive obedience. For example, when one studies Confucianism, and its principles of loyalty, harmony, and order, "li [the ordering principle] is strengthened and one eventually becomes a wise and mature person who can help bring order to family, society, and government." (1010) For practical purposes, the "priests" of Confucianism are the political and societal leaders who have studied the philosophy of Confucius and apply it to their leadership roles.
Due to its emphasis on specialized ranks, functions, and hierarchies, Confucianism became a state religion, so to speak, by the authoritarian Chinese government circa 1400. (Overmyer in Earhart 1010)
Shinto, in comparison to Confucianism, is the more formal religion of the two (Earhart 1088) and has an established priestly class. During medieval times, Shinto shrines organized as their teachings reacted against Japanese Buddhism (1102-03), which was burgeoning in popularity. "…[A]s Shinto scholars began to form their own systems of thought, borrowing from other traditions, they began to assert the primary value of Shinto… This was an important precedent for Shinto priests and scholars in beginning to reclaim their position in Japanese religion and society." (1103) Shinto priests were not necessarily trying to differentiate themselves from other Shinto holy people or laymen, but were, in a sense, vying for rank, or pecking order with other Japanese religions and the priestly classes thereof. Shinto and Japanese Buddhism became so intertwined that worshipers would pray to Buddhist deities and Shinto's equivalent, kami. Prayer would also be interchangeable (1103) with nary a second thought. One priest (usually the Buddhist priest) would conduct this "dual" service and usually have more authority over it (1103); Shinto priests had to struggle for rank and did their best to keep from getting absorbed completely into Japanese Buddhism.
Means, institutions, techniques, and rites — a comparison of Buddhism and Hinduism
Surpassing imperfection is the ultimate religious goal of a Hindu. There are many paths in Hinduism which can be legitimately used for fulfilling one's religious goals.
- Jnana yoga is a technique used to find God through knowledge. (Smith 29) Yoga opens the student up to the Infinite – that is, a realization that there is more to one's self than one's finite self, namely the Atman (or God within). (30-31)
- The way to God through love is exemplified in Bhakti, the most popular Hindu means to fulfillment. (32) Bhakti's religious goals differ from jnana yoga in that its participants are taught to adore God, not to become one with Him. (33) In Bhakti, devotion is usually paid to one deity, or human incarnation of God.
- Karma is a means by which followers find their way to God through work. A Hindu will find joy in working not for himself, but for God. Such work brings about a sense of purpose to his actions. Finding God through work means surrendering everything and shrinking the ego. (39, 41)
- Raja yoga encompasses the techniques used for finding the way to God through psychophysical exercises. Such psychophysical exercises are not performed on the body, but on the mind; mental experiments are performed and the effects are observed. (41-42)
Obtaining nirvana and liberating one's self from the cycle of rebirth remain fundamental Buddhist goals. (Smart 95) Originally, Buddhist teaching did not dictate specific techniques or rituals necessary to reach said goals. To elaborate, Buddha founded a religion without priestly authority, rituals, tradition, or deities and the supernatural. (Smith 94-97) He reacted against the established Hindu caste system and taught that true enlightenment could be achieved in one lifetime. Over time, however, ritual and deities began to creep back into the religion, namely the Mahayana strain. While both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism both have the same ends, the means by which to achieve those ends differ. Mahayana acknowledges God's help (grace) in attaining salvation (nirvana). (121) In Theravada Buddhism, the means by which one attains nirvana do not include God or gods, but are founded in self-effort: "…[n]o gods exist to help us over the humps, so self-reliance is our only recourse." (Smith 122)
In Mahayana Buddhism, rites involving the veneration of Buddha are common: graven images of the Buddha grace temples and holy places; prayer, incense and the sprinkling of water are offered to Buddha; participants remove their shoes and bow reverently to statues of Buddha. "…there are sicks of incense and bowls of fruit on Buddhist alters … group readings of scripture, recitation of the names of Buddhas, and quiet prayers." (Overmyer in Earhart 1028) The Buddha-worship of today bears similar resemblance to the Hindu Brahmanic rites – "superstitious petitions to ineffectual gods." (Smith 94)
Mythical Dimension – Hinduism
Hindu gods are the subjects of numerous myths which go back thousands of years. Such myths, whether of the lives of Indra, Vishnu, Siva, or countless other gods and deities, encompass a large part of historical Hindu scripture. Through study of the Vedas, the Hindu student can piece together the mythology of the gods. (Knipe in Earhart 739) From a practical standpoint, myths serve a two-fold purpose: to enrich the history of Hinduism and to anthropomorphicize the deities. One particularly interesting deity is Agni, described by Knipe as not being just the god of fire, but as being the mysterious sacred fire itself. (740) Agni is described in the Rigveda as being "…lord of every household (in the hearth), eater of corpses (in the cremation pyre), born anew every day (from the kindling sticks), and yet omniscient…" (740) Other sources of Hindu myth include the two Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The latter contains the Bhagavad Gita (the Song of the Lord), an epic-within-an-epic which mythologizes Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. (760)
Experiential Dimension – Taoism
In Taoism, the experience of the Tao cannot be put into words, "…for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom." (Smith 198) However, Tao can modestly be described as the "source and order of the universe, formless, yet profoundly effective." (Overmyer in Earhart 1070) The experience of Tao transcends words but Taoist meditation is frequently used to direct the essence of Tao into one's self, "…bypass[ing] bodily filters." (Smith 202) Taoist meditation became the ultimate subjective experience, and requires a collapse of the ego, stilted emotions, and, above all, sharply-focused introspection. (203) Taoists do not stress various experiences of ritualized superstition or "the holy" but are more concerned with the transcendental nature of the Tao.
Doctrinal Dimension – Buddhism
Dharma can be considered Buddhist doctrine, for the word can be translated as doctrine, teaching, duty, Eternal Truth, law, religion, or right conduct. (Knipe in Earhart 723-25, 756; Lester in Earhart 858-59) Buddhism today is blessed/cursed with the conflicting doctrines of the Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada Buddhists regard their doctrine to be the original teachings of Buddha. Their Arhat ideal states that disciples must isolate themselves from the distractions of the world and "…with prodigious concentration, [proceed] unswervingly toward that goal" of nirvana. (Smith 124) Mahayana Buddhists regard the Arhat ideal to be selfish and instead aspire to be bodhisattvas, or "being[s] striving for enlightenment." (Lester in Earhart 879) Bodhisattvas take on the selfless role of storing up good karma for others to use while denying nirvana for themselves. (881)
Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism acknowledge the same teachings (doctrine) of Buddha, namely the purification of consciousness (Smart 96) through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In a nutshell, the Four Noble Truths state that:
- life is suffering
- suffering is caused by desire
- desire can be overcome
- the overcoming of desire is through the Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path, like the Ten Commandments, lays out ethical guidelines for overcoming desire, and hence suffering: right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. (Smith 105-111) While Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists have different interpretations of these ideals (interpretations which have been coalescing of late), the foundational doctrine of Buddha remains the same today as it was at its inception.
Social Dimension – Shinto
Shinto became so entwined in Japan's social fabric that it became a state ritual (Smart 39), much in the same way that Independence Day cookouts and fireworks have been ingrained by United States citizens. Indeed, Earhart agrees that "…Shinto was used more as a patriotic rationale than as an established religion." (1106) Smart also intimates that Japan's religious heritage (of Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism) has greatly influenced their recent economic success (134). Shinto – or any affective religion for that matter – is not wholly a private matter, but intermingles with society until they are synonymous. Shinto is but a fraction of a larger Japanese society which synthesizes many traditions and religions. "…Japanese religion is not a mathematical addition of individual components, it is a way of life that is constructed and supported by most of the individual components." (Earhart 1091) Put another way, there is no distinct "Shinto society" or "Taoist society" due to the peculiar nature of Japanese pluralism.
Ethical Dimension – Confucianism
Up until Communist rule in China, Chinese ethics were synonymous with Confucianism. One could argue whether Confucianism was a religion or "merely" a ethical system. Indeed, author Huston Smith has put forth such a debate; he reminds us that Confucianism gives special consideration to morality and personal conduct (183), especially among rulers and political leaders, who were the role models. According to Confucius, the ideal leader would have an "inner sense of ethical commitment," (Overmyer in Earhart 994) summed up in jen. Jen is at once empathy, humanity, and respect for others and for one's self. (Smith 172) Other facets of Confucian ethics are chun tzu (a mature and moral person), li (propriety and manners), te (using power virtuously), and wen (a passion for the arts). (173-180) These five pillars comprise Confucian's ethical and moral guidelines.
- The arhat and the bodhisattva: complementary ideals of Buddhism
- Bhakti: Hinduism's devotion to a personal God
- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: Glory and Praise to Our God
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Knipe, David M. "Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Lester, Robert C. "Buddhism: the Path to Nirvana" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
"Module 3: The Religions of China and Japan: Commentary" http://tychousa.umuc.edu Accessed 15 July 2005.
Overmyer, Daniel L. "Religions of China: The World as a Living System" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Smart, Ninian. Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.