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How Tao-before-Mao copied Buddhism

india Updated: Feb 21, 2009 01:08 IST

Armed with a writing pad and my interpreter, I ventured to the Taoist Association of China in Beijing, much to the amusement of my friend Wang Lei, the down-to-earth Chinese girl in her mid-thirties who was going to help me. I had an interesting morning with the Director of the Taoist Association of China. The Taoist priest in charge of PR was very forthcoming.

I was told that Taoists were mainly vegetarian, with a strict disciplined routine through the day, much like their Buddhist counterparts, that Taoism, a set of ideals, needed to be part of society for application.

Push-me Pull-yu

At first, Buddhism allied itself closely with Taoism to gain a foothold in China and borrowed from it. But in later centuries it was the Taoists who borrowed from Buddhism! Taoism was never a religion, it was a set of beliefs and doctrines left behind by a master and “preserved in a corpus of literature”. They got the idea of a ‘religion’ from Buddhists and also borrowed the idea of making statues and images from the latter. The first Taoist deity appeared in the mid 5th century CE, soon duly flanked by Taoist saints.

From then on, the Taoists borrowed heavily from the Buddhists in their literature. They had exhausted the works branded as ‘heterodox’ (outside accepted beliefs) by the Confucians -- works on alchemy, divination, hygiene, breathing exercises, etc and turned to the Buddhist sutras. According to the authority, Ch’en, they copied these in a hasty and slipshod fashion. Often the word ‘Buddha’ was removed and Lao Tze put in its place. At other times even that was not done and the name of the Buddha was used as it was.

Karma chameleon

Ch’en writes, “In one of these biographies, the Yu-lung-chuan (biography of one who resembles a dragon), we read that Lao Tze was born by issuing forth from the left rib of the holy mother, who was clinging to the branches of the plum tree at the time.

As soon as he was born, he took nine steps and from each footprint lotus flowers sprang forth. At the time of his birth, ten thousand cranes hovered above in the sky, while nine dragons spat forth water to bathe the newborn baby. After he was born, with his left hand pointing to heaven and his right hand to earth, he uttered the cry that in heaven and earth only Lao was supreme.

Nine days after birth his body became endowed with the seventy-two major and eighty-one minor characteristics. The holy mother, after giving birth to Lao Tze then mounted a jade chariot and in broad daylight ascended to heaven.”

After borrowing all these ideas from Buddhists, the Taoists organized them into a canon modelled on the Tripitaka (the ‘Three Baskets’ of Buddhist doctrine). Hence the Taoist canon consists of three sections, with each section divided into twelve categories.

The fact that the Taoists were overwhelmed by the Buddhists is also seen by their taking from the latter the concept of the bodies of the Buddha. The Taoists believed that Lao Tze was one of the incarnations of the Supreme Tao, who would assume a human form from time to time.

The idea was taken from the Buddhist doctrine of the two bodies of the Buddha, the dharmakaya or the body of essence, which is the only true and real body of the Lord, and the nirmanakaya or body of transformation, which is the manifestation of dharmakaya on earth (avatar?). There was also a body of celestials, modelled on the Bodhisattvas, called T’ien-tsun.

Likewise, the concept of karma and rebirth was also appropriated and finally, the Buddhist concept of the three worlds - the world of desires, the world of forms and the formless worlds - was taken over in toto by the Taoists.

Abridged from China: A Search For Its Soul; Leaves From A Beijing Diary, Konarak, 2009