It seems that Taoism had a considerable effect upon Far Eastern Buddism. Thus, consider the fact that Dogen Zenji had his great awakening upon over-hearing the words “Let body and mind fall away,” spoken by his master to another practitioner. Where do we find this idea in any Buddhist text? I do not know of one. Yet in the Taoist work Zhuangzi, we find the phrase “part from the body and expel knowledge” and in several other Taoist classics we find equivalent ideas.

Dogen went on to become the forerunner of a highly influential school of Buddhism, Soto Zen, which is now one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the West. Are all those who practice zazen nowadays really Buddhist or are they really following a tradition that has its tap root in Taoism? Perhaps it does not matter, but it is interesting to ask the question how compatible the two philosophies really are.

If we wished to set them against each other we might characterise Taoism as a “go with the flow” philosophy and Buddhism as a “stand against the current” philosophy. However, there is no doubt that both were, in origin, at least, approaches that defied the conventional world of “fame and gain” and both clearly had an intention not just to enlighten individuals spiritually but also to bring about change in the social and political world. This was even more clearly the case with Taoism than with Buddhism.

In the East, at various periods, Taoism and Buddhism were rival traditions. In the West today, however, many practitioners have a sympathy for both traditions and some draw inspiration from both. Certainly in my own case, while I identify myself with a tradition of Buddhism, the Taoist classics have been and continue to be a major inspiration in my life. The haiku by Pure Land master Zuigen Inagaki:

Time to fall
is time to float
for a lotus blossom

seems to me to be a perfect example of how the sentiments of the two traditions are often indistinguishable.

This confluence that occurred in the Far East has brought about a rich flowering of religious and artistic culture inspiring painting, poetry, and other arts such as flower arranging and the tea ceremony. In all of these rich cultural expression it would be impossible to disentangle the Taoistic and Buddhistic elements. Nor, probably, could either tradition have yielded these blossoms if there had not been centuries of interaction between the two.

One thing that I particularly value in the Taoist tradition is the notion of wei wu wei which is commonly translated as “acting without acting”. I think that this phrase is correctly understood by distinguishing the two meanings of the term “acting”. Acting can mean doing something and it can also mean performance, as on the stage. The sentiment, therefore, is of doing things without putting on airs. It speaks of simple sincerity without pretence, what in a therapy context might be called congruence or genuineness. Acting without acting seems to express this very well.

Taoism also introduces the importance of closeness to nature, again in both senses of “nature”. Firstly, we are referring to the natural world and all the concerns of a deeply ecological way of life. Secondly, and no less importantly, we are talking about paying attention to what spontaneously arises within us, to the unconscious mind and the natural process of the human organism.

Uniting these Taoistic emphases with the Buddhist virtues of love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity yields a compellingly attractive approach to spirituality.

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Replies to This Discussion

I have been doing deep background reading in China history and have been thinking about the interplay of Buddhism and Taoism. Because of my Hawaiian spiritual connection, humans relationship to nature is central to any spiritual practice and belief. Historically, China went through huge population surges and had to find ways to come to terms with nature. Their whole concept of fengshui is at the core, a permaculture system. So it seems that the two spiritual practices of Buddhism and Taoism intersected as guides to how to live in a way that kept the balance between humans and the earth and each other. 

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