The three greatest religions in China are Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Although the history of the three religions is completely different, there are a good many similarities: the founders are not gods, but people of flesh and blood. They are more of a way of life or a philosophy than a religion.
Buddhism: Buddha was born in Lumbini, in the Terai region of Nepal, in the 6th Century BC. During his luxury life as a prince he was confronted with the suffering of the people around him. After a long period of meditation he achieved Enlightenment and started to proclaim a new way of life. Buddhism is actually a reformatory movement of Hinduism and many elements of the two religions correspond. However, a few important aspects of the prevailing doctrine were rejected by Buddha. Two important matters that he found reprehensible were the Brahman ritual of idolising the gods and the caste system.
The Buddha claimed that everything that exists is in a perpetual sequence of creation and decay. In principle, nothing can escape this fate: not the gods, not the universe, not the people. However, Buddha himself did succeed in being released from the eternal wheel of reincarnation. His teachings show the way to rise up from daily affliction and go to nirvana: a condition of timeless rest and unity with everything. Of significance are the four noble truths: 1. All life means suffering. 2. This suffering is a consequence of our desires. 3. By removing the desires man can end the suffering. 4. The removal of the desires is obtained by following ‘the right course’. The right course exists of the eightfold path, a system of thought and action that sees to it that the karma of the one who treads the path improves. As the karma improves by following the right path, you reincarnate into a more pure form. At last you reach Bodhisattva, a state in which you long for nothing else but the fortune of all others. Subsequently you dissolve into nirvana, the state of enlightenment where you realize that everything that exists is an illusion, a mere mirage of an indivisible unity that rests within itself.
The most important form in present-day China is Mahayana Buddhism. For example, the great vehicle that promises redemption to all beings by means of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are those who have reached a state of enlightenment, but renounce this and postpone their own transition to nirvana in order to devote themselves to the redemption of the whole of mankind. They try to pass on good karma and thus lead mankind to enlightenment.
Buddhism developed between the third and sixth century AD and was presumably introduced by Indian tradesmen who took Buddhist priests along on their travels. Shortly afterwards monasteries rose throughout China. These monasteries fulfilled the same role as the churches in Europe during the Middle Ages and acted as inns, hospitals and orphanages as well as places of worship. Travellers and refugees could always find shelter there.
Confucianism: the ideas of Confucius (5th century BC) have been of influence on Chinese culture for 2000 years. Because of this, his philosophies will be described here only briefly. Confucianism is not a religion; rather, it’s a practical, ethical system; a system of law and order. The philosopher was worshipped like a god, however, and innumerable offerings were made to him. The universe is determined by the order and rhythm in the world: the sun, the moon and the stars move according to the laws of nature. In the same way, man has to live within the scope of the order of the world. This idea is based on the idea that people have the capacity to learn.
Confucius assumed that there was a strict hierarchy and he defined this very clearly and precisely. Only if each separate individual in society takes complete responsibility for his or her position, can society function well as a whole. Family ties and social duties are of the utmost importance. Between father and son (the son is to obey the father unconditionally), between husband and wife (women hardly have any individual rights), between the older and younger brother, between mutual friends and between the master and his subject.
Taoism: Taoism is the only religion that originated in China. Buddhism came from India and Confucianism is essentially a way of life. The founder of Taoism was Lao Tse, meaning ‘grand old master’, and it is commonly held that he was born in the year 604 AD. Yet there are doubts as to whether the man lived at all. Nothing is known about him, not even his name. Myth tells us that Lao Tse was born as an old man with white hair and a long beard, after having spent 82 years in his mother’s womb.
The concept of Taoism is ‘dao’. Though it is impossible to give an exact translation it means something like ‘the path’, ‘the road’, but also ‘the method’ or ‘the principle’. Even the Chinese find it hard to translate the concept. Another tenet is ‘wu wei’, meaning “without action” or “swim with the tide”. It is best described as being attuned to the deepest flow of life itself. Two opposite poles determine the course of events in the universe: yin and yang. Yang is the masculine, the clear and high heavens. Yin is considered to be feminine, obscure, passive and unfathomably deep. Without yin there is no yang and without yang no yin.