There is a profound difference between the life-negating pessimism of traditional Indian Buddhism and the life-prolonging, immortality-seeking attitude of Chinese Taoists.
The Indian Buddhist sees the world as a place of complete impermanence, a forest ablaze with suffering. The only answer is to escape from the forest. This must be done by renouncing individualized existence for the Bliss of nirvana. “Getting off the wheel of life and death” is the goal of all traditional Indian religious philosophy. This complete idealism of the Buddha’s was concurred with by the sages Vashishtha and Ramana Maharshi. They used different language from the Compassionate One and from all advaitic (non-dual) thought in India, where the aim has always been to find release, or salvation, through merging with that which is greater than ourselves. “Individualized life is the sin,” points out Ramana Maharshi, “and, as such, can only lead to untold suffering.” This is compatible with the Buddha’s idea of anatman, meaning no entity, no soul, no individual life.
Taoism – and Taoist-influenced Zen – feels that we find nirvana right in the midst of tears and woe, and that samsara (this world of suffering) is, itself, nirvana when seen properly. The Taoist so enjoys his life that he has always felt one should try for immortality-in-the-body, the much-misunderstood Taoist alchemy. Longevity, pointing to a love of life (“clinging to life” from the Indian Buddhist point of view), has always been the ideal of the Chinese, who enjoy food, sex, and communal existence – in contrast to solitude-seeking Indian holy men, gurus, and disciples.
How can we reconcile these two opposing views of the same existence? I once knew two women who looked a great deal alike and were often mistaken for one another. Despite the fact that one was fashionable and the other dowdy, there was no doubt of a startling resemblance.
When twelve people view the same accident at an intersection, each will give a different account in court of what has happened, despite the fact that they are all speaking of the same accident.
There is only one mountain, but to the surveyor, it appears in different sections.
So, too, the one existence appears in innumerable ways to us, depending on where each of us stands. The world truly is a subjective experience, not an object to be perceived the same by all.
Similarly, each of the religious viewpoints is right from its particular point of reference. Perhaps the Buddha was speaking of Ultimates, while others were seeking to find workable formulas, including ones that would send us to heaven rather than its opposite.
Still, it is difficult for a sincere seeker to reconcile the opposing viewpoints. From the Indian sage’s corner, the world is not Real – as there is nothing lasting, nothing that is not changing every second. Nothing has its own continuing identity; it is in a constant state of becoming. So the Upanishads speak of moksha (release) from the incessant rounds of suffering in meaningless life after life. The Buddha points the way to the cessation of suffering by urging us to merge into the undifferentiated whole. The simpler Indian doctrines speak of devotion to a God and the repetition of his name, which will lead to a heaven or the Brahma world.
These are in sharp contrast to the Chinese and Japanese outlook, which feels that this life is decidedly worthwhile and prolongation of it is desirous. In such worldly clinging (as opposed to other-world thinking), there is little thought of a next life on earth. Traditionally, the death of a Japanese entitles him or her to become a kami (a minor god or spirit), after which he will stay close to his clan in a disembodied condition, helping to prevent disasters to his people. This is part of the Japanese ancestor worship, and it often carries over into Japanese Buddhism and other foreign beliefs.
Who are we to believe? It is understandable how the hot, parched sub-continent of India, with its continual starvation, would lead to pessimistic views. China, too, has always had great poverty and starvation, and yet the Chinese character molded in a colder climate has always stood for great vitality and a love of life. The whole world enjoys Chinese food. The great sage, Confucius, was a practical man who gave instruction on how to live in human society. He did not speak of future lives.
Now would be the time for the writer to step forward and offer a workable philosophy welding together the different points of view. Such is not possible. To enjoy sunsets and other beauties of Nature is not hard, yet the yogi and the Buddha’s original followers say we must ignore the sensory, which represents only ignorance. Just because it is pleasing to the taste and the eyes does not make it good or useful. The Upanishads warn us that man mistakes the pleasing for the good (meaning good in a constructive, not a moral, sense). Seeking enjoyment, will we find only suffering?
Probably, for the little-evolved average person, a middle way is best. “Each according to his need” might be my answer, and by need we don’t mean desire. Our needs are few; our uncontrolled desires endless. If there is a need for Ultimate answers, one must follow a way leading to Ultimates, such as the Buddha’s Way. This entails endless sacrifice, the fasting implied in Zhuang Zhou’s Fasting Mind. We must drop the non-constructive, no matter how inviting it is, to reach kensho (complete Enlightenment in Japanese).
On the other hand, if we are not introspective and not aware that there might be Ultimate answers, how can we go down a road that requires some degree of asceticism? The mind untrained in concentration cannot be expected to stick, single-mindedly, to a formula of life that denies us so much of what we usually want. Family, career, and all pursuit of such worldly activities can only block the way to Ultimate answers. And yet, we can’t all be monks or recluses, either in or out of the world.
To live each day with some contemplation, and to try to feel gratitude for the really countless blessings we take for granted, will lead us to treat others as we wish to be treated. Simple though these two activities may sound, their effects are profound. Will the average person offer thanks when the housekeeper is late or the stock market is down? Will he take time from a busy schedule to go within and explore the giant world of inner space? Not very many will do those two things. And yet, each of us perceives his own self-caused suffering. Why is one unwilling to give up his crutches and the very habits responsible for this suffering? We cling to what hurts us most. And all clinging, of whatever nature, ultimately leads to unhappiness. “Hang loose” is preferable to “Hang in there, baby,” we must conclude.