China's Triple Religion: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism

Story posted: Sunday, 29. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / SAN JIAO





China's Triple Religion: Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism


 In Chinese philosophy, the Three Teachings, Three Religions or San Jiao of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are considered as a harmonious religious union. The concept originated in China during the Wei (220-265 CE) and Jin (265-420 CE) Dynasties, but has long since spread beyond the confines of China to the traditional Sinosphere of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, as well as - more recently - to the Overseas Chinese communities of the worldwide Chinese Diaspora.



Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (K?ng F?z?, or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong", 551–478 BC). It is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that influenced the culture and history of East Asia. It might be considered a state religion of some East Asian countries, because of state promotion of Confucian philosophies.

Cultures and countries strongly influenced by Confucianism include mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, as well as various territories settled predominantly by Chinese people, such as Singapore  

In Confucianism, human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. A main idea of Confucianism is the cultivation of virtue and the development of moral perfection. Confucianism holds that one should give up one's life, if necessary, either passively or actively, for the sake of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.

Humanity is at the core of Confucianism. A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as being based on varying levels of honesty, and a simple way to understand Confucian thought is to examine the world by using the logic of humanity. In practice, the elements of Confucianism accumulated over time. There is the classical Wuchang consisting of five elements: Ren (Humanity), Yi (Righteousness), Li (Ritual), Zhi (Knowledge), and Xin (Integrity); there is also the classical Sizi with four elements: Zhong (Loyalty), Xiao (Filial piety), Jie (Continency), and Yi (Righteousness). There are still many other elements, such as Cheng (honesty), Shu (kindness and forgiveness), Lian (honesty and cleanness), Chi (sense of right and wrong), Yong (bravery), Wen (being kind and gentle), Liang (being good, kindhearted), Gong (respectful, reverent), Jian (frugal) and Rang (modesty).

Among all elements, Ren (Humanity) and Yi (Righteousness) are fundamental. Sometimes morality is interpreted as the phantom of Humanity and Righteousness.

In its purest essence, Confucianism is a social system rather than a religion.



Daoism (also spelled Taoism) refers to a philosophical and religious tradition that has influenced the people of East Asia for more than two millennia. The word Dao (or Tao, depending on the romanization scheme), is often translated as "path" or "way", but with a myriad of nuances in folk religion and Chinese philosophy.

Daoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Dao: compassion, moderation, and humility, while Daoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos; health and longevity; and wu wei (action through inaction). Harmony with the Universe, or the source thereof (Dao), is the intended result of many Daoist rules and practices.

Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortals is common in popular Daoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Daoists (Dàoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy (including Neidan), astrology, cuisine, Zen Buddhism, several Chinese martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.



Chinese Buddhism (Hànchuán Fójiào) refers collectively to the various schools of Buddhism that have flourished in China since ancient times. Buddhism has played an enormous role in shaping the mindset of the Chinese people, affecting their aesthetics, politics, literature, philosophy and medicine.

Due to the wide proliferation of Buddhist texts available in Chinese and the large number of foreign monks who came to teach Buddhism in China, various new and independent traditions emerged. Among the most influential of these was the practice of Pure Land Buddhism established by Hui Yuan, which focused on Amit?bha Buddha and his western pure land. Another major early tradition was the Tiantai school, founded by Zhiyi, which is based upon the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, along with supplementary s?tras and commentaries. Zhiyi wrote several works that become important and widely read meditation manuals in China.

In the 5th century, the Chán (Zen) teachings began in China, traditionally attributed to the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who has since become a somewhat legendary figure. The school heavily utilized the principles found in the La?k?vat?ra S?tra, a s?tra utilizing the teachings of Yog?c?ra and those of Tath?gatagarbha, and which teaches the One Vehicle (Skt. Ekay?na) to buddhahood. In the early years, the teachings of Chán were therefore referred to as the "One Vehicle School."  The earliest masters of the Chán school were called "La?k?vat?ra Masters", for their mastery of practice according to the principles of the La?k?vat?ra S?tra.

The principle teachings of Chán were later often known for the use of the Prajñ?p?ramit? s?tras, and the teaching methods used in them. Nan Huaijin identifies the La?k?vat?ra S?tra and the Diamond S?tra (Vajracchedik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra) as the principle texts of the Chán school, and summarizes the principles succinctly: "The Zen teaching was a separate transmission outside the scriptural teachings that did not posit any written texts as sacred. Zen pointed directly to the human mind to enable people to see their real nature and become buddhas."

In Chinese Buddhism, lay practitioners have traditionally played an important role, and lay practice of Buddhism has had similar tendencies to those of monastic Buddhism in China.  Many historical biographies of lay Buddhists are available, which give a clear picture of their practices and role in Chinese Buddhism. In addition to these numerous biographies, there are accounts from Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci which provide extensive and revealing accounts to the degree Buddhism penetrated elite and popular culture in China.  Traditional practices such as meditation, mantra recitation, mindfulness of Amit?bha Buddha, asceticism, and vegetarianism were all integrated into the belief systems of ordinary people.  It is known from accounts in the Ming Dynasty that lay practitioners often engaged in practices from both the Pure Land and Chán traditions, as well as the study of the Buddhist s?tras. The Heart S?tra and the Diamond S?tra were the most popular, followed by the Lotus S?tra.    Mah?y?na figures such as Avalokite?vara Bodhisattva, K?itigarbha Bodhisattva, Amit?bha Buddha, and the Medicine Buddha, were all widely known and revered. Beliefs in karma and rebirth were held at all levels of Chinese society, and pilgrimages to well-known monasteries and the four holy mountains of China were undertaken by monastics and lay practitioners alike.  


Chinese Religions

Chinese folk religion or Shen Jiao is a label used to describe the collection of ethnic religious traditions which have been a main belief system in China and among Han Chinese ethnic groups for most of the civilization's history until today. Shenism comprises Chinese mythology and includes the worship of shens (shén; "deities", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes") which can be nature deities, Taizu or clan deities, city deities, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors.

It is sometimes considered a type of Daoism, a Folk Taoism, since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been attempting to assimilate or administrate local religions. More accurately, Daoism can be defined as a branch of Shenism, since it sprang out of folk religion and Chinese philosophy. Chinese folk religion is sometimes seen as a constituent part of Chinese traditional religion, but more often, the two are regarded as synonymous. Unlike Daoism, the religious aspects found in Confucianism (worship of Confucius and his disciples, worship of Tian, rituals and sacrifices) never became doctrinally and institutionally independent and have thus remained for centuries part of Shenism.

With around 400 million adherents, or about 6% of the world population, and possibly as many as a billion adherents, Chinese folk religion is one of the major religious traditions in the world. In China more than 30% of the population adheres to one form or another of Shenism or Daoism.

Despite being heavily suppressed during the last two centuries of the history of China, from the Taiping Movement to the Cultural Revolution, it is experiencing a major revival nowadays in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Various forms have received support from the Government of the People's Republic of China, such as Mazuism in Southern China (officially about 160 million Chinese are Mazuists), Huangdi worship, Black Dragon worship in Shaanxi, and Caishen worship




Main article adapted from Wikipedia: 'Confucianism', 'Daoism', 'Buddhism' 'Chinese Folk Religion', June 2011

Category:  China

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