Published on 2024.04.05


A Summary of the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist Views on Life and Death


When we examine different views on the issue of life and death in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in China, we have to ask: do they also share a common ground? In my opinion, the common ground is that Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism do not suffer from the issue of life and death, but rather from the failure to achieve their goals. Confucianism regards “the lack of cultivating virtue and the lack of advocating learning” as “suffering”, that is, the inability to realize one’s moral ideals. Taoism regards “inner pain and physical exhaustion” as “suffering” because they can harm one’s true nature, and then cannot conform to nature. Zen Buddhism regards “being trapped in an external realm and having an unclear self” as “suffering”, which means clinging to external things and not being able to remove one’s “ignorance” (Wuming, 无明).

In today’s modern society, with the unprecedented development of science and technology, scientific explanations can be (roughly) made for both life and death when people are viewed as natural beings. However, people’s views on life and death remain a major issue because it is not only a scientific matter, but rather a matter of personal attitudes and values. Due to different attitudes towards life, values, and social ideals, there is no doubt that different views on life and death may arise accordingly. Therefore, it is probably equally necessary to propose the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist views on life and death as a theoretical issue for discussion, compared with other theoretical questions.

From a biological perspective, humans cannot transcend life and death, but from a spiritual perspective, they can. So humans not only need science to explain the issue of “life and death”, but also need philosophy and religion to transcend the issue of “life and death”. At a time when I have gone through a significant part of my life, I have a certain understanding of this universal issue, and get into a spiritual realm that goes beyond life and death. I feel my heart is filled with joy, and my spirit is elevated from it.

Throughout history, great philosophers both at home and abroad pursue the spiritual realm of transcending life and death. Here I would like to conclude with the famous quote of Zhang Zai (张载, 1020-1077), a Chinese philosopher from the Northern Song Dynasty. Zhang Zai’s life philosophy is to “establish his heart for heaven and earth, set the course for the people, inherit learnings and knowledge from the sages, and create peace for all generations. (為天地立心,為生民立命,為往聖繼絕學,為萬世開太平)” Therefore, he proposed the idea of “resolving enmities through reconciliation”, which is worlds apart from the “struggle philosophy” based on class struggle. Therefore, the pursuit of “transcending life and death” requires a broad mind of “universal love” and “compassion”.

Professor Tang Yijie

Professor Tang Yijie (1927-2014) was a renowned thinker, historian of philosophy, educator, and leading scholar of Chinese studies. He served as the director of the Research Institute of Confucianism at Peking University, the president of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, the president of the Chinese Confucius Academy, and the member of China Central Institute for Culture and History. The nine-volume History of Chinese Confucianism edited by Professor Tang Yijie is by far the most informative, informative, and complete general history of Chinese Confucianism. His major works include Guo Xiang and Wei Jin Metaphysics, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Inner Transcendence, Buddhism and Chinese Culture, Harmony and Difference, and so on.

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