East Asian religions
In the study of comparative religion
Comparative religion
Comparative religion is a field of religious studies that analyzes the similarities and differences of themes, myths, rituals and concepts among the world's religions...

, the East Asian religions (also known as Far Eastern religions, Chinese religions, or Taoic religions) form a subset of the Eastern religions. This group includes Caodaism, Chen Tao, Chondogyo, Confucianism
Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius . Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han...

, Jeungism
Jeung San Do
Jeung Sando or Jeungism is a new religion founded in Korea in 1974. This movement is characterised by a universal message, millenarianism and a method of healing meditation...

, Shinto
or Shintoism, also kami-no-michi, is the indigenous spirituality of Japan and the Japanese people. It is a set of practices, to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present day Japan and its ancient past. Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written...

, Taoism
Taoism refers to a philosophical or religious tradition in which the basic concept is to establish harmony with the Tao , which is the mechanism of everything that exists...

, I-Kuan Tao
I-Kuan Tao
I-Kuan Tao, also Yīguàn Dào, or usually initialized as IKT is a new religious movement that originated in twentieth-century China. It incorporates elements from Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and recognizes the validity of non-Chinese religious traditions such as Christianity and...

 and elements of Mahayana Buddhism.

These traditions or religious philosophies focus on the East Asian concept of Tao
Dao or Tao is a Chinese word meaning 'way', 'path', 'route', or sometimes more loosely, 'doctrine' or 'principle'...

 道 ("The Way"; pinyin dào, Korean do, Japanese or , Vietnamese đạo).

The place of East Asian religions among major religious groups
Major religious groups
The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups, although this is by no means a uniform practice...

 is comparable to the Abrahamic religions and Indian religions.

Early Chinese
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 philosophies defined Tao and advocated cultivating Te
De (Chinese)
De is a key concept in Chinese philosophy, usually translated "inherent character; inner power; integrity" in Taoism, "moral character; virtue; morality" in Confucianism and other contexts, and "quality; virtue" or "merit; virtuous deeds" in Chinese Buddhism.-The word:Chinese de 德 is an ancient...

 in that Tao. Some ancient schools have merged into traditions with different names or are no longer active, such as Mohism
Mohism or Moism was a Chinese philosophy developed by the followers of Mozi , 470 BC–c.391 BC...

 (and many others of the Hundred Schools of Thought
Hundred Schools of Thought
The Hundred Schools of Thought were philosophers and schools that flourished from 770 to 221 BC during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period , an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China...

), while some such as Taoism persist to the modern day. East Asian religion is usually polytheistic or nontheistic, but henotheistic
Henotheism is the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities...

, monotheistic
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one and only one god. Monotheism is characteristic of the Baha'i Faith, Christianity, Druzism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.While they profess the existence of only one deity, monotheistic religions may still...

, pantheistic
Pantheism is the view that the Universe and God are identical. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god. The word derives from the Greek meaning "all" and the Greek meaning "God". As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that "God" is best seen as a process of...

, panentheistic
Panentheism is a belief system which posits that God exists, interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it...

 and agnostic
Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable....

 varieties exist, inside and outside of Asia
Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population...

. East Asian religions have many Western adherents, though their interpretations may differ significantly from traditional East Asian thought and culture.


Despite a wide variety of terms, the traditions described as "Far Eastern religions", "East Asian religions" or "Chinese religions" are recognized by scholars as a distinct religious family.

Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word...

 is a common feature of East Asian religions, often making it difficult to recognize individual faiths. Further complications arise from the inconsistent use of many terms. "Tao religion" is often used for Taoism itself, especially Tao chiao, as well as being used as an identifying term for Tao-based new religious movements. The term "Far Eastern religion" can be used to refer only to faiths incorporating "Tao", may include Ch'an and Japanese Buddhism, and can even inclusively refer to all Asian religions. These problems in distinguishing religious practices and with inconsistency in terminology can make discussion of East Asian religions difficult.


Tao can be roughly stated to be the "flow" of the universe, or the force behind the natural order. Believed to be the influence that keeps the universe balanced and ordered, Tao is associated with nature, due to a belief that nature demonstrates the Tao. The flow of qi
In traditional Chinese culture, qì is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts...

, as the essential energy of action and existence, is compared to the universal order of Tao. Similar to the negative theology
Negative theology
Apophatic theology —also known as negative theology or via negativa —is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God...

 of Western scholars, Tao is compared to what it is not. It is often considered to be the source of both existence and non-existence.


Tao is often associated with "proper" attitude, morality and lifestyle. In practice, the exact meaning of "proper" varies among the East Asian faiths and their branches. This is intimately tied to the complex concept of Te (literally, "virtue"). Te is the active expression of Tao.

Generally, those religions closer to Taoism express Te as "integrity" or "wholeness", while those faiths closer to Confucianism express this concept as "morality" or "sound character".


The three major East Asian traditions are Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. Buddhism, although it may be classified as a Dharmic tradition, has significant "Taoic" features in East Asia. Mahayana Buddhism is often considered as having joint heritage in Dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

 and Tao
Dao or Tao is a Chinese word meaning 'way', 'path', 'route', or sometimes more loosely, 'doctrine' or 'principle'...

 traditions. The tentative larger classification of Eastern religions avoids this overlap and cross-pollination of "Indian" and "Far Eastern" religious thought, but loses the importance of the distinct unifying doctrines of Tao and Dharma.


Taoism consists of a wide variety of related religious and philosophical traditions; categorization of Taoist schools and movements can be very controversial. This is complicated by hermeneutic (interpretive) difficulties in the categorization of Taoist schools, sects and movements.

Taoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions, nor can it purely be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion
Chinese folk religion
Chinese folk religion or Shenism , which is a term of considerable debate, are labels 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...

, as much of the traditional religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Robinet asserts that Taoism is better understood as a way of life than as a religion, and that its adherents do not approach or view Taoism the way non-Taoist historians have done.

In general, Taoist propriety and ethics place an emphasis on the unity of the universe, the unity of the material world, and the spiritual world, the unity of the past, present and future; Three Jewels of the Tao
Three Jewels of the Tao
The Three Treasures or Three Jewels are basic virtues in Taoism. They first appear in Tao Te Ching chapter 67, which Lin Yutang says contains Laozi's "most beautiful teachings":...

; love, moderation, humility. Taoist theology focuses on doctrines of wu wei
Wu wei
Wu wei is an important concept of Taoism , that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. Another perspective to this is that "Wu Wei" means...

 ("non-action"), spontaneity, relativism
Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration....

 and emptiness.

Most traditional Chinese Taoists are polytheistic, but there are disagreements regarding the proper composition of their pantheon. Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor
Jade Emperor
The Jade Emperor in Chinese folk culture, is the ruler of Heaven and all realms of existence below including that of Man and Hell, according to a version of Taoist mythology. He is one of the most important gods of the Chinese traditional religion pantheon...

 as the head deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

. Intellectual (or "elite") Taoism usually presents Laozi and the Three Pure Ones
Three Pure Ones
The Three Pure Ones also translated as the Three Pure Pellucid Ones, the Three Pristine Ones, the Three Divine Teachers, the Three Clarities, or the Three Purities is the Taoist Trinity, the three highest Gods in the Taoist pantheon. They are regarded as pure manifestation of the Tao and the...

 at the top of the pantheon.

Nature and ancestor spirits are common in popular Taoism, but this sort of shamanism
Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy." Shamanism encompasses the...

 is eschewed for an emphasis on internal alchemy among the "elite" Taoists. Tao itself is rarely an object of worship, being treated more like the Indian concept of atman
Atman (Buddhism)
The word Ātman or Atta refers to a self. Occasionally the terms "soul" or "ego" are also used. The words ātman and atta derive from the Indo-European root *ēt-men and are cognate with the Old English æthm and German Atem....



Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, and religious thought, influential in the history of East Asia. It is commonly associated with legalism
Legalism may refer to:In philosophy:* Legalism , Chinese political philosophy based on the idea that a highly efficient and powerful government is the key to social order....

, but actually rejects legalism for ritualism. It also endorses meritocracy
Meritocracy, in the first, most administrative sense, is a system of government or other administration wherein appointments and responsibilities are objectively assigned to individuals based upon their "merits", namely intelligence, credentials, and education, determined through evaluations or...

 as the ideal of nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

. Confucianism includes a complicated system governing duties and etiquette in relationships. Confucian ethics focus on familial duty, loyalty and humaneness. Confucianism recognizes the existence of animistic spirits
Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle....

, ghosts and deities. It advocates paying them proper respect, but paradoxically also encourages avoiding them. Confucian thought is notable as the framework upon which the syncretic Neo-Confucianism
Neo-Confucianism is an ethical and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, that was primarily developed during the Song Dynasty and Ming Dynasty, but which can be traced back to Han Yu and Li Ao in the Tang Dynasty....

 was built.


Neo-Confucianism was deliberately created as a syncretism
Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word...

 of Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism. It is recognized as being formulated and established during the Song dynasty
Song Dynasty
The Song Dynasty was a ruling dynasty in China between 960 and 1279; it succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, and was followed by the Yuan Dynasty. It was the first government in world history to issue banknotes or paper money, and the first Chinese government to establish a...

, but its roots can be traced to scholars of the Tang dynasty
Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui Dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. It was founded by the Li family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire...

. It combined Buddhist religious concepts with Taoist yin yang theory and the I Ching
I Ching
The I Ching or "Yì Jīng" , also known as the Classic of Changes, Book of Changes and Zhouyi, is one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts...

, and placed them within the framework of classic Confucianism.

Despite Neo-Confucianism's incorporation of the "best" elements of Buddhism and Taoism, its apologists still decried both faiths. However, its influence on Chinese society has blurred the distinction between all three faiths, even into modern times. Neo-Confucianism was an officially endorsed faith for over five centuries, deeply influencing all of East Asia.

New Confucianism

New Confucianism is a modernist Confucianism, which accommodates modern science and democratic ideals, while remaining conservative in preserving traditional Neo-Confucianist positions.


Shinto is an animistic folk religion
Folk religion
Folk religion consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of an organized religion, but outside of official doctrine and practices...

 from Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

. Shinto literally means "the way of the gods". Shinto and Asian Buddhism are inextricably linked in Japan. Many Japanese Shintoists also identify themselves as Buddhists. Japanese Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism , also referred to as Amidism in English, is a broad branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism and currently one of the most popular traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land is a branch of Buddhism focused on Amitābha Buddha...

 is deeply tied with the Shinto faith. Shinto practitioners commonly affirm tradition, family, nature, cleanliness and ritual observation as core values. Taoist influence is significant in their beliefs about nature and self-mastery. Ritual cleanliness is a central part of Shinto life. Shrines have a significant place in Shinto, reflecting the animistic veneration of the kami
is the Japanese word for the spirits, natural forces, or essence in the Shinto faith. Although the word is sometimes translated as "god" or "deity", some Shinto scholars argue that such a translation can cause a misunderstanding of the term...

. "Folk", or "popular", Shinto features an emphasis on shamanism, particularly divination
Divination is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic standardized process or ritual...

, spirit possession and faith healing
Faith healing
Faith healing is healing through spiritual means. The healing of a person is brought about by religious faith through prayer and/or rituals that, according to adherents, stimulate a divine presence and power toward correcting disease and disability. Belief in divine intervention in illness or...

. "Sect" Shinto is a diverse group including mountain-worshippers and Confucian Shintoists.

Chan Buddhism

Chan Buddhism (more commonly known in the West as Zen Buddhism) is a form of Mahayana
Mahāyāna is one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice...

 Buddhism deeply influenced by Taoism which emphasizes awareness, meditation
Meditation is any form of a family of practices in which practitioners train their minds or self-induce a mode of consciousness to realize some benefit....

 and direct experience. Chan Buddhism takes a critical view of textual hermeneutics, the limitations of language and dogmatic assertions. Zazen
In Zen Buddhism, zazen is a meditative discipline practitioners perform to calm the body and the mind, and be able to concentrate enough to experience insight into the nature of existence and thereby gain enlightenment .- Significance :Zazen is considered the heart of Zen Buddhist practice...

, sitting meditation, is a central practice. Eschewing scriptural study for direct communication, Chan places a high regard for the teacher-disciple relationship. Ideal instructors are lionized in Chan stories. The lineage of a teaching is considered more important than its comparison with a test of orthodoxy
The word orthodox, from Greek orthos + doxa , is generally used to mean the adherence to accepted norms, more specifically to creeds, especially in religion...

. Dialogues and stories called koans are a distinctive feature of Chan Buddhism. Koans often appear paradox
Similar to Circular reasoning, A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition...

ical or meaningless, but they are deployed as vehicles for the transformation of the perspective or consciousness of a disciple.

Chinese Folk Religion

Chinese folk religion is a syncretic faith, originating in ancient tribal shamanism
Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy." Shamanism encompasses the...

, that incorporates elements of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, ancestor veneration and nature worship. It is historically the main source of Chinese mythology
Chinese mythology
Chinese mythology is a collection of cultural history, folktales, and religions that have been passed down in oral or written tradition. These include creation myths and legends and myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state...

 and has co-existed, both alongside and as part of, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Taoism and Confucianism

The terms Tao and Te are religious and philosophical terms shared between Taoism and Confucianism. The authorship of the Tao Te Ching
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching, Dao De Jing, or Daodejing , also simply referred to as the Laozi, whose authorship has been attributed to Laozi, is a Chinese classic text...

 is assigned to Laozi
Laozi was a mystic philosopher of ancient China, best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching . His association with the Tao Te Ching has led him to be traditionally considered the founder of Taoism...

, who is traditionally held to have been a teacher of Confucius. However, some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching arose as a reaction to Confucianism. Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE during the Warring States Period, a period corresponding to the philosophical summit of Chinese thought — the Hundred Schools of Thought, and is credited with writing—in part or in whole—a work known by his name,...

, reacting to the Confucian-Mohist ethical disputes in his "history of thought", casts Laozi as a prior step to the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication. However, secular scholars usually consider Laozi and Zhuangzi to have been essentially mythological figures.

Early Taoist texts reject the basic assumptions of Confucianism which relied on rituals and order, in favour of the examples of "wild" nature and individualism. Historical Taoists challenged conventional morality, while Confucians considered society debased and in need of strong ethical guidance.

Interaction with Dharmic traditions

The entry of Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 into China from India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 was marked by interaction and syncretism
Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word...

 with Taoism in particular. Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism was particularly modified by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment". In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture into tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.

Buddhism was not universally welcomed, particularly among the gentry. The Buddha's "Dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

" seemed alien and amoral to conservative and Confucian sensibilities. Confucianism promoted social stability, order, strong families, and practical living, and Chinese officials questioned how a monk's monasticism and personal attainment of nirvana benefited the empire. However, Buddhism and Confucianism eventually reconciled after centuries of conflict and assimilation.

Ideological and political rivals for centuries, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deeply influenced one another. They did share some similar values. All three embraced a humanist
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

 philosophy emphasizing moral behavior and human perfection. In time, most Chinese people identified to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised when aspects of the three schools were synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school.

See also

  • Dharmic traditions
  • Religion in China
    Religion in China
    Religion in China has been characterized by pluralism since the beginning of Chinese history. The Chinese religions are family-oriented and do not demand the exclusive adherence of members. Some scholars doubt the use of the term "religion" in reference to Buddhism and Taoism, and suggest "cultural...

  • Religion in Japan
    Religion in Japan
    Most Japanese people do not exclusively identify themselves as adherents of a single religion; rather, they incorporate elements of various religions in a syncretic fashion known as . Shinbutsu Shūgō officially ended with the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order of 1886, but continues in practice...

  • Religion in Korea
    Religion in Korea
    Religion in Korea encompasses a number of different traditions. Traditional Buddhism, Mugyo with a background of Korean Confucianism and later Christianity all play a role in Korea's religious tradition...

  • Religion in Taiwan
    Religion in Taiwan
    A wide diversity of religions can be found on Taiwan, due to its multicultural history, and religious freedom written in the constitution of the Republic of China.-History:...

  • Religion in Vietnam
    Religion in Vietnam
    The earliest established religions in Vietnam are Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism . Significant minorities of adherents to Roman Catholicism, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao and smaller minorities of adherents to Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism and Theravada Buddhism exist.The majority of...

External links

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