1 minute read


East and Southeast AsiaThree Teachings Are One

In coping with the diverse interweaving of religious and philosophical traditions of both popular and court forms, China originated an amalgamated version called the "three teachings" of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This combination filtered through the rest of East and Southeast Asia. In a most general description, Confucianism represented social order and good daily conduct, Daoism represented an ambivalent response to this structure with a focus on longevity, and Buddhism represented a meditative bliss that looked beyond the material world. Although Buddhism is alien to China, it mediated Confucian virtuousness and Daoist cosmology. Stemming from the basic Chinese trinity of heaven (tian) earth (di) and humanity (rendao), three becomes a crucial number. Human beings represent the number three as they stand between heaven and earth (tiandi zhijian). Han philosophers saw the first three dynasties of Xia, Shang, and Zhou as aligning with loyalty, respect, and refinement. Although Confucianism was often the official state religion, sanjiao heyi (the three teachings are one) became a popular expression throughout Chinese history. Wolfram Eberhard writes: "Confucianism is the religion of filial piety (xiao); popular Taoism has to do with the individual's position in the community, with whose ceremonial purification it is charged; finally, Buddhism is a way of looking at death and at the meaning of life in general" (p. 289).

The creative interpolation of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in the third to the seventh century found an uncanny revival in the eighteenth-century Qing dynasty, where inquisitive Manchu rulers allowed many religions to exist together. While Buddhism stood between Confucianism and Daoism in the first century, it also disappeared at various times. During the Six Dynasties, especially from 386–587 C.E., Confucian texts were interpreted through Daoism. This is the same time that several Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese. While Daoism was accepted during the late Ming, it was rejected in the Qing in favor of Confucianism and Buddhism. Stephen Little argues that the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (ruled 1368–1398), dissuaded organized religion while promoting the unity of the three teachings: "This concept, namely that Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were different paths to the same goal, attained increased popularity during the Song [960–1279] and Jin [1115–1234] dynasties, although its roots can be traced to the Six Dynasties period [222–589]" (p. 27).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - East and Southeast Asia - The Daoist Yin-yang, Three Teachings Are One, Modern China, Korea, Japan