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The Comparison Between Chinese Religions: Taoism and Buddhism

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Taoism and Buddhism are the two major religions beliefs in influencing past artworks and shaping the concept of afterlife and diyu. Aforementioned, the concept of life and death first emerges during the Chun Qiu Zhan Guo period with the notion of Huang Quan. Later, Taoism is officially introduced to China during the Han dynasty. Taoist believes that dao is invisible but circumscribes everything. In another sense, dao is beyond the human realm of understanding and requires people’s life-long pursuit. Followers believe that both Heaven and Earth are timeless, whereas human life is momentary. They regard death as a natural progression of the returning to the everlasting world. As Taoism does not believe in an immaterial soul and treat death as the transformation of life, it suggests that Taoism does not have a distinct concept of diyu.

In comparison, Buddhism depicts a graphic illustration of the formulation of diyu. Buddhists upholds the doctrine of karma and rebirth, which means every living being reaps their fruits of actions, hence, are entirely responsible for their life encounters and judgements. Buddhism states that diyu is an ever-recurrent motif that reflects karma in life. Diyu is an endless region which each serves a particular purpose in the punishment of the evildoers. Besides, some Buddhists believe that Chinese Buddhism is the integration of Taoism and Buddhism, in which the Buddha will enlighten his followers through the teachings and encourage them to pay homage to their ancestors. With such in mind, it gradually influences Chinese’s perception and artworks on diyu as well as their concept of the afterlife.

In most artworks, diyu is painted as a dark, underground palace with varied types of punishments. The Buddhist guidance of reincarnation leads to the repeated drawings and descriptions of karmic retribution, which people’s soul will eventually rebirth to a new life that is determined in the Ten Realms of Being . The illustration of karma teachings in artwors continuously attracts people into performing good deeds to avoid bad karma in the afterlife. The frightful sights of diyu are used to give people a sight of how the underworld is and to convince people into adopting the rituals needed to prevent themselves from sufferings in their afterlife. Further on, the representation in Diyu Bian Xiang on temple walls narrates the passage of the spirits along with various courts in diyu. The levels in diyu that is reigned by Tai Shan Wang depicts the different punishments people are suffering from after death, for example, people’s tongue will be pulled and removed in the ba she chuan sai diyu, to punish those who offend others with their words. Images of brutal retribution, thus, constructs diyu as a place of extensive dark power and hierarchy, together with an inescapable atmosphere as the dead’s punishment.

By incorporating the beliefs from both Taoism and Buddhism, they help in shaping and developing the folk concept of afterlife and diyu in China. Taoists believe that Taishan Fujun is the governor of the netherworld who has excellent power and in charge of the yin and yang worlds. In this sense, yin represents diyu, whereas yang refers to the earthly place. We can see that the frame for diyu has appeared in the Han dynasty. With the influence of causal concept from Buddhism, the perception of diyu becomes clearer. Yanluo Wang (The King of Diyu) governs diyu, where he will register the decease and examine their human behaviour. Judgements are made in accordance with the doctrine of karma, which is seen as diyu’s resemblance to the earthly judiciary syste. During Sui Tang period, Yanluo wang gradually replaces Taishan Fujun as the dominant deity in the netherworld. With the growth of Buddhism in China, it gives a more distinct description of diyu by marking the entrance with naihe (The River of No Recourse) and the exit with a large fortune wheel that brings the deceased to the next life. Adding on, the ideology of shi ba ceng diyu is developed during the Tang dynasty. It brings upon the idea of shi dian yan wang as the judges of people’s earthly sins in diyu, which these authorities mirror Tianzi’s (The Son of Heaven, or the Emperor) bureaucracy in reality. They reside in ten different halls and are in charge of different types of diyu. These halls are known as dian (court), along with subordinate diyu called xiao diyu (little prisons). As stated in Buddhist beliefs, the deceased has to meet shi dian yan wang to examine the good and bad deeds of his life and accept the corresponding punishment in the relevant xiao diyu before accepting reincarnation. The famous shi ba ceng diyu are found in these levels. For instance, in the fifth dian of Yanluo Wang, we can find the ninth diyu, Youding Diyu, where Yanluo Wang will cook whoever steals, falsely accuses, extorts, and kills for monetary returns in a cauldron of oil (Wong and Liu).

The illustration of diyu in artworks and people’s concept of the afterlife is significantly related with the traditional Chinese worldview. The images of diyu may be learnt as religious attempts in cajoling people to live a good, religious life and to strengthen people’s belief towards different religious approaches. Buddhism dramatically contributes to the folk’s description of diyu. For instance, the inclusion of the belief of karma, bureaucracy and rebirth signify the rationalised justice system in reality. Thus, the depictions and drawings of Buddhist diyu do not help in alleviating people’s suffering or bringing liberation from karma, but a constant reminder and shaping of how the afterlife would be.  

China has a diversity of religions. But the main religions are Buddhism and Taoism. Buddism spread into three sections: Han, Tibetan, and Southern Buddhism. It influenced three main aspects of local culture: literature, art and ideology. 185 million people believe in Buddhism. Taoism has been around for more than 1,8000 years. It originated in the Warring Period. There are about 300 Taoist Temples scattered throughout China and 12 million people are Taoists, but more than 100 million have participated in Taoist activities. 

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