Why Buddhism and Hinduism Are Well Known, but Taoism Is Not

by Tai Chi Master Bruce Frantzis

All branches of Buddhism and Hinduism came out of India, regardless of whether they ended up in Tibet, Southeast Asia or even Africa. Both religions carried the Indian perspectives on reincarnation and the idea that relationships between the individual and the collective soul or consciousness are linked completely and inextricably.

Taoism is uniquely Chinese.

India: Easy to Access for 2,500 Years

Westerners know so much more about the Indian perspectives of Buddhism and Hinduism in all their variations because they had the ability to go to India since the time of Alexander the Great, either over land, following the military routes of Alexander or by boat from Alexandria to Southern India. Trade between the West and India was established from those early times and was accelerated when the British occupied India many hundreds of years ago.

From that time some Europeans completely immersed themselves in what was for them a “new” spiritual culture. They learned written and spoken forms of the Indian languages, including Sanskrit and especially Hindi, and sought out spiritual and cultural leaders to teach them about these religions in their purest, clearest and most authentic—rather than distorted—forms.

When these travelers returned to their European homes, they could spread this knowledge in ways that made sense inside their own culture. They also brought over spiritual leaders who helped these religions flourish in fertile new soil.

This cross-fertilization occurred for many hundreds of years and continues strongly today.

China: Difficult to Reach, Hard Language and No British Empire

China was a different story. Before the 1800s, few people traveled regularly to China and were mainly Muslim traders, either traveling by boat or via the Silk Road between the Middle East and China. They went only for trade and profit and brought little back that would not bring them money. Translating texts of Buddhist and Hindu religious doctrines was not considered a high priority in Muslim countries.

This is why the travels of Marco Polo during the time of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century had a great impact on Europe.

Even so, the Chinese exerted little or no effort to share their cultural or spiritual knowledge with outsiders, a quality that contrasted directly with Christian, Buddhist and Muslim missionaries worldwide, who would inform and convert anyone they could to their religion.

Contact with China by Europeans was almost nonexistent even after they acquired the ability to circumnavigate the Horn of Africa. Then, in 1842, British gunboats forced China to open its doors for trade. However, Chinese was one of the most difficult languages to learn. Few Westerners who traveled to China were either sufficiently linguistically capable or interested enough to penetrate the culture and become knowledgeable insiders to authentic Chinese spiritual practices, especially Taoism. Consequently, most Chinese works on Taoism have yet to be adequately translated, even today.

Taoism: Lost in Translation

Although some Taoist texts have been translated into European or English languages, most notably the Tao Te Ching and I Ching, there are many issues with those translations. Few of the translators knew the original language well enough to understand the context behind the words they were translating or, worse, were not personally knowledgeable about the subjects they were translating. Using a dictionary of grammar and vocabulary to translate anything always carries with it the possibility of lacking context. Without context, meaning is easily lost or distorted.

Nevertheless, anyone translating old texts or offering an analysis can write a book—even if they don’t completely understand what they are writing about. When this occurred, more problems were caused downstream by other writers, who also didn’t know the original language, and based their well-written (and possibly influential) works either partially or fully on the inaccurate context provided by the previous misleading translations. In this way, confusion and distortion continued to be passed downstream.

To add to the confusion, some translators, who were familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism (at least in literary form), were unfamiliar with Taoist philosophy and therefore presented Taoist ideas in a muddled, imprecise way. Without realizing it, they substituted and interlaced Buddhist and Hindu perspectives when describing Taoism. This occurred because those translators could not see the Taoist works separately from the powerful imprint of their previous backgrounds in these other spiritual traditions.

Other translators, because they misunderstood the intent and relevance behind the words of Taoist sacred texts, simply created eloquent prose that rolled off the tongue easily but distorted the intent behind them. If they had any experiential knowledge of the practices themselves, it was minimal at best. This is akin to having heard of Jesus, but not having the faintest clue about how to pray or viewing Jesus primarily just as another variation of the Hindu god Krishna.

The renowned Scottish Victorian scholar, James Legge, was the first professor of Chinese at Oxford University (1876–1897). In association with Max Müller, he prepared the monumental and academic Sacred Books of the East series, published in 50 volumes between 1879 and 1891. Legge was a Scottish Congregationalist representative of the London Missionary Society in Malacca and Hong Kong (1840–1873). It would be questionable to consider him to be an insider of Eastern much less Taoist spiritual traditions. He most likely looked at the tradition through the lens of his Christian faith.

In the 1960s, during the explosion of Western interest in Eastern religions, came popular interest in the I Ching. The fundamental translation used was that of Richard Wilhelm, which in part gained acceptance because of his association with Carl Jung. Jung was a close protégé of psychologist Sigmund Freud, known for his work with psychological archetypes. Freud strongly influenced the transpersonal psychology movement.

The Wilhelm translation was written in the early 20th century with the help of Taoist priests at Beijing’s White Cloud Temple (Bai Yun Guan). This is the most important Taoist temple in North China. I spent a fair amount of time practicing sitting meditation there during the 1980s. In my discussions with priests, Wilhelm was well-remembered. They said that Wilhelm tried his best, but had insufficient background to completely understand the text from the Taoist perspective.

Thomas Cleary is the noted University of California (Berkeley) translator of the Taoist I Ching and many other Taoist texts. His books are well-written. However, to the best of my knowledge, he was not a practicing Taoist but rather a Buddhist, which in my opinion is reflected in his translations.

The Explosion of Interest in Indian Spiritual Traditions in the 1960s

The 1960s saw an increasing fascination with Eastern religions and philosophy. The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Numerous American, European and Australian hash-smoking hippies and comparative religion students and professors traveled to India and Nepal and became exposed to many gurus and forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. Many returned with their gurus who then taught in the West. Books were written promoting the teachings of these gurus.

More translations of classic scriptures appeared, continually improving in quality. This allowed the next round of India’s spiritual knowledge to spread in the West.

What about Interest in Taoism?

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution established the People’s Republic of China, closing off mainland China to the outside world. Only two small areas of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, remained open to Westerners. Its spiritual knowledge—especially Taoism, which is uniquely Chinese—was essentially locked down tight.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that travel to mainland China became relatively easy for European business people. Even at this point, few had the tenacity to crack the Chinese language barrier sufficiently to seriously penetrate into Taoism. That is why the answer to the question, “What is Taoism?” still remains relatively hidden to the West. Cross-cultural transfer takes time, and the anxious, hurried mentality of modern life doesn’t bode well for the clear transmission of many traditions.

From a comparative perspective, although knowledge about Chinese Buddhism traveled to India, Taoism didn’t, so the Europeans lacked access to its teachings even from India’s back door. Although Taoism could be found in Southeast Asia, the Chinese language barrier stopped most outsiders from understanding it. Even when English became more common between Indians and Europeans, the Chinese language remained almost completely impenetrable. That is why, until today, most texts and living spiritual teachers available in English-speaking nations are more focused on Indian Buddhism and its metamorphosis in China than on Taoism.

Today, the situation is essentially unchanged. Access is dramatically greater in the West to India’s spiritual knowledge rather than China’s Taoism. It is more common for the leading spiritual lights of Hinduism and Buddhism to speak or write in English, or at least to have good translators who are willing to come to the West to teach. When China invaded Tibet and occupied it in 1949, Tibetan spiritual leaders fled and emigrated to India and other countries. It became essential for them to continue to grow and spread their spiritual knowledge, as well as to raise money for their monasteries in the new countries that took them in.

In contrast, it is rare for the leading lights of China’s Taoism to either be willing to come to the West, to have studied English or to have satisfactory translators for their works.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott B. Truax November 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I have recently read Mr. Frantzis’ book Tai Chi Health For Life and read the translation of the TaoTe Ching by Stepehn Mitchell. I also am part of a Meetup Group in Palm Coast Fl. that discusses the Tao. I suspected that there isn’t a very clear , or concise translation of the Tao Te Ching since just about every translation has its own content for each of the verses.
I imagine its pretty much like any other inspired work, what you get from it varies daily and is influenced by the Tao on a case by case basis.
My point here is given the depth to which Mr. Frantzis has “Walked the Walk” of the Tao in his life perhaps there is a translation of the Tao Te Ching he thinks is most close to the intent of Lao Tzu. I certainly would most deeply respect and treasure his opinion and endorsement.

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Tai Chi Bear December 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Interesting read. I have not reflected about these things previously, yet often been struck at how many people simply did not understand references to daoism, and oftentimes would refer to buddhist thought as self-evidently true AND a refutation of taoism tenets.
While I cannot claim to have any depth of understanding I have however been chocked by the enormous depth and many layers of taoism as I have been confronted with them during my tai chi studies.
Bjorn2BAlive

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Eugene Gaudreau December 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Three fifths of the world’s population lives in Asia. In spite of the Silk Road and many caravans to and from this part of the world by European merchants and warriors, such as Alexander, there is still much to learn about Eastern culture. It is a known fact that Buddhist monks eventually made their way to Greece with his returning armies.
Buddhism is to Hinduism what Christianity is to Judaism. However, China, the monolithic giant in the area remained relatively closed despite the long stay of Marco Polo in the courts of the great Khans in Beijing. Taoism is of such antiquity that the first written textual reference is attributed to King Wen circa 1150 BC. However, the caveat is that both he and his son, the Duke of Chou, were instructed by Taoist sages who were passing on knowledge recognized in their traditions for at least two thousand years, placing this body of knowledge around 3,500 BC. This is quite likely in that the Vedas and Upanishads of India claim to have been incepted between 5,000-7,500 years BC. It is not an unfair assumption that these two giant cultures developed contemporaneously in that part of the world separated by the Himalayas. Taoism was of antiquity before Lao Tse and Confucius (Kung Fu Tze). Taoism was such a dominant cultural entity that is was only marginally modified by the influence of Buddhism whereas in Korea and Japan, Buddhism was accepted/assimilated far more readily and, in fact, took on dominant significance in these younger cultures. Still, having said that, the reality is Taoism did suffer the corruption of being grafted to the Buddhist influence. Therefore, as Mr. Frantzis has most accurately pointed out, a true picture of authentic and uncorrupted Taoism, in its purest form is nearly impossible to acquire. In addition, the original written script, or Han-zi, is composed of over four thousand glyphs. (Think of our alphabet with four thousand letters). Over time, this written script was reduced to four hundred glyphs. One can readily understand how the ancient translations would suffer when the translators are missing thirty-six hundred glyphs). Yet, the wisdom remains within this tremendous resource. Will it ever be extracted in its purest and truest form? One can only hope. Certainly, there is ample motivation to do so given the degradation of values in today’s current climate.
I thank Bruce for his observations and contributions to this important subject.

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James January 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I would like to see any recomendations Bruce has for most accurate translations of Taoist canon….thks

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Rev. Genryu July 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

‘Buddhism is to Hinduism what Christianity is to Judaism.’ I’m afraid not. That is exactly the sort of assumption that leads to some of the problems that the author of this article has outlined so well. There was a Brahmanic culture at the time of the Buddha but Hinduism as such didn’t come in to existence until many centuries later. So it is in fact the other way around. It is though a very common misconception.

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