I am interested in Buddhism and the book Tao Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu in c. 600 BC. Is there common ground between these two Eastern philosophies?

link to audio of Tao Te Ching

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    Commenting because this is not worth being a full-blown answer, but I'll refer you to the superb Great Minds of the Eastern Tradition audible course. It's usually expensive but is currently on sale for under $50 (e.g. at audible.com). Suffice to say that there are extensive cross connections between Buddhism and Daoism, and this course explain them in a really accessible way.
    – tkp
    Aug 14, 2014 at 17:16
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    @tkp Can I thank you for the great minds recommendation. Have just bought it and listened to the first few. Fantastic. Very cheap if you can get it as part of the audible.com intro offer Aug 27, 2014 at 17:10
  • You might also consider Frithjof Schuon's 'Transcendent Unity of Religion'. Philosophical Taoism endorses the same neutral metaphysical description of Reality as Nagarjuna. This is made clear by Lao Tu's comment 'True worlds seem paradoxical'. .
    – user14119
    Mar 10, 2019 at 12:34

4 Answers 4


There is common ground. But there is common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, too. So...

A commentator of the Taoist philosopher Guo Xiang's work and a Taoist himself, I forget his name now (I can look it up) once wrote that - I paraphrase from memory - Buddhism and Taoism are diametrically opposed, because one seeks detachment from all existence, while the other seeks attachment to all existence. One seeks liberation by detaching from all phenomena, while the other seeks liberation by becoming one with all phenomena. The two paths seem to be the same, but really they are opposite.

Your question is broad, and so it's hard to answer. There are just too many sects... some Chinese ones like Huayan were influenced by Taoist philosophy so there is more common grounds... and then there are Taoist sects that were significantly influenced by Buddhism, like the Quanzhen School...

In the Pure Land tradition, the great patriarch Tan-Luan, was initially a Taoist teacher. He wanted immortality but couldn't achieve it. Then he met the Indian Bodhiruci who gave him the Infinite Life Sutra, and Tan-Luan was so delighted by this sutra that he burned all his Taoist texts and followed Buddhism alone. If this story is true, then we can say at least one person didn't think the two were compatible. Tan-Luan sought immortality, but it occurred to him that when Taoism speaks of immortality, it does so from a point of view of attachment to existence, while Buddhism's ultimate point is nirvana which is neither-existence-nor-nonexistence (suchness). Something far removed from existence and non-existence.

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    I feel you are taking your view of Taoism from limited sources. I've heard Taoists criticise the views you contrast with Buddhism as being incorrect. I'd say a correct view of Taoism and Buddhism allows them to be syncretised. Lao Tsu tells us that existence and non-existence are just as Nagarjuna describes, extreme views to be overcome. The sages all obtain their knowledge from the same place. . . . ,
    – user14119
    Mar 10, 2019 at 12:41

I've read that one of the things that Taoism and Buddhism have in common is a sense of the ineffable. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching go

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

meaning perhaps that the Tao is beyond words so everything that you read about it ... well that's not the real thing.

Contrast that to the Flower sermon where the Buddha does talk and instead just holds up a flower. When he did this ...

The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching.

however Mahakasyapa understood and smiled. The Buddha said

“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

So again beyond words.

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to see the Taoist influence within this Chineses Buddhism sutra. Certainly if it isn't a direct influence then it is something that the two religions had in common.

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    The first line of the Tao Te Ching seems to me to be saying, among other things, that the map is not the territory, i.e. that the description or the thing-described is not the thing. Whereas the Flower Sermon is 'direct seeing', i.e. "here is a thing".
    – ChrisW
    Oct 17, 2014 at 16:53
  • @ChrisW Where did you get this interpretation from? The first line of the Tao Te Ching doesn't say that. It rather says that "the territory that can be mapped is not the true territory". I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but that seems to be the closest analogy to the map-and-territory metaphor.
    – michau
    Apr 1, 2015 at 8:46
  • @michau It's just my interpretation. I get it e.g. from the 3rd line, "The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth" ... IMO the 'nameless' is the (whole, eternal) thing itself before it's described or analyzed, before things are identified; and the 'named' are the myriad mental 'formations' i.e. the map. Unfortunately I have no special insight into the Tao Te Ching itself: I find it so gnomic that it's only by interpreting it as Buddhist doctrine that I find I can make much intellectual sense of it.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 1, 2015 at 9:10
  • @ChrisW my lens is science, so I interpret both by it. In the case of "the map is not the territory", it seems to be about tacit knowledge. It's like saying "a YouTube tutorial on car driving is not the driving itself", which in its turn sounds like a zen koan?
    – Ooker
    Mar 10, 2019 at 5:47
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    @michau - The first line of the Tao Te Ching tells us that Reality is beyond conceptual fabrications, just as Nagarjuna tells us. When the former says 'True words seem paradoxical' he is telling us that we need to use Nagarujana's method of 'Two Truths' to speak about Reality. The two clearly share exactly the same world-view, as we would expect given their method of enquiry. . . . . ,
    – user14119
    Mar 10, 2019 at 12:46

Wuwei, as how I understand it, has these understandings, depending on the context:

  • You do something because you are born for it and do it without wondering why you need to do or learn how to do it (e.g. trees produce oxygen not because oxygen is needed for animals, but because they need photosynthesis)
  • When you are doing it you are being present in the moment, and allow life to lead you to something unexpected, yet you do not get confused and unprepared when the unexpected occurs
  • Your action has been simplified to its most basic parts so it can be accomplished in the most efficient and effortless ways
  • You don't need to do anything because you see the order from the chaos, and you see the big picture from above
  • You do something impossible or insane with confidence and fearlessness, because you have the knowledge (e.g. sailing into a storm with a smile)

Therefore, I think while Buddhism is about avoiding attachments to not having sufferings, Daoism is about attaching and having no suffering at all.

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    Taoism is also about detachment. There is, after all, only way to transcend suffering. .
    – user14119
    Mar 10, 2019 at 12:50
  • I think this is just a language game? The concept of wuwei is about detaching to the source of suffering too
    – Ooker
    Mar 11, 2019 at 3:50

In the Dao De Ching it is stated that:

"Therefore it is said: He who desireless is found The spiritual of the world will sound. But he who by desire is bound Sees the mere shell of things around."

One whose mind is filled with desire only sees the surface of things as they really are. A mind filled with desire sees the world as something to be controlled and used as tools or means for achieving one's will. And so, the mind does not understand that nature, in its deep mystery, is beyond the scope of language and reason.

The world does not need to be controlled, but the mind to be tamed. The wise one understand the changing and ever flowing rhythms of nature, and let's him/herself to go with it: that is Wu-Wei, or effortless action.

Early Buddhism and Daoism (as expressed in the DDC) point to desire/greed and instrumentalization of nature/the world (as defined in SN 35.116) as the causes for unbinding with the Tao/Samsara.

Have a wonderful day!

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