Monday, July 19, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Islam

Thai Buddhists and Muslims living in peace

 Islam is an important global force in today’s world. Of the estimated six billion people on this planet, approximately one and a half billion are Muslims. The far mass of these people are peace-loving as are most of us, and despite the world media’s love of portraying the small minority of violent Muslims as the norm. These so-called Islamists are aggressive to non-Muslims and their fellow Muslims alike, and despite some claims – by their enemies as well as by themselves – that they constitute true Islam, the truth is that they represent Islam at large no more than gun-wielding communists represent the majority of the world’s atheists. Therefore, in this article Islamists will not be the focus, but rather the centuries-old and worldwide mainstream forms of Islam that will interest us here.

Islam is a monotheistic faith that began in Arabia in the seventh century and quickly spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Today, it is found across Asia and has sizeable populations in both North America and Europe. It is centered on the teachings in its holy book he Koran (or Quran) which is believed to contain the actual words of Allah (God), as revealed to the religion’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. As it is so important to Islam, it would be a good place to start in a comparison of the Buddha and Islam. Resembling some fundamentalist Christians’ view of the Bible, most Muslims consider the Koran to be the perfect word of God, and therefore everything in it is true and to be followed to the letter. This dependence upon the word as an infallible source of inspiration is something that stands in contrast to the insight of the Buddha, which reveals the truth of this moment as it is, prior to language. Scripture, and other Buddhist teachings, exist to assist on our awakening, not to demand our unflinching belief.

In the Koran, it is made clear that God is one, that is to say He is beyond association with any image or form, including Jesus. (Jesus is considered a prophet in the Koran, but neither the Son of God nor God Himself.) Therefore, Islam is a monotheistic religion that teaches the only unforgivable sin that we can commit is to identify anything with Allah, which means Christians that belief Christ to be God are in deep trouble! From the Buddha’s perspective, this belief in a single divine being that is all-powerful creator of the universe is simply a form of wrong view that takes us away from the truth of this moment and into the realms of fantasy. Traditionally, moreover, gods are recognized in Buddhism but are neither eternal nor omnipotent, so the Koran’s description of God is in direct contradiction to the understanding of the way things are according to the Buddha.

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we serve and to You we pray for support. Guide us on the right path, the path of those that You have blessed, not that of those with whom You are angry, nor of those who go astray.” 
(Koran, Sura 1.1-7)

Allah is not only creator but destroyer, not only the Compassionate bit also the Judge, and therefore there is as much fear of God as there is love for Him within Islam. Muslims believe that it is through God’s help that they can overcome life’s obstacles, and that if He chooses so, all their efforts will be in vain. It is up to every Muslim to follow the path of Islam, paying daily homage to Allah and living a righteous life, the reward for which will be eternity in paradise after one dies. This Muslim path is similar in some ways to the Buddhist Path, in that it includes a strong moral foundation to it, encouraging honesty and respectful behavior to others amongst other qualities. The emphasis on belief in Allah within Islam makes it very different to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment, in which belief is irrelevant with the arising of the wisdom of the Buddha.

Part of the Muslim path to salvation is to perform the rituals of Islam and study the Koran. Like Buddhism, the Koran teaches that we are each responsible for our actions and thoughts, and that it is up to us to worship Allah or not. In this, there is a parallel in the Buddha’s teaching that we are all responsible for our own karma. The big difference is that like other theistic religions, Islam states that it is the Person of God that judges our actions as good or evil, whereas the Buddha taught that karma and its results are a natural process independent of any god or gods.

The ummah, or Islamic community is a crucial element in Islam, and in this it has similarities to the Sangha in Buddhism. Muslims are renowned for looking out for each other, and this communal spirit has its roots in the Koran, which teaches that the purpose of the Muslim community is to create a just and holy society. In the Koran, there are rules pertaining to marriage, inheritance and various other aspects of law which form the basis for Islamic law (sharia). The Buddha also taught that Buddhists should behave with wisdom and compassion towards each other. Here, there are parallels with Islam’s attitude to Muslim society, but an important difference is that Buddhists are encouraged to treat all beings with kindness, not just other Buddhists or even only humans.

After the Koran, the next most important source of Islamic teachings come from the Prophet Muhammad, who’s life and teachings (hadith) are also used by Muslims to guide them through life. He is seen as the perfect human, a devout God-fearing man who lived with complete devotion to the will of Allah. He was brave and led his followers in battle against their enemies, spreading Islam across Arabia, both in battle and in peace. Although discouraged from worshipping Muhammad, he is nevertheless as a role model for all Muslims, just as the Buddha is seen as a role model for all Buddhists.
“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”

This has strong parallels with the following verse from the Buddhist Dhammapada:

“Though one may conquer a million men in battle,
Yet he is noblest victor who conquers himself.”

In Islam, it is the utter surrender of self to Allah that is the ideal that every Muslim should aim for, and it is the act of worship that he or she will achieve such abandonment. But worship is seen as merely rituals in a mosque, for it is in everyday acts that Muslims can also submit to Allah’s will, by obeying Islamic law and being generous to their fellow believers. There are similarities here with the Buddha’s teachings, in that Buddhists are encouraged to be selfless, putting the interests of others before themselves. Surrender for the Buddhist, however, is neither to God nor the Buddha, but to the way things are (the Dharma), which centre on the realization that there is in truth no substantial separate self in the first place. There is a movement within Islam called Sufism which has produced exclamations that seem to go beyond the usual Islamic ideas of surrender, however:

“O Lord,
If I worship You
From fear of Hell,
Then burn me in Hell.
O Lord,
If I worship you
From hope of Paradise,
Bar me from its gates.
But if I worship You for Yourself alone
Then grace me forever the splendour of Your Face.”
(Rabiah, 8th Century Sufi)

This Face of Allah may be seen as the very Original Face of Buddha, as described in Zen Buddhism, and then we are in the realm beyond words and concepts (and beliefs) where the Buddha and Islam may truly meet, if not merge. This ‘Face’ could well be described as No-Face, or the space in which all things appear. It is not your face nor my face, but the Face of all, and certainly not the particular features of any Tom, Dick or Harriet. Another equivalence in the above verse by the Sufi mystic Rabiah is that the idea that we do something not out of hope for reward, but that we do it for its own value, whether that be worshipping Allah or chanting praise of the Buddha.

What we see when we compare the Buddha with Islam are many differences but also many similarities. If we focus solely on those things that are unalike, then they may seem to be worlds apart and grounds for dialogue and coexistence may appear fragile to say the least. But, if we also bring to light the aspects of Islam that compliment the Buddha and his teachings, then we have reason to believe that Muslims and Buddhists can live harmoniously together in this world, as they have done in the past across Asia. Of course, there have been times of strife, as when Islam first conquered India, or recently in Southern Thailand where an atmosphere of mistrust has descended into brutal conflict. But, if we focus on the teachings of Muhammad and Sufi mystics such as Rabiah, then we nay find the way to allow the Buddha and Islam to coexist in peace, something that both have been famous for promoting.


Thesauros said...

Can any individual Muslim be assured of salvation? In other words, how can a follower of Islam know when s/he has done enough, prayed enough, washed h/her hands enough etc. to warrent salvation?

As well, I was wondering, Christianity talks a lot about God's love. The word itself is used almost 400 times in the Bible with almost 375 of those times describing God's love for us, even dying for us while we were still His enemies. So I wonder, does Allah love his enemies?

G said...

Specifically regarding Islam, these are questions for Muslims to answer for you (and themselves), Thesauros. Not being Muslim, I can't help you with such queries.
From a more general perspective, perhaps those of us that aren't Muslim will benefit from reflecting upon our own motives for questioning Islam: Why do I ask such questions of Islam? What do I hope to achieve with them? Where will they actually take my mind? Etc.

Similar questions can be asked of those Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others that seem to think good works result in enlightenment, salvation or the like. How much praying, chanting, meditation or reflection will bring 'the goal'? And, by extension, what is the nature of a goal and its relationship to this very moment in which the mind resides?

As to love and forgiveness, I believe that the enemies of Christ are damned to Hell just as the enemies of Allah are - in mainstream conventional thinking, that is. Perhaps a wise response to such beliefs is to reflect upon them and try to understand their origins and purposes. Your comment encourages us to do this, and is therefore very welcome, Thesauros!

Iraj said...

Thanks for this post. I'm a Muslim and it was interesting for me to know there are many similarities between Islam and Buddhism.
Anyway, I think there are some misunderstanding about Islam in your post. unfortunately my English language is not good enough to explain these. But however, I believe your post is good and useful.

G said...

Hello, Iraj.
Thanks for the kind comment. Yes, it is good to seek out similarities and points of contact between Islam and what the Buddha taught. If there are misunderstandings of Islam in my post, I apologize for them, Iraj. It would be interesting (and possibly enlightening) to read of them. Anyhow, thank you again for your comment.

Iraj said...

Hi again!
For example I read in your article:

there is as much fear of God as there is love for Him within Islam.

There is a hadith which is opposite of this opinion:
Holy Prophet said:
Jesus was so hopeful about Allah's mercy and Yahya (one of our Prophets who lived in the same time that Jesus lived) was so afraid of Allah's anger.

Then our Holy Prophet said:
That because Jesus knew Allah better than Yahya.

However, I have not to except you to know every thing about Islam and it's better for me to try learn about Buddha from you. I always thought about Buddha as a Philosopher (a very great one) and I've heard he (Buddha) did not believe in God or gods as creator of the world. If it's true, it's so interesting that he was such a great teacher that his followers know and remember him as a God.

Peter Clothier said...

I applaud your thinking, and the desire to increase mutual understanding and tolerance. It reminds me that it's not religions that create problems, it's their practitioners. Common ground gets forgotten when certainty and absolutism step in.

G said...

Hi Iraj.
Thanks for your comments regarding Islam and the Buddha. In Islam, as I wrote, there is fear of Allah in that if one is not a good Muslim, He will condemn you to Hell for eternity. That's pretty fearful, don't you think?! Of course, Allah is also called the Merciful, in that He will forgive our sins if we are devout Muslims. So, Allah is both feared and adored in Islam. Yes?

As to the Buddha being remembered as a god, in truth he is known as an enlightened man, Iraj. It is easy to misinterpret the statues and reverence afforded him by Buddhists as the worshipping of a god (and some Buddhists may be guilty of this also). However, your assessment of him as a kind of philosopher (an enlightened one, that is) is more accurate than viewing him as a god.
Again, thanks for the dialogue, Iraj. Feel free to converse anytime.

G said...

Well said, Peter.
Certainty and absolutism are indeed the cause of much nescience and resultant problems, whether Buddhist, Muslim, or whatever! Retaining that 'don't know' state of mind opens us up to each other, no matter what our credos.

jack said...

Mankind's most pressing problem is not that there are so many different religions but instead that unconditional love is not the very ground zero of all religions.

G said...

Yes, Jack, if we can live from "ground zero", as you wonderfully put it, life would be very different, whether we are religious or not. This "ground zero" is neither Buddhist nor Muslim, neither religious nor irreligious, neither this nor that.

If we can use religion as a means to explore and express this "ground zero", this would be a great contribution to humankind. What else is as important to us as recognizing this "ground zero" at this point in history, or at any other point in history, for that matter. Thanks for your comment, Jack.

Anonymous said...

it's true that Buddhism have quite a limited point of agreement with Islam,but as Buddhists dialogues should be held with Muslims especially in states with both communities co-existing.Muslims appreciate the value of celibacy too,but not as much emphasized as in Buddhism.As in Buddhist layman's Uposatha practise, Muslims also have a system of fast as means of defeating the six senses.While Buddhists may CHOOSE to practise or not, and do it on any day,Muslims do it on specified month,ie Ramadhan.hope this extra piece of info helps. ~ sampuna

G said...

Thanks for your input, Sampuna.
Interesting reference to fasting as "defeating" the six senses; another area of potential dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims.

isis de la noche said...

Well.. No religion can assure a real spiritual experience when it's lived as a group of ideas instead of a path to know ourselves and, therefore, God.

Paths. That's what religions are. But it is also important the way that people walk by that path.. The walker, the path and the destination have to be one and the same thing.

Sometimes, people don't understand that some texts were written in an specific context, located in an specific time and space. The important teachings are those that are beyond words, those that are taugnt with the example. The important thing is not the path, but how we live it.

A Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist is a spiritual person not because that person is a Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, but because he lives what he preaches and because he trully believes in the words that come out from his mouth, not because he is saying them, but because he has understood how they become real in his daily life.

All religions have the same goal. Or, at least, it seems to be like that because all of them claim to be the way to find / live / know God.

The sad thing is that the fanaticism seems to be the most important religion nowadays, when people's only aspiration is power. That has nothing to do with the spiritual life. That is not spiritual at all and that doesn't 'tie' us with God, whatever the idea of IT is (religion: re - ligare: unite, join, tie... I don't know the accurate translation but I hope the idea is clear). On the contrary, we are way far of a real brotherhood, which is one of the main teachings of all religions.. And therefore, we are further than we've ever been from a spiritual awakening... (I am not talking about specific individuals but the humankind, with all its religions...).

Lucky those who have found their own way (whatever its name is) and live it with commitment... God will be in each one of their days...

isis de la noche said...

I apologyze for the spelling and writing mistakes... ;)

G said...

You make some salient points, Isis.
Buddhism is certainly a path - The Noble Eightfold Path. It is not a path towards 'God', however, at least in the traditional mainstream understanding of the word. It comes down to what we consider or experience 'God' to be, I guess.

Ultimately, as Ajahn Sumedho once told me, we must let go of everything, including our 'religion' and dive into the Unknown. This Unknown has often been associated with 'God' by the world's mystics.

Do you equate the word/concept/experience 'God' with 'Buddha', 'Zen' or 'Nirvana', Isis? Also, what religious path do you walk, if any? Thanks for the comment, anyhow.

isis de la noche said...

Thanks for your answer.

As you asked me, I will give you an answer.

I don't equate 'God' with Buddha, Zen or Nirvana. I perfectly understand the differences between these words...

Due to my spiritual formation, I can't name a religion to which I could say I belong (I might say 'theosophy' but I think it isn't accurate...) but I'll try to explain 'my path' in a few words.

- For me, spiritual beliefs and practices are the central axis of my life.

- I believe that something that is ineffable surrounds everything and the divinity lies within us and beyond what we see in the whole universe.

- I believe in a supreme 'mind' (not as the rational concept but a kind of supreme intelligence) because the perfection of the universe and all its processes has to be determined by something.

- I think that words complicate everything because they lead us to missunderstandings and forms that limit the real experience of what is ineffable.

- I believe in the immortality of the soul and its evolution through lives (or, rather, the evolution of our conscience of this soul or spiritual awakening). My spiritual path is the path of the warrior, but this 'war' refers to the struggle with the own 'ego', which I consider the biggest obstacle in the spiritual growth and in the spiritual awakening.

- I believe that it is necessary to 'believe if we want to see' and no backwards. And faith is what let us know; and this knowledge is something that we have to live everyday.

- I believe in magic, not as a fashion concept (so distorted) but as the ancient Egyptians understood it, regarding to the supreme knowledge about the mysteries of the soul and the universe.

- I think that anything is casual..

- Finally, I believe in such things not because I've read a lot about religions (including Buddhism) or because someone told me to. I believe in these things because I thing that life is so wise that lets us discover our destiny, that one that is 'written in our soul', through many ways... I think that all of us has a 'soul calling' and that is our duty to discover it (dharma). There has been some experiences in my life, so strong, that it's impossible for me not to believe in 'God' or that ineffable force, intelligence, whatever... with which I could 'connect' sometimes (because those who live in this union are iluminated) but not wanting to.. Just 'letting go' as you say...

But I'm so lucky because I had a teacher in my life who guided me in my spiritual path and let me undestand that 'God' is within us.. You may understand the discipleship or not, but in the spiritual way, it is always necessary such a guide...

(Again, sorry for the mistakes)

G said...

Thank you for the informative and interesting comments, Isis. (Now I begin to understand the name, having read of your belief in Egyptian-style magic).

If you do not equate the words/concepts 'God' and "Zen/Buddha/Nirvana', then it would be logical that you don't classify Buddhism as a religion, as you previously described religion thus: "All religions have the same goal. Or, at least, it seems to be like that because all of them claim to be the way to find / live / know God."

This isn't so important, however, as these are just words and concepts, and our true nature is beyond all words and all concepts, however erudite they may or may not be. For, as you wrote, "The important teachings are those that are beyond words."

This true nature is to be experienced in the here and now, as the Buddha taught, and this can be done simply by looking back and recognizing who/what "it" is that lies behind the mask of the ego-personality. This is when the true Path begins, for it is not these individuals that walk the Path Home, but That which is already Here. This appears paradoxical to the everyday mind, but as you indicate in your comments, Isis, the Truth is not contained in the everyday mind - it is the other way around!

jack said...

Zen and Death

Jung’s Final Experience

G said...

Great PDF, Jack - thanks a lot!

jack said...

Hi G,

I was wandering if you think that most of the men who are pursuing Zen within
our world are in all reality actually seeking the authentic truth that Zen is
forever pointing toward?

If not, what do you think they are pursuing?


G said...

I have no idea what those men (or women?) are pursuing, Jack. Probably many of them don't really know themselves, such is the state of the unenlightened mind. From the Zen point of view, we are not in a world, but the world is "in" Zen, which is our real nature. Seeing this, we are freed from the delusion of being merely men and women that are seeking this, that, or the other.

The "authentic truth that Zen is forever pointing toward" cannot be successfully pursued, anyhow, for "it" is not an object to be caught or taken possession of, but is our inherent true nature, already right here. It is letting go of the identification with the self and its desires that lifts the clouds of ignorance to reveal the bright Buddha Light shining behind them.

Anonymous said...

Hi G,

As Buddhists, perhaps we should be aware that Buddhism, like Islam, is NOT based on the idea of the respective founders i.e Sidharta Gautama & Muhammad.While what the Buddha expounded was Dhamma [TRUTH, which is not confined to any labels,which is UNIVERSAL, independent of the Buddha's existance]Muhammad claim to have reemphasize on the ORIGINAL MONOTHEISTIC IDEA [Tauheed],as taught by Abraham & the prophets.He claims the followers have strayed from the ORIGINAL COMMANDMENTS, and he is merely expounding it again. Now we can see two masters, not claiming to be divine, they are here just to 'remind' humanity of the ORIGINAL GOOD.

While what the Buddha taught was Dhamma [Truth,without any -isms attached to it], what Muhammad taught is merely Islam [submission to God - also without any -isms attached].

While we Buddhists take the Buddha as the supreme role model [not to be mistaken with 'object of worship], Muslims too take Muhammad to be their role model.

The Buddhist monastic practise [as in the Patimokha] is observed as long as one dons the robe. The mirror practise in Islam is observed during the Islamic pilgrimage[the Haj] when there is total abstinance of sexual activity.

~ sampuna

G said...

You draw good parallels between the respective messages of the Buddha and Muhammad, Sampuna. I particularly like your reference to the lack of '-isms' in their teachings.

reflective pen said...

Hi G,

it's sampuna again ;) There's another similarity in today's Buddhism & Islam.

Scripture wise, we've got the Tipitaka & the Commenteries whereas the Muslims have the Quran & Hadiths. There exist among us,those who take the 'Words from the Teacher' only, while not touching the commentories/hadiths at all for such works are believed to have come from a 'not that perfect' source. It is also due to the view that the 'Words from the Teacher'[as in Tipitaka/Quran] is THE PERFECT SAY, and is THE COMPLETE GUIDE to the practitioners. Having another supplementary text is akin to saying The Teacher [as in Buddha/Muhammad] is imperfect, passing down incomplete guide. This is one group.

Another view holds that the commentories/hadiths sheds 'more' light to certain teachings.Hence,they are considered as a supplementory to the existing 'Words from the teacher' scripture. In the theravada tradition,we can compare the teaching of some forest monks like Ajahn Buddhadassa, who's a good example of 'Teacher's Word Only',making a careful distinction it and later works.Check out his work on the Paticca Samupada.In the Islamic tradition, there's this Quran Only group.

hmmm...what about you G?

G said...

Hi Sampuna; nice to read your words again. :-)
I very much like the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadasa and other forest monks, such as Ajahn Chah. They do indeed shed some light on the ancient teachings of the Buddha - as do the Zen masters' teachings and many others. Clinging to certain documents as the one and only version of the truth is not wise, and the conflict that comes out of it is a testament to the fact!

Anonymous said...

Hi G,

hehehe,you may call me a bigot..i'm more towards the BOOK ONLY group ;) anything outside THE BOOK is not THE WAY. For me,being a student of THE TEACHER,one should focus on HIS WORDS,for anything outside HIS INSTRUCTIONS are NOT HIS WORDS, thus it does not REPRESENT HIS WAY,and they may even lead one to stray off from THE TEACHER'S INTENDED PATH.Just my bigoted mind,forgive me ;) that's my level for now..perhaps there is more to that.

I'm just a puthujana,and more little enlightenments are to be expected ;)

great reading your posts, sadhu x3!

G said...

At first, I didn't know whether you were a Muslim, Buddhist, or what, Anonymous! (Calling yourself a puthujjana kinda gave it away.)

Look, if keeping to an orthodox interpretation of a particular kind of Buddhism does it for you, then good. The fact that you read a blog like this one displays an openness to other ways walked by other people. And that's cool in my book. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi G,

I'm from Malaysia - a Chinese with traces of baba Nyonya blood from my late granny.

By scriptural sense,I'm more of a Theravadin ;) Then,being part of a community that adheres to syncretic spiritual practises,I do Chinese folk religion,finding the worship of various devas a strong 'spiritual' identity & ties me to my ancestral roots..experiencing the 'best' of both worlds?..or burdening myself???

on second thought,there's no self anyway [Buddhistically that is!] - thus there's practically no burden to speak of ahaks!

~ sampuna

G said...

Hi, Sampuna.
Interesting cultural influences you have there. None of them should necessarily prevent awakening, not unless you cling to and identify with them. Practiced with mindfulness, they can actually become a powerful element of your spiritual life.