The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Introduction to Buddhism from an Islamic Point of View

Introduction to Buddhism from an Islamic Point of View

Revised, December 2006, from the originally published version:
Berzin, Alexander. Buddhism and Its Impact on Asia.
Asian Monographs,
no. 8.
Cairo: Cairo University, Center for Asian Studies, June 1996.

Buddha Is Not an Omnipotent God

The founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni, was a prince of the small city state of Kapilavastu on the border of present-day northern India and Nepal two and a half thousand years ago. After seeing the physical and mental sufferings of his subjects, Shakyamuni renounced his royal life and spent many years in meditation seeking the way for all beings to become liberated from their problems and attain to lasting happiness. As a result of his intense compassion for others and his deep understanding, he was able to overcome all his shortcomings, limitations and problems and realize all his potentials so that he became a Buddha. A Buddha is not an omnipotent God, but is literally someone who is “totally awake” so that he or she may be of fullest help to others. Shakyamuni Buddha then spent the rest of his life teaching others the techniques for awakening that he had realized so that they too could become fully enlightened Buddhas themselves.

References to Buddha in the Quran

The mid-twentieth century scholar, Hamid Abdul Qadir, in his Buddha the Great: His Life and Philosophy (Arabic: Budha al-Akbar Hayatoh wa Falsaftoh), postulates that the Prophet Dhu’l-Kifl, meaning “the one from Kifl,” mentioned twice in the Quran (Al-Anbiya 85 and Sad 48) as patient and good, refers to Shakyamuni Buddha. Although most scholars identify Dhu'l-Kifl with the Prophet Ezekiel, Qadir explains that “Kifl” is the Arabicized form of Kapila, short for Kapilavastu. He also proposes that the Qur’anic mention of the fig tree (At-Tin 1-5) refers to Buddha as well, since he attained to enlightenment at the foot of one. Some scholars accept this theory and, as support for this position, point out that the eleventh-century Persian Muslim scholar of Indian history, al-Biruni, referred to Buddha as a Prophet. Others dismiss this last piece of evidence and explain that al-Biruni was merely describing that people in India regarded Buddha as a prophet.  

Some scholars associate the prophesied future Buddha Maitreya, the Loving or Merciful One, with the Prophet Muhammad as the servant of the Merciful One. Although the truths that Buddha realized under the fig tree are not described as revelation, later great Buddhist masters have received revelations of sacred texts, such as Asanga in fourth century India directly from Maitreya in Tushita, the Heaven Filled with Joy.

Buddhists as People of the Book

Buddha’s attainment and his teachings of techniques for others to achieve the same are known in Sanskrit as “Dharma,” literally “preventive measures.” They are measures to take and methods to follow in order to avoid causing oneself and others suffering. Starting in the second century BCE, Buddha’s discourses on them that had been transmitted orally up until then were written down in the form of scriptural texts. In present-day Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan, where the Arabs first encountered Buddhists, the versions of these texts most widely available were in Old Turk and Sogdian translation. In these languages, the word Dharma was translated as nom, a loan word from Greek, meaning “law.”   

The Quran taught tolerance for the religions of “people of the Book,” which referred to Christianity and Judaism. When the Arabs encountered Buddhism, then although its followers were not strictly “people of the Book,” nevertheless they were granted the same status and rights as the Christians and Jews under their rule. They were allowed to follow their religion, provided the laypeople among them paid a poll-tax. Thus, the legal concept of “ people of the Book” seems to have been widened to include those who followed a set of ethical principles of higher authority. 

Basic Buddhist Teachings

Four Noble Truths

Buddha’s most basic teaching of Dharma is known as the “Four Noble Truths,” the four facts seen as true by highly realized beings. He saw that everyone faces (1) true problems. Although there are many joys to be had, there is no denying that life is difficult. Sickness, old age and death in oneself and one’s loved ones, frustrations in life, disappointments in one’s relations with others and so on are difficult enough. But people make these situations even more painful because of their attitudes based on confusion

(2) The true cause of problems is lack of awareness or ignorance of reality. For example, all people think that they are the center of the universe. When, as a small child, they close their eyes, it appears as though everyone else ceases to exist. Because of this deceptive appearance, they feel that they are the only one who is important and that they must always have their own way. As a result of such a self-centered, self-important attitude, they create arguments, fights and even wars. But if it were true that they were the center of the universe, then everyone should agree. No one, however, would agree, because everyone else feels that he or she is the center of the universe. They cannot all be right. 

It is possible, however, to achieve (3) true stoppings of all problems so that one will never experience unhappiness again. This will happen if one adopts (4) a true pathway of mind with which one understands reality. In other words, if one gains full realization of the fact that everyone is interconnected and interdependent, and that no one is the center of the universe, then it will be possible for people to find the solutions to their problems so that they can live together in peace and harmony. The basic approach in Buddhism, then, is scientific and rational. To eliminate problems, one must identify and remove their causes. Everything follows the laws of cause and effect.

Voidness and Interdependence

The main points of Buddha’s teachings, then, are seeing reality, namely the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, and consequently developing equal love and compassion for all beings. The highest principle that unites everything is known as “voidness,” beyond all names and concepts. Voidness refers to the fact that nothing exists in impossible, fantasized ways such as truly independent from everything else, but that all beings and things arise interdependent on each other. Because all living creatures and the environment are interdependent, one must have love, concern and compassion for all others and take responsibility to actively help. To remain focused on these two aspects, voidness and compassion, known as wisdom and method, one needs perfect concentration and a firm foundation in ethical self-discipline. Buddha taught many techniques for training oneself in all these areas.

Ethics and Karma

Buddha especially emphasized leading an ethical life of keeping strict morals. He said try to help others, and if that is not possible, at least do no harm. He explained the basis of ethics in terms of the scientific principles of karma, or behavioral cause and effect. “Karma” does not mean fate, but refers to the impulses that motivate and accompany one’s physical, verbal and mental actions. Impulses to act positively or negatively arise due to previous conditioning and cause one to enter into situations in which one will experience a certain level of happiness or suffering. These situations will occur either in this life or in future ones.

Rebirth

As with other Indian religions, Buddhism asserts rebirth or reincarnation. The mental continuum of an individual, with its instincts, talents and so on, comes from past lives and goes on into future ones. Depending on one’s actions and the propensities built up by them, an individual may be reborn in a heaven or a hell, or as an animal, a human or any one of a variety of ghosts or spirits. All beings experience uncontrollable rebirth due to the force of their disturbing attitudes, such as attachment, anger and naivety, and their karmic impulses to act compulsively that are triggered by them. If one follows the negative impulses that arise in one’s mind due to past behavioral patterns and acts destructively, one will experience as a result suffering and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, one engages in constructive deeds, one will experience happiness. Each individual’s happiness or unhappiness, then, is not a reward or a punishment, but is created by that person’s previous actions according to the laws of behavioral cause and effect. 

The foundation of Buddhist ethics is restraining oneself from the ten especially destructive actions. These are the physical acts of killing, stealing, and inappropriate sexual behavior; the verbal ones of lying, speaking divisively, using harsh and cruel language, and speaking idle words; and the mental ones of covetous thinking, thinking with malice and distorted, antagonistic thinking with which one denies the value of anything positive. Buddha did not teach a legal code, similar to the Sharia, by which one could determine punishments for negative acts. Whether humans reward or punish those who are destructive, those who act negatively will still experience the suffering results of their deeds.

Devotional Practice and Meditation

Buddha saw that not only is everyone equal in his or her ability to overcome all problems and become a Buddha, but also that people are all individuals with differing preferences, interests and talents. Respecting these differences, he taught many different methods for working on oneself to overcome one’s limitations and realize one’s potentials. These include study, devotional practice such as prostration three times before prayer, making generous offerings to the needy and those devoted to spiritual life, repeated recitation of Buddha’s names and sacred syllables (mantras) counted on rosary beads, pilgrimage to holy places and circumambulation of sacred monuments, and especially meditation. Meditation means building up a beneficial habit and is accomplished through repeatedly generating such positive attitudes as love, patience, mindfulness, concentration and seeing reality, and then practicing viewing situations from one’s personal life with them. 

Furthermore, Buddha told people not to believe what he said out of faith in him, but to test everything for themselves as if buying gold. Only if people found, through personal experience, something beneficial in his teachings should they adapt it into their lives. There is no need to change cultures or even religions, Buddha said. Anyone who found anything useful in his teachings were welcome to partake of them. 

There are no set times for prayer in Buddhism, no religious service for laypeople led by clerics and no sabbath. People may pray at any time or any place. Most frequently, however, prayer and meditation are done either in Buddhist temples or before shrines in one’s home. Often there are statues and paintings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, those who are totally directed towards helping others and becoming a Buddha. People do not worship or pray to these statues, but use them to help focus their attention on the great beings they represent. Since Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not omnipotent Gods, the aim of prayer is to request inspiration from these figures and their guiding strength to fulfill one’s good purposes oneself. Uneducated people, however, simply make requests for their wishes to be granted. As a sign of respect for what the Buddhas have achieved, people offer incense, candles, bowls of water and food before the statues and pictures.

Diet and Avoidance of Alcohol

There are also no set dietary laws in Buddhism. Buddhists are encouraged to be vegetarians as much as possible, but even if one eats only plants, still insects are inevitable killed in any form of agriculture. One tries, then, to minimize the harm caused to animals and insects by one’s need to eat food. Sometimes it may be necessary to eat meat, for instance for medical reasons, not to offend one’s host, or when nothing else is available as a source of food. In such cases, one offers thanks for the animal that has lost its life for one’s sake and makes prayers for its better rebirth. 

Buddha also instructed his followers not to drink even a drop of alcohol. The Buddhist training is aimed at developing mindfulness, discipline and self-control. All of these are lost when one drinks alcohol. Not all Buddhists, however, follow Buddha’s advice.

Monastic Tradition

Buddhism has both a monastic and a lay tradition. There are monks and nuns who keep hundreds of vows, including total celibacy. They shave their heads, wear special robes and live in monastic communities. They devote their lives to study, meditation, prayer, and performing ceremonies for the benefit of the lay community. The lay people, in turn, support the monastics by offering food, either directly to the monasteries or to the monks who come to their homes each morning to collect alms.

Equality

Although Indian Hindu society at the time of the Buddha was organized according to castes, with some low-status groups even considered untouchable by others, Buddha declared that in his monastic community everyone was equal. Thus, Buddha abolished caste differences for those who left society to live in monasteries and nunneries and devote their lives to spiritual practice. The hierarchy in the monastic institutions was based on respect for those who have been ordained and kept the vows the longest. A young person ordained before an older one would be seated before the latter in prayer assemblies and be served food and tea first. In keeping with Asian custom, when men and women were together in religious assemblies, they would sit separately, with the men in front.