A Buddhist View of Islam
Originally published with extensive footnotes in
Islam and Inter-faith Relations:
The Gerald Weisfeld Lectures 2006,
eds. Lloyd Ridgeon and Perry Schmidt-Leukel.
London: SCM Press, 2007, p. 225-51
With concern about the problems of globalization and global warming becoming increasingly widespread, the importance of what His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama calls “universal responsibility” is becoming increasingly evident. Sustainable development, and even survival, depends on nations, cultures, religions, and individual persons taking shared responsibility to try to solve these universal problems. One of the most essential bases for such cooperation is mutual understanding. Through education about other cultures, we may hopefully avoid the disastrous effects of any possible future “clash of civilizations.”
Two such civilizations are the Buddhist and Islamic worlds. Over history, the two civilizations have interacted in both constructive and problematic ways. When they have clashed, religious doctrine may have been used to rally the troops. But deeper analysis shows that the motives behind the conflicts have centered primarily on economical, political, and strategic military issues.
At present, there are very few areas in the world where traditional Buddhist and Islamic groups are living together. In some of those regions where they do intermix – such as Tibet, Ladakh, and southern Thailand – the interaction is so strongly affected by the actions of other cultural and national groups that one cannot meaningfully isolate specific Buddhist-Muslim issues outside of their wider context. In others, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the Buddhist population consists of overseas Chinese, and the interaction between them and the native Muslims is primarily dictated by economic factors. In short, religious doctrinal differences seem to play little role in present-day Buddhist-Islamic relations.
What, then, is the purpose for fostering Buddhist-Muslim dialogue? Doctrinal differences between the two religions will always be there and, of course, these need to be known and acknowledged so as not to cause inadvertent offence. However, by discovering and affirming shared basic human values – such as the facts that everyone wishes to be happy and not to suffer, and that all of us are interconnected – members of all communities, not only the Buddhist and Muslim ones, can pool their resources and focus their efforts on trying to solve pressing issues of global concern.
Here, we shall briefly survey the history of Buddhist-Muslim interaction during the first millennium after the Prophet, focusing on the level of knowledge that the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition has had of Islam, and the points that it has identified as being either harmonious or problematic. The problematic points indicate some of the issues that require mutual tolerance so as to avoid any rejection of cooperation. The common points, on the other hand, suggest some of the positive foundations that can be strengthened for building mutual respect and coordination of efforts. It is beyond the scope of this article to include an account of the interaction between the two religions during the Ilkhanate period in Iran when, between 1256 and 1295 CE, the Mongol rulers there patronized and spread Tibetan Buddhism before their conversion to Islam. Also omitted is an analysis of the Uighur Buddhist response to the progress of Islam in their domain in East Turkistan (present-day Xinjiang, China) between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries CE.
[For a fuller discussion, see: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire.]
Shakyamuni Buddha lived in north central India from 566 to 485 BCE, while Muhammad lived in Arabia from 570 to 632 CE. Thus, for most of its formative years in India, Buddhist literature contains no references to Islam or to its teachings. However, even after the time of the Prophet, Buddhist sources make only scant reference to the tenets of the Islamic faith. Any interaction that occurred between the two peoples was based on very little knowledge of each other’s beliefs.
During the early centuries following the time of the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings had spread from the Indian subcontinent to present-day Afghanistan, eastern Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Both lay and monastic Buddhist communities flourished there. When, starting three decades after the time of the Prophet, these regions came under Arab Islamic rule with the Umayyad and then the Abbasid Caliphates, the Buddhists there received dhimmi status. This meant that, as non-Muslims, they were allowed to follow their own religion, but the laypeople among them were required to pay an extra poll-tax. The few persecutions that did occur were short-lived, and the Buddhists were allowed to rebuild any of their monasteries that had been destroyed. The Buddhist community living with dhimmi status, however, does not appear to have taken interest in or to have written about Islam.
Many Buddhists in these areas also converted to Islam during this period. The reasons for their conversion varied from region to region and person to person. It appears, however, that the main factors were economic and political incentives, rather than because of religious conviction or conversion by the sword. There do not seem to be any written accounts by these converts explaining the reasons – doctrinal or other – for their conversion.
The earliest serious contact between Buddhist and Muslim scholars began in the mid-eighth century CE, during the Abbasid period. At that time, Caliph al-Mansur constructed in Baghdad a House of Knowledge (Ar. Bayt al-Hikmat) for the study and translation of literature from the Greek and Indian cultural worlds, particularly concerning scientific topics. As part of this program, his son, Caliph al-Mahdi, invited Buddhist scholars from India and from the huge Nava Vihara monastery in Balkh, Afghanistan.
It is difficult to say that the Buddhist monks in Baghdad were actually formally associated with the House of Knowledge. However, it seems that they did have discussions at that time with Islamic scholars. Evidence for this comes from The Book of Religions and Creeds (Ar. Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal), a treatise on Islamic heresies, in which the twelfth-century CE Isma’ili theologian, al-Shahrastani, gives a brief account of the image the Islamic scholars of that time had of Buddhism. As their main interest lay in Greek thought, however, their study of Buddhism was not in depth.
Correspondingly, the Buddhist scholars in Baghdad seemed to have shown little interest in Islamic doctrines. Although the monks at the Buddhist monastic universities at that time in present-day Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent vigorously debated the assertions of the various non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, there is no evidence that any debates occurred with Muslim scholars. No mention of Islamic beliefs appears in any of the Sanskrit Buddhist philosophical treatises, either then or afterwards.
Many Buddhist monasteries were destroyed during the various invasions of the Indian subcontinent, first by Umayyad forces in the first half of the eighth century CE and then by the armies of assorted Islamic Turkic vassal states under the Abbasids from the early eleventh to the mid-thirteenth century CE. The monasteries did not recover from this destruction and, although many Buddhists on the subcontinent subsequently converted to Islam, the majority became absorbed into the general Hindu population.
The Turkic invasions appear to have been motivated primarily by considerations of military, political, and economic gain, rather than by religious zeal. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss the descriptions, found in Muslim, Buddhist, and Western historical accounts, of the atrocities and religious fanaticism that occurred during these campaigns. Regardless of what the motives for the destruction might have been, the Buddhist literature of the time does not reveal any further information about the Buddhist view of the Islamic teachings.
Because of widespread famine in their homeland in the mid-seventeenth century CE, a group of Kashmiri Muslim immigrants settled in Lhasa, Tibet, during the political reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. As part of his policy of religious tolerance, the Fifth Dalai Lama granted the Muslims special privileges. He granted them land for a mosque and a cemetery, permitted them to elect a five-member committee to supervise their internal affairs, allowed them to settle their own disputes independently according to the Shari’ah laws, and exempted them from tax. Although these privileges indicate Buddhist respect for the autonomy of the Muslim community in Tibet, they give no indication that any interfaith dialogue took place at those times.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this survey is that, although the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist world had both peaceful and problematic contact with the Islamic world on many occasions over the first millennium following the Prophet, there was hardly any Buddhist interest to learn about the teachings of Islam.
The singular place where Buddhist reference to the Islamic doctrines appears during this period is in the Sanskrit Kalachakra literature. Kalachakra, meaning cycles of time, is a Mahayana Buddhist system of tantric practice for gaining enlightenment to be able to benefit all beings as much as is possible. It describes three parallel cycles of time: external, internal, and alternative. The external cycles refer to planetary motion, astrological patterns, and historical cycles, including periodic invasions by foreign forces. When speaking of these invasions, the basic texts address themselves to a Hindu audience. Internal cycles refer to biological and psychological rhythms. Alternative cycles are repetitive meditation practices aimed at overcoming being under the control of the external and internal cycles.
The Islamic references in the Kalachakra literature most likely emerged partially in the Buddhist monasteries of present-day eastern Afghanistan and partially in the homeland of tantra, Oddiyana (northwestern Pakistan), during the tenth century CE. Both regions were under Hindu Shahi rule at that time. By the end of that century, this literature reached the Indian subcontinent, where, in Kashmir, it was probably conflated with the experiences of the Ghaznavid invasions (1001-1025 CE). Shortly thereafter, this literature was transmitted to Tibet; however, it has always remained a relatively minor feature of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Thus, one must keep a proper perspective concerning the prevalence of Buddhist knowledge of Islamic thought. For the most part, Buddhists have remained uninformed about the Islamic teachings.
To avoid misunderstanding the past Buddhist view of Islam, it is important to identify the form of Islam that the Kalachakra literature describes. The texts are not referring to Islam as a whole and certainly not to Islam as it is understood and practiced in its wide range of forms today. The texts speak, more specifically, of a foreign people who, in the future, will threaten an invasion of the kingdom of Shambhala – the mountainous land in which the Kalachakra teachings flourish. From the description of the beliefs of these future invaders, they appear to be followers of the early eastern Isma’ili Shi’a tradition.
The main evidence supporting this hypothesis comes from The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra I.153 (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ‘khor-lo, Skt. Laghu-Kalachakra-tantra-raja). This verse presents a list of the eight prophets of the future invaders: “Adam, Noah, Abraham, and five others – Moses, Jesus, the White-Clad One, Muhammad, and Mahdi… The eighth will be the blinded one. The seventh will manifestly come to the city of Baghdad in the land of Mecca, (the place) in this world where a portion of the asura (caste) will have the form of the powerful, merciless mlecchas.”
This list is the standard Isma’ili list of seven prophets, with the addition of the White-Clad One. It can be argued that the White-Clad One is Mani, the third-century CE founder of Manichaeism. However, although early Isma’ili thinkers might have had some Manichaean influence from so-called “Manichaean Islam,” Isma’ili theologians have concurred with the general Islamic condemnation of Manichaeism as a heresy.
One possible reason for the Kalachakra list of prophets numbering eight is to make a parallel with the eight incarnations of Vishnu enumerated in the immediately preceding verse, I.152. This is suggested by the reference to the followers of the prophets as members of the asura caste. In Buddhist cosmology, the asuras, a type of jealous demigods, are rivals of the Hindu gods and always wage war against them. If there are eight incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, then there would need to be eight asura prophets to vie against them.
Another explanation, according to an early Indian commentary to the verse, A Commentary on Difficult Points Called “Padmani,” (Padma-can zhes-bya-ba’i dka’-‘grel, Skt. Padmani-nama-panjika) is that the White-Clad One is another name for Muhammad. In any case, the Sanskrit terms that the Kalachakra literature uses to refer to the followers of these prophets help us to postulate the location of this Isma’ili group. It would appear that they are the Isma’ilis of Multan, situated in northern Sindh, present-day Pakistan, during the second half of the tenth century CE.
The Kalachakra literature regularly refers to the invaders as mleccha (kla-klo), the traditional Sanskrit name given to foreign invaders of the Indian subcontinent, starting with Alexander the Great and including the Kushans and the Hepthalite Huns. The term connotes people speaking unintelligible non-Indic languages. Mleccha are characterized by their merciless invading armies. The other main term used for the invaders is “Tayi,” a Sanskrit phonetic transcription of the Arabic tayy (plural: tayayah, tayyaye) or the Persian form of it, tazi. The Tayyayah were the strongest of the pre-Muslim Arab tribes, the Tayy’id, and “Tazi” became the Persian word for Arabs. “Tazi” was the term used in reference to the Arab invaders of Iran, for example, by the last Sassanid ruler, Yazdgerd III.
The Kingdom of Multan was a vassal state of the Isma’ili Fatimid Empire, centered in Egypt. Surrounding the crumbling Abbasid Empire on both sides, the Fatimids and their Multanese vassals posed a serious threat of invasion in their quest for supremacy over the Islamic world. Thus, it is reasonable that the foreign invaders mentioned in the Kalachakra texts refer to these Multanese Isma’ilis. That conclusion correlates with the postulation that the Kalachakra literature originated in the Afghan and Oddiyana regions under Hindu Shahi rule, sandwiched between Multan and the Abbasid regions at that time.
The Kalachakra texts mention some of the customs and beliefs of the Tayi mlecchas. Most of these beliefs are fundamental to Islam as a whole. Some seem to be specific to the Isma’ili thought of the time, while others contradict that thought. This discrepancy perhaps indicates that the compilers of the Kalachakra literature had incomplete information about the Isma’ili beliefs held in Multan, and therefore filled in their account with information gleaned from other forms of Islam they had met. Alternatively, it could indicate that the theological views expressed by the main Isma’ili thinker of the time – Abu Ya’kub al-Sijistani, a strong supporter of the Fatimid state – were not yet widely disseminated in Multan. This could have been the case although al-Sijistani’s works were the official Fatimid doctrine prevalent at that time in the eastern Isma’ili regions.
In any case, we must be careful not to mistake the Kalachakra description of the Tayi beliefs as representing the view of all of Islam by the entire Buddhist population of Asia throughout history. The description is limited to a specific place, at a specific time, within a specific politico-historical context. Nevertheless, the Kalachakra accounts are relevant because, to this author’s knowledge, they are the only classical Buddhist texts that address any Islamic beliefs. Thus, they are unique as primary sources that actually reveal a classical Buddhist view of Islam.
The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.164cd, states: “Created by the Creator is everything that arises, moving and unmoving. From pleasing him, as the cause for liberation for the Tayis, there is heaven. This is indeed the teaching of Rahman for men.” “Rahman,” an epithet of Allah, is Arabic for “compassionate one.”
Pundarika elaborates in Stainless Light: A Commentary Explaining “The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra,” (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i ‘grel-bshad dri-ma med-pa’i ‘od, Skt. Vimalaprabha-nama-laghu-Kalachakra-tantra-raja-tika) “Now, as for the assertions of the Tayi mlecchas, the creator Rahman gives rise to every functional phenomenon, both moving and unmoving. The cause for liberation for the Tayis, namely the white-clad mlecchas, is pleasing Rahman, and this definitely brings a higher rebirth (in Paradise) for men. From not pleasing him, comes (a rebirth in) Hell. These are the teachings of Rahman, the assertions of the Tayis.” In this passage, the reference to the Tayis as being clad in white may perhaps refer to Muslim pilgrims wearing simple white robes during the Hajj to Mecca.
According to al-Sijistani, Allah, through His command or word, created the universal “intellect.” The universal “intellect” is an eternal, motionless, unchanging, and perfect primal being. It is an undifferentiated universal encompassing everything and is somewhat like a universal “mind,” but in the form of a being. The universal “intellect” emanated a universal “soul,” which is likewise eternal, but is always in motion and is imperfect. Within the universal “soul,” the physical world of nature emerges. The universal “soul” has two contrary dispositions: movement and rest. Within physical reality, movement creates form and rest creates matter. Matter remains inert and static, while its forms are continually in motion and changing.
Thus, it is perhaps in reference to al-Sijistani’s explanation of creation that The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra notes: “Created by the Creator is everything that arises, moving and unmoving.” Although the concepts of a universal “intellect” and a universal “soul” have remained prominent in Isma’ili thought, they do not occur in other forms of Islam.
Al-Sijistani, however, does not assert pleasing Allah – in the general Islamic sense of obeying the Shari’ah laws or, in the general Shi’ite and later Isma’ili sense, of acknowledging the infallibility of the line of imams – as the cause for “a higher rebirth in Paradise.” His explanation of the cause for going to Paradise is quite different.
For al-Sijistani, the universal “soul” gives rise to individual, particular souls that descend into the physical world of matter and form. Within each particular individual human being, the individual soul appropriates an individual portion of the universal “intellect,” which is thus partial and limited. The cause for going to Paradise is an individual soul’s discrimination whereby it turns away from the delights of the physical world and turns, instead, toward the pure realm of the universal “intellect.” In doing so, an individual soul learns the distinction between truth and falsity, and between good and bad.
Pundarika, in The Glorious Deepest Service (dPal don-dam-pa’i bsnyen-pa, Skt. Shriparamartha-seva), explains: “According to others, the cause for a higher rebirth (in Paradise) is having the skin from the tip of one’s own penis cut off and eating at the end of the day and the beginning of the night. This is certainly what the Tayis do. They do not enjoy the flesh of cattle that have died (a natural death) by their own karma. Rather, they eat those that have been slaughtered. Otherwise, there is no going to a higher rebirth (in Paradise) for men.”
Pundarika amplifies the second part of this line in Stainless Light: “With a cleaver, they slit the throats of cattle with the mleccha God’s mantra Bishimilla, and then eat the flesh of those cattle that have been slaughtered with their God’s mantra. They do not eat the flesh of those that have died (a natural death) by their own karma.” “Bishimilla” (Ar. Bismillah) means “in the name of Allah.”
These passages indicate the general Islamic customs of circumcision, eating only after sunset during the Ramadan fast, and obeying the injunctions concerning the restrictions of the halal dietary laws.
In The Essence of the Further Tantra of the Glorious Kalachakra Tantra (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i rgyud phyi-ma rgyud-kyi snying-po, Skt. Shri-Kalachakra-tantrottaratantra-hrdaya), it is stated, “In keeping with the teachings of those whose women wear veils… the hordes of Tayi horsemen destroy in battle any statues of gods there may be, without exception. They have one caste, do not steal, and speak the truth. They keep clean, avoid others’ wives, follow definite ascetic practices, and remain faithful to their own wives. (First) having washed themselves, then, at an individually desired time during the pitch-black night and at noon, twilight, mid-afternoon, and when the sun rises over the mountains, the Tayi non-Buddhists (mu-stegs-pa, Skt. tirthika) pay homage five times (each day), prostrating on the ground facing their holy land and taking singular refuge in the ‘Lord of Those with Tamas’ in the heavenly realm above the earth.” Tamas is one the three constituent features (yon-tan gsum, Skt. triguna) into which the Indian Samkhya philosophical system divides the universe. According to The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, I.153, the prophets Moses, Jesus, Mani, Muhammad, and Mahdi are “Those with the Tamas.”
Here, the Kalachakra text also explains beliefs common to all Muslims: not making “idolatrous” statues, honoring the equality of all men in Islam, keeping strict ethics, and praying five times a day.
The Kalachakra literature points out two problematic features of the Tayi teachings that might prevent religious harmony. It is significant, however, that the literature does not indicate that these problematic features will be the causes for a future invasion by the Tayi forces. Invasions are a periodic occurrence in the Kalachakra vision of cycles of time and, according to The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.48-50, are to be understood as mirroring and representing periodic invasions of each person’s mind by disturbing emotions and attitudes. Moreover, neither of the problematic points is unique to Multanese Isma’ili thought, let alone to Islam in general. They are points shared by other religions as well.
The first feature that the Kalachakra texts find problematic was also found among the Hindus of the time. The problem concerns the slaughter of cattle in the name of the Tayi God, Bismillah. Thus, Pundarika, in Stainless Light, mistakenly takes the halal method of slaughter to signify a sacrifice to God, similar to the Vedic ritual. Addressing himself to a Hindu audience, Pundarika states, “You will consider that (Tayi) teaching to be valid, because of the words in your (Vedic) scriptures, ‘Employ cattle for the sake of sacrifice.’”
The Buddhist teachings strongly prohibit animal sacrifice. According to Buddha, sentient beings take repeated rebirth as any life form that has a mind, including both human and animal. Consequently, any animal that one might sacrifice could have been one’s mother in a previous life. Although the Kalachakra texts misunderstand the halal method of slaughter as a sacrifice and make no reference to the ritual sacrifice of sheep by pilgrims on the hajj, sacrificial slaughter was and still remains a problematic area between Buddhism and Islam.
Buddhist doctrinal difficulty concerning sacrificial slaughter, however, is not limited to the presence of this practice in Islam. It also pertains to certain forms of Hinduism. The problem extends even to certain forms of Buddhism that are mixed with indigenous customs. For instance, during the Kalachakra initiation conferred by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, India, in January 1975, the Dalai Lama strongly advised Buddhists attending from remote Himalayan regions that they must stop all animal sacrifice.
In modern times, Buddhists no longer seem to associate the halal method of slaughter with sacrifice. During the pre-communist period in Tibet, for example, not only were the local Muslims permitted to slaughter animals in the halal manner, but also many Tibetan nomads brought their livestock to Muslim butchers to be slaughtered and sold as meat. Most Tibetans, in fact, felt that the best meat dishes were served in the Muslim restaurants and had no qualms or hesitation in patronizing them.
The second problematic area between the two belief systems mentioned in the Kalachakra texts concerns the nature of the afterlife. The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.174, states: “Through an (eternal) afterlife, a person experiences (the results of his) earlier committed karmic actions of this world. If that were so, then depletion of humans’ karma from one birth to another would not occur. There would be no exiting from samsara and no entering into liberation even in terms of immeasurable existence. That thought, indeed, appears among the Tayis, although dismissed by other groups.”
Pundarika elaborates on this passage in Stainless Light: “The assertion of the mleccha Tayis is that humans who die experience happiness or suffering in a higher rebirth (in Paradise) or in Hell with their human bodies, through Rahman’s decision.”
This passage refers to the general Islamic belief in the Day of Judgment, when all men will rise from the dead in their human bodies and will be judged by Allah. Based on their past deeds, they will pass to either eternal happiness in Paradise or eternal suffering in Hell, still retaining their human bodies. The Isma’ili tenet, however, as formulated by al-Sijistani, denies the resurrection of the human body. According to al-Sijistani, the happiness of Paradise and the suffering of Hell are experienced purely mentally by the individual soul, without any physical aspect.
Buddhism, on the other hand, with its teachings of karma, asserts recurring rebirth (Skt. samsara) by the force of one’s karmic actions motivated by disturbing emotions and attitudes. Destructive actions, motivated by anger, greed, attachment, or naivety about behavioral cause and effect, result in rebirth in a hell, or as a ghost, or an animal. Naivety may be due to either lack of knowledge or an incorrect understanding. Constructive actions, but still associated with naivety about reality, result in rebirth as a human, an asura (“anti-god”), or in a heaven. Each of these types of rebirth that anyone may experience – including rebirth in a heaven or a hell – has its own type of body specific to that realm. One cannot be reborn in a heaven or a hell with a human body.
Moreover, Buddhism teaches that the karmic aftermath of any karmic deed ripens into happiness or suffering for only a limited period of time. Once that karmic aftermath has finished ripening, it is depleted. One then dies from a heavenly or hellish rebirth and is reborn in yet another samsaric realm. From a Buddhist point of view, rebirth in a heaven or a hell cannot be eternal. However, one’s recurring samsaric rebirths will continue eternally, one after the next, unless one completely rids oneself of their true causes. Moreover, even the happiness of a heavenly rebirth is a form of suffering, since it never satisfies and eventually comes to an end.
Thus, Buddhism teaches that if one rids oneself of all disturbing emotions and attitudes, one stops committing karmic actions that would lead to continuing samsaric rebirth, whether in a heaven, a hell, on this earth, or elsewhere. Likewise, one gets rid of the karmic aftermath already accumulated. Then, on the basis of constructive deeds done without any naivety about reality, one gains an eternal, peaceful, joyous state of nirvana, liberation from recurring samsaric rebirth. There is no Day of Judgment and no judge. Continuing samsaric rebirth is not a punishment, and the attainment of nirvana is not a reward. The connection between behavioral cause and effect operates purely in a mechanical way, without divine involvement.
As was the case concerning animal sacrifice, the problematic area of the nature of the afterlife and of an eternal Heaven or Hell is not limited to a difference of assertion between Buddhism and Islam. It is an issue between both Buddhists and Hindus on the one side, and Muslims and Christians on the other.
The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, I.158-166, describes an invasion of Shambhala by the mleccha Tayis, 1800 years after the founding of their religion, and their defeat in battle by the Shambhala armies. In the next chapter (II 48-50ab), however, the text explains the inner equivalents for the battle in terms of meditation methods. These verses conclude (II.50cd): “The battle with the lord of the mleccha is definitely inside the body of embodied beings. On the other hand, the external (level of the battle) is, in fact, an illusory form. (Thus,) the battle with the mleccha in the case of Mecca is not (actually) a battle.”
The fifteen-century Tibetan commentator, Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rje dGe-legs dpal-bzang), in his Illuminating the Very Nature of Reality, An Extensive Explanation of “Stainless Light,” the Great Commentary to “The Glorious Kalachakra Tantra,” (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i ‘grel-chen dri-ma med-pa’i ‘od-kyi rgya-cher bshad-pa de-kho-na-nyid snang-bar byed-pa) elaborates: “This explanation in the second chapter is the definitive meaning of the description, in the first chapter, of the battle that exemplifies it. It must be applied to the yoga arising from piercing the vital points of one’s own body…. When it says in the text that this (external level) is an illusory form, this means that the battle in the first chapter has, as its intention, what is described here in the second chapter. And, except for showing a manner of battle that is an emanation, like an illusory form, its (intention) is not (for people) to act in the manner of causing great harm through fighting against the mleccha and killing them.”
Thus, although, on the surface it might appear as though the Kalachakra literature is predicting a great war between the Buddhists and the Muslims, the texts and commentaries make it clear that the battle must be understood merely as a representation of an inner battle against the forces of one’s own disturbing and destructive states of mind.
Buddhism asserts that Buddha, being skillful in methods and wishing to benefit everyone, taught in many varying ways to suit different mentalities. Thus, Buddha gave teachings that paralleled certain assertions made by other belief systems. Although Buddhism and these other systems had different understandings of the points made in these teachings; nevertheless, the commonality could form a basis for religious harmony, understanding, and peaceful cooperation. The Kalachakra literature demonstrates this principle.
The nineteenth-century CE Tibetan commentator Mipam (Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho), in his Illumination of the Vajra Sun, Clarifying the Meaning of the Words of “The Glorious Kalachakra Tantra,” Commentary to Chapter (Five), Deep Awareness, (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i rgyud-kyi tshig don rab-tu gsal-byed rdo-rje nyi-ma’i snang-ba Ye-shes le’u’i ‘grel-chen) explains: “The mlecchas have two (philosophical points) that they hold. They hold external phenomena to have the nature of a collection of atoms, and they hold the existence of a self of a person that temporarily takes birth or that has an aspect that takes birth in samsara. The goal is to achieve the happiness of the gods as the fruit. Aside from this, they do no assert any other type of nirvana.”
Mipam does not provide a specific text in which Buddha spoke of matter being composed of atoms. However, by following his discussion of the invaders’ views with a progressive presentation of the four schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy, Mipam implies that the Tayi assertions fit in with the Buddhist presentations. He explains that the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools of Hinayana Buddhism assert indivisible, partless atoms; while the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana Buddhism assert atoms that are endlessly divisible.
Similarly, among the philosophical views that had developed within Islam before the mid-tenth century CE, certain writers asserted indivisible atoms. They included al-Hakam and al-Nazzam, within the Shi’ite Mu’tazili school of disputation, and the Sunni theologian al-Ash’ari. Most other Islamic theologians of that time, as well as afterwards, asserted atoms as being infinitely divisible. Al-Sijistani, however, seems to be unclear about the divisibility of atoms.
The Buddhists and the Muslims used significantly different arguments, however, for refuting the indivisibility of atoms. The Buddhists argue that it is illogical for atoms not to have at least directional parts or sides; otherwise, it would be impossible for two atoms to join together. For two atoms to join, they would have to join on only one side, in which case they can be divided, at least mentally, into directional parts. The main Islamic argument is that if atoms were indivisible, that would imply a limitation in Allah’s powers. As Allah is omnipotent, He must be able to divide an atom infinitely.
Mipam continues, “Knowing their dispositions and thoughts, Buddha taught sutras of what they (the Tayis) could accept. For instance, in The Sutra of Carrying Responsibility (Khur ‘khu-ba’i mdo), Buddha said that persons carrying responsibility (for their actions) do exist, but without speaking of the soul of a person as being either permanent or impermanent. These points are true on the face of their (Tayi) assertions. Buddha’s intended meaning is that persons do exist as continuities of a self that bears responsibility for karma, but which is merely imputed onto a continuum and, by nature, is neither permanent nor impermanent.”
Buddhism teaches that there is a finite, but uncountable number of individual persons and of mental continuums. An individual person is something imputed on an individual mental continuum, much like a habit can be imputed on a continuum of repeated forms of similar behavior.
The continuity of each individual person, like the continuity of each individual mental continuum, is eternal, but nonstatic. These continuities are eternal, in the sense of having no beginning and no end. However, they are nonstatic in the sense of changing from moment to moment. In each moment, each person does something different, such as cognizing a different object.
While under the influence of naivety, each person commits karmic actions and bears responsibility for those actions. The karmic legacies of these actions ripen into the person’s experience of samsaric happiness or suffering through a continuity of rebirths. When a person is able to maintain continuous correct awareness of reality, the person becomes liberated from ever experiencing the ripening of these legacies. In this way, the continuity of the samsaric existence of that person ceases forever and the person attains liberation, nirvana. Nevertheless, the everchanging continuity of that individual person and of the mental continuum on which that individual person is imputed, go on eternally, even after the attainment of nirvana.
In short, according to Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhist branch to which Kalachakra belongs, an individual person is not permanent in the sense of being static; nor is an individual person impermanent in the sense of being temporary. Moreover, the samsaric existence of an individual person is not permanent in the sense of being eternal; nor is the nirvanic existence of an individual person impermanent in the sense of being temporary.
Al-Sijistani also asserts that persons – in this case, souls – bear responsibility for their actions and are neither permanent nor impermanent. However, the metaphysical basis for his assertions is quite different from the Buddhist one. The universal “soul” is not permanent in the sense of being static, but rather it is in constant motion and flux. However, it is also not impermanent in the sense of being temporary, but rather it is eternal.
According to al-Sijistani, all individual souls of men are parts or portions of the same universal “soul.” When an individual soul leaves a human body, its temporary bodily existence comes to an end. It reverts to the undifferentiated universal “soul” and does not take further bodily rebirth before the Day of Judgment. Nevertheless, an individual disembodied soul somehow retains its individuality. At the time of resurrection and judgment, the individual soul attains the mental pleasures of eternal Paradise if it has gained sufficient rational knowledge of the truth, through its association with an individual intellect while embodied. If the individual soul remained enmeshed in corporeal sensuality while embodied and did not acquire rational knowledge of the truth, it attains eternal mental tortures in Hell.
Thus, the individual soul is not permanent, in the sense that it is not eternally in its embodied state. However, it is also not impermanent, in the sense that after resurrection and judgment, it continues forever, bearing responsibility for its actions while embodied.
Buddhism does not assert an omnipotent creator of the universe that directs what happens in it. Nor does it assert an absolute beginning or end of the universe or of individual beings. However, the Kalachakra literature does speak repeatedly about an eternal, individual clear-light mind within each being. By the force of the karmic aftermath that each being has built up from previous behavior, this deepest level of mind creates all the appearances of both samsaric and nirvanic existence that this being individually and subjectively experiences. Because this clear-light level of mind has all the potentials that allow for each being to become an enlightened Buddha, the Kalachakra literature refers to it as Adibuddha, a first or primordial Buddha. It is “first” in the sense of being the first or deepest source of Buddhahood.
In order to conform to the first of the five pancasila principles that structure the philosophical basis of the Indonesian state – namely, belief in the one and only God – Indonesian Buddhists have asserted that Adibuddha is the Buddhist equivalent of God. Although Adibuddha is not an omnipotent creator or judge in the sense in which Allah is; nevertheless, each individual’s clear-light level of mind shares certain features of Allah as asserted by al-Sijistani. To know either Allah or Adibuddha, one needs to negate all qualities from it and then negate that negation as well. Both are beyond words and concepts. In the case of al-Sijistani, this process establishes the absolute transcendence of Allah; whereas, in Kalachakra, this establishes that the clear-light mind is devoid of all levels of mind that conceptualize about existence or nonexistence. Moreover, unlike the general Islamic view that Allah can never have a graphic representation, Adibuddha can be conventionally represented by the four-faced, twenty-four-armed Kalachakra Buddha-figure.
[See: Islamic-Buddhist Dialogue.]
In short, if one does not look in depth at the metaphysical explanations of the Buddhist Kalachakra literature and of the Isma’ili theologian al-Sijistani, the two systems agree that a person or soul is neither permanent nor impermanent, and yet bears ethical responsibility for its actions. Both systems also emphasize the indispensable role that ethical behavior and knowledge of the truth play in gaining everlasting happiness – whether that happiness be in nirvana or in an eternal Heaven. These points of agreement indicate the type of approach that can be used today for furthering Buddhist-Islamic cooperation and harmony.
At present, there are seven major regions in which Buddhist and Muslim populations are living either together, or in close proximity, and interacting with each other. These are in Tibet, Ladakh, southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, and Bangladesh. In each of the seven, however, the interaction between the two groups is influenced primarily by economic and political factors, rather than by their religious beliefs.
Relations between the native Tibetan Buddhist population and the centuries-old Kashmiri Muslim settler community have continued to be harmonious, based on the policies of the Fifth Dalai Lama. In current days, the members of this Muslim community are fully accepted as Tibetans by the other Tibetan groups, both inside and outside Tibet, and they continue to play an integral role in Tibetan society in exile in India.
On the other hand, there have been significant problems in the relations between the Tibetan Buddhists and the Chinese Hui Muslims. These two groups have lived side by side for many centuries in the traditional northeastern Tibetan region of Amdo, currently divided between Qinghai and Gansu provinces of the Peoples’ Republic of China. Although, at times, Hui warlords have exercised strong control over parts of this region, the Buddhists and Muslims living there had worked out a modus vivendi. In the last decades, however, the PRC Government has promoted Tibet as the land of economic opportunities. Consequently, Hui merchants have moved in significant numbers into traditional Tibetan regions, not only in Amdo, but also in Central Tibet (the Tibetan Autonomous Region). The local Tibetans view these new arrivals as foreign competitors and thus there is a great deal of resentment.
Both the Buddhist and Muslim groups living in the traditional Tibetan regions within the PRC face serious restrictions on the practice of their religions. Especially in Central Tibet, the lay communities have almost no access to religious instruction. Thus, the confrontations that arise between the two groups are not based on religious differences. The problem is not that the new settlers are Muslims, but that they are Chinese and are threatening the economic welfare of the native population. Religious dialogue and cooperation are extremely difficult in the current situation, when the PRC authorities encourage and exploit cultural differences in order to maintain control.
Ladakh, with its Tibetan Buddhist population, is currently part of the Indian state of Kashmir and Jammu. The attention of the Ladakhis’ Muslim neighbors in the Kashmiri part of the state is focused primarily on the Hindu-Muslim political conflict concerning whether to join Pakistan, remain within India, or become an independent state. Moreover, the traditional trade route between Kashmir and Tibet, through Ladakh, is closed due to Chinese Communist control of Tibet. Thus, the Kashmiri Muslim traders no longer have contact with the Buddhist community in Tibet, or even with the growing Muslim community there.
Conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh is fueled mostly by competition for developmental aid. With the living Buddhist tradition no longer viable in Tibet, Western tourists flock to Ladakh to witness Tibetan Buddhism practiced in a traditional setting. Developmental projects, sponsored by Indian and international agencies, have followed in the wake of growing tourist traffic. With the situation so volatile in the Kashmiri part of the state, far less attention has been paid to developmental projects there. Naturally, many Kashmiri Muslims are resentful of the aid projects that go to Ladakh. People do not seem to feel that Buddhist-Muslim interfaith dialogue can play any significant role in finding a solution to this problem.
Southern Thailand has primarily a Muslim population, which has more in common with the Muslims of Malaysia than it does with the Buddhist population of the rest of Thailand. The conflicts there concern the Muslim’s wish for greater political autonomy. Religious issues seem to be irrelevant.
One-third of the population in Northern Rakhine State in Arakan, Burma/Myanmar, is Muslim, while the rest is Buddhist. The two groups are of different ethnic origin and speak different languages. Between 1991 and 1992, a quarter of a million of these Muslims, known as Rohingyas, fled as refugees to Bangladesh. They fled, however, because of government discrimination and oppression. The military government, which officially promotes and associates itself with Buddhism, considers the Muslim population as foreign residents. Consequently, they deny them citizenship, restrict their movement, and limit their educational and professional opportunities. In 1995, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assisted with the voluntary repatriation of 94% of these Muslim refugees. They are still receiving humanitarian aid and only slowly are some of them being issued government identity documents. Anti-Muslim riots at the hands of Buddhists, however, still occur. The Muslims allege that they are instigated and supported by the government. Much of the tension between the two religious and ethnic groups, however, stems from the preferential treatment given to non-Buddhists under British colonial rule. The present military government’s preferential treatment of Buddhists may be seen as a reaction to this. Without a change of government policy, it seems unlikely that settlement of Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Burma/Myanmar can be settled by religious dialogue alone.
One percent of the population is Buddhist, while the vast majority is Muslim. The Buddhists live primarily in Chittagong District and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 1988, an amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh was passed proclaiming an “Islamic way of life” for the country. Since then, the tension between the religious and secular factions within the government has increased. This has been greatly exacerbated, however, since 2001, with the “War on Terror.” The American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalism and this has led to heightened persecution of non-Muslim minorities, including the Buddhists.
Malaysia and Indonesia both have majority Muslim native populations, interspersed with minority Buddhist communities, consisting mostly of overseas Chinese and some South East Asians. The Muslim and Buddhist groups keep strictly to their own religious traditions. In fact, in Malaysia, ethnic Malays are forbidden, by severe laws, to convert from Islam to Buddhism, or even to attend a Buddhist teaching or ceremony. The main conflicts between the groups in each country, however, seem to derive from economic competition.
Fostering and intensifying good relations and dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims in Tibet, Ladakh, southern Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia is important and certainly very beneficial. It can resolve or alleviate the tensions between the two religious groups, even if its capacity to solve the economical and political causes for conflict is limited. The main focus for the development of Buddhist-Muslim mutual understanding and cooperation, then, has fallen on the efforts of religious leaders of the two faiths outside of the context of the situations in which Buddhist and Muslim populations are actually living side by side today.
Over many years, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has repeatedly met with Muslim religious leaders in interfaith events held in numerous parts of the world. The Dalai Lama’s message is clear. Following a press conference that the Dalai Lama held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Press Club, New Delhi, India, on October 8, 2006, Agence France-Presse reported, “The Dalai Lama has warned against portraying Islam as a religion of violence, saying Muslims have been wrongly demonized in the West since the September 11 attacks. Promoting religious tolerance, the world’s most influential Buddhist leader said Sunday that talk of ‘a clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world is wrong and dangerous.’ Muslim terrorist attacks have distorted people’s views of Islam, making them believe it is an extremist faith rather than one based on compassion… All religions have extremists and ‘it is wrong to generalize (about Muslims). They (terrorists) cannot represent the whole system.’…The Dalai Lama said he had cast himself in the role of defender of Islam because he wanted to reshape people’s views of the religion.”
The Dalai Lama repeated this theme at the conference on “The Risks of Globalization: Do Religions Offer a Solution or Are they Part of the Problem?” sponsored by Forum 2000, Prague, Czech Republic, on October 10, 2006. There, he said, “In the past, like today, there have been divisions in the name of religion and to overcome them we should have a continuous dialogue between different religions… If you truly believe your religion comes from God, then you have to believe other religions are also created by God.”
Here, the Dalai Lama was echoing the words of Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general for the Islamic Society of North America. At an interfaith meeting, entitled “A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion,” held in San Francisco, California, on April 15, 2006, attended by the Dalai Lama, Dr. Syeed said, “The Quran instructs Muslims that humanity would consist of people of only one faith if it had been so deemed by Allah.”
A noteworthy corollary of the growing development of a Buddhist-Muslim dialogue is the role that the Kalachakra initiation has played as a venue for this dialogue. For example, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan attended, as a guest of honor, the Kalachakra initiation conferred by the Dalai Lama in Rikon, Switzerland, in July 1985. The late Prince was the uncle of His Holiness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the present spiritual head of the Nizari branch of Isma’ili Shi’a. Seven years later, Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, the hereditary Sufi leader of Guinea, West Africa, attended the Kalachakra initiation conferred by the Dalai Lama in Graz, Austria, in October 2002.
Moreover, during the Kalachakra initiation that the Dalai Lama conferred in January 2003 in Bodh Gaya, India, the holiest site in the Buddhist world, the Dalai Lama visited the local mosque located next to the main stupa. According to the official report of the visit by the Department of Information and International Affairs of the Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala, India, “His Holiness was received there by Maulana Mohammad Shaheeruddin, the Imam of the mosque and the Rector of a religious school attached to the mosque. Addressing the teachers and students, His Holiness said that though we follow different religions, but basically we all are the same human beings. All religious traditions teach us to be a good human being. So, it is for us to work towards this end.”
The Dalai Lama has often stressed that interfaith cooperation, whether between Buddhists and Muslims or among all world religions, needs to be based on universal truths acceptable within the religious framework of each group. Two such truths are that everyone wishes to be happy and no one wishes to suffer, and that the entire world is interrelated and interdependent. As with the example from the Kalachakra literature concerning the shared Buddhist-Islamic teaching that persons bear ethical responsibility for their actions, these two maxims have different philosophical explanations in the two religions. Buddhism explains the two points in terms of logic, while Islam explains them in terms of the equality of all God’s creations. Nevertheless, we find voice to similar sentiments in both religions that support the policy of universal responsibility.
The eighth-century CE Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Byang-chub sems-dpa’i spyod-pa-la ‘jug-pa, Skt. Bodhisattvacāryāvatāra), VIII 91: “Just as despite its many parts, with divisions into hands and so on, the body’s to be cared for as a whole; similarly, despite the differences among wandering beings, yet in regard to happiness and pain, they’re all equal to myself in wishing to be happy, and thus form a whole.”
A hadith preserved by Nu’man ibn Bashir al-Ansari similarly records the Prophet as saying, “The similitude of believers in regard to mutual love, affection, and fellow-feeling is that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches because of sleeplessness and fever.”
Through such teachings as these and the continuing efforts of not only Buddhist and Muslim spiritual leaders, but also the participation of members of the two religious communities, the prospect for religious harmony between the Buddhists and Muslims and, in general, among all world religions, looks hopeful.
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