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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Elaboration of “Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam?” with Discussion > Elaboration of “Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam?” with Discussion

Elaboration of “Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam?” with Discussion

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, January 2011

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:30 hours)

Theoretical Approach

This evening I have been asked to speak about is there a common ground between Buddhism and Islam. There are many difficulties and dangers in exploring this topic. One of the main difficulties concerns which theoretical approach one takes in terms of the academic discipline of comparative religion. I’d like to mention a scheme for classifying different approaches to such comparisons from Christian theology, as outlined by Kristin Beise Kiblinger in an article called “Buddhist Stances toward Others: Types, Examples, Considerations,” published in Buddhist Attitudes to Other Religions.

In this article, Kiblinger outlines three approaches: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.

  • The exclusivist approach – it’s to exclude something – is that only one religion has the true path to salvation or liberation. Although other religions may treat the same topics in common with us, nevertheless their positions are false. Many Buddhist texts have this attitude toward not only non-Buddhist views, but even toward other Buddhist ones, and they refute the other views, the so-called lower views, and say “Ours is the only one that’s correct.”
  • According to the inclusivist approach, there are many paths to salvation or liberation, but one is superior. In other words, other religions may share common grounds with us, and although all are valid, ours is better than theirs. Some followers of the various Tibetan traditions tend to have this toward other Tibetan traditions – they all lead to enlightenment, but ours is the best.
  • According to pluralism, there are many paths to salvation or liberation, and none of them is superior. This is the nonsectarian view, which just presents the various positions of different religions concerning topics in common, but with no ranking of them.

With the inclusivist and pluralist approaches, there are degrees of how much one accepts real differences and how deep these differences are thought to be. There are two types.

  • Type one emphasizes similarities; although it recognizes differences, it downplays them by recasting these differences as being either similarities (it’s different, but actually it’s really similar) or as equivalencies (well, they’re just saying the same as we do in different words) or as unimportant side issues (these differences don’t really matter; they don’t count). It views other religions as doing the same thing that we do, just in a different way – in a sense, they’re following our religion without actually knowing it. For instance, Gelugpa explains Nyingma dzogchen practices in terms of the Gelug anuttarayoga tantra theory. So actually they’re just following our system, but in a different way.
  • Type two inclusivism or pluralism respects genuine differences and finds dialogue as a valuable tool to stimulate growth, whether or not it considers its own religion as superior.

For type one (the one that says they’re actually asserting what we do, just in different ways), the danger is that it can be presumptuous, arrogant, and narcissistic – it assumes that we know what their religion actually means better than they do. In terms of the inclusivist variety of this, which believes that our religion is superior, this view can take the form that the other religion is actually aiming toward our goal, without their knowing it. Or they are just a lower stage of our path. With those types of attitude, there’s nothing that we can learn from them, but only many things they can learn from us. The subcategories of this:

  • First, all or most religions are heading toward the same goal; and although their path is not as good as ours, it will in the end naturally lead to the same goal as ours does.
  • The other one is that they need to be led in the end to our path to reach the same goal we attain with our path and which they were aiming for – although maybe they didn’t know that – but they could not get to if they followed only their own path. A good example of this in Buddhism is the anuttarayoga tantra assertion that sutra and the lower tantras can only lead you to the tenth bhumi, but then you need anuttarayoga tantra methods in order to actually attain enlightenment.

It’s interesting: we find all these views within Buddhism itself, let alone toward other religions.

Other variants for type-one inclusivism (the one that downplays differences and says they are actually similarities) are to assert that:

  • Words, concepts, and doctrines are inexact expressions of meditational experiences, and all religions are talking about the same experience. So this really downplays all differences in terms of the actual teachings and says, well, in meditation they all reach the same thing.
  • The other point here, the other type, is the assertion that there’s a common core theory or core assertions in all religions, and only cultural and historical circumstances account for the differences. For example, the usual presentation of the various forms of Buddhism in different countries – India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Tibet – they’re all teaching the same thing and the differences really are only due to culture and history.

Further, when we explore a possible common ground between Buddhism and Islam, it touches on the topic of conversion:

  • With an exclusivist view, then if only our religion is true, then for you to be saved, you need to abandon your religion and adopt ours.
  • With an inclusivist view, it’s okay for you to follow your religion, because it is actually a lower form of our religion, and in the end either you will naturally come to realize our view (we have that, for instance, in the assertion that Chittamatrins practicing anuttarayoga tantra will naturally become Prasangikas when they reach the mind isolation stage of the complete stage practice; in other words, just by reaching that stage, automatically they will see the Prasangika view and graduate to this higher view) or perhaps we have to convert you in the end.
  • With a pluralist view, each religion leads to its own ultimate goal, and they are all praiseworthy – and this also has two variants: the goals are equivalent or they are not equivalent – and none is superior. So there’s no need for conversion. This would be like if you follow Buddhist practices, you get to Buddhist heaven, but not Muslim paradise; or if you practice Muslim practices, you get to Muslim paradise, but not Buddhist heaven. And they could either say that these are equivalent or they’re not equivalent, but each one leads to its own goal.

As for type-two inclusivism and pluralism (the type that respects differences between religions, while accepting that they are all valid, whether it considers itself superior or not), the delicate issue is how to understand another religion and how to compare it to your own religion:

  • Can you understand another religion exclusively in its own terms, or do you need to put their beliefs in terms of your own belief system in order to make them intelligible?
  • Or if you do the latter (if you put their beliefs in terms of your own belief system in order to make them intelligible), can you do this without this approach degenerating into type one, with which you assert that their belief is just a variant of your own?

On the other hand, if you can find common issues or themes that two religions such as Buddhism and Islam share, then even if you need to express these themes and the approach of the other religion in the conceptual framework of your own system, you can understand and respect the differences. You can respect the differences with a tolerant nonjudgmental attitude, without asserting that your own religion is the best and having a condescending attitude toward the other religion. It is on the basis of such understanding and respect that you can establish religious harmony.

This is the approach His Holiness the Dalai Lama takes. When asked, “What is the best religion?” His Holiness has replied, “That set of beliefs and practices that helps you to become a kinder, more compassionate person. That’s the best religion.”

So this is the background, I think, for approaching this whole topic of is there a common ground between Buddhism and Islam. What approach are we going to take? Are we going to say that they’re equivalent and try to find the similarities and, on the basis of that, they are the same? Is one just saying what the other one says but in different terms? And so on. It’s really a very delicate balance.

Historical Perspective

The Historical Muslim Approach toward Buddhism

So let’s look a little bit more specifically at Buddhism and Islam. Concerning Islam, in addition to my own research on the topic, I’ve also drawn from a book written by Reza Shah Kazemi called Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, which has forewords in it by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. I have especially drawn relevant quotations from the Quran from Dr. Kazemi’s work.

Historically, both the Buddhists and the Muslims (and here for the Buddhists let’s limit ourselves to the Indo-Tibetan forms of Buddhism) – they’ve adopted an inclusivist approach. The Muslims, for example, included Buddhists as People of the Book, the same as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. How did this come about?

During the Umayyad Caliphate, that’s between 661-750 CE, the Arabs spread their rule and their religion, Islam, throughout the Middle East. Thus, at the beginning of the eighth century, the Umayyad general Qasim [Muhammad bin Qasim] conquered the predominantly Buddhist region of Sind, in present-day southern Pakistan. The Buddhists and Hindus of Brahmanabad, one of its major cities, requested that they be allowed to rebuild their temples and maintain religious freedom. General Qasim consulted with the governor, Hajjaj [Hajjaj bin Yusuf], who in turn consulted the Muslim clerics. The religious clerics, in what became known as the “Brahmanabad settlement,” declared Buddhists (and Hindus too) as People of the Book.

The Umayyad governor Hajjaj decreed: “The request of the chiefs of Brahmanabad about the building of Buddhist and other temples, and toleration in religious matters, is just and reasonable. I do not see what further rights we have over them beyond the usual tax. They have paid homage to us and have undertaken to pay the fixed tribute to the Caliph. Because they have become protected subjects, we have no right whatsoever to interfere in their lives and property. Do permit them to follow their own religion. No one should prevent them.”

Subsequently, the Buddhists were allowed to rebuild their temples and monasteries, and were granted the status of non-Muslim protected subjects, as long as they paid the poll tax. The Umayyad Caliphs and later the Abbasid Caliphs ruling from Baghdad [750-1258 CE] and subsequent Muslim rulers of India held in principle this same policy, although, of course, it was not always followed by all rulers or generals. Nevertheless, the implication of this ruling is that Buddhism was not analogous to the pagan polytheistic religions, whose followers were not granted such privileges.

Now, you could argue that granting Buddhists legal recognition was more political than theological, stemming more from pragmatism than subtle philosophical analysis. This was probably so. After allowing the rebuilding of the Buddhist and Hindu temples, the Arab governors taxed the pilgrims who came to worship at them (sounds like the Chinese, having people pay in order to go into the Buddhist temples in Tibet). But nevertheless, the scholars of Islam did not, and still do not regard this “pragmatic” policy as violating or compromising any fundamental theological principle of Islam. The implication of granting Buddhists legal recognition, political protection, and religious tolerance is that the spiritual path and moral code of the Buddhist faith derive from a higher authority, namely an authentic revelation of God.

So what was the basis for declaring the Buddhists as People of the Book? Was it merely on the basis of shared customs of worship? For example, in the beginning of the eighth century, the Iranian historian al-Kermani wrote a detailed account of Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh Afghanistan – that was one of the major Buddhist monasteries in central Asia – and he described some of the Buddhist customs in terms of analogies in Islam. He described the main temple as having a stone cube in the center, draped with cloth, and devotees as circumambulating it and making prostration, as is the case with the Kaaba in Mecca. He did not, however, discuss any of the Buddhist beliefs.

So is there a doctrinal basis for declaring Buddhists as People of the Book? This is an important question since, if Buddhists are recognized as being People of the Book, then they are implicitly to be included in the spectrum of “saved” communities, as expressed in the following verse from the Quran: “Truly those who believe and those who are Jews, and the Christians and the Sabeans (that’s another name for the Zoroastrians) – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous acts – for such, their reward is with their Lord. No fear or suffering will befall them.”

This indicates the common ground between Buddhism and Islam according to the Quran – belief in God and the Last Day of Judgment and in performing virtuous, constructive acts. Even if the views are not the same, Islam regards them as at least similar enough to be compatible. As it says in the Quran: “And if they believe in the like of that in which you believe, then they are rightly guided.” In other words, if their beliefs are similar to ours, it’s okay. This approach, then, is clearly inclusivist. Buddhists too will reach the salvation taught in Islam, because they follow similar views.

The question really is what are the boundaries of what can be included in the concepts of God, a religion revealed by God, the Last Day of Judgment, the oneness of the truth and God, and so on? On both the Muslim and Buddhist sides, there have been some clerics who make the definitions of these quite strict. But some have left them quite flexible as well.

The Historical Buddhist Approach toward Islam

Before we explore the boundaries of these concepts, let’s look first at the historical approach of the Buddhists toward Islam. The singular Buddhist textual tradition that mentions any Islamic customs or beliefs is the Sanskrit Kalachakra Tantra literature, which emerged in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE, most likely in the area of southeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. At that time, the Buddhists in this area were facing the threat of a possible invasion by the rulers of Multan, a kingdom in central Pakistan. The Multan rulers followed an eastern form of Ismaili Shia, which is a subsect of Islam. The Abbasids, the main dynasty, followed Sunni, the other big form of Islam. And the Multan were, in alliance with the Fatimid Caliphs in Egypt, the rival of the Arab Abbasids for gaining control of the Muslim world. So the Fatimids on one side of the Middle East in Egypt and the guys in Multan on the other side, they sandwiched in the Abbasids; and the Buddhists and Hindus in southeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan were caught in the middle of this rivalry – who’s going to control the Islamic world? – and there were big threats of invasion and war.

The Kalachakra texts mention some of the beliefs and customs of the potential invaders. Some beliefs that are described seem to be specific to the Ismaili thought of the time, such as the list of prophets; while others contradict that thought, such as adding Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, to that list. Most of these beliefs, however, are fundamental to Islam as a whole; so we could look at it in terms of representing the Buddhist view of Islam. Some concern ethical behavior and echo Buddhist assertions of ethical discipline, although the literature does not identify them as being similar. These points, however, could be considered common ground between the two religions. For instance, in a text called The Essence of the Further Tantra of the Glorious Kalachakra Tantra, it says, referring to these invaders, “They have one caste” – Buddhism also does away with castes; we all belong to one caste – “They do not steal, and they speak the truth. They keep clean, they avoid others’ wives, they follow definite ascetic practices, and they remain faithful to their own wives.” This fits in very well with the Buddhist discussion of the constructive actions of body.

Elsewhere, we find more of an inclusivist approach when the Kalachakra texts start to describe the invaders’ beliefs in Buddhist terms. For example, The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra 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.” “Tayi,” a name that the Kalachakra texts apply to the invaders, is the Arabic word (Persian: Tazi) used for the Arab invaders of Iran several centuries before this; and “Rahman,” the Compassionate One, is an epithet of Allah.

Pundarika elaborates on this verse in Stainless Light, his commentary on the abridged Kalachakra Tantra, “Now, as for the assertions of the Tayi invaders, the creator Rahman gives rise to every functional phenomenon, both moving and unmoving. The cause for liberation for the Tayis, namely the white-clad invaders” – they wore white – “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.”

Pundarika elaborates further: “The assertion of the invader Tayis is that humans who die experience happiness or suffering in a higher rebirth (in Paradise), or rebirth in Hell, with their human bodies, through Rahman’s decision.”

The common ground here, then, between Buddhism and the Buddhist understanding of Islam is rebirth in heaven and hell based on one’s ethical behavior. It is interesting, concerning these passages, that the Kalachakra texts do not comment at all on the assertion of a creator, nor on the role of the creator in determining the afterlife based on whether or not a person pleases him. On that last point, by the way, concerning Allah’s judgment based on whether or not someone pleases him, the Buddhist presentation is really not fair. According to a hadith (a divine utterance), Allah said, “O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for.” So it’s based on, basically, what you do during your lifetime.

In any case, the Kalachakra texts focus merely on the nature of the afterlife and the effect on it by a person’s deeds in this life in general. In discussing the issue in this way, the texts reveal an inclusivist approach in identifying the invaders’ assertion of an eternal rebirth as a faulty view that is explained more correctly in Buddhism. The Regal Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra states: “Through an (eternal) afterlife, a person experiences (the results of his) earlier committed karmic actions of this world. But 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.” In other words, if damnation and suffering in hell is eternal, then you could never get rid of your karma and you would never attain liberation. So this is the criticism, and they say that we have a better view.

If we want to look at this point concerning eternal damnation within a larger Buddhist context, the common ground between the Buddhist and Muslim views becomes a little wider. However, it becomes wider because one can view the Muslim position on rebirth and liberation as a step leading to the Buddhist one. In Buddhist terms, then, you could say that Islam speaks only of liberation from the suffering of suffering or from the worse rebirth states by having a rebirth in paradise. This liberation is a higher rebirth in paradise. This, after all, is the initial scope of motivation in the lam-rim graded stages of the path. Buddhism goes on to speak of liberation from the all-pervasive suffering of rebirth, which is the aim of the intermediate scope of motivation. In this light, following Islam becomes an initial step in following Buddhism, doesn’t it?

But we can look at the Muslim assertion of eternal suffering in a different way, so that it is not so different from the Buddhist view. In the Kalachakra texts, the objection to the Muslim concept of hell is that once in the fires of hell, it’s eternal and that you can’t get liberated from that. But if one looks at Buddhist descriptions of samsara, one wants to get out of it like getting out of a burning building. So, like the fires of hell. And samsaric rebirth will be eternal unless one does something about it, namely turning to the Dharma. So you can see there’s different ways; one could actually include Islam, then, as initial scope motivation within these teachings.

The nineteenth century Nyingma master Mipam in his commentary on the fifth chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra followed an even stronger inclusivist approach than the original Kalachakra literature. Hinting that, with skillful means, Buddha taught methods for leading Muslims to enlightenment, Mipam wrote, “The non-Indic invaders 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 not assert any other type of nirvana.”

Mipam goes on to point out that the invaders’ assertion of the atomic nature of matter fits into the Buddhist beliefs. 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.

Concerning the soul or the self, Mipam continues, “Knowing their dispositions and thoughts, Buddha taught sutras of what they (the invaders) could accept.” – now Buddha’s teaching the Muslims – “For instance, in The Sutra of Carrying Responsibility, 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 the invaders’ 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.

“In the occasion of a dream, which arises merely from habits of mind, the embodied individual experiencing joy and sorrow is nonexistent. Since this is mere appearance, (the individual’s) impermanence in that case is not even like that of the nature of an impermanent thing. This is because it is without the nature of an individual. On merely being examined, it is (obviously) an object with no interpolations of permanent or impermanent, so it is taught.” – here’s the important point now – “By this teaching of the Thusly Gone Buddha, (the invaders) gave up the dharma of the invaders and subsequently became Vaibhashikas holding a Buddhist system.”

So Buddha now is using skillful means through the sutras, aimed at the Muslims, in order to bring them from their view up to the Vaibhashikas; and then he continues how they’re brought from one tenet system to the other, up to Madhyamaka.

So this inclusivist attitude here is that Buddha gave teachings that would accord with the invaders’ assertions, and through this skillful means, he would lead the invaders to liberation. Muslims would clearly find this offensive, and this attitude would clearly not lead to religious harmony, would it?

So that’s the historical presentation of this; how each side has looked at the other side. And, as we’ve seen, it’s mostly with this inclusivist thing – they’re part of us – either the Buddhists are really People of the Book, or Buddha actually taught the Muslims and it’s a lower form of our path and Buddha led them onto our path.

Common Grounds on the Basis of Buddhists Being Considered People of the Book

But let’s return to the implications of Islam considering Buddhists as People of the Book in order to examine further common grounds. As we saw, the common grounds from this assertion are that Buddhism is a religion revealed by a higher authority, namely God. That, of course, brings in the question of God as the source of the revelation and the question of the person who received that revelation and shared it with the world.

Both the Buddhists and the Muslims follow an inclusivist approach concerning this question about revelation. For example, the Kalachakra commentary Stainless Light explains, “Concerning the invaders, Muhammad was an avatar of Rahman. The indicator of the invaders’ teachings, he was the guru and master of the invader Tayis.” Now in Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of the soul of a god into another form. Thus, Muhammad being an avatar of Rahman parallels the Hindu assertion of Krishna as an avatar of the god Vishnu. In Buddhist terms, this analogy would be equivalent to asserting that Muhammad was a Nirmanakaya emanation of Allah. A bit strange, isn’t it?

On the other hand, could Buddha be considered a prophet or a messenger of Allah? The Persian historian, al-Biruni, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his early eleventh century CE invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Based on what he learned there, al-Biruni wrote A Book about India. In it, he described the basic Buddhist customs and beliefs and noted that the Indians regarded Buddha as a prophet. That does not necessarily mean that he was suggesting that Muslims should accept Buddha as a prophet or messenger of Allah. Nevertheless, the Quran says: “Truly We inspire you, as We inspired Noah, and the prophets after him, as We inspired Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed unto David the Psalms. And Messengers we have mentioned to you before, and Messengers we have not mentioned to you.” So Buddha could be included among those messengers not explicitly mentioned. The Quran says that we didn’t mention all of them, so obviously there could be more.

For example, according to the presentation of the twelve enlightening deeds of a Buddha, a Buddha comes at different times, when beings are ripe, and teaches Dharma differently in each age, in order to suit the beings there. Although there are a thousand supreme Nirmanakaya Buddhas for this eon, with an enormous number of eons between each of them, there are many Supreme Being Nirmanakayas that come in between. Both of these groups of Nirmanakayas could be labeled “Messengers of the Dharma.” Messenger is another translation of the Arabic word for prophet. Also each Buddha uses skillful means for teaching the Dharma differently for different people. For some, Buddha even taught that there was a self (that’s in Vatsiputriya, a form of Vaibhashika). Islam, too, has its own version of teaching with skillful means. The Quran says, “And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his people, so that he might make it clear to them.” So, like a Buddha, the messengers of God (the prophets) speak in the language of the people in a way they that they can understand.

But we have to be careful here. Although Islam could accept Buddha as a messenger of God; the Muslims, as well as the Christians and Jews, would be quite offended if told that Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham, and David were Nirmanakaya Buddhas or avatars of Allah. This is a major drawback of the inclusivist approach to comparative religion. However, how are we to understand the Buddhist assertion that Nagarjuna revealed the Prajnaparamita teachings that Manjushri entrusted to the nagas, who hid them under the ocean? Isn’t that some revelation from a higher being? Or the assertion that Asanga received the widespread action teachings on love, compassion, and bodhichitta from Maitreya, when he was taken to Tushita heaven? How are we to understand the pure vision and revealed treasure text teachings in the Nyingma tradition? Are these Buddhist assertions so different from the Muslim assertion of prophets revealing the word of God? Something really interesting to think about.

As for God, the only aspect that Buddhism refutes is that of an omnipotent creator that can create without being affected or influenced by anything, even by the wish to create. It does not refute other qualities of God, or even creation itself. Very interesting point. That’s actually all that Buddhism ever refutes in terms of a creator. A creator can create, but he himself is not affected by anything. In order to create, you have to be affected by something, even the wish to create. That’s the only refutation that’s given. So it doesn’t refute other qualities of God or even creation itself.

For instance, anuttarayoga tantra explains that each individual’s clear light mind is the creator of all appearances that that person experiences, and this is influenced by both this person’s individual karma and by collective karma. Even in sutra, we have that all things are created by karma. Moreover, as deepest truth, the clear light mind is beyond words and concepts, as is Allah. The Quran declares. “Glorified be Allah above and beyond what they describe.” You have so many descriptions, especially in the non-Gelugpa forms of Tibetan Buddhism, that deepest truth is beyond voidness, is beyond words, beyond concepts; it can’t be conceptualized in any way; beyond all of that. And that’s exactly the same way that Allah is described in Islam.

Nevertheless, there are ninety-nine names of Allah, and these refer to Allah’s essential qualities. Similarly, in Chorus of Names of Manjushri, Manjushri refers to the clear light mind in its primordial state, and the verses of this Kalachakra text explain its qualities. We find things that are very, very similar here to the qualities of Allah as described in Islam.

Like Allah, the clear light mind Manjushri is “the primordial one, the highest one, beginningless,” “He’s the one without a beginning or an end.” And like Allah, the clear light mind Manjushri is “the unmanifest one, the one not appearing, the one with no sign that would make him seen.” Further, Allah is One, and similarly, the clear light mind Manjushri is “nondual, the speaker of nonduality.” That also in a sense is one, especially if we think of clear light mind in terms of the discussion of voidness, then everything has one taste in voidness. So is this the one truth, and is it equivalent? Again, are we talking about something that’s similar (or the same) as in Islam but just with different words? Or how do we actually understand these features that seem to be held in common?

One of the essential qualities of Allah is al-haqq – it’s an Arabic word that means the real, the true, what’s proper, also in an ethical sense. This has a conceptual affinity to Dharma in the sense of dharmata – deepest truth, deep awareness Dharmakaya. After all, in this Chorus of the Names of Manjushri, the clear light mind Manjushri is called “the hallowed Dharma” – the clear light mind is now called the Dharma – “the ruler of the Dharma … the superb imperishable sphere of reality.” Elsewhere, “He’s what’s perfectly so, the lack of identity-nature, the actual state,” “He’s the purity and glory of the deepest truth.” In anuttarayoga tantra, the clear light mind is referred to as deepest truth.

Another point: Allah is always referred to as al-Rahman, the compassionate one, and al-Rahim, the merciful one. Every verse of the Quran begins like that. Compassionate in the sense of being compassionate to create; this type of aspect of compassion. And merciful in saving others from suffering. That’s quite interesting because in dzogchen they speak about rigpa – rigpa pure awareness; rigpa is basically the primordial unstained state of the clear light mind – and it speaks of one of its qualities which is the quality of making appearances. And what’s the name for making appearances? Compassion. Compassion is the energy going out. So, if it’s in terms of helping others, it would be to help them overcome suffering. But in a more general sense, the energy goes out in a compassionate way, just making appearances. This is how pure awareness or rigpa works. So that’s like Allah being al-Rahman, the compassionate one that creates.

Manjushri, the clear light mind, is also “composed of [great] love, he is the foremost mind of great compassion,” “He’s the agent fulfilling the aims of all limited beings. The wisher of benefit, he’s the one with parental affection toward limited beings.” So, just like Allah has these two qualities of compassionate and merciful, similarly clear light mind is described as having the same two qualities. Also, like Allah, clear light mind Manjushri is “the one worthy of offerings, worthy of praise, the one for prostration … worthy of shows of respect, most worthy of veneration, worthy of homage.” So this is the object of worship as well.

All these features concerning Allah, the clear light mind, revelation of the truth, compassion, and so on, indicate a common ground between Buddhism and Islam, in addition to basic shared ethical principles. We could mention many other features, for instance the recitation of dhikrs in Islam – these are certain formulas, certain sets of syllables that, particularly in the Sufi form of Islam, they repeat over and over and over and over again, even with a rosary – and you have in Buddhism repetition of mantras. So, on the surface, this looks quite similar.

Also in both religions you have: An emphasis on charity. That’s one of the basic duties of Islam, is to give part of one’s income to the poor. The emphasis on study. Muslims have these madrasahs where they study the scriptures. Similarly, Buddhism has all these monastic colleges in which similarly they study the Buddhist texts. There’s an emphasis in both of them on an honest livelihood. You have right livelihood in Buddhism; we have correct ways of making a livelihood in Islam as well.

On a more philosophical level, in Islam you speak about the surrender of the ego into Allah – surrender to the will of Allah – and that the way of attaining salvation is, in a sense, to annihilate the self into Allah. This is particularly in Sufism. That sounds very much like the refutation of the false “me” in voidness, doesn’t it? That we have to surrender, give up this strong concept of “me,” this solid ego, and annihilate it – in the sense that it’s refuted, gone away with completely in voidness. And we’ve seen that the discussion of voidness and the discussion of Allah have many things in common.

There’s also the discussion of jihad. Jihad actually is an Arabic word which means proper effort or struggle, and it’s a struggle to uphold the basic principles of Islam. So one form of it, of course, is struggling against external enemies of Islam in a defensive type of way, but that’s not the main form of jihad. The main form of jihad is to struggle to follow the principles of Islam internally. So the struggle and the proper effort that’s required to keep the fast during Ramadan, to keep the principles of Islam, to keep the discipline of praying five times a day, to keep the discipline of following a right livelihood, to keep a discipline of giving charity. This is this right effort of jihad. And certainly in Buddhism, in the presentation of the eightfold noble path, we have right effort; and this is emphasized very much in terms of making a right effort in the teachings, and even in terms of overcoming enemies. Buddhism speaks so much in terms of the real enemy, the disturbing emotions inside, and one has to have this struggle, this internal battle – which you could call a jihad if you wanted to use the Islamic term – against these disturbing emotions within one’s own mind.

So, again, we find that we could express Islamic beliefs in Buddhist terms. We could express Buddhist beliefs in Islamic terms. Are they equivalent? Are they the same? How are we going to approach this issue? How are we going to approach a dialogue? And, as we saw in these various approaches that are used in comparative religion, some of them might not be very diplomatic and might not be very helpful in terms of establishing a dialogue. So, for instance, if you have this inclusivist point of view – that you basically are just talking about the same thing that we talk about, so actually you’re just following a lower form of our religion, and (in this sort of condescending way) you could learn something from us and improve your religion and follow the true path, this type of thing – even if we say your path, diplomatically, is okay, this obviously is very offensive, whether it’s coming from the Buddhist side or from the Muslim side. Nobody wants to hear that their religion is actually a lower form of somebody else’s religion and that they could improve by stepping up to a deeper point of view.

That’s actually very interesting if you think within Buddhism about what the attitude of people who follow Vaibhashika or Sautrantika or Chittamatra views would think in terms of the attitude of a Madhyamaka-Prasangika coming along and saying, “Your views are lower but, okay, if you practice tantra, eventually you’ll come to our view anyway.” It’s very interesting to see what level of diplomacy was ever used in these debates. If you read the texts, whether it’s Indian – and particularly some of the Tibetan texts – they really are very impolite and rude toward the others’ positions that they are refuting. One could give a spin on it and say that, well, they’re pointing out extreme positions to the other view – they’re not really saying that “You’re so stupid as to believe that,” but they’re pointing out, “If you’re not careful, you’ll go to that extreme. And that would be a mistake, so watch out”; this type of thing – but you wonder whether that is, again, a smoothing over (what we call in English a spin) on the actual debate, or were they really following an exclusivist position – that your position is wrong and ours is right.

I think the point here is that we don’t need to continue, in a religious dialogue, having either this sort of exclusivist or inclusivist point of view. It’s no longer really helpful at all to say that our religion is the only one that is correct and yours is wrong; or to say that your religion is really a lower form or ours; or you’re actually following our religion but without actually knowing it, and if I just show you the equivalents that are there, you’ll understand that actually this is Buddhism (or this is Islam) and it’ll be very easy for you to accept our religion. This doesn’t work, especially in the present-day world.

The only thing that does really bring about some promise of working is this attitude that I mentioned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama follows in religious dialogue: that there are certain issues which are held in common. You don’t just say that “Well, in Buddhism we don’t believe in God,” and that’s the end of the discussion; this is not going to get you anywhere. But you get into the discussion in terms of what are the common assertions here, between the Buddhist assertion of clear light mind as the creator of appearances – which is compassionate, filled with qualities of making appearances compassionately and saving others, and all these other qualities – and the qualities of Allah as well. And both of them are beyond words, beyond concepts, although we try to put them in words and concepts.

So if you can speak about these things in common and then respect the differences that are there, [then the dialogue can work]. And in respecting these differences, what is the point? The point is not to convince the other side that ours is better and to put them down, and the point is not just [to be] academically interesting, but to foster understanding on the basis of respect – that we’re talking about basically the same thing. Now, of course, this is one of the features of inclusivism, that there is a core set of issues that all religions speak about. Well, maybe that’s true: What is the self? Where do we come from? Where are we going when we die? What’s the nature of reality? Is there such a thing as good? Can there be happiness? These sort of things are basic human questions. So is there a core set of questions and issues that all religions face, ethics and so on? Probably you’d have to say, yes. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all saying the same thing just in different words.

But again, as His Holiness says, what’s the best religion? The best religion is the one that teaches you to be a kinder, more compassionate person, whatever that might be. So does that mean that they’re all aiming for the same goal? Well, it’s very interesting because His Holiness doesn’t mention the same goal as being salvation or liberation or enlightenment, or something like that, which you find in the traditional texts. But rather, he speaks on a very basic level of another one of his main issues, which is basic human values – basic human values and religious harmony. These are his big issues. The basic human values are to be a kinder person, to be more compassionate, to be more understanding of others; this sort of thing.

So that discussion of common grounds between these two religions or between any two religions – and even within Buddhism it would be awfully helpful to discuss this common ground with this sort of open pluralistic approach – that there are many different points of view concerning these basic issues. We can understand that each religion is offering some sort of answer to these questions, and they suit different people. And if this helps you to be a kinder person, wonderful. And if another system helps somebody else to become a kinder person, that’s wonderful too. There’s no need to have to compare the two systems in a judgmental type of way: that one is more correct than the other, or one works better than the other. This is not at all fruitful.

So this is the basic presentation that I wanted to make of: Is there a common ground between Buddhism and Islam? And I’ve left a lot of time for questions, so if you have any or would like to discuss anything, let’s do that.

Questions and Answers

Question: Can you point out the big differences that you find?

Alex: What are the big differences that you find?

Participant: Yes. Punishment, for instance, in Islam, which you do not find…

Alex: Well, you ask about the differences between the two in terms of, for instance, punishment. Again, we go back to the presentation that they had here, which I mentioned, in the text in terms of experiencing the consequences of your behavior in future lives. So there are two levels of so-called reward and punishment. One is in this lifetime and one is in future lifetimes. In terms of future lifetimes, it’s the mechanism that is different. Both Buddhism and Islam assert that you’re going to experience the consequences of your actions in future lives. And so the point is: do we conceive of it as reward and punishment, which implies, in a sense, somebody that rewards you and somebody that punishes you, or do we conceive of it as just working in a mechanical type of way?

I don’t have the quote with me, but there’s a quote in the Quran which says something like, “And you shall see in the book” – you know, when you die – “you shall see your deeds written in the book; and according to what you see, this is what you’ll experience.” And so, although there are many passages in the Quran which explain that God is the judge and will judge you and reward and punish you, you also have other statements in the Quran that seem to indicate that it is just part of the natural way in which things are.

Now the real difference comes in terms of this lifetime – in terms of punishments and reward, but specifically punishment – and this has to do with the concept of law. Law is a very central issue in, certainly, ancient Judaism and Islam. It has not quite the same central role in Christianity, but it is a very fundamental part of Biblical thinking. These are laws that are given by divine authority, and if you follow them then you’re rewarded; if you disobey them then you are punished. In Buddhism, the issue is not really obedience. In fact, you don’t even have that as one of the monks’ vows as you do in Christianity – a vow of obedience. Rather, you try to develop discriminating awareness to discriminate by yourself what’s beneficial and what’s harmful. And on the basis of that, you would follow ethics; not on the basis of obedience and fear of being punished. So that’s quite a different approach.

Now the question is: is it up to human authority to actually enact a punishment in this lifetime? That really is not so central in Buddhism. But I’m thinking of The Sutra of Golden Light, and in that sutra it speaks about the duties of a king; and it’s very important, it says, for the king to uphold the Dharma, and it actually says to punish those who act against the Dharma and who are destructive in terms of the Dharma – that the king needs to do that in order to protect his subjects. And so you do have that in the sutras, but it doesn’t seem as though it was really put into practice.

It was put into practice much more in China. And in Chinese Buddhism the word Dharma is translated as the word fa, which is the word for law; and so the Chinese saw the Dharma, the teachings, as laws. And this was something that then brings in the role of the emperor and the state in terms of enforcing laws. So the Chinese form of Buddhism takes a different approach to this, and that seems to be closer to what it says in the sutras, at least the Golden Light Sutra – that it’s the duty of the king to protect the subjects by punishing those who are mischievous and harmful.

And you even find this in the bodhisattva vows. In the bodhisattva vows it says that it is a breach or a breaking of the bodhisattva vows if you do not discipline somebody who is disruptive to the community. If you just – because they’re your friend, or you’re timid, or something like that – you just let them continue to violate the vows and be disruptive to either the monastic community or the community at large, this is violating your bodhisattva vows because you need to, in a sense, look out for the welfare of everyone.

Now of course they don’t have stoning people to death and things like that in Buddhism. These are the details. And it doesn’t really say how you would discipline others or punish others. But the principle is there. And stoning others, by the way, all of that’s in the Old Testament; the Quran, Sharia didn’t make that up.

Question: But what about the narrative of…

Alex: The what of…?

Participant: The narrative.

Alex: Narrative.

Question: It’s a little bit like if you compare an elephant with a mouse. They have four legs; they eat food. It’s a very good approach for diplomacy to get in touch with the other religion, but it isn’t there any longer. For instance, if I were a Muslim and you’d ask me what is the essence, I would perhaps answer, well, when the graves will open, I will be maybe in paradise. Because in other narrative or thinking which isn’t… You can’t compare it with the other. So I would like to focus in my question, can you tell me something about this?

Alex: Okay. So she says that – just to repeat for the recording, in brief – that although we can point out common grounds between two religions, it misses the narrative. So, for instance, you can say that an elephant and a mouse both have four legs, and a tail, and eat food, and so on, but that misses really the more descriptive, juicy element of what are the differences between them.

And so if you were to ask a follower of Islam what is the essence, what’s the most important thing in your religion, they might say that, well, at the time of death the graves will open and I’ll go to paradise because I followed the fast during Ramadan and I’ve been a good Muslim. And that would give more of a flavor of what is important to Muslims about Islam. But, although you didn’t say it, in Buddhism actually you could have a similar thing – that I will gain liberation; I will gain enlightenment. So not that different.

But she’s asking is there a – You know, this whole discussion of finding a common ground, is it just an exercise in diplomacy or how does it actually work? Can I discuss a little bit of the history of this. And I must say that the two sides have not been very diplomatic toward each other, if we look in the longer view of history – whether it’s Buddhism and Islam, or Buddhism and any other type of view. They debated with each other often. There were debates in terms of which form of Buddhism the Tibetans would adopt. Genghis Khan also had a debate between the Buddhists and the Taoists and the Christians and so on, in terms of what he would follow. And although the texts usually report that the deepest philosophical view is actually the one which won, this is hardly believable. It seems as though they settled it mostly in terms of magical powers and who is the most powerful one.

The Mongols were looking for a strong protector. The Tibetan Buddhists had Mahakala, and so this is what they wanted. It was the protector of the Tanguts, a people in the area called Inner Mongolia who – in the battle against them, Genghis Khan was killed. And so, obviously, the only way that they were able to defeat Genghis Khan was because they had the protector Mahakala, so we have to follow Tibetan Buddhism so we get Mahakala on our side. So we’re not talking about diplomacy between the different religions. We’re looking at, in the dialogue between them, which one is the more powerful one that we can get on our side, on our protector’s side. Same thing in terms of: do the Tibetans adopt Chinese Buddhism or Indian Buddhism. It had an awful lot to do with the politics that were going on at that time.

But in modern times, you do have this religious type of dialogue on a much more open level, particularly when His Holiness the Dalai Lama meets with other religious leaders. I remember one meeting that I attended that was speaking about compassion, and His Holiness was asking each of the representatives of the different religions to explain their approach to compassion. And let me see if I can remember what they said: What he always says, what His Holiness always points out, is that the Muslims say that everything is the creation of God, of Allah; and therefore, if you love Allah, you should love all of Allah’s creations. And the Christians were saying that if you love God, then through your love of God you will love others. And the Jews were saying that through love – they were saying the exact reverse – that through love of others, people and so on, that you come to love God. And His Holiness was saying that in Buddhism the issue of compassion has nothing to do with God; one just loves others and has compassion for others on the basis of everybody wanting to be happy, nobody wanting to be unhappy – everybody equal. So it was merely a presentation of each position without saying this one’s better or that one’s better. Without really comparing it. It was just each person made their presentation and it was left at that.

So I think this is the type of approach that His Holiness is trying to foster, which is merely based on education. That usually fear of others’ religions – or anything about others – is based on ignorance of them. And so if you know their position, and people present their position in a nonaggressive type of way – and, of course, if you have these meetings, if you’re going to participate in these interfaith meetings, it’s usually because you want to foster harmony; you’re not going to be aggressive and attack the others – then this helps to bring about understanding, and that’s the basis for religious harmony; and religious harmony is very helpful for bringing about peace in this world.

That’s a little bit of the history that I know, but traditionally the history hasn’t been very diplomatic at all on either side.

Question: Is there evidence that when Muhammad wrote down the Quran, is there evidence [unclear].

Alex: So the question is: when Muhammad revealed the Quran, obviously he had knowledge of the Bible before that, but is there any evidence that he had knowledge of Buddhism? That’s very hard to say. There were Indian physicians in Arabia at that time. There’s a long history of trade, commerce, between the Arabian Peninsula and India – sea trade, back and forth – and there are records of physicians there, but whether or not he actually had – There was also, if I remember correctly, there was this one document that said there were red-clad ones, those wearing red clothes, which could indicate Buddhist monks being in Arabia at that time. But whether Muhammad himself had knowledge of that, I really don’t recall. It would be hard to demonstrate.

Participant: All the historical…

Alex: He says: were all the historical meetings between Buddhism and Islam fighting? No, not at all. You had, for instance, in the Abbasid Caliphate – this was the second big Arab empire that ruled the Middle East; it was founded in 750 CE and lasted pretty much up to the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century – and in the early days of this Caliphate they built a new capital, which was called Baghdad. And Baghdad actually is a Sanskrit word. They had architects come from India. Bhaga-dada is the Sanskrit word. Bhaga is a word for higher authority, God, and dada is “given” – “given by God,” in a sense, the Hindu term. And they had a translation bureau. And the Arabs were extremely interested to know about the cultures of the various people that they ruled and had conquered. They were primarily interested in medicine and so they had Sanskrit texts on medicine translated into Arabic. And there’s a list of the texts that they translated, and included in those are several Buddhist sutras. And so they had Buddhist monks from, primarily, Afghanistan (because that was a big center of Buddhism) and Kashmir – that sort of side – come to Baghdad. They translated sutras that dealt with – first of all, pure land sutras because this is talking about what could be construed as a paradise, so Muslims would find that quite interesting. Also a few texts concerning Avalokiteshvara, concerning compassion – some sutras concerning that because, again, that seemed to be something that was more easy for the Muslims to relate to. So that was an indication of a quite peaceful relation with them.

I wrote an e-book which is on my web site, The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, and in that I try to show that the motive behind the Muslim conquests – the conquests of the people who followed Islam – was not really Islam. It would be like saying that any war in the West was a Christian conquest or something like that. Actually, if you look at it more objectively, these invasions were motivated by what motivates all invasions: the quest for money, for power, for controlling the tax of the Silk Route. This is what they were aiming for. Now you could rouse your soldiers by saying that if you die, you’re going to go to heaven. So with religious things. This is like encouraging your soldiers with extreme patriotism that is done in other countries. But that surely was not the motive of the generals and the people who planned these things.

And this is demonstrated by the fact that when they invaded India, they left the poor monasteries alone. They basically just went and destroyed the wealthy ones. They were after the money, the gold that was kept there. So at that time there had been an earthquake, I believe, in Kashmir, and the monasteries there were in very poor condition and the Muslim invaders left them alone. There was nothing to be gained from taking them over. And in the earlier invasions that took place – let’s say in the eighth century and so on; well, the beginning of the eighth century when they took southern Pakistan and so on – as I pointed out, they let the Buddhists and Hindus rebuild their temples, and just taxed the people and charged pilgrims for coming to the temple and seeing the statues. So they were very much motivated by money, as are most people.

Question: Was this also the case with Nalanda?

Alex: Well, with Nalanda – again, it was a very wealthy place. There were a lot of gold statues. These sorts of things. And there are always fanatic generals, and so you can’t always say that the general policy was the same as the policy of some fanatic generals who went in. So for each specific monastery it’s hard to say. They destroyed these. But, as I say, you have to remember these places were not only strongholds of money and gold – especially the gold statues – but also people went there because they were like fortresses; so for defense. And so they became places where there were a lot of weapons and stuff like that as well. So the invading armies, of course, saw these as places of resistance, and went in and destroyed them.

But also it’s a bit of a myth to think that everything was wiped out in such a short time in India. A lot survived in the very far eastern parts of India – Orissa, and going over into Bengal and Assam – and a lot of these monks moved over into northern Burma and northern Thailand and even as far as Cambodia. So a lot of that stuff survived. And even several centuries later, you still have records of the Tibetans having visits from some Indian pandits and things being translated from Sanskrit, and so on. And some things lasted several centuries longer in southern India. So it wasn’t as black and white as many of the histories portray it.

History is a very strange concept. What is history? And things that are written about history usually have a cultural bias. There’s usually an agenda for the way in which a history is written. So the Muslim histories will write it in terms of everything is for religious purposes; this sort of thing. If you look at the Chinese histories – to demonstrate how fantastic the new dynasty is and how terrible the old dynasty was. And the Tibetan histories, as well, tend to have their own agenda: they make the Bonpos the scapegoats, and “Buddhism is so wonderful,” and so on.

And what we have in the West has been very much shaped by the British. And the British histories of India were written in terms of the British Empire defeating the Muslim Moguls, and they wanted to show how bad the Muslims were compared to how wonderful the British are. And so in their version of the history of what happened in India, they painted the Muslims as being absolute demons.

So each history has its own agenda; its own prejudiced view. So what actually took place, that’s hard to say.

Question: If you compare Buddhism and Islam on the level of what you have to believe – I thought, before your talk, that there should be huge differences. It’s true?

Alex: Well, is there a difference between what you need to believe in each of these religions? Is there a difference? Well, what you have to believe in Buddhism: The most fundamental thing is the four noble truths. That this is true suffering, this is its cause, it is possible to get rid of it forever, and this is the pathway that will lead to that liberation. And then enlightenment can be added onto that. And that path includes both the method and wisdom side. So understanding of reality in terms of: all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, etc, etc; voidness and non-self. So you have all of that in Buddhism.

Do you have to believe in that? I don’t know. What do you have to believe in? You have to take refuge; that’s the defining characteristic of Buddhism. And refuge (putting this safe direction in life) is not just, you know, having a piece of your hair cut off, and getting a name, and wearing a red string – and now you’re a Buddhist. That doesn’t make you a Buddhist. But rather, on a much deeper level, understanding what Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha means. And this implies, as His Holiness says, from the two truths you understand the four truths, and from the four truths (noble truths) you understand refuge. And so, by understanding the illusory nature of the appearances of conventional truth and the deepest nature of voidness, then you understand what is suffering, the source of suffering, that it’s possible to get out it, the understanding of voidness will get you out of that. And then you have confidence in the Dharma Jewel, which is the true stoppings and true paths that are on the mental continuum; in full with the Buddhas, and in part with the Sangha. Then your refuge is secure; is stable. That would be the Buddhist thing.

So in Islam what would you have to believe? That in Allah – I mean, I forget the exact formula, I’m sorry – but you have to believe in God, and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, and in one God, and these sort of things. So what does that imply?

And that brings us to the discussion that we had in this presentation of what is God, and what does it mean to have somebody that reveals the message of God? And we have in Buddhism, if you look at it at face value, it really looks like revelation of – from Nagarjuna getting these texts under the sea, Asanga getting it from heaven from Maitreya, and so on. So are they messengers of the truth? I’d have to say, yes. I don’t think that they’re that different.

And we’ve seen with God – belief in “God is One,” and so on – if you take away the Buddhist objection, in terms of creation by someone who’s not affected by anything, then you find so many things that are in common. So I don’t think it’s that strange.

You have in some forms of Islam, in Shia, the central position of the Imams as representatives and so on. Well, you have the position of the guru in Buddhism.

Participant: You have to pray five times a day.

Alex: You have to pray five times a day. Well, these are customs. From a Buddhist point of view, you need to reaffirm your bodhichitta three times a day, prostrate three times in the morning, prostrate three times at night. There are a whole set of things that, if you really want to follow Buddhism strictly, you have as well. So the details are different, but the fact that you have certain commitments in terms of how you keep this direction in your life – they’re there. Whether you pray five times a day, or you do meditation in the morning and in the evening, or you do four sessions of retreat every day – structurally it’s the same, isn’t it? It’s just the actual way in which it’s done is different. So then that gets back into comparative religion. Are you saying that everybody’s doing the same thing, only slightly differently, and it’s just cultural differences? Or what? How do you present that in a nonjudgmental sort of way? That’s the real issue.

Islam has dietary restrictions. Does Buddhism have any dietary restrictions? Well, it depends on the country, doesn’t it. In Chinese Buddhism, they’re vegetarian. In Southeast Asia and the Tibetans, they’re not vegetarian. Buddhism says no alcohol; Islam says no alcohol.

Conversion. Well, conversion is a big issue here. In theory, Islam does not believe in forceful conversion, if you look at it actually in terms of the Quran; in terms of practice, that might be something different. But in terms of the scriptures, they don’t have that. It’s up to each person to decide. You can’t force somebody to convert. But if you look at the issue of conversion in Buddhism – Come on! If you look historically, the king of a certain place adopted Buddhism and then he made all the subjects Buddhist, and so they were supposed to follow Buddhism. You had these debates at the monasteries in India, and whoever lost would have to adopt the view and the religion of the winner. Is this conversion? What is it? It’s just slightly different methods, isn’t it.

Participant: [missing]

Alex: She’s saying it’s written in the rules of the Muslims. What it says is that you need to accept God, and you need to accept one truth, and that Mohammad is his messenger. Okay. So what does Buddhism say? Buddhism says that unless you understand no truly existent self, unless you understand voidness, there’s no liberation or enlightenment. So you have to believe in this, and this is one – this is the one truth. Structurally it’s the same.

I mean, that’s the point. That there is a common assertion that there are certain beliefs that you have to have in order to attain salvation or liberation or whatever the spiritual goal is. That’s there. And if you look more objectively at what they’re believing in, there are certainly differences, but there are certainly similarities. And, again, what is the point of the whole discussion? The point of the whole discussion is to understand and respect each other.

Question: I was very surprised to hear that in one of the suras that tolerance is important. I’ve never heard that before. What is [unclear]

Alex: She’s saying that in one of the suras from the Quran that I quoted, they emphasize tolerance – within the bounds of those that are accepted as People of the Book, this type of thing. What is the general attitude toward that among the Muslim population?

I think that we really need to look at it as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always is stating: that in every religion, in every group, there are going to be mischievous people – it’s the term that he uses; troublemakers – and these mischievous people, it’s wrong to say that they represent the entire population; and just because of the trouble that they make, it’s not a fair grounds for condemning the entire population. Are some of the Muslims intolerant of others, especially of other forms of Islam? Yes. Are some of the Christians intolerant of other religions and other forms of Christianity? Yes. You could say the same thing about the Jews. You could say the same thing about the Buddhists, for that matter, and the Hindus. So you find this in all religions; in all groups.

Participant: It was written in a surah in the Quran. I’ve never seen tolerance written in another… That’s very interesting.

Alex: Right. You’ve never seen it written. It is very interesting. Do we find that in Buddhism? Tolerance. What’s another way of translating the word tolerance? It’s patience. And Buddhism certainly teaches patience. Not to get angry with others, even if they have different views from yourself. So it’s implicit there in Buddhism.

Participant: One of the laws is not to have other gods.

Alex: Right. One of the things in Christianity is not to have other gods. They have the same thing in Islam. There’s only Allah; there’s the one God. But do we have anything like that in Buddhism? That’s interesting. Buddhism says that – I mean, this is part of the commitments from refuge – that you can take temporary refuge in other deities, but not your ultimate refuge. If you take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, that’s your ultimate refuge; that’s your ultimate direction in life. So, in a sense, it’s putting down the others and saying that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is the only way. It doesn’t say it very strongly, but it’s there. So a lot depends on the tone in which these are presented, and that will differ from different teachers, different texts, different periods of time, different cultures.

But I found, in traveling a bit in Islamic countries, that people were very interested in Buddhism. I lectured at Cairo University to a group of students. Three hundred students came to hear a lecture on Buddhism, and they said to me: “Please, we’re starved for information; and tell the outside world that we’re not all terrorists, we’re ordinary people.”

So it’s very important not to marginalize any group.

Participant: In Buddhism, you would not be rewarded for killing other people who are different.

Alex: So she says: in Buddhism, you wouldn’t be rewarded for killing other people of different beliefs. In Islam: if you look at the teachings on jihad, jihad is only in defense of Islam. It’s not sanctioned to kill just anybody because they believe differently; but if there is a threat to Islam, then it is appropriate to try to end that threat.

But, hey, take a look at Buddhism – Tibetan Buddhism – with these protector pujas. What is that all about? Trample the enemies of Buddhism; trample, kill, tear out their eyes. I mean, it’s horrible if you look at the actual words of these protector pujas. And what we’re asking the protectors, all the nasty horrible things we’re asking them to do to our enemies, to those who would threaten Buddhism, who are against our teacher. So it’s there. It’s there. We don’t like to admit that, but it’s there. And some people are really into it – protector pujas – with the drums and the cymbals and the horns.

Participant: But I wouldn’t go right to heaven and be rewarded up there.

Alex: You would build up a lot of positive merit from getting rid of these enemies of the Dharma. You wouldn’t be met by a thousand virgins in paradise; that’s something else. But everything has its rewards. But certainly not seen as something negative: to send out the protectors to do your dirty work.

This is very often the case with people who adopt Buddhism, coming from a different religion. You only look at the nice parts. You don’t want to look at the parts that are a little bit more questionable. This protector stuff is very questionable, if you really look at it seriously.

Question: The Buddha himself, did he…

Alex: Well, that’s a very interesting point. Did Buddha himself speak about protectors? I don’t think so.

Participant: No, I don’t think so either.

Alex: I don’t think so. I mean, it’s hard to say because this… Where do protectors… If you look in the Kangyur, the translated words of the Buddha, there are very, very few protector texts in there. There’s a little bit about Mahakala; a little bit about Mahadevi, which is basically Kali from Hinduism. So they basically are taking some of these forceful forms from Hinduism and adopting them into Buddhism.

Well, it’s the whole thing. Did Buddha teach the tantras? Did Buddha teach Mahayana, for that matter? This is something which is controversial. And so did Buddha actually teach these things? Well, it’s in the Kangyur, so shouldn’t it be that Buddha taught them? And the argument that Shantideva gives is perfect. He says that any reason you give for refuting our Mahayana sutras, I could use against you to refute your Hinayana ones. Because they weren’t written down at the time of the Buddha either; they were transmitted orally. And any reason for accepting yours as valid, I could use to assert that ours are valid.

So you can use the same thing with tantra. It’s hard to say. Did Buddha actually teach these? I don’t know. Did Buddha actually manifest as Heruka or Kalachakra and from each of the faces teach a different class of tantra, and at the same time appear on Vulture’s Peak and teach the Prajnaparamita Sutras? And hundreds of zillions of gods and beings from different realms filled the audience, and all the Buddha-fields shook, and all the Buddha-fields in every pore of the Buddha’s skin, and all of that. Think of that. And you could ask the same thing about Muhammad.

Question: Did he talk about any virgins?

Alex: I doubt that also. So, again, this gets into a whole discussion of what texts are authentic and so on, and what did these people actually say, and were they written down accurately or transmitted accurately. These are very difficult questions; very difficult. So in the end, again, we come down to His Holiness’s criterion: if this set of beliefs and practices makes you a kinder person, more compassionate person, it’s a good religion. What else can you say? It’s hard to prove anything in this area.

Question: [unclear] From a more philosophical point of view, should I make a difference between me and God? And it’s ultimately a difference, I think, between the approach of oneness…

Alex: Speaking on a philosophical level, he’s asking is there any way of reconciling the Buddhist approach of voidness and everybody being able to become a Buddha, for example, and the Islamic sense of duality between God being totally transcendent and we being dual, separate from God. Well, again, it depends on which Islamic theory you want to follow. There’s one in terms of – it’s called fanaa in Arabic – of surrender and annihilation into Allah. Do you actually become Allah? Do you become God? Well, that was a heretical view that you find in some Sufis, but mainstream Islam rejects it very strongly. There still was the individuality.

But if you look in terms of Buddhas, although Buddhas – There are many, many Buddhas. They all have the same understanding, the same omniscient mind, but they’re not identical. They retain their individuality. So, again, what do you mean by nondual? It doesn’t mean that everything is one big soup; an undifferentiated soup. And when you say God is One, whether you say it in a Muslim or any of the Biblical senses – God is One; there’s only one God – well, what does that mean? Again, does it mean there’s only one God? God is One. What does it mean? And, again, you can have many, many, different philosophical views of that, just as you can have many views in terms of voidness.

There’s the two truths; but in some Buddhist theories only the deepest truth is really true, so there’s really only one truth in the end. Some of the Tibetan authors will assert that; Shakya Chokden, for example, in Sakya. And everything is one taste in voidness. That doesn’t mean that everything is identical. And dualism – what do we mean by dualism? That there’s a big wall between the mind and its objects, so that they exist independently of each other? Well, that’s refuted in Buddhism. But is that the dualism that you’re referring to between God and his creations? Well, if God created them, there’s no big wall between them, is there? How could he create something that has no relation to him?

So one can analyze this whole thing more and more deeply, and one finds that many of the issues are the same here.

Question: [unclear] …because that’s the root.

Alex: Right. So the question is: When did ethics arise in people? Buddhism has a nice answer for that. It says, speaking of the – this is in abhidharma – the evolution of a world system, it says that in the beginning everybody lived – let’s see if I get it correctly – well, first of all, they didn’t have gross bodies. And then the bodies became a little bit gross. There was some general nectar (or something like that) around that they could just eat; it was free for everybody, not owned by anybody. But then people became a little bit more greedy and they wanted to get more and so, eating this stuff, their bodies became a little bit heavier; more coarse. And, because of that, they developed sexual organs. And then, because of that, desire arose for the opposite sex. And then they started to build houses in order to be able to have sex in private. And then they wanted to have things that belonged to them, so they started hoarding more and more food, and building walls and fields, and things like that. And it was at that point that they needed to have a king to impose ethical laws, so that you had law and order so that the people could live together with each other. So this is the Buddhist explanation of how ethics came about.

Can you come up with a better solution? I don’t know. I mean, you have a bunch of cave people living together and, in order to somehow live in harmony and not kill each other, they had to have some sort of basic ethical laws, didn’t they: Don’t eat your children. Eat the children of other tribes, but don’t eat your own if you want your tribe to survive. I mean, just basic things. That there must have been certain rules. And that would have been established, probably, not so much in consensus – I mean, as the Buddhists say, it was established by a strong leader who came along and said, “Hey, we’ve got to get things in order.” This is how rulership and governments and these sort of things happen. You find that in animals: The strongest gorilla is the head of the pack of gorillas. You have leaders. A queen bee.

Question: One other question. Where does compassion come from? When did it arise? Was it always there?

Alex: Where does compassion come from? His Holiness answers that very nicely. He says it’s part of biology – in terms of mother taking care of the baby.

Participant: [missing]

Alex: Right. So she says that Rifkin… I don’t know who that is. That’s a psychologist, or what?

Participant: No, no. He’s a consultant of the European Union. But he’s a philosopher.

Alex: Oh, sorry. Pardon my ignorance. So philosopher Jeremy Rifkin, a consultant of the European Union, has said that empathy is something which arises biologically. So this echoes what His Holiness always says.

Question: I’m thinking about the question we frequently have in the past about Western enlightenment, the revolution of methods. How it’s different in Islam? So the Pope, for example, said that they never had that. On that basis, in relationship to that…

Alex: Oh, you’re saying that in the West you had the Age of Enlightenment, which was the development of science and so on, and the Pope has said that the Muslims didn’t have that. That’s not correct. You had tremendous emphasis on science among, particularly, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad much earlier than in the West. We’re talking about the end of the eighth, beginning of the ninth century. And you had, what are they called? – the Falsafa sect or something like that. There was a sect in Islam that put a great emphasis on science and philosophy. They were particularly advanced in mathematics. Algebra, after all, is an Arabic word: al-jabr. Astronomy was very well advanced. Medicine. All these things were…

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: Are you talking about the Age of Enlightenment in philosophy?

Participant: Enlightenment means secularization.

Alex: Right. Enlightenment means secularization. It doesn’t have the same meaning as in Buddhism. Enlightenment is a very difficult word. Because in America you can say that – I mean, enlightened really just means modern, you know: President Reagan had an enlightened view of economics, they say. So that doesn’t mean that he was a Buddha; it just meant a very modern, more (supposedly) scientific, rational view. So, enlightened? Now you get into the big problem of how do you translate any of these terms. Enlightenment is not the greatest translation for what they’re talking about in Buddhism. But what are you going to call it? It’s difficult. Nirvana? Well, nirvana is liberation or enlightenment. It’s a term that’s used for both. And these are differentiated in Buddhism, so we need different terms.

Okay. That’s a completely different topic, but science certainly was very, very much in Islam. And in Buddhism you had the study (you had this in Hinduism as well) of the so-called basic sciences, and this included medicine and astrology/astronomy and arts – music, dance, and grammar, composition, meter – these sorts of things. So none of these systems were against the level of science that they had in those days.

Okay. So maybe we end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.