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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > A Meeting of Two Oceans: Dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism

A Meeting of Two Oceans: Dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Sufi scholars
Roshan Center for Persian Studies, University of Maryland,
College Park, Maryland, USA, May 2013
Slightly edited by Alexander Berzin

Wallace Loh (President of the University of Maryland): Good afternoon, I am Wallace Loh, President of the University of Maryland. I wish to welcome all of you, our honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, to this most extraordinary of days. Like the religions of earth, the ocean is a source of life that buoys the spirit; when torn by wind and tide the ocean resembles religious passions. Today we offer a gentle meeting of two oceans, Buddhism and Sufism. This is a rare promising opportunity and we are deeply grateful to all of our guests. Today His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has deeply moved our campus. He is sharing his presence, a radiance of simplicity, kindness and good humor, and we are most grateful to him.

This afternoon we share with His Holiness gifts from scholars of another tradition. Our participants for the University of Maryland’s Roshan Institute for Persian Studies are highly accomplished and respected. They bring us centuries of tradition, erudition and faith. I want to thank Dean Bonny Thornton Dill of the College of Arts and Humanities for giving us this very special opportunity. Dean Dill is internationally recognized for her scholarship on race, gender, work, family and poverty. She is deeply committed to the teaching of the whole person. Please welcome Dean Bonnie Thornton Dill.

Bonnie Thornton Dill (Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities): Good afternoon. I’d like to add my welcome to that of President Loh, and to thank you for attending this very special presentation. We are humbled and deeply appreciative of this opportunity to host His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet in this afternoon’s program, “A Meeting of Two Oceans; Dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism.”

The motto of the College of Arts and Humanities is “Be Worldwise” – a fitting label for what we are about to experience. “To be world-wise” means to embrace the world as a transnational space, to strive to understand the movement and flow of people and ideas and to embrace difference and diversity at home and abroad. Gaining wisdom in this process is the biggest challenge because wisdom requires us to use the knowledge we accumulate to grow, not just intellectually but also emotionally and spiritually, and as His Holiness pointed out earlier today in his talk, it is to understand that with all of that variety there is one common humanity, and when we gain that wisdom, to apply it as a force for good in the world.

As a man of great knowledge and experience who draws on both to promote peace, understanding and harmony, Your Holiness, you epitomize our ideal of what it means “to be world-wise.” Thus it is very special for us and we look forward to learning much from today’s dialogue. In addition to His Holiness, our participants this afternoon include Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali, founder and president of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute; Fatemeh Keshavarz, Roshan Chair for Persian Studies and Director of Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, musician Hossein Omoumi, a master of the ney or end-blown flute; vocalist Jessika Kenney who is sitting next to him; Ahmet T Karamastaffa, Professor of History at the University of Maryland and Academic Development Officer at the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies on campus and Carl W Ernst, Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Co-Director for the Carolina Centre for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.

Before we begin today’s program I also want to recognize, and am delighted to do so, the many contributions of the Venerable Lama Tenzin Dhonden. Lama Tenzin is the Personal Emissary of Peace for His Holiness, whose wise counsel and logistical expertise has guided our dedicated staff through every aspect of planning for this day. We could not have done it without him, and a lot of times people say that and don’t mean it but I really, really mean it here.

It’s now my great honor to introduce Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali who was instrumental in bringing together this unique dialogue on Sufisim and Buddhism. Founder and President of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, Dr Mir-Djalali is a lifelong and unwavering advocate for the preservation and advancement of Persian culture. Under her leadership, Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute has become a premier institution for the preservation, transmission and instruction of Persian culture and studies worldwide, supporting endeavors in the US, Europe and Asia. In 2007 the institute made a leadership gift in support of the Persian Studies Program at this University, strengthening the academic program through funding the Roshan Institute chair in Persian Studies as well as graduate fellowships, undergraduate scholarships and an endowment for the Persian programs. In recognition of this generosity, the Center for Persian Studies within the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures is now known as Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.

For the past two years I have had the privilege of working closely with Dr Mir Djalali and I have come to know her as a person of great integrity. She is brilliant and gracious, humble and determined, words I do not apply lightly and I am honored to call her my friend. As an extension of her work and her multicultural background, Dr Mir Djalali diligently promotes efforts to improve intercultural communication. Born in Iran, she was educated in France and the United States, receiving master’s degrees from the Sorbonne and the Georgetown University and a doctorate with distinction in linguistics from the Sorbonne. She is an accomplished author and has published works in and is fluent in French, English and Persian. In addition to her own writings she has volunteered untold time and energy translating Sufi texts into French and English. In this context she has become a great admirer of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his commitment to shared human values. It is my pleasure to present to you Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali.

Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali: Thank you Dean Thornton Dill. Your remarks are so humbling that I am speechless to reply. Your Holiness, President Wallace Loh and distinguished audience, on behalf of Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute with its mission “Enlightenment through Education” we are pleased and privileged to be able to contribute to this great event, “A Meeting of Two Oceans, Dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism.”

It is a tremendous honor to be in the presence of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet and to have him inspire and guide our dialogue. His Holiness is a paragon of peace; he has taught people throughout the world about solving human problems through transforming humane attitudes, about compassion as the foundation of world peace, and about understanding commonalities in the goals and ethics of all major religions. Recognizing that the world has grown smaller and all peoples have become almost one community, His Holiness has been tireless in his efforts to foster a greater sense of universal responsibility to deal with common threats to our global security and environment. His lifelong work in promoting values of altruism, love and compassion and in particular his non-violent campaign to end Chinese domination of his homeland have been recognized by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

On a personal level, when I first met His Holiness in Dharamsala, India, I was inspired not only by his message of peace and global unity, but also by his warmth and serene presence. I have subsequently read his inspirational writings and followed his lectures and teachings for several days in Toulouse, France, and on multiple other occasions. The teachings of His Holiness have been a continuous reminder of the core values, high moral principles and practices in Sufi teaching from my youth. I make no pretense to being a Sufi expert, rather I am a seeker, a student of that school, and I have devoted years to anonymously translating Sufi texts into French and English, to be shared with other cultures.

As Sufi masters teach us, “Aleyka be qalbeka (You are all what your heart is.”) Sufism is the awakening voice of spiritual inner knowledge, encompassing all ethical precepts of all major religions. The word “Sufism” is a Western expression; it fails to capture the full meaning of Persian word which is “erfan,” from the Arabic root /ARF/, embracing in meaning “arafa,” meaning “knowledge,” “cognition” and “enlightenment.” This message of inner knowledge and altruistic power within each of us is what resonates so forcefully for me in the teachings of His Holiness. In this spirit of shared values, it is with immense gratitude that I wish to thank His Holiness for agreeing to participate in this Dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism. Thanks are due to the University of Maryland and to all those who have worked so hard to make this event happen.

It is also my special pleasure to introduce Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz. Since last year she has served as Director of Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland and occupied the Roshan Institute Chair in Persian Language and Literature. prior to that she taught for over twenty years at Washington University in St Louis, where she chaired the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from 2004 to 2011. She was born and raised in Shiraz, Iran, and educated at Shiraz University and the University of London. She is the author of award-winning books, numerous journal articles and inspirational poetry.

Dr Keshavarz will present a few thoughts on the significance of poetry and music as expressions of spirituality in Sufi practices. She will participate in a welcoming "spiritual gift" to His Holiness, combining the Sufi teaching with /dam/ (human breath) and "reed," the world’s simplest and oldest instrument. May this momentous occasion be an opening to the "Oneness" of all faiths and religions based on shared human values that connect us all together, regardless of ethnicity, gender and social status. Thank you. Dr Keshavarz.

Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz: Thank you Dr Mir-Djalali for your gracious introduction. Your Holiness, it is a great honor for me to be a part of this dialogue on Sufism and Buddhism with you. We call the dialogue “a meeting of two oceans” because we believe Buddhism and Sufism are like two vast oceans with shared treasures. If we dive deep we believe that we can find identical pearls in this ocean. Your Holiness, long before I trained academically as a scholar of Sufi poetry, as a child my family immersed me in Sufi poetry, which was play and education and meditation and worship all at once. I was saying just as you mentioned this morning the significance of education, so a good deal of my education in Sufi poetry came from my family and also my friend and colleague here Ustad Hossein Omoumi, who is both a practitioner and a scholar of music; he got this gift of Sufi music from his family first, before he actually trained. Ustad Omoumi has dedicated his life to exploring the mysteries of the instrument ney or the Persian reed flute, about which we will talk a little bit, but he also has this philosophy that you have to have a deep educational relationship with your student, it’s not just technical practice, you have to develop that relationship.

And also we have with us Miss Jessika Kenney, a vocalist and composer, who is a student of many spiritual traditions herself, including the Javanese Gamelan singing, but nine years ago Jessika attended a performance of Ustad Omoumi and fell in love with Persian Sufi music and asked to be his student. For the past nine years she has been doing that. She says that these nine years have changed the meaning of sounds for her; that now, the sounds are what express the deeper thoughts inside her own feelings rather than just being sounds. As Sufis have for centuries said that the combination of words and melodies could become many, many things, a door to prayer; like opening a moment of prayer for us, awakening the inner thoughts or what Dr Mir-Djalali called “the inner voice” that goes to sleep but to awaken it, music is used for that. And it is also to nurture what you yourself have called “the qualities of the heart.”

Like human breath and heartbeat it is a universal language. It does not need to be translated, so the Sufis see this as a language through which they can speak to the entire world. Persian speakers live with it, they do it in calligraphy as you will see it in a gift we will present to you; they quote it, they sing it, they teach it, so it’s very much a part of their daily life. And images that come from this poetry also become a part of their life, and a very important image is the image of ney or the reed flute itself. [Flute music interlude].

The great Sufi poet of the thirteenth century, Jalal ad-Din Rumi described the reed flute as a human being, a lover, a seeker who has been separated from his or her homeland the way the reed is separated from the reed-bed in order to become a flute. And just as you have yourself described that in Buddhist mythology we could be beings of light who are separated, who are now in the realm of desire, so we might forget about our heavenly origins or light origins, Rumi also tells us that we forget where we belong; we could be so distracted that we forget that we belong to a higher origin and the way we can remember it is to listen, to listen to this inner voice, and so he starts his most important Sufi work with the word “listen.” [Flute music interlude, combined with words of Persian Sufi poetry].

So he says: “Listen to the tale of the reed’s heartfelt pain for it tells the story of every separation. Since they tore me from the reed bed where I belong, people have uttered their sorrow through my song.”

[More music and poetry.]

So he says: “Let this separation tear my heart to pieces so I can put the pain of longing into words, because whoever was left far from his home, his origin, would surely seek reunion with his kin.”

For Sufis, the engine for this seeking, this seeking of the origin, is love; “the force, the fire that gives the warmth to my voice.” Rumi says, “That is love.” And love for the Sufis is not a theoretical concept. Yes, they can talk about it in theory a lot, but it is experience that matters. They believe that we must allow ourselves to taste love. The concept of taste is very important, and it’s only then that we recognize the transforming qualities of love, which is why Rumi says “love shows itself in the way the heart weeps”; so it shows itself rather than describes itself, or rather than us describing it. This yearning gives a seeker the strength to move forward, and yet the yearning itself cannot be explained or described because it does not have a form.

Rumi says, “I talked and talked to describe and demystify love, but when I came to love, I realized that I had done a very poor job because it could not be described; but when tasted, love will be imprinted on the heart.” And so, it is the job of Sufi poetry and music to bring that taste, taste of that formlessness, or that formless beauty, to the seeker.

[More flute music and singing of poetry.]

Your Holiness, I would now like to introduce to you Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa, distinguished scholar of Sufism and a Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He will speak briefly about the main concepts in Sufism.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: Thank you, Dr Keshavarz. Your Holiness, esteemed colleagues and guests, it’s a rare privilege to be able to present some key concepts of Sufism to Your Holiness, for your consideration, and I am honored to do so. Buddhism and Sufism are indeed vast oceans, and since it will not be possible for me to touch on all major aspects of Sufism in the time allotted to me, I will direct your attention to features of Sufi thought and practice that I believe will resonate with Buddhism concerns. Let me start with the Sufi focus on the self. It will not be an exaggeration to say that at the heart of all Sufi endeavors is the attempt to control and reform the individual. According to Sufis, each and every human person is endowed with a spiritual core, but that spiritual core is normally covered over by the petty, everyday concerns of human life and it lies dormant, sleeping. The human individual thus tends to be self-centered and selfish in everyday social life, yet the spiritual heart can be awakened by divine signs that exist within and around us, and as we’ve seen, Sufis believe that poetry and music are especially rich in this regard. And once awakened, the spiritual heart can grow, and gradually replace the petty, lower self that suppressed it in the first place. This process of controlling and eventually replacing the lower self with the spiritual heart is often seen as a long and arduous journey, during which the heart needs to be nurtured with care and patience.

On this journey, the Sufi tries to dismantle the social, everyday self, to peel it off, layer by layer, in order to uncover the heart, and then works to cultivate the spiritual organ, the heart, in order to become one with it. This journey, from selfishness to selflessness, from the lower self to the higher, reformed spiritual personhood is fundamental to all Sufi thought and practice. Interestingly, as the Sufi progresses from one station to the next on this journey, he or she begins to approach all beings with a sense of deep, existential humility and unwavering altruism. By erasing any and all traces of self-centeredness through the cultivation of the spiritual heart, the Sufi has turned the self into a mirror that faithfully reflects the whole of being: all is one, everything is interconnected; we are all united in this quest we call “life.” With this realization, the Sufi is transformed into a selfless servant who labors incessantly to improve the lot of others. He or she aims to rescue people from the depths of selfishness and direct them toward the height of connectedness. The Sufi becomes the node that connects; more accurately he or she becomes the mirror that reflects the deep interconnectedness of all existence. The erasure of self-centeredness has unlocked the treasures hidden in the spiritual heart, which are love, compassion and altruism; and the Sufi distributes the riches from these treasures unquestioningly and freely to anyone and everyone.

As the altruistic link that connects all beings, the Sufi lives in the thick of social life. There is no escape from society into the wilderness, no withdrawal into cloistered communities. Even when periods of isolation are required for the Sufi to polish the spiritual heart, he or she rarely abandons regular social life altogether. This commitment to society and to communal living is the hallmark of Sufism. This is the reason why Sufis organize themselves into communities around renowned Sufi masters, but nevertheless refuse to separate themselves out from society as distinct groups. They live as regular people within their larger communities, urban or rural. Their organizations often literally become community centers that provide all kinds of services to the larger society around them in the form of food, shelter, spiritual and material assistance, religious guidance, therapy, socialization, education and genuinely nourishing entertainment.

This embeddedness of the Sufis in society, this communal instinct, this socially engaged face marks the completion of the Sufi journey. The Sufi has conquered and tamed the petty lower self, replaced it with a higher, spiritual sense of personhood and turned the springs of love and compassion that flow forth from that spiritual person to selfless service to all beings.

I believe that much in this Sufi journey will resonate with the major Buddhist concerns as articulated so eloquently and forcefully in the life work of Your Holiness, and I look forward to hearing your comments with real anticipation. But first, I’d like to introduce our next speaker, my distinguished colleague and friend, Carl Ernst. Our Dean already told you that he is from the University of North Carolina, he is a specialist in Islamic studies with a focus on West and South Asia. His published research is devoted mainly to three areas: general and critical areas of Islamic studies, Sufism and Indo-Muslim culture. It’s a privilege to have Carl here with us, so it’s all yours, Carl.

Carl Ernst: Thank you very much Ahmet, it is indeed a special privilege and an honor to be called on to present to His Holiness the Dalai Lama some remarks on the past and future encounters between Hindus, Buddhists and Sufis and I am grateful for this opportunity. Doubtless there are some who will question the possibility of genuine engagement between these spiritual traditions, particularly in view of the strict beliefs sometimes associated with the Islamic environment in which Sufism arose. People may, indeed, be disturbed by the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims that have marred the history of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And they may well be troubled by the fault lines that exist between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma; and beyond the memories of religious difference, there is the simple fact of particularity; that is, within the historical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, there are deep and particular loyalties and allegiances to specific lines of teachers and local centers of spiritual power that together define the spiritual perspectives of millions of seekers.

Although early European scholars speculated that Sufism was somehow derived from Hinduism or Buddhism, it is hard to deny that much of the practice of Sufism is profoundly connected to the prophet Mohammad as the source of the master-disciple relationship, and the Quranic revelation which the Sufis read and read as a book of the heart. Nevertheless, it has also been the case that non-Muslims have also been powerfully attracted to the teachings of Sufism that address universal aspirations and longings of the human spirit. So, the thirteenth-century Christian thinker, Ramon Llull learned Arabic and composed writings on love in the style of the Sufis. Likewise, Abraham Maimonides, grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher, wrote extensively on the inner path or tariqah of Sufism, which he saw as being very much in harmony with Judaism.

More extensively, for centuries, generations of Persian-speaking Hindu scholars were employed as secretaries in the Mughal Empire and trained in the study of classical Persian poetry. Since so much of Persian literature is saturated with the teachings of Sufism, it is not surprising that many of these Hindu scholars were deeply affected by the mystical insights of Rumi and Hafez and others. The story of these remarkable encounters between Hindus and Sufis, including many translations of Sanskrit writings into Persian, has been overshadowed by political conflicts that dominate modern history; but scholars, I am happy to say, are increasingly turning to study these fascinating episodes as important illustrations of the way in which complex cultural and spiritual engagements had actually taken place.

In the case of Buddhism, it might be said that the encounter with Sufism is an opportunity that is waiting to happen. There were some moments in the past when the dialogue might have taken place between Sufis and Buddhists, but it remained tantalizingly incomplete. The Central Asian Sufi teacher, Ala ud-Daula Simnani was forced by the Mongol ruler Arghun to engage in debates with Buddhist monks – something that he emotionally resisted; but it is remarkable to see that the system of meditation that he developed, which included visualizing representations of the previous prophets as figures of light inside the body, echoes important spiritual practices of Mahayana Buddhism.

Official Islamic teachings have long rejected idolatry, which was known in Persian as the worship of the bhut, a word derived from Buddha; but esoteric commentaries in Sufi texts praise the idol worship that consists of adoring “the true beloved,” whether it is God or the Sufi master. It is difficult to sum up in a moment the aspirations that may connect the spiritual visions of Hindus, Buddhists and Sufis, but one may speculate that the connection should include as Dr Mir-Djalali has pointed out, and as you yourself have mentioned, Your Holiness, a profound knowledge of the inner spirit and an empathy and recognition of the humanity of others. This is a historic moment when we can try to visualize the forms that such spiritual encounters may take today. I look forward to the reflections of Your Holiness on this significant process. Thank you.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I know a Sufi spiritual leader. I’m not sure where he comes from, but he lives in Paris, and I met him there on a few occasions at some interfaith meetings. He’s a very nice, old bearded person. One strange thing was that he had a very young son who wanted to study, and was sent to study Buddhism in India for a few months. It’s quite unusual, and that old master seemed really keen to learn more about Buddhist thought. That’s my personal contact with the Sufis.

After our meetings, people would say that there are many similarities between certain Sufi and Buddhist practices, but I didn’t have much knowledge or experience regarding Sufism. So when it was expressed that the very name “Sufi” in Persian means “knowledge” or “cognition,” it shows an emphasis on wisdom and analysis. This is similar to one Buddhist aspect, particularly the Sanskrit tradition, whereby through analysis and investigation, things become clearer and clearer. So this emphasis on wisdom and not just on faith is one similarity. Then, in your presentations, there seems to be some sort of different levels. On a deeper level, there is some kind of pure, altruistic nature, and on the grosser level, there are destructive emotions.

So this indicates a need for investigation, and then the process of eliminating these negative emotions. If we were by nature our negative emotions, then we could not be separate from them. That would be very difficult. So you make the distinction between the deeper and grosser levels, and with a deeper understanding of this deeper “I,” then the grosser level destructive emotions can be reduced or eliminated. This is also similar to Buddhist thinking. You also mentioned about the use of the imagination and visualization, which we use in Buddhism.

When I heard about this program, I was very eager to learn more. My knowledge about Sufism is zero and today I gained some new ideas. But of course my knowledge is still limited, so I’m not sure how to comment further. Basically, I believe that all major religious traditions use different methods. So, most theistic religions advise total faith in and total submission to God. In order to increase this element of faith, the concept of God as a creator came, where you are nothing but one piece of the creation of God. This type of strong belief automatically reduces a self-centered attitude. For Buddhists, we say that there is no independent self, in order to counter a self-centered attitude. They are different approaches but have more or less the same effect in reducing a self-centered attitude, which is the base of anger, jealousy, suspicion and all the other negative emotions. Because extremely selfish feelings are a source of problems, all major religions teach about love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and so on. All those religions that ultimately believe in God describe God as infinite love, and through a firm conviction in the greatness of this love, it helps bring about enthusiasm to practice love and compassion.

Now this visit seems to have a greater emphasis on wisdom. There was a leader of one small group in Ithaca, a really wonderful person who believed that all the different traditions, particularly the different Indian traditions, must be the same. He thought that all the important parts must be the same and with this belief he tried to make clear the sameness of all these philosophies, but he told me that he found it very difficult to do this. Since we were close friends, one time when he complained to me about trying to reconcile all the differences and contradictions between the different philosophies, I told him that what he was doing was probably extra, unnecessary work.

All of the great Buddhist masters raised a lot of different questions and arguments with the other ancient Indian traditions. One master, Dharmakirti, really wanted to learn about the philosophies he argued against, but it was difficult because the deeper concepts were given orally by the guru to one or two trusted disciples, never written down or given publicly. Although for a short while he became the servant of a Hindu master, it was still very difficult to get these secret teachings. Then he requested the guru’s wife, who told the guru that their servant was so devoted and wanted to learn more, but it still didn’t work. Then the wife thought of one trick, which was to hide Dharmakirti under the bed while the wife asked the guru questions and Dharmakirti listened. So, these great Buddhist logicians firstly thoroughly studied, then raised questions in religious debates. Even within Buddhism, they raise lots of questions and argue, so we now have four main schools of thought, which we can subdivide even further. Through debate, different views come, just like that. Therefore I told my friend that it is difficult because all of those great Buddhist masters with full knowledge of different traditions accepted that there are differences.

If you look at the classical Indian writings, many of the masters who were really seasoned in their way of engaging in debate with other traditions had an accepted norm that you could not simply put up a straw man in other positions and then tear it down. They would very thoroughly study what they were debating against, in order to do it justice as a standpoint to be critiqued. That these masters spent so much energy and effort into really fine-tuning their understanding of their opponent’s points really suggests that they took the differences and distinctions quite seriously. So there are differences, and it’s not necessary to make everything the same.

I also mentioned before that within Buddhism, there are different philosophical views, many of which were taught by the Buddha himself – different views but from the same teacher, the Buddha. I tell people that these contradictory philosophies came from the Buddha not because he wasn’t certain, one day teaching something and the next day teaching something else, certainly not. It also wasn’t that the Buddha was confused or that he taught different philosophical views in order to create confusion among his disciples, not at all! The answer is that it is necessary. Among the Buddha’s own disciples, there were many different dispositions, and so many different approaches were required. In the spiritual field, different approaches means different philosophical views, all necessary and all aiming at a wonderful goal: for the entirety of humanity to be sensible, compassionate human beings. So this is my approach and way of thinking, instead of trying to make everything one or the same.

So as these Sufi specialists have mentioned, there are similarities between the Sufi and Buddhist approaches. But still, Buddhism, like Jainism and the ancient Indian philosophical tradition known as the Samkhya philosophy, these three have no concept of an external creator – we ourselves are the creators. Things happen due to our actions and our motivation. But we do need to make a distinction. In the Buddhist tradition, since causality and invoking causal principles are so important to account for the origin of everything, a distinction is drawn between the causal origin of sentient beings and non-sentient, inanimate objects. Although both happen due to their own causes, within the law of causality, pain and pleasure are only experienced by beings that have cognitive ability.

Of course, with singing and music, all traditions have a common practice. We know from our own experience that even though it may be the same or similar words, the way we say it or string it along to music can have different effects on the listener. So this is another similarity, but then sometimes people become too attached to the instruments and music, and forget the real meaning. Many Tibetan monasteries really love rituals, because they are an opportunity to use the instruments, but they never pay sufficient attention to studying. In these situations, it’s like a certain Tibetan master once said about “people clinging on to the branches while forgetting to look after the roots.”

Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz: Your Holiness, probably since you, I think very wisely referred to the fact that there are tremendous similarities but also differences and it is also interesting to look at them, in the case of music for example it is seen as a way to reach the roots, not as something to disengage you. So in other words, it is a tool that opens your heart so that you could meditate. Probably meditation is similar to that, rather than entertainment, rather than just pastime, so it is a kind of form of prayer. But I also wanted to ask you, as a student of the Sufi tradition I always grew up thinking that God is a part of us, that there isn’t really a border. It’s not a creator who’s separate from me; it’s a source of light inside me that if I took care of it, if I nourished it, then there would be no border between me and God. And I think it wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that many Sufis will tell you that, that we live in this human form but we have the ability to open the door, and then there would be that drop that falls into the ocean; it’s not a drop anymore, it’s the ocean. So I think ...

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I think you mentioned a different level of the “self” – a deeper level that Buddhist literature sometimes calls “Buddha-nature,” which is our potential to become a Buddha, or we could say “God.” Recently during some seminars in India with my Christian friends, one person had some sort of different interpretation, that God is within ourselves, and our practices awaken this. This was new to me, and it seems that Sufism has the same idea that praying to and believing in God is actually a way to awaken this, which is very similar to Buddhist practice.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: That’s exactly what I was trying to get at as well, that essentially it’s an attempt to peel off the covers that we basically conceal from ourselves, what you call “the deep self,” and the deep self essentially is a discovery that “it’s all one”; that we’re all interconnected and that’s why then love and compassion and the selflessness flows out. But we have to work on that; and the prayer, the song, the music, yes, it’s just like peeling off.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s interpreter: The metaphor of peeling off is very similar; we find exactly the same metaphor in Buddhist texts.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa ... and in Sufism too, in fact [woman’s voice interjects: “an onion that you peel”] there are numbers given sometimes to help people realize how difficult it is, “there are seventy thousand veils” that cover, seventy thousand veils that cover and you have to peel them off, one by one, one by one, until you actually uncover the deep, hidden truth.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s interpreter: In the Buddhist classical texts, one speaks of 84,000 forms of afflictions.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: You have more [laughter].

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: So even the number is a similarity. To be frank, although the texts speak of 84,000 forms of afflictions, when you get to the specifics, the presentations are much more general, with classifications of 21,000 belonging to this category and 21,000 belong to that category [laughter].

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: It’s exactly the same, essentially on the Sufi journey too, which is then categorized into larger stages and stations and each one of which have a number of obstacles along the way and you work on them, hoping that ultimately you get to the spiritual heart. And once you do, then the self, the self-centered being, is no longer there, it’s no longer left: and that’s the drop, that’s when the drop reaches the ocean and becomes one with it, I think, that’s the idea, and that’s the ...

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Talking again of parallels, in the Buddhist texts we have the metaphor not so much of “drops,” but of different streams converging in the oneness of the ocean.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: Yes, yes, definitely.

Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz: Your Holiness, you do quote poetry and short pieces in your books; I was wondering if you used poetry for inspiration and meditation, is this a part of your tradition?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Usually, all of those texts and verses written by the ancient Indian masters, we have to actually memorize these texts from our childhood. These days when I meditate, I recite some of the verses and then reflect upon the meaning. This is very, very helpful. Among Buddhist practitioners, some meditators use music as a part of the chanting for the more inspirational verses, but it’s not a big part of my approach.

There is a story of one practitioner living a hermit life, with some other hermits also around him. Each one remained separate and one hermit would sing certain prayers or verses, and the sound would gradually get weaker until it stopped. One hermit thought that maybe he fell asleep, so he quietly checked and saw the hermit in full meditation. This indicated that this particular meditator was using chanting and singing in tunes as a way of getting to a certain state of mind. He would arrive there and the sound would diminish, fading away when he settled into a single-pointed state, which is something like “beyond voice.” When there is a tune, the ear consciousness is still working, and when the real meditation comes, the five sense organs are no longer active.

Professor Ahmet Karamastaffa: Your Holiness, the same thing exists in the Sufi practice, which is that of doing what we would call the “zikr,” which is the mantra, the formulas that you basically repeat, either musically or sometimes just recitation. Many Sufis believe that while you may actually sing that or say it out loud, therefore it takes sensory form, but it really needs to be internalized, so the more often you say it, then ultimately it becomes part of your mind and your heart, so that even if you stop, and if you appear to be silent, the zikr, the recollection, the chanting continues in you. And that’s how the idea is expressed, and sometimes it is in your blood, it’s in your spirit, it’s no longer sensory, it’s not any longer something that you can hear or see, but the person has become the chant, that’s the idea.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In the Indian Tibetan tradition there are many different forms of recitation, some done in a much stronger voice, some done in a more whispering style, and some with just mental repetition, with no sound.

Carl Ernst: I should add that there is a tradition amongst some Sufis who have studied yoga, and have found the repetition of some of the Sanskrit mantras to be very similar to the Arabic names of the zikr, and so the recitation of these syllables that somehow connect us with the inner being open up new levels of awareness.

Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali : Your Holiness, I know that time is short, but when you were speaking about the monk and the meditation and the repetition and it calmed down, it reminded me of a line of Rumi which says: “Words can be counted, but silence is immeasurable,” so that ultimately you get to that level.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Recently I met one Hindu practitioner. He spoke and understood English but his disciple told me that for the last twenty-two years this practitioner had remained in complete silence. Twenty-two years! Difficult. We have some practices where we keep a certain period of complete silence. I also practice this, but even for one week, it’s very difficult to remain silent. It needs mindfulness, otherwise words always come up!

Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali: Your Holiness, it is now my task to bring this gathering to a close. They are telling me it’s time, although we are still very hungry to hear more and more about this comparative study, but we don’t want to tire you. Since you have traveled a very long journey from India, that is sixteen hours travel time, we don’t want to tire you further and it is time to close this event, if you allow me.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: This kind of talk is really wonderful. We can seriously discuss similarities and when we find difference, it’s useful to try and understand what the real purpose of these different approaches is. We will find, as I mentioned before, the same goal. We really need more of these meetings, firstly on a scholarly, academic level, to discuss the similarities and differences and to see what the purposes of them are. Then there need to be meetings with serious practitioners, although of course there is no use in that master who spent twenty-two years in complete silence coming here [laughter]!

Tibetans and also the Chinese are fond of building huge statues, Buddha statues or some other important figures. Last year, one Tibetan group constructed a huge statue and invited me to consecrate it. I went and participated and gave a lecture on Buddhism. I am a Buddhist so I respect that huge statue, but at the same time, the solid statue may remain for a thousand years, but in those thousand years, the statue will never speak [laughter and applause]! So human beings who practice silence, it’s useless for them to participate, unless they have some ability to perform miracles. Anyway, genuine, serious practitioners who practice for many years should come together and exchange their different experiences. This, I think, is very important to show they have the same potential and same sort of effect.

Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali: Your Holiness, they do that in private, they don’t open up to the public, for the same reasons as you mentioned, that there are so many levels of understanding and interpretation of what is being said, that, because of the fear of being misunderstood by most, those serious practitioners remain silent and only exchange though and ideas among each other. Rumi and Shams Tabrizi are good examples, along with many others – so many of the real practitioners don’t open up to the public. They give teachings to the public by speaking a contradictory language, just as you mentioned about Buddha and some of his teaching being contradictory. Sufi Masters do the same because they argue that in any large audience, everybody will understand what they can, and what they want and/or are able to hear from the teaching. So, in order to avoid confusion over complex and hard to understand concepts, they only speak among each other...  because they have reached to a point where less misunderstandings can occur.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Even then, it doesn’t need to be in public, but just a selection of ten or twenty practitioners who can exchange their deeper, real experiences. It will be immensely helpful in understanding the value of different traditions, which is very, very important. Now the time has come when we must make an effort in promoting religious harmony in order to develop genuine harmony. We must make every effort to develop mutual respect and understanding – not from scholarly words or beautiful presentations, but from real spiritual experience.

I tried to communicate with some Hindu practitioners recently. Two months ago was the Kumbh Mela, a huge gathering of almost seventy million pilgrims every twelve years, and I’ve participated in the last three occasions. The last time, I wanted to participate, but the weather didn’t permit my chartered plane to leave from Dharamsala. So God wasn’t willing [laughter]! I sent a message there saying that I want to meet those practitioners who appear completely naked. I have been told that some of these people remain years and decades in the snow mountains without any sort of clothing, so they must have some experience. We have a special sort of practice to cultivate and generate heat, without that you can’t survive in the snow. I really wanted to meet such people, but then the weather wasn’t permitting!

So I really appreciate your efforts in organizing this, and I am looking forward to more of this kind of meeting, not for publicity but simply to try and get a deeper understanding about different traditions, their real teachings and effects, and so on.

Dr Elahé Omidyar Mir Djalali: Today's event has been historical, hopefully the first of many based on His Holiness’s guidance. Hoping that this will be just a beginning of sincere dialogue between all religions, we appreciate Your Holiness' graceful participation and thank the University of Maryland and all participants. I also want to thank the audience for being here to benefit from His Holiness' guidance and to enjoy this meaningful exchange.

Roshan Institute has prepared a gift for Your Holiness as a memorabilia of this first time meeting between Buddhism and Sufism. It is a Persian handwritten (calligraphy) poem, which reads... may I read it? [reads in Persian]:

/qeyre notq-oqeyre imâ-o sejel/
/sad hezaran tarjomân khazad ze del/


The translation is: “Besides words, allusions and arguments, the heart knows a hundred thousand ways to speak.” It’s all about the heart.