Some Common Features of Islam and Buddhism: A Conversation with Snjezana Akpinar and Alex Berzin

Slightly revised from the original published version:
“The Dharma of Islam: A Conversation with Snjezana Akpinar and Alex Berzin.”
Inquiring Mind (Berkeley, California), vol. 20, no. 1 (fall 2003).

By kind permission of The Berzin Archives

Many in the West are ignorant about and fearful of Islam. With the hope of defraying some common misunderstandings and exploring resonances between Islam and Buddhism, Inquiring Mind set up a conversation between Alex Berzin and Snjezana Akpinar. Alex Berzin lived for 29 years in Dharamsala India, where he served as an occasional interpreter for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany, where he teaches Tibetan Buddhist meditation and philosophy. On his numerous world lecture tours, he has explored the historical interaction between the Buddhists and the Muslims. In doing research for his online history book, The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, he has addressed universities in Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt and spoken with scholars in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Snjezana Akpinar’s practice is Buddhism, but her studies are in Islam. While she is originally from the Republic of Croatia in the former Yugoslavia, her father, a well-known Buddhist scholar, went to Sri Lanka in his old age and became a monk. Akpinar spends half of the week at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Chinese Buddhist Monastery in Northern California, teaching Buddhists about the West, and the other half at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, offering courses in Islam and comparative religion, teaching Christians about the East.

Inquiring Mind: Alex, you have mostly presented Buddhism to the Islamic world. What do you emphasize when you do that, and how is it received?

Alex Berzin: My approach has been to learn from the Muslim audiences. I’ve explained to them that I think that Islam has been highly misrepresented in the standard histories—where it is basically indicated that the Muslims came into Buddhist cultures and destroyed everything. Actually, there was a long interaction between Buddhism and Islam that was very constructive. When you look at the destructive aspects, it seems that these were primarily motivated by economic and political considerations rather than religious ones. So, I’ve asked for clarification on this historical interaction.

In a natural way, this has then led the Muslim audiences to ask about Buddhism. In the various theological institutes I have visited in the Islamic world, the Islamic scholars have been very interested in the whole discussion of God. I had learned from my experience in Indonesia, which is an Islamic country, that there was no way that you say to an Islamic audience, “Buddhism doesn’t believe in God.” That would lead to the instant closing of the door. In Indonesia, there is a policy that five religions are accepted due to their belief in God: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. The Indonesian Buddhists had suggested Buddhism’s belief in God by speaking in terms of Adibuddha. This was from the Kalachakra (Cycle of Time) teachings, which had been spread to Indonesia a little more than a thousand years ago. Adibuddha means, literally, the first or primordial Buddha. The Indonesian Buddhists themselves didn’t have a full understanding of Adibuddha. But without explaining it, they said, “Here we have the equivalent of God.” Naturally, when I came to Indonesia, the Indonesian Buddhists asked me what Adibuddha actually meant. I explained to them that you could speak about it in terms of the clear light mind. In each person, this is the creator of our appearances, what we perceive; so in this sense it’s like a creator.

Using this general interpretation of Adibuddha, I was able to enter into dialogue with Islamic scholars in other countries. Islamic scholars have tended to be very open to this because in Islam, Allah is not personified. Likewise, this creative power within each mind – which might be seen as something like a creator god found in each person – also is not personified.

As presented in the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Adibuddha is beyond words, beyond concepts, unimaginable. Islamic scholars could relate to this very well. Also, the basic principles of love and compassion inherent to these teachings made Islamic scholars very open to knowing more about Buddhism.

Historically, the Buddhists in areas like Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent were not recognized by the Muslim rulers as “people of the Book” in the strict Quranic usage of the term to refer to Christians and Jews. Nevertheless, Buddhists received the same status and rights as “people of the Book.” This meant that they could keep their religion, so long as they paid a special poll tax. So, in my dialogues with Muslim scholars, we explored together what is meant by “ people of the Book.” I met with one West African Sufi leader from Guinea who explained that “people of the Book” meant people who believed in some higher abstract principle of ethics and morality that, in a sense, created or orders the world. It does not necessarily mean people who accept the Old Testament. Also, in my later investigations, what struck me was that in Old Turk and Sogdian , the ancient languages in which Buddhist texts were available in translation in present-day Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan, the term Dharma was translated with the Greek loan word nom, which originally meant “law.” Later, the word nom for Dharma was borrowed from Sogdian into other Central Asian languages into which Buddhist texts were translated, such as Uighur (a Turkic language) and Mongolian. In modern Mongolian, “nom” is not only the word for “Dharma,” it has also taken on the additional meaning of “ book,” in the sense of the books that contain the Dharma in written form.

IM: But Buddhists don’t really even have a book in the same way as Muslims, Christians, and Jews have the Old Testament of the Bible in common?

AB: No, but the issue of “the Book” indicates the importance of ethical laws as the basis for religious dialogue and harmony.

Snjezana Akpinar: I follow a similar line of thought. It’s interesting to remember that the father of many aspects of Turkic culture before they became Muslims was Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan), who conquered and ruled them according to what’s called yasa which means “the law.” Of course, this was a more worldly law, but the concept of yasa is very similar to the concept of Dharma. It is an eternal law that turns the world.

AB: The point, I think, is that you need to find a common usage of terminology that leaves followers of the two religions open for dialogue.

SA: Yes. Islamic teachings on the Sharia can sound quite Buddhist in a certain sense. The Arabic word sharia, which means “the grand boulevard” or “the street,” is the law that people need to obey in order for traffic to move easily in the world. These are just the parameters that allow people to live in harmony. According to the sharia, you have to know how to deal with your instincts, your doubts, and your intuition. So the sharia is not a set of precepts, but a set of methods used in order to come to the truth; it’s almost a meditation.

And tariqah or “the path” is very often described as the middle of the sharia. If you think of the sharia as the circumference of a circle, the tariqah leads you to the middle of it. If you think of the sharia as a sphere, the tariqah is the center of the sphere, which connects you with other spheres. It is a direct path to God, which is the unknown, the nothingness.

So there are concepts in Islam that are very similar to Buddhist ones. Most of them came from Central Asia to begin with, so they most likely had something to do with Buddhism, even on a historical level. It is interesting to note further links between Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. The theology of al-Ghazali, the great theologian of Islam, is what prompted Thomas Aquinas to write his theology around the concepts of faith and reason. These issues had been discussed in Central Asia among Buddhists and non-Buddhists in very great detail.

AB: Concepts like jihad, meaning “proper effort ,” also have resonances with Buddhist teachings.

SA: Your thinking can be a jihad. Everything you do can be a jihad.

AB: The martial quality suggested by the term jihad also is found in much Buddhist terminology. This is not surprising. After all, Buddha himself came from a military, ruling caste. Having exerted proper effort, the Buddha is described as the Triumphant One, who won the battle over the disturbing emotions. So where does that battle take place? It takes place within the mind; it’s a fight against ignorance, greed, attachment, anger, and hatred.

Also there was a lot of influence back and forth between the Sufi movement and Buddhism in Central Asia and India. You find practices in Sufism similar to mantra recitation. Just as Sufis recite the names of God, Buddhists praise the names of Manjushri. In addition, there are practices that are understandable to both Muslims and Buddhists, including, circumambulation and pilgrimage. In both religions, there’s a big emphasis on generosity and on everyone being equal. It’s difficult to say, concerning individual features, whether the influence came from one side or the other, or whether they developed independently of each other.

SA: Over the centuries, there has been much direct contact between India and the Persian Gulf. In the early periods, Basra was a thriving port and whenever people were seriously ill in the Persian Gulf, they tended to sail off to Bombay because the monsoon would take them there quickly. From very early on, as well, there were exchanges on theological matters.

AB: Baghdad, of course, was built by Indian architects as the capital of the new Abbasid dynasty. During the second half of the ninth century, there was a house of knowledge in Baghdad; Buddhist and Hindu translators came there to translate various texts into the local language, Arabic. So there was a great deal of intercultural contact there. One of the big areas of exchange was science, particularly astronomy, astrology and medicine.

SA: And also philosophy. A fault, I would say, of the West is that whenever philosophy is discussed in the Muslim context, it’s always linked to Greece, but many of these philosophical concepts actually didn’t come from Greece, but from India or the East.

AB: This dialogue of Muslim spiritual leaders with leaders of other religions is continuing, particularly by people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness once asked me to find for him a West African Black Sufi leader – it was very, very specific – to discuss the two religions. Such a leader almost fell out of the sky. It was Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, the hereditary Sufi leader of Guinea, West Africa, whom I mentioned earlier, and whom I met through a common German friend in the diplomatic corps. I accompanied him to Dharamsala for meetings with His Holiness. The topic they were most interested in discussing was compassion. In the West African form of Sufism, the main principle is love and compassion. This Sufi leader was so moved by his experience with His Holiness, that he came to a Kalachakra initiation His Holiness held in Graz, Austria last October.

SA: Every single chapter of the Quran starts with an invocation of God the Merciful and Compassionate. I look at the Quran basically as an interpretation of the Old Testament, because everybody knew the stories of the Old Testament in the days of Mohammed. But, what Mohammed injected into the ancient tradition of the Semites is the concept of compassion within divine law. Developing the traditional saying, “an eye for an eye,” he pointed out that God is compassionate, and if you can find that compassion within you, so much the better. But, if you can’t, then at least take only one eye and not more. So, throughout the Quran, there is a toning down of the law of retribution .

There is a beautiful story from Islam that addresses the big issue: why do Muslims fight? At first, Mohammed, like every other prophet inspired by God, was nonviolent. But, his community was dying out and they were being attacked. Finally, he saw that he couldn’t restrain his followers any longer from fighting. That’s when Mohammed uttered his famous saying: “I see that I cannot stop this, so if you have to fight, fight. But don’t forget that from now on the burden of your deeds will be upon you, and your religion will not be pure unless you become responsible for the burden of your deeds.” There’s the law of karma in that teaching.

The word qadr means force. Usually, in the West, you also look at qadr as fate. However, the word fate can be seen as karma as well. Note how Mohammed continued, “When you have your enemy pinned down with your sword at his throat, and he is begging for mercy, if you can find an expression of compassion within you, the best thing to do is to forgive him then and there and turn your enemy into a friend. If you cannot find a speck of compassion within you for that person , then go ahead and kill him. But try to find that compassion because you are responsible to God.”

Many of the very early Muslims actually were converted on the battlefield. But, the idea is that it’s not the one who’s being spared but the one who’s granting life who becomes a better person.

IM: So with the current Islamic jihad, where does this compassion fit in?

SA: It doesn’t seem to fit in. Today, we have some very militant versions of Islam that have broken off with traditional lineage. These Neo-Muslims very often claim that there is no need to learn the Quran, even though it’s the holy book, the very basis of Islam. For them, it’s enough to learn the first and the second chapters, and forget the rest. Once you start doing that, you cripple the faith.

AB: It is very important to emphasize that this is a small minority of Muslims who are militant, fanatic, and fundamentalist. You have fundamentalist fanatics in every religion, including Buddhism.

IM: Are there teachings in Islam that would lead to or justify suicide bombing?

SA: I don’t think there are any more than in any other religion. We can look at the Zen monks in Vietnam that incinerated themselves during the Vietnam War. There is no part of Buddhism that I know that will sanction doing that. You are supposed to honor and respect all life. In Islam, as in the Christian world, you can have martyrs. Suicide bombers claim they are martyrs; but, they kill themselves. The first rule is, “Thou shalt not kill,” particularly not yourself. These people are not martyrs; they are just “suiciders.”

IM: Many Buddhists in the West know of Islam primarily through the Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz, who emphasize complete love and devotion to God or God as manifest through all things. While people love those poets and love that sort of approach, the enraptured love they speak of doesn’t seem to have a big place in most of the Buddhism that many Western Buddhists have adopted, which is silent meditation and inner investigation.

SA: There are many Muslims who are not ecstatic, as well. That poetry is very strong and probably has its roots in Hinduism, or in other Indian devotional traditions. But, there is another tradition from Central Asia that bridges Islam and Buddhism in a very interesting way. It’s what the Chinese would call “matching couplets” or quatrains. In the Turkic languages, it’s called koshma, which means “that which runs through your mind.” It’s a thought you capture as it’s running away; a thought that you should let go, but you capture anyway. You write a couplet, and add a final line that turns the meaning around, saying something that doesn’t make sense. It’s a koan in essence. Famous poets like Omar Khayyam drew on that, as did many Sufis, particularly those of Central Asia . A famous folk poet from Turkey, Uris Amray, also well known as a Sufi, is a good example. Many of his poems start with a contemplation over a grave in the cemetery, which is a common form of meditation.

IM: Is there any silent meditation in Sufism?

SA: Yes, depending on the order. Some orders scream out and yell, holler, and dance. Others are silent.

AB: On the other hand, the devotional aspect you find in many of the Sufi traditions can also be found among Westerners who practice in many Mahayana Buddhist centers. Many Buddhist practitioners love to gather together to chant and sing, and some engage on so-called “ vajra-dances.”

IM: Could you talk more about Allah in comparison to the concepts of God in other religions and to related teachings in Buddhism?

SA: The important difference between the concept of God in Islam as compared to the concept of God in Christianity or Judaism is that God is not in this world. God is something that is totally beyond the world. In Islam, we don’t even have a spark of God in ourselves. We can only reflect an aspect of God. If our hearts are pure, then our hearts become mirrors that reflects the great NO (thing).

AB: Buddhism has certain aspects that you could ascribe to Allah, or in general to God, but doesn’t put them all together under one term. However, Buddhism doesn’t assert some principle or reality completely beyond or separate from us and our universe in a transcendental dualistic manner. The highest principle in Buddhism that unites everything is “voidness.” Voidness refers to the fact that nothing exists in impossible, fantasized ways, truly independent from everything else, but that all beings and things arise interdependently on one another. If you speak in terms of voidness, it’s not separate from us or our world, although some Tibetan traditions speak of it as beyond words and concepts. Because all creatures and the environment are interdependent, one must have concern and compassion for all others. The quality of compassion is not separate or beyond, but innate in everyone.

SA: I would say that Allah is nothingness, and when you say the basic mantra of Islam “La Ilaha Illa Al-lah” (what’s written on the Saudi flag), it’s actually inviting you to keep repeating “There is no God except Allah” over and over as you decrease one syllable, or one “lah” at a time .

“Lah” means “no,” so it’s a negation. And so, Allah is the Great “No.” Allah is something that you cannot imagine, because it’s beyond everything, and so it is the big “ah” at the end of the word lah that designates the nothingness. When you repeat, “La Ilaha Illa Al-lah,” you are peeling off layers of everything that’s imaginable. You keep repeating it and knocking off syllables until you’re left with that “ah” and that’s hua (He), the pure breath of God.

AB: Voidness also is a negation or elimination – in this case, a nullification of all fantasies about how things exist. It too is represented by the unwritten vowel “a,” which in Indian languages is inherent in each Sanskrit consonant. Also, “a” is the Sanskrit prefix of negation. Moreover, in tantra, you have the dissolution of the grosser aspects of mental activity and its associated confusion represented by a visualization of parts of the syllable hum dissolving into each other until you are left with just the clear light mind, the basis for the appearance and interdependence of everything. So, although voidness is the non-obvious deep manner in which everything exists, and not anything transcendent, there are many similarities here with the Islamic teachings that allow dialogue and understanding between these two great world religions.