Many in the West are ignorant about and fearful of Islam. In the hope of dispelling some common misunderstandings and exploring resonances between Islam and Buddhism, Inquiring Mind arranged a conversation between Alex Berzin and Snjezana Akpinar.
Alex Berzin lived in Dharamsala, India, for twenty-nine years and has served as an occasional interpreter for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He currently lives in Berlin, where he teaches Tibetan Buddhist meditation and philosophy. On his numerous world lecture tours, he has explored the historical interaction between Buddhists and Muslims. In doing research for his online history book, he has addressed universities in Turkey, Jordan and Egypt and spoken with scholars in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. (For Berzin’s writings on Islam and Buddhism, visit www.berzinarchives.com.)
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 each 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, teaching Christians about the East through courses in Islam and comparative religion.
Inquiring Mind: Alex, you have often 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 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 you say to an Islamic audience, “Buddhism doesn’t believe in God.” That would lead to an 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, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and Buddhism. The Indonesian Buddhists had suggested Buddhism’s belief in God by speaking in terms of “adi-buddha.” This was from the Kalachakra, the Cycle of Time teachings, that had been spread to Indonesia a little more than a thousand years ago. “Adi-buddha” really means “the first or primordial buddha.” The Indonesian Buddhists themselves didn’t have a full understanding of adi-buddha. But without explaining it, they said, “Here we have the equivalent of God.” Naturally, when I went to Indonesia, the Indonesian Buddhists asked me what “adi-buddha” 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 principle of adi-buddha, I was able to enter into dialogues 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 god or creator found in each person—also is not personified.
As presented in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism, adi-buddha is beyond words, beyond concepts, unimaginable. Islamic scholars could relate to this very well. Also, the basic principles of love and compassion inherent in these teachings made Islamic scholars open to learning more about Buddhism.
Historically, the Buddhists in areas like Afghanistan, Central Asia and India were accepted by the Muslim rulers as “people of the book,” which meant that they could maintain their religion (so long as they paid a special poll tax). So, in my dialogues with Muslim scholars, we explored together what “people of the book” means. 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. Also, in my later investigations, what struck me was that in Sogdian, the ancient language of Uzbekistan and the big language of this whole Central Asian area, the term “dharma” was translated with the Greek word nom, which originally meant “law” but which the Sogdians also took as their word for “book.”
IM: But Buddhists don’t even really have a book.
AB: No, but that was the way it was translated. When Buddhists in Central Asian Muslim countries were asked, “What do you believe in, what’s your religion?” they could answer, “It’s the nom”—the dharma, or the book.
Snjezana Akpinar: I follow a similar line of thought. It’s interesting to remember that the father of the Turks, before they became Muslims, was Genghis Khan, who ruled 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 the dharma. It is an eternal law that turns the world.
AB: The point, I think, is that you have a usage of terminology that leaves followers of the two religions open for dialogue.
SA: Yes. Islamic teachings on the Shari’ah can sound quite Buddhist. The word shari’ah, which means “the grand boulevard” or “the street,” is the law that people should obey in order for traffic to move easily in the world. These are simply the parameters that allow people to live in harmony. According to the Shari’ah, you have to know how to deal with your instincts, your doubts and your intuition. So the Shari’ah 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 Shari’ah. If you think of the Shari’ah as the circumference of a circle, the Tariqah leads you to the middle of it. If you think of the Shari’ah 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 Buddhist. Most of these concepts 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, the “proper effort,” also have resonances with Buddhist teachings.
SA: Your thinking is a jihad. Everything you do is a jihad.
AB: The martial quality suggested by the term “jihad” is also found in much Buddhist terminology. This is not surprising. After all, the Buddha himself came from a military, ruling caste. Having exerted proper effort, the Buddha is described as the victorious 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. There was also a lot of interinfluence 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 whether the influence came from one side or the other.
SA: Over the years there has been much direct contact between India and the Persian Gulf. 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. There was a great deal of intercultural contact. One of the big areas of exchange was science, particularly astronomy and astrology.
SA: And philosophy. A fault, I would say, of the West is that whenever philosophy is discussed in the Muslim context, it’s linked to Greece, but many of these philosophical concepts didn’t actually come from Greece but from India or the East.
AB: This dialogue of Muslims with those of other religions is continuing, particularly by people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness once asked me to find for him a black West African Sufi leader—it was very, very specific—to discuss things with. Such a leader almost fell out of the sky. It was Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, the hereditary Sufi leader of Guinea, West Africa. 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 Austria last October.
SA: Every single chapter of the Koran starts with an invocation of God the merciful and compassionate. I look at the Koran 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. 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 Koran there is a toning down of the law of retribution.
There is a beautiful story from Islam that addresses the big issue of Why do Muslims fight? At first, Mohammed, like every other prophet inspired by God, was nonviolent. But his community was dying out and it was 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.” But 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 were actually 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 version of Islam that’s broken off from the traditional lineage. These neo-Muslims very often claim that there is no need to learn the Koran, 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.
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 who incinerated themselves during the Vietnam War. There is no part of Buddhism that I know that will let you do that. You are supposed to honor and respect all life. In Islam, as in the Christian world, there are martyrs. Suicide bombers claim they are martyrs. But they kill themselves, and 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 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, it doesn’t 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 traditions. But there is another tradition from Central Asia that bridges Islam and Buddhism in a very interesting way. It’s what would be called 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, Yunus Emre, 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 get together to chant and sing.
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 reflect the great NO-thing.
AB: Buddhism has certain aspects you could ascribe to Allah, or in general to God, but it doesn’t group them all together under one term. But in Buddhism there is not something completely beyond or separate. 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 all beings and things arise interdependent on one another. If you speak in terms of voidness, it’s not separate from anything. 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: Even though the typical Muslim may not understand it this way, I would say that Allah is nothingness. Lah means “no,” so Allah is the “Great No.” Allah is something you cannot imagine because it’s beyond everything. The “h” at the end of the word lah designates the nothingness. In Arabic it’s a circle, or a zero. When you say the basic mantra of Islam, “La Ilaha Illa Allah” (which is written on the Saudi flag), it’s actually inviting you to keep repeating “There is no God except Allah” over and over, dropping one syllable, or one “lah,” at a time. You are peeling off layers of everything that’s imaginable, knocking off syllables until you’re left with just that “h,” the pure breath of God.
AB: Voidness in Buddhism is also negation or elimination, in this case a nullification of all fantasies about how things exist. It is represented by the unwritten vowel “a” in each Sanskrit consonant. “A” is also the Sanskrit prefix of negation. In Tantra you have the dissolution of the grosser aspects of mental activity and its associated confusion, represented by a visualization of the 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.