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Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue


By G. N. Khaki and Shabir Ahmad Mugloo

02 August, 2014

Recent years have witnessed a sudden spurt in conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists. Interfaith dialogue can go a long way in helping to resolve such conflicts. Buddhism and Islam both have a universal ethical code. They may have different approaches to ethics. Yet, both the religions are at par with each other on addressing ethical issues because there is a commonality of ethics between the two. This can form a basis for inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Buddhists.

Ethics from Buddhist Perspective

The world today is in a state of disorder, and deeply-cherished ethics are being upturned. The forces of materialistic scepticism have turned their dissecting blades on the traditional concepts of what are considered as humane qualities. Yet, people who are concerned for the future of humankind will concern themselves with leading and promoting an ethical life. In this regard, ethical values from different religions, including Buddhism, can be exceedingly helpful. They can contribute importantly to an ‘inter-religious dialogue of life’.

Buddhist ethics are traditionally based on the Buddha’s enlightenment. Moral concepts in Buddhism are elaborated upon either in the scriptures or in the traditions of Buddhism. According to traditional Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is the five precepts: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or intoxicants. To become a Buddhist, or to affirm one’s faith in the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha, a layperson is encouraged to vow to abstain from these negative actions. The precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but, rather, as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to practice.

In Buddhist thought it is believed that the cultivation of Dana (generosity) and ethical conduct will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower heavens is unlikely, even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting ones aims to this level of attainment. The Buddha provided some basic guidelines for acceptable behaviour that are part of the Eight-fold Path. The initial precept is non-injury or non-violence to all living creatures, from the smallest insect to humans. This precept defines a non-violent attitude toward every living thing. The Buddhist view is that moral behaviour flows naturally from mastering one’s ego and desires and cultivating loving-kindness and compassion. This teaching expressed in the well-known Four Noble Truths.

The uniqueness of Buddhist ethics lies in its many outstanding qualities. It is all-embracing and comprehensive, without being impractical or impossible to follow. It is free from taboos relating to diet, dress, behaviour etc.. It serves the needs of the worldly as well as those of the recluse. It is useful to the rich and to the poor; to the powerful as well as to the powerless. Buddhist ethics are the threshold for those who wish to pursue the Buddha’s path to enlightenment and the end of all suffering.

Morality in Buddhism is essentially practical, in that it is only a means leading to the final goal of ultimate happiness. On the Buddhist path to emancipation, every individual is considered responsible for his own fortunes and misfortunes. Each individual is expected to work out his own deliverance by his understanding and effort. Buddhist salvation is the result of one’s own moral development and can neither be imposed nor granted to one by some external agent. The Buddha’s mission was to enlighten men as to the nature of existence and to advise them how best to act for their own happiness and for the benefit of others. Consequently, Buddhist ethics are not founded on any commandments which men are compelled to follow.

Ethics from Islamic Perspective

Every religion lays great emphasis on the ethical aspects of human conduct, each in its own unique way. Generally, there is great commonality between different religions as far as moral and ethical questions are concerned. In fact, to mould a moral character is the most fundamental function of religion per se. All other functions are subsidiary to this. But it is also true that each religion has unique way of doing this and that each puts differing emphasis on different aspects of morality. Islam, like all other religions, has its own ethical values and moral concepts, which are universal as well as specific to Islam.

The basic sources of the disciplinary code in Islam are the Quran and the Hadith (traditions). A Muslim’s concept of discipline and ethics is to be formulated on the basis of the guidance revealed in the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. The ethical code as stated in the Quran and practiced by the Prophet covers a person’s entire life, from the dining table to the deathbed, from the cradle to the grave. 

Given its importance for a healthy society, Islam supports morality and matters that lead to it. The Guardian and Judge of all deeds is God Himself. The most fundamental characteristics of a true Muslim are held to be piety and humility. The guiding principle for the behaviour of Muslim is meant to be ‘virtuous deeds’. This term covers all deeds, not just acts of worship. Muslims must be in control of their passions and desires. The same God-given laws and standards are to govern all aspects of life, and all of an individual’s actions are considered in Islam as worship in the broad sense of the term if they are done with the sincere intention of pleasing God, in keeping with His injunctions.

The Quran says:

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and West , but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the last day and the Angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth his wealth , for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who to ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due, and those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation  and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God fearing.”

This verse teaches us that righteousness and piety are based on true and sincere faith, and that faith goes along with ethical conduct. The key to virtue and good conduct is a strong relationship with God, Who sees all, at all times and everywhere. He knows the secrets of the hearts and intentions.

Need for Inter-Religious Dialogue on Ethics

Every religion shares certain basic ethical and moral teachings for reducing human problems. John Hick claims that all religions propose salvation as the actual transformation of human life from self-centeredness to Reality- centeredness. Inter-religious dialogue on ethics is a deep listening to different truth-claims and learning about each other’s ethical and religious beliefs and practices. Ideally, participants in such dialogue strive to put today’s global problems of humanity at the centre and to listen to each problem with loving-kindness and compassion, which are stressed in all religions.

Islam and Buddhism share some common values that could form a strong basis for dialogue between adherents of these two religions. Compassion and mercy, love and kindness towards living beings, patience and forgiveness, tolerance and generosity are some of the important values emphasized by both Islam and Buddhism. Ar-Rahman, the Merciful, and Ar-Rahim, the Compassionate, stand for two important attributes of Allah. His love and mercy find their manifestation in the entire creation. In the Quran, God says:

                 “My Mercy encompasses everything”

Compassion and Mercy are also central to Buddhist ethics. Buddhism places much emphasis on Metta (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy), and Upekkha (equanimity) as means of avoiding resentment. According to the Buddha, love and compassion are be generated only in a mind that is free from anger and hatred.

Islam and Buddhism are different from each other in terms of their doctrinal and metaphysical understanding of the cosmos. The followers of both religions have existed in diverse social relationships to each other for centuries in several parts of the world. This co-existence has led, in some cases, to adopting an attitude of ‘live and let live’’ towards each other. There have, however, also been instances of violence between these two communities. Upon inquiry, one finds that in most cases, such violence was caused by non-religious factors, such as ethnicity and economics, rather than simply religious or doctrinal differences.

It is also important to note that throughout history, Muslims and Buddhists have been instrumental in promoting close bonds. There have been several such interfaith initiatives to bring Muslims and Buddhists together in recent years, too.

The major obstacle to dialogue between Buddhism and Islam is theological. However, there are commonalities between Buddhism and Islam that can serve as foundations for constructive interfaith dialogue. Both religions have similar perspectives on proper action and the value of inter-religious dialogue that can contribute to greater inter-religious understanding and respect. Both religions stress peace and justice. Both have common ethical values that could contribute to the development and prosperity of humanity in the world in general.

Engaging in inter-religious dialogue is for everyone, whether ethically-concerned academics, religious personnel or ‘lay’ people. The basic ethical values in both Buddhism and Islam provide a basis for practical inter-religious dialogue, values such as sincerity, equality, patience, self-criticism, trust, sympathy, empathy, loving-kindness and open-mindedness. Buddhist-Muslim dialogue may be sometimes difficult, but it is becoming increasingly necessary as tensions between Muslims and Buddhists worldwide escalate. Although Islam and Buddhism may differ on complex theological questions, inter-religious dialogue focused around morality, ethics and values can be an extraordinary avenue for inter-cultural change and understanding between Buddhists and Muslims.

G. N. Khaki and Shabir Ahmad Mugloo are associated with the Centre for Central Asian Studies, Kashmiri University, Srinagar, Kashmir