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Interfaith Dialogue ( 30 Nov 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam and Buddhism: How the Similarities in Values Can Unite Us


By Johari Yap

30 November 2017

Malaysia’s diverse cultures and religious beliefs is what makes our country a unique nation. And unity is the key to striving stability, advancement and development for any multi-racial country. While cooperation, compromise and interracial tolerance is the catalyst for the government’s efforts to further develop the nation. This is imperative now more than ever as we come across headlines involving terrorism and terror threats, even in our country – and we are definitely not spared from these incidents.

Our existing unity is built based on mutual trust and respect. However, both can be broken when there is incitement and provocation from those with ulterior motives like for political gains. Today, the unity amongst races here has slowly faded and is facing challenges due to the actions of certain quarters. And if we don’t address it head on and are not cautious, it could bring grave implications whereby the peace and harmony of our country will be affected.

For example, non-Muslims may relate Islam with terrorism especially in the midst of terror attacks by radicalised groups like Daesh or ISIS; while Muslims may associate Buddhism with the persecution against Myanmar’s ethnic minority, Rohingya. Such stereotypical views occur when there is lack of knowledge and understanding, and without any effort to sought new information. As a result, some individuals tend to blindly believe what is published by the media without having any real understanding of the actual situation.

This close-mindedness would then lead to individuals firmly upholding their beliefs, while disregarding altogether the good values of other religions, and instead emphasising on the differences in its teachings and ideologies.

In 2016, the total population in Malaysia is estimated to have reached 31 million, comprising of 92.7 per cent citizens and 7.3 per cent non-citizens. Of the total number of citizens, 68.7 per cent are Bumiputeras, in which Malay Bumiputera form the bulk at 90.9 per cent, and nine per cent other Bumiputera races which include Orang Asli, Siamese, Serani, as well as other Bumiputera minorities in Peninsular Malaysia. Bumiputera in East Malaysia meanwhile, are recognised as Bumiputera Sabah and Bumiputera Sarawak, respectively.

There are about 23.4 per cent total population of Chinese in the country, which consists of Foochow, Hainan, Henghua, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew, among others. And the Indian community makes up seven per cent of the total population; the bulk being Tamil, then followed by the Malayali, Sikh Punjabi, Telugu, and so forth. While 0.9 per cent of the population are considered as “Others” primarily those from other Asian regions and other parts of the world who have been granted citizenship status based on certain provisions.

According to the Department of Statistics, Malaysia (2010 Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristic report), non-Muslim communities in Malaysia comprise of Christians (9.2%), Buddhists (19.8%), Hindus (6.3%), and others (3.4%). This makes Buddhists the majority of non-Muslim citizens in Malaysia.

Therefore, it is appropriate for Muslims in Malaysia to understand the essence of Buddha's teachings and to understand the similarities of the values shared between both Buddhism and Islam. The word Buddha means 'The one free from ignorance' (The Awakened One), and its founder is Siddharta Gautama Buddha.

Prince Siddhartha, who was the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya, was raised in luxury. When Siddhartha was 16, the King had ordered to build three large and beautiful palaces for his son; one for winter (Ramma), one for summer (Suramma); and one for the rainy season (Subha). Siddhartha married Princess Yasodhara and the couple lived in luxury.

Despite all the riches, Prince Siddhartha felt there was something missing in his life; as he lacked happiness. He desired to take a walk outside of the palace to see ordinary people living their lives – and upon witnessing the sick, the elderly, the dead and the monks, he decided to abandon his riches.

At the age of 29, Prince Siddhartha left the palace, his wife and children in search for the truth and to deal with the pain and suffering caused by old age, illness and death. However, after six years of living an ascetic and challenging life, he failed to find the truth and the happiness that he was searching for.

Living a luxurious life did not give him happiness, neither did living poorly. So, he decided to follow the "Middle Path" between the two extremes. He sat under the Bodhi tree, meditated, and finally got the answers to all his questions. He gained enlightenment at that time and was called Buddha (which in Sanskrit literally means enlightened one, a knower.)

The basic principle of Buddha's teachings is moderation with four noble truths; (1) every being cannot escape Dukkha (suffering); (2) Dukkha arises from desire or lust; (3) Dukkha can be overcome by overcoming lust; (4) to end Dukkha, one must follow the Middle Path towards eternal happiness (nirvana).

This Middle Path is also known as the Eightfold Path:

1. Right Understanding

2. Right Intent

3. Right Speech

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Concentration

The Middle Path is divided into three parts; namely Virtue or Sila (speech, action, and livelihood), Concentration or Samadhi (effort, mindfulness and concentration), and Wisdom or Panna (insight and purities of the mind)

1. Right Speech (Samma Vaca)

Avoid lying, slandering, harsh words and gossip. Speak with truth, honesty, as well as with good and useful words.

In the words of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): "A man might speak a word without thinking about its implications, but because of it, he will plunge into the Hellfire further than the distance between the east and west."

2. Right Action (Samma Kammanta)

Avoid killing, stealing, and adultery. Doing the right thing is important because it provides security, peace and eliminates others’ suspicions. This is based on Metta (loving-kindness/affection) and Karuna (compassion).

In Islam, such deeds are among the major sins that should be avoided.

3. Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva)

Avoid earning a living through murder, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slavery and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in dealing with weapons, poisons, and intoxicants (alcohol). Unethical and illegal work should also be avoided. Earning one's living in a righteous way is living without causing harm to other beings.

This resembles how Islam emphasises on earning a Halal living, to focus on not just the worldly aspect but to practice a spiritual and holistic approach. This includes facilitating businesses for the ease of others and doing beneficial things.

4. Right Effort (Samma Vayama)

The right effort can fuel a positive and earnest attitude in everything we do either in our studies or career. Through such effort coupled with strong determination, success is attainable.

There are four great endeavours: (i) Prevent the arising of unrisen unwholesome thoughts such as greed, hatred and delusion, (ii) eliminate unwholesome thoughts that have already arisen, (iii) cultivate wholesome thoughts that have not yet arisen by reinforcing the mind and developing enlightenment through awareness, Dhamma (focusing on Buddhism), concentration, and happiness, (iv) maintain and perfect wholesome thoughts that has arisen through concentration and meditation.

Similar to Islamic teachings and values, if we are earnest in conducting any task and put in effort towards goodness, it will keep us further away from, and eliminate mazmumah (despicable) characteristics like prejudice and so forth.

5. Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)

Mindfulness means to always be attentive and aware of our behaviour, be it in our speech or our thoughts. Our state of consciousness guards us from straying away from the right path and encourages us to do the right thing.

Muslims similarly must be mindful and set the right intentions in every action taken.

6. Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi)

The process of training the mind through meditation—which in this context means training your mind to focus on an object. The object can either be an existing object like a flower or a concept like loving-kindness (Metta). Meditation exercises help one acquire a peaceful and focused mind.

In Islamic teachings, this is related to the wholehearted concentration in worship.

7. Right View (Samma Ditthi)

Human beings are easily influenced by various ideas, opinions, good and bad views obtained from the mass media, especially social media. Having the right view encourages people to observe, analyse and get their facts right before blindly believing in something.

In a concept called Tabayyun, Islam teaches its followers the importance of ascertaining the truth of any news that is received before believing and propagating it.

8. Right Thought (Samma Samkappa)

Applying mental discipline will prevent ill-thoughts (bad intentions), and should there be any, it needs to be abandoned. This ensures one constantly has good thoughts, a good heart, and maintains loving-kindness. Such feelings can lead to unity, love, and create a bond among human beings regardless of race, caste and skin colour.

Such positive thoughts (husnuzon) are also a very important concept in Islam. And the same goes with unity, love and brotherhood among fellow human beings. It is in line with Islam’s position as a religion that brings blessings and prosperity to all mankind.

The Middle Path is about moderation, between self-indulgence and self-mortification; similar to the Wasatiyyah concept which is also the basis of Islamic teachings and has been applied in the 1Malaysia concept.

In verse 29 of Surah Al Isra, Allah said: "And do not make your hand [as] chained to your neck or extend it completely and [thereby] become blamed and insolvent.”

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the Hadith narrated by Imam Tirmizi, reportedly said: "Modesty brings nothing but good."

Here, we can see the similarities in the major values of Buddhism and Islamic teachings —

1. The principle of justice: The belief that every soul is responsible for the hereafter. Islam believes that sinful beings will be punished in the hereafter, similar to the law of karma in Buddhist teachings.

2. Belief in the basic moral obligation to be compassionate and loving towards all living beings.

3. Belief in the need to engage in spiritual practice and its effectiveness through praying, supplication, chanting, meditation or remembrance.

4. Belief in the need to separate oneself from worldliness, lust, and the pursuit of all desires.

It is hoped that Malaysians take heed of these similar values shared by the two largest religions in the country and adhere to these four main foundations – tolerance, mutual respect, sensitivity and trust amongst one another – as the anchor of unity that binds us all. With this being said, let us foster knowledge and understanding to fight racial prejudice in our hopes to build a more harmonious Malaysia.