Interfaith relations for mutual cooperation and forgiveness

by Gary Gach, San Francisco, CA, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 11, 2008

On July 26, Reverend Kobutsu Malone wrote of his distaste for an article appearing here on the Buddhist Channel.  I, on the other hand, read the same article, AF Dawood's "Strong Similarities between Buddhism and Islam" (Lakaweb, July 25 2008) with great appreciation.

So I waited a few weeks before replying as I do not wish to further fan any fires, if any there be.  Nor am I writing to judge Rev. Kobutsu Malone, in any way.  I hope he is not  still irate, and has communed since with Sadaparabhuta (Bodhisattva Never Despise). But this is not a letter to him, per se, but rather to all readers of the Buddhist Channel. That is, I'd like to use the reverend's letter as a springboard for my own response to the article.

Not being a scholar of history I cannot speak about the  genocide referred to in Rev. Kobutsu's letter  (although if I ever do meet Karen Armstrong I'd be curious to ask her where she gets her information that only one Buddhist temple was ever destroyed in India by Muslims).  I can attest from my personal experience, however, in interfaith relations, that there is growing mutual cooperation and forgiveness that is overcoming unproductive divisions and arguments.  Unhappy families can argue forever, while happy families reap the benefits of harmony and mutual understanding.

I appreciate AF Dawood's article as my knowledge of Islam in general and Islam-Buddhist dialogue in particular is, alas, relatively small (compared to my knowledge in relation to the other Abrahamic traditions, of Judaism and Christianity), and yet the Islam world is quite vast. My own ongoing research has revealed a few things to me, which I wish to share with readers of the Buddhist Channel, herewith.

Actually, I find Buddhists and Muslims share a long history of dialogue. For example, in the southeast Asian country of Java, predominantly Islamic, there's a strong spiritual tradition called Kejawen, (meaning "the state of being Javanese"), which mixes Buddhism and Hinduism with Sufi-influenced mystical Islam. Java is also home to a Buddhist temple called Borodubur, one of the wonders of the world, where local Jesuit priests use the sculptures on its walls as topics for interfaith dialogue.

In southwest Asia, architects from India helped build Baghdad, in the eighth century, when the Islamic caliphs made it their capital. Buddhist as well as Hindu translators came along and practiced there, learning the local language, and rubbing elbows with the local Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews, as well as Muslims. So it's no shock to hear that the Buddhist Pure Land school could reflect influence from Persia (now Iran).

Persia brings up an interesting unsolved question, proposed to me by scholar Arthur Goldschmidt (A Concise History of the Middle East).  In personal correspondence, he wonders "whether Buddhism was one of the competing religions in the Sasanid Empire before the Arab conquests. We all know about the magnificent (but destroyed) statues in Bamiyan, but it is also interesting that the Abbasid caliphate's family of viziers, the Barmakids, may have descended from the parmaks of earlier Buddhism."

All that said, I find it interesting and heartening how. the same month AF Dawood's article appeared, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia convened an historic World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid:, possibly under-reported in Western media. At that noble assembly were delegates from the Buddhist community, and from more than one tradition, at that.

The author, AF Dawood, presumably in Sri Lanka, has not contacted the Buddhist Channel, apparently, to reply, and so I have taken the occasion to add these few notes of my own.  As readers may be aware, the Channel was itself founded in response to the destruction of the Buddha of Bamiyan.  I am grateful it serves to, among other boons, help to diminish the unfortunate ignorance that still exists as to the essentially multifaith nature of Buddhist practice.  (Remember King Ashoka!)  There are no Buddhists without non-Buddhists, and there are no non-Buddhists without Buddhists.

It is my understanding that an historical source of misunderstanding towards Buddhists by Muslims (and others) has been the presence of images of the Buddha.  Whether in schools of Vipassana, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, or Vajrayana, (etc), Buddhists do not to worship images as idols, but rather cultivate a practice of using them to remind of a transcendent reality in our personal experience.

We all describe different faces of but the same mountain.  There is but one earth, one heart, one humanity.  May all beings be well.

Gary Gach is author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism"

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