Archive for November, 2009

Islam and Buddhism – Part 1.

There are different accounts of the life of the Buddha,  however I will present the main agreed details of his life. He was the son of a King, in what is believed to be modern day Nepal and was named Siddharta.  He grew up in luxury and comfort, ignorant to the realities of the harsh world that we live in. It is said that there were predictions that he would become a holy man and that his father in order to prevent this however this was in vain. One day he went outside of the palace that he had grown up in. Having been insulated from the real world he first of all saw a man afflicted by old age, heavily wrinkled and in poor health, then later whilst walking he saw an invalid and after that a funeral procession which clearly illustrated human mortality and that death is an unescapable reality we must deal with. He then however in the end met an ascetic. It is safe to call this term a Hindu ascetic, a point which I will focus on later. The ascetic impressed the young Siddharta who was troubled and heart broken by the suffering that he saw. The ascetic had a calmness, serenity and a happiness which could be felt. This ascetic had renounced the material world and was also a beggar. Siddharta, it is said that happiness could never be attained by living a normal life in the material world. Accounts vary but eventually Siddhartha left his palace including his wife and baby and took up ascetism.  He became what can be called a “monk”, a “holy man” or  an ascetic. There were many ascetics like him in South Asia or what is now called India and he did not create something new in that sense. He studied with different monks and gurus and engaged in extensive meditation, yogic practises and also heavy fasting. He did this for a number of years, but this did not give him the satisfaction, or the answer to his questions that he wanted. He gave this up and eventually ended up in Isipatana near the famous city of Benares on the Ganges. He rested and meditated under a Bo tree or “Bodhi tree”

Bodhi tree.

It was there that the boy who had grown up in a royal palace in great affluence, and then later on saw the nature of suffering finally found what he had been looking for after so many years. According to Buddhist tradition, Siddharta, attained enlightenment. The fundamental teachings of Buddhism came into existence.

The teachings of Buddhism.

There are different sects of Buddhism and a diversity of different beliefs and practises. However I will focus on the key message of Buddhism common to all sects.

The Four Noble Truths.

1. The first noble truth is called “dukkha”. Life is essentially suffering. Life will inevitably include aging, death and of course other painful things, none of these can be avoided.

2. The second noble truth is called “Samudaya” or “Tanha” (Craving or thirst). The cause of suffering is man’s desire for something. If he fails to get what he desires he thus becomes upset. Man looks outside to external things to guarantee happiness.  External things are all temporary and will perish, so we can never base true, permanent happiness on them as they too will go.

3. The next noble truth then is called “Nirodha”, (Stopping suffering) which means that there is a cure to ending suffering.  That cure is to liberate oneself from any form of desire.

So the first, second, and third noble truths diagnose what the problem is, explain the cause, and then says there is a cure. The fourth noble truth prescribes the cure.

4. The fourth noble truth is called “Marga”. It says that true happiness and meaning can be achieved by following a life based on the Noble eightfold path.

The Noble eightfold path.

1. Right understanding ( samma ditthi).

To view the world correctly and to realize its impermanent nature. That life essentially consists of much suffering e.g. aging, sickness and death. Also to understand that every action produces subsequent actions i.e. karma.

2. Right intention (samma sankappa).

To have a resolve to change and to live one’s life the correct way.

3. Right Speech (samma vaca).

To not lie, insult others and to abstain from excessive or idle talk.

4. Right Action (samma kammantha).

To stay away from a: harming others b: stealing and cheating c: To stay away from sexual wrongdoing, celibacy is the ideal in Buddhism.

5. Right livelihood (samma ajiva).

To earn one’s livelihood in a moral way and not to:

a: Earn money from selling weapons.

b: Make money from using people e.g. slavery and prostitution.

c: Deal in meat whether it be selling meat or raising animals to be used as meat.

d: Business in intoxicants and poisons including drugs and alcohol.

6.Right Effort (samma vayama).

To essentially strive to keep ones mind from impure and unhealthy thoughts and to have a morally healthy state of mind. The unhealthy thoughts are categorized into 5 and are called “pancanivarana” (5 hindrances) they are sensual desire for material pleasures, ill feelings towards others, drowsiness, worry and anxiety and doubt. These thoughts are said to hinder the path to enlightenment and liberation.

 7. Right mindfulness ( samma sati).

To be aware and attentive to one’s mind, body, feelings, and to things around us. This means to have a clearer and better perception of the reality of the world and also of our own lives, to be in the present and to be conscious and aware of them.

8. Right concentration ( samma samadhi).

To concentrate fully, to focus all of one’s mind and thinking on one object. This is why Buddhists engage in meditation.  Meditation is said to lead a person into a better understanding of his reality.

This eight-fold path eventually leads a person to true enlightenment, to true awareness of the reality of life, of the world. In other religions this process is called “gnosis”. Ultimately it is held in Buddhism that one can attain “Nirvana”, a state of pure happiness and bliss and when one is free from desire.

Islam and Buddhism.

Islam differs from Buddhism in many fundamentally different ways. The most fundamental difference is the nature of the way the two faiths look at the universe. Islam says that the universe has been created and Muslims cite to the evidences of intelligent design. Buddhism has no definitive answer on whether a creator exists but it is important to note that the 1967 world Buddhist council ruled out belief in God. This is the most important difference between the two since any person who is seeking the answers to the nature of existence would wish to have a fully comprehensive answer as to how the universe came in to being, what caused it to come in to being and why. Islam states that the supreme omnipotent entity who is God created the world and created man to worship him. To give an analogy if a man woke up in a strange land one day e.g. a valley and had no memory of his life before that day he would wish to know how he had come to the valley and what happened to him before then. For many people with no particular religion looking for the truth they want definitive answers to the nature of existence and creation and not a vague silence.

 Islam is far more a socio-economic faith whereas Buddhism is essentially a private faith. The Quran admonished the pagan Arabs for their mistreatment of orphans, infanticide of young girls, the inequality of their society, their corruption and cheating in business, their abuse of slaves and other forms of immoral behaviour. It confronted the existing social system of the time and called for it to be reformed. Buddha did not call for any great social changes but like many Hindu Gurus of today prescribed a way for individuals to gain personal spiritual satisfaction. Islam believes that a truly great man is not one who makes himself happy but is one who makes others happy. For a man to attain Enlightenment in the Buddhist way he must at first be free, to be free to leave normal society and follow the way of the Buddha. However this is impossible if for example the man is a slave.

 Spartacus was a famous slave in the Roman era who led a revolt against the Empire. For a man like Spartacus to have lived an ascetic lifestyle engaging in meditation he would have first have had to won his freedom.

Gladiators in the Roman period, many of whom were slaves forced to fight and kill each other. An individual ascetic trying to gain personal spiritual happiness by himself or with other mystics would not have had any impact on this barbaric practise.

 

 Spartacus, a Roman slave, who led a rebellion for freedom against slavery.

Buddhist monk in seclusion.

Serfs in Russia. Even as recently as around 150 years ago in eastern Europe, the vast majority of the Russian people were serfs akin to being rural slaves owned by their landlords.

Slavery is not just something of the past, only as recently as 140 years ago the majority of Russians for example were serfs i.e. in effect slaves to their landlords. In many third world countries, millions must work in miserable conditions in order to survive and have no choice. Child labour is also a phenomena in many countries. Such people do not have the choice to not work and try to be ascetics or monks, they are dependent upon great social reformers or campaigners to improve their plight. The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was one such social reformer who was divinely commanded to:

  1. Condemn the practice of female infanticide which existed amongst the pagan Arabs, this was in the form of them burying their young daughters alive.

When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! what an evil they decide on?” (Quran 16:59).

The practise of infanticide is common even today in countries such as India where often for economic reasons the birth of a girl as opposed to a son who will be a bread-winner is seen by some as a misfortune. The Quran says:

” To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and bestows male children to whomever He wills” (Quran 42:49

 

God is the owner of the universe and creates all including wealth and one should not fear of poverty since as many Quranic verses remind us he is the one who gives provision and takes care of people. The prophet Muhammad peace be upon himself said:

“He who is involved in bringing up daughters, and accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be protection for him against Hell-Fire”

2. Condemn the cheating of the pagan Arabs in their market places.

“Woe to those that deal in fraud. Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account?-” (Quran 83:1-4)

3.  Condemn and eventually forbade the practise of usury which has contributed to many people being enslaved into a cycle of destitution.

“Allah will destroy Riba (usury) and will give increase for Sadaqah (deeds of charity, alms, etc.) And Allah likes not the disbelievers, sinners. ” (Quran 2: 276)

4. Prescribe the institution of zakat.

In Islam a Muslim is obliged to pay 2.5% of his wealth every year to certain types of poor people or in the Islamic state to the “bait ul mal” (public treasury) which then distributes it to poor people. It was this religious obligation and the institution of the baitul ul mal which was a huge and radical change at that time and was akin to the modern day practise of social support as it helped to alleviate and solve the problems of the poor and needy. Marxist scholars argue that religion is a tool to maintain the status quo and the power of the wealthy, however the practise of zakat obliged the rich to help those in poverty and it was a legal duty which if not carried out would entail punishment just like any other modern tax.

Zakat money could not be used to build public services such as roads or canals but could only be used for specific purposes e.g. to help the poor and needy.

“The charity is only for the poor, the needy, those employed to collect (the charity, i.e. zakah), those whose hearts will be inclined (towards Islam) for slaves,for those in debt, for the Cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer ( i.e. destitute travelerl). It is an obligation imposed by Allaah, and Allaah is the All-Knower, the All-Wise.”  (Quran 9:60)

Buddhism does not have specific measures on how to combat poverty. Buddha, though coming from a royal family and having at least some experiences of seeing rulership did not address leaders to state how they could improve the lives of their subjects but instead encouraged individual reform and renunciation of the world.

A truly great moral belief will inspire those who are stronger to help those who are weak and needy, and not to ignore them and try to attain personal spiritual happiness. For the weak and oppressed ones of this world can often not change their plight, but need those who are stronger to help them, or do it for them.

Hospitality and charity in Islam

In Islam, an economically strong Muslim is better than a poor Muslim. The one who has money is in a position to help others, to contribute to the betterment of society. A famous hadith of the prophet (peace be upon him) states: “The upper hand is better than the lower hand”, which means the one who gives is better than the one who receives. A Muslim should not seek to be a burden on others but an asset to others and making their lives better.

Whereas in Buddhism, monks, travel around collecting food from laymen in order to sustain themselves, in Islam the pious Muslim should be giving food to others and the more he gives the more virtuous.

Islamically, a Muslim has a duty to entertain a guest for 3 days i.e. to let him live in his house. So even before the current century in many parts of the Muslim world if a person went and travelled to another city he would know that he could stay in another person’s house for at least 3 days. The writer of this article was personally allowed to stay somewhere for 3 days when he travelled to Lebanon. This is where the celebrated hospitality in much of the Muslim world comes from.

There is a hadith.

My ears heard and my heart grasped (the statement which) the Prophet said, “The period for keeping one’s guest is three days (and don’t forget) his reward.” It was asked, “What is his reward?” He said, “In the first night and the day he should be given a high class quality of meals; and whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should entertain his guest generously; and whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should talk what is good (sense) or keep quiet.” 

(Bukhari)

End of Part 1.



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