The Relation between Buddhism and Sufism

Global civilization and universal responsibility both depend on meaningful dialogue among world religions, such as Buddhism and Islam. Such dialogue can occur on the level of religious leaders, as well as on the level of the general public. Moreover, it can occur on the level of generalizations, as well as the level of well-documented specific detail.

The leaders and followers of Buddhism and Islam, however, have been largely unaware, in the past, of each others’ beliefs. This situation is slowly changing at present, but requires greater effort. In this context, the Internet is becoming an increasingly valuable medium for spreading information and dialoguing, particularly among the public, and even more particularly among young people. Users of the Internet, however, are faced with the formidable task of sifting through the mass of often conflicting information available, in order to locate reliable, unbiased sources. In meeting this challenge, outlines of similarities between Sufism and Buddhism go in the right direction concerning generalities, but need to be supplemented with detailed analyses of specific cases, in order to avoid misunderstanding.

For example, Buddhist and Islamic civilizations in Central Asia have been in contact with each other for over a millennium, and during that period, Sufism has developed and spread within the Islamic world. The fact that both Sufism and Buddhism deal with similar issues concerning the limitations of ordinary human existence, however, does not lead to the conclusion that either of the two necessarily influenced the other in formulating its resolution of this issue. This does not discount, however, the possibility that certain ideas may have been borrowed from one religion to another. But, assertions of such borrowing need to be delineated with precision and specificity in order to be credible. After all, both Sufism and Buddhism have long histories, wide geographic ranges, and great diversities of schools and masters, each with its own individual assertions.

For example, Abu Yazid Bistami (804-874 CE) introduced into Sufism the concepts of fana and khud’a from the influence of his teacher, Abu ‘Ali al-Sindi. Fana means cessation of existence – the total destruction of the individual ego in becoming one with Allah; khud’a means deceit or trick, as the description of the material world. In Hindu and Muslim Mysticism, R. C. Zaehner has argued convincingly that al-Sindi, known to have been a convert from another religion, most probably derived the former concept from the Chandogya Upanishad and the latter from the Svetashvetara Upanishad, as interpreted by the Advaita Vedanta founder, Shankara (788-820 CE). All forms of Buddhism deal with the similar topic of nirvana – release from recurring rebirth – and many Mahayana schools assert that the world of appearances is similar, although not equivalent, to maya, illusion. Nevertheless, it is hardly likely that any of their formulations played a role in the development of Sufi thought.

On the other hand, we can find examples of literary borrowings from Buddhism into Sufism. For instance, the Buddhist image of a group of blind men each describing an elephant differently, based on each touching a separate part of the animal, found its way into Sufism in the writings of the Persian scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE). Advocating philosophical skepticism, al-Ghazali used the image to illustrate how Islamic theologians possess only partial truth, while Buddha used it in The Sutta of the Non-Buddhist Sects (Pali: Tittha Sutta) to demonstrate the futility of the non-Buddhist philosophers debating their views with each other.

Other Buddhist influences on Sufism occurred in the sphere of ritual practice, particularly during the Mongol Ilkhanate rule of Iran (1256-1336 CE). Five of the first six Ilkhan rulers were followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the exception being Ahmad Teguder (r. 1282-1284 CE). The sixth Ilkhan, Ghazan (r. 1295-1304 CE), converted to Islam with the Shi’a Sufi master Sadr ad-din Ibrahim. The increasing emphasis, from this time onwards, on the veneration of the tombs of Sufi saints was perhaps influenced by the Buddhist veneration of stupa relic monuments.

Buddhist borrowings into Islam, however, were not limited to Sufism. In this regard, Manichaeism, another major Central Asian religion, often served as the bridge. One possible example is the account of previous lives of the Buddha as a bodhisattva, known in medieval Christian sources as Barlaam and Josaphat. It is well-known that Manichaean Sogdian versions of these accounts were written prior to their first appearance in an Arabic version as The Book of Bilawhar and Yudasaf, compiled by Aban al-Lahiki (750-815 CE) in Baghdad. This Islamic rendition incorporated parts of the Arabic account of Buddha’s previous lives, The Book of the Buddha (Ar. Kitab al-Budd), also prepared at that time, based on translations into Arabic of two Sanskrit texts, A Rosary of Previous Life Accounts (Skt. Jatakamala) and Ashvaghosha’s Deeds of the Buddha (Skt. Buddhacarita). Since al-Lahiki’s text is no longer extant, it is unclear how much material he also incorporated in it from Manichaean sources. If some were, it would most likely have been through the influence of dialogue between Buddhist and Manichaean Muslim scholars present, at that time, in the Abbasid court.

Moreover, Buddhist borrowings into Islamic civilization were not limited to the religious or literary spheres. They also occurred in the field of medicine. The Barmakid family played an important role in this development. The chief minister during the rule of the fourth Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809 CE), was Yahya ibn Barmak, a Muslim grandson of one of the Buddhist administrative heads of Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh, Afghanistan. Although, Buddhist scholars were already present at the House of Knowledge in Baghdad at that time, Yahya invited yet more Buddhist scholars, especially from Kashmir. No Buddhist philosophical texts, however, were translated into Arabic under Yahya’s patronage. Rather, the focus was on translating, from Sanskrit into Arabic, Buddhist medical texts, specifically Ravigupta’s Ocean of Attainments (Skt. Siddhasara).

A far more delicate issue than religious, literary, and scientific borrowing, however, is the issue of a shared ethic as the basis for both global civilization and universal responsibility. For example, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed at the United Nations in 1948, as not taking into account the values of non-Western religions and cultures. Their objections led to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the ministers of 48 Islamic countries in 1990 at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This document recognizes only those human rights that accord with Islamic revealed law, Shari’ah.

As a way to observe the spirit of Shari’ah, Sufism emphasizes tariqah, the esoteric path of mystic practices leading to haq, the truth. But great caution is needed not to infer from this that because Sufism avoids the extreme of fundamentalism, it could serve as a bridge between Islam and Buddhism in the sphere of ethics. Various Sufi schools may be present in many of the Islamic countries today, but the fact that all the Islamic countries signed the Cairo Declaration indicates that any ethical basis for either global civilization or universal responsibility needs to take Shari’ah into account. Therefore, as a basis for further dialogue in formulating such an ethic, it is essential to undertake further detailed analysis and identification of points of ethics shared in common by the world’s various religious, as well as secular systems.

It may indeed be the case that Sufism can facilitate Buddhist and Muslim interest in learning more about each other. In finding common points between the two religions, it is not helpful, however, to emphasize mysticism. “Mysticism” is a technical term used primarily in theistic systems for methods to achieve some type of ecstatic union with God. Such terms are not relevant to Buddhism. More relevant would be the importance of the spiritual master and of meditation methods, such as those for the development of love, breathing exercises, repetition of mantras or dhikrs, and visualization. Such topics, however, will probably be of interest and relevance to only a limited audience of Buddhists and Muslims, and not to the general public among traditional followers of the two religions.

Therefore, in addition to well-documented online and printed information and comparative studies concerning Buddhism and Islam, wide media coverage of interfaith services held by leaders of not only the two religions, but of as many religions as possible, might have an even greater positive impact for establishing religious harmony, global civilization, and universal responsibility.