The Buddhist and Muslim Worlds’ Knowledge of Each Other

The Pre-Islamic Period

Shakyamuni Buddha lived in north central India from 566 to 485 BCE. He taught a spiritual path of meditation and training that fit within the context of the pan-Indic thought of his time. Thus, Buddha accepted the basic assertions found in most Indian philosophical schools. These included repeated rebirth (Skt. saṃsāra) in a wide variety of life forms, not only human, characterized by suffering, caused by unawareness or confusion, and under the influence of behavioral cause and effect (Skt. karma). The spiritual goal is to achieve liberation from such rebirth through gaining correct, full understanding of the nature of the self or “soul” (Skt. ātman) and of all other phenomena. The methods for achieving this goal are primarily through ethical self-discipline, purification, perfect concentration, study, and meditation.

Buddha was aware of the other Indian philosophical and religious systems of his time. He disagreed, however, with the methods they taught for purification and their assertions concerning the nature of the self and of all other phenomena. Consequently, the presentations he gave concerning these issues were often in the form of a refutation of these other views. Subsequent Indian Buddhist masters kept abreast of the philosophical developments in these other Indian schools and often engaged in rigorous debate with their proponents.

In the centuries following Buddha’s life, the Buddhist teachings spread from the Indian subcontinent to present-day Afghanistan, eastern Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Both lay and monastic Buddhist communities came to flourish there. In these areas, Buddhism encountered the beliefs and customs of Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Neo-Platonism, and, eventually, Manichaeism. The Buddhist masters took interest in and learned about the native religions in these areas to which it was spreading. This is evidenced by the fact that sometimes Buddhism adopted certain local customs, such as vegetarianism in Neo-Platonic cultural regions. In other cases, Buddhism emphasized points in Indian Buddhism that resonated with facets of the native beliefs. For example, the bodhisattva ideal, pure lands, and Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, have parallels in Zoroastrianism, as found in the Iranian cultural areas.

The Buddhist texts, however, did not hesitate to point out ethically objectionable customs of these areas as well. The Great Commentary (Skt. Mahāvibhāṣa), for instance, compiled in Kashmir in the second century CE, described incest and the killing of ants as being sanctioned by the Yonaka teachings. The Yonakas refer, literally, to the Greek settlers of the Bactrian region of the Kushan Empire, but more particularly to the Indo-Scythians living there, who were followers of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE)

Muhammad lived in Arabia from 570 to 632 CE, nearly a thousand years after Buddha. Thus, for most of its formative years in India, Buddhist literature contains no references to Islam or to its teachings. However, even after the time of the Prophet, Buddhist sources make only scant reference to the tenets of the Islamic faith that was spreading into the areas where Buddhism was already well-established. This was in marked contrast to the knowledge of native religions that Buddhist masters sought when Buddhism itself was being introduced into new regions. Muslim scholars, on the other hand, showed more interest in the Buddhist customs they encountered as Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula.

[See: Buddhist-Muslim Doctrinal Relations]

Starting in the mid-seventh century CE, three decades after the time of the Prophet, the areas of Iran, Afghanistan, and West Turkistan to which Buddhism had spread came under the rule of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate. Here, the first contact occurred between the Muslim and Buddhist civilizations.

Indian communities were already present in Arabia and in many of the nearby ports, such as Basrah in modern-day southern Iraq, centuries before the advent of Islam. They consisted mostly of Jats from Sindh. According to History of the Prophets and Kings (Ar. Tarikh al-Rasul wa al-Muluk, also known by its abbreviated name Tarikh al-Tabari) by Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839–923), among them were “red-clad ones (Ar. ahmara),” namely Buddhist monks. The Umayyad Islamic scholar Wasil ibn ’Ata’ (700–748), the founder of the Mu’tazilah School, supposedly was well-acquainted with Buddhist ideas. As in Buddhism, Mu’tazilah emphasizes seeking higher knowledge through rational disputation and logic. Moreover, it also asserts purification of one’s sins through repeated rebirth. How much knowledge Wasil ibn ‘Ata’ actually had of Buddhism, however, and how much influence he received, on the other hand, from ancient Greek rational thought that was also present in Basrah at that time, is difficult to ascertain.

A clearer example of Muslim knowledge of Buddhism during the Umayyad period is ’Umar ibn al-Azraq al-Kermani. This Iranian author took interest in explaining Buddhism to his Islamic audience. Consequently, at the beginning of the eighth century CE, he wrote a detailed account of the Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh, Afghanistan. Nava Vihara served as the principal center of higher Buddhist learning for all of Central Asia and was the greatest monastery of the entire region. Al-Kermani explained the basic Buddhist customs there in terms of analogous features in Islam. Thus, he described the main temple as having a stone cube in the center, draped with cloth, and devotees as circumambulating it and making prostration, as is the case with the Kaaba (Ar. Ka’bah) in Mecca. He did not, however, discuss any of the Buddhist beliefs.

Al-Kermani’s writings were preserved in the tenth-century CE work, Book of Lands (Ar. Kitab al-Buldan) by Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani. Buddhist scholars, however, do not seem to have shown reciprocal interest in explaining the Muslim customs or beliefs to the Buddhist audience. There is no recorded evidence of any such description at this time.

The ’Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE)

The earliest more protracted contact between Buddhist and Muslim scholars began in the mid-eighth century CE during the early ’Abbasid Caliphate. Its second caliph, al-Mansur (ruled 754–775 CE), employed Indian architects to construct a new capital for his empire. He named it “Baghdad,” a Sanskrit name meaning “Gift from God.” As part of the city plan, the Caliph had a House of Knowledge (Ar. Bayt al-Hikmat) built for the study and translation of literature from the Greek and Indian cultural worlds, particularly concerning scientific topics. The next ’Abbasid ruler, Caliph al-Mahdi (r. 775–785 CE), invited many Buddhist monk scholars from the monasteries on the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan to work at this House of Knowledge. He commissioned them to help translate primarily medical and astronomical texts from Sanskrit into Arabic.

The chief minister of the fifth ’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. 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. The focus was on translating, from Sanskrit into Arabic, Buddhist medical texts, specifically Ravigupta’s Ocean of Attainments (Skt. Siddhasāra).

It does seem, however, that discussions of religious beliefs did occur at that time between the Buddhist and Islamic scholars. Evidence for this comes from The Book of Religions and Creeds (Ar. Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal), a treatise on Islamic heresies, in which the twelfth-century CE Isma’ili theologian, al-Shahrastani, gives a brief account of the image the Islamic scholars had of Buddhism during Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s time. As the main interest at the House of Knowledge lay in Greek thought, however, their study of Buddhism was not in depth. Nevertheless, Ibn al-Nadim’s late tenth-century CE Book of Catalogues (Ar. Kitab al-Fihrist), listed several Buddhist works that were rendered into Arabic at that time, such as an account of Buddha’s previous lives, The Book of the Buddha (Ar. Kitab al-Budd). The text was based on two Sanskrit works: A Rosary of Previous Life Accounts (Skt. Jātakamāla) and Ashvaghosha’s Deeds of the Buddha (Skt. Buddhacarita).

Such translations led not only to knowledge of certain features of Buddhism among Arabic readers, but also to borrowings from Buddhist literature into Islamic culture. Occasionally, these borrowings came through the bridge of Manichaean sources. A 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 (Ar. Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf), compiled by Aban al-Lahiki (750–815 CE) in Baghdad. This Islamic rendition incorporated parts of The Book of the Buddha. 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.

Some scholars have speculated a possible influence from Buddhism on early Sufism. This is debatable. Abu Yazid Bistami (804–874 CE), for example, introduced into Sufism the concepts of fana' (cessation of existence – the total destruction of the individual ego in becoming one with Allah) and khud’a (deceit or trick, as the description of the material world) from the influence of his teacher, Abu ‘Ali al-Sindi. Zaehner has argued convincingly, however, 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 Advaitya Vedanta founder, Shankara (788–820 CE). Although 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), it is hardly likely that any of their formulations played a role in the development of Sufi thought.

The Kalachakra Literature

Although the Muslim scholars in Baghdad took interest in the Buddhist thought and literature, the Buddhist scholars there seemed to have shown little interest in the Islamic teachings or culture. There is no record of any Arabic works translated into Sanskrit at this time. Although the monks at the Buddhist monastic universities at that time in present-day Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent vigorously debated the assertions of the various non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, there is no evidence that any such debates occurred with Muslim scholars. No mention of Islamic beliefs appears in any of the Sanskrit Buddhist philosophical treatises, either then or afterwards.

The singular Buddhist textual tradition that mentions any Islamic customs or beliefs is the Sanskrit Kalachakra Tantra literature, which emerged in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE. Prior to this time, Buddhism did not seem to have viewed Islam as a rival religion. Nor was it the case that Buddhism was spreading into traditional Islamic regions and felt the need to explain the native beliefs it was encountering. Now, however, a new situation arose: Buddhist masters saw a threat to their society posed by a certain Muslim political faction. Consequently, they seem to have felt it necessary to inform their followers about the beliefs of the possible “invaders.”

Kalachakra, meaning “cycles of time,” is a Mahayana Buddhist system of tantric practice for gaining enlightenment to be able to benefit all beings as much as is possible. It describes three parallel cycles of time: external, internal, and alternative. The external cycles refer to planetary motion, astrological patterns, and historical cycles, including periodic invasions by foreign forces. Internal cycles refer to biological and psychological rhythms. Alternative cycles are repetitive meditation practices aimed at overcoming being under the control of the external and internal cycles.

The portion of the literature that deals with the external cycles refers to the invaders as mleccha, the traditional Sanskrit name given to foreign invaders of the Indian subcontinent, starting with Alexander the Great and including the Kushans and the Hepthalite Huns. The term connotes people speaking unintelligible non-Indic languages. Mleccha are characterized by their merciless invading armies. The other main term used for the invaders is “Tayi,” a Sanskrit phonetic transcription of the Arabic tayy (plural: tayayah, tayyaye) or the Persian form of it, tazi. The Tayyayah were the strongest of the pre-Muslim Arab tribes, the Tayy’id, and “Tazi” became the Persian word for Arabs. “Tazi” was the term used in reference to the Arab invaders of Iran, for example, by the last Sassanid ruler, Yazdgerd III.

Identification of the Islamic School Mentioned in the Kalachakra Literature

The historical reference for the mleccha mentioned in the Kalachakra literature is not to all Arabs or to all Muslims in general, but most likely specifically to the adherents of late tenth-century CE eastern Isma’ili Shi’a, as followed in the Kingdom of Multan (968–1010 CE) in present-day north central Pakistan. The Kingdom of Multan was a vassal state of the Arab Isma’ili Fatimid Empire (910–1171 CE), centered in Egypt. Surrounding the crumbling ’Abbasid Empire on both sides, the Fatimids and their Multanese vassals posed a serious threat of invasion in their quest for supremacy over the Islamic world.

[See: Islam from the Point of View of Buddhism]

The population in the ’Abbasid regions immediately to the north and west of Multan – namely, present-day eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan – included large numbers of Buddhists and Hindus at that time. From 876 to 976 CE, the entire region was under Hindu Shahi rule. The Sunni Muslim Ghaznavids, vassals of the ’Abbasids, conquered the Afghan side in 976 CE and finally overthrew the Hindu Shahi rulers of the remaining Pakistani side in 1010 CE. The Ghaznavids were tolerant of Buddhism and Hinduism within the former Hindu Shahi realm. Al-Biruni (976–1048 CE), a Persian scholar and writer in service to the Ghaznavid court, reported that, at the turn of the millennium, the Buddhist monasteries in present-day eastern Afghanistan, including Nava Vihara, were still functioning. The Ghaznavid rulers were intolerant, however, of Islamic sects other than their own orthodox Sunni one that they supported. They particularly regarded the Isma’ili Shi’a Kingdom of Multan as a threat to their rule and faith.

[See: History of Buddhism in Afghanistan]

The List of Prophets of the Future Invaders

The main evidence supporting the hypothesis that the Tayi mleccha invaders mentioned in the Kalachakra literature were the Isma’ilis of Multan comes from The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ’khor-lo, Skt. Laghu-kālacakra-tantra-rāja) I.153. This verse presents a list of the eight prophets of the future invaders: 

Adam, Noah, Abraham, and five others – Moses, Jesus, the White-Clad One, Muhammad, and Mahdi… The eighth will be the blinded one. The seventh will manifestly come to the city of Baghdad in the land of Mecca, (the place) in this world where a portion of the asura (caste) will have the form of the powerful, merciless mlecchas.

[See: The Prophets of the Non-Indic Invaders in Kalachakra]

This list is the standard Isma’ili list of seven prophets, with the addition of the White-Clad One. It can be argued that the White-Clad One is Mani, the third-century CE founder of Manichaeism. This is because early Isma’ili thinkers had some Manichaean influence from so-called “Manichaean Islam.” ‘Abd Allah ibn Maymum al-Qaddah (died 825 CE), for example, the alleged founder of the Isma’ili faith and progenitor of the Fatimid imams was purportedly greatly influenced by Mani.

One possible reason for the Kalachakra list of prophets numbering eight, rather than the standard seven of the Isma’ilis, is to make a parallel with the eight incarnations of Vishnu enumerated in the immediately preceding verse, I.152. This is suggested by the reference to the followers of the prophets as members of the asura caste. In Buddhist cosmology, the asuras, a type of jealous demigods, are rivals of the Hindu gods and always wage war against them. If there are eight incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, then there would need to be eight asura prophets to vie against them.

The Presentation of the Mleccha Beliefs and Customs

The Kalachakra texts mention some of the beliefs and customs of the Tayi mlecchas. Most of these beliefs are fundamental to Islam as a whole. Some seem to be specific to the Isma’ili thought of the time, while others contradict that thought. This discrepancy perhaps indicates that the compilers of the Kalachakra literature had incomplete information about the Isma’ili beliefs held in Multan, and therefore filled in their account with information gleaned from other forms of Islam they had met. Alternatively, it could indicate that the theological views expressed by the main Isma’ili thinker of the time – Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani, a strong supporter of the Fatimid state – were not yet widely disseminated in Multan. This could have been the case although al-Sijistani’s works were the official Fatimid doctrine prevalent at that time in the eastern Isma’ili regions.

Occasionally, the Kalachakra literature explains certain features of Islam in terms of concepts familiar to a mixed Buddhist and Hindu audience. For example, Pundarika, in Stainless Light: A Commentary Explaining “The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra” (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ’khor-lo’i ’grel-bshad dri-ma med-pa’i ’od, Skt. Vimalaprabhā-nāma-laghu-kālacakra-tantra-rāja-ṭīkā), explains, 

Concerning the mlecchas, Muhammad was an avatar of Rahman. The indicator of the mleccha teachings, he was the guru and master of the mleccha Tayis. 

In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of the soul of a god into another form. Thus, Muhammad being an avatar of Rahman parallels the Hindu assertion of Krishna as an avatar of the god Vishnu. In most cases, however, the Kalachakra literature does not present the Muslim beliefs in terms deriving from Indian culture.

Creation and Obedience to Allah

The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.164cd, states: 

Created by the Creator is everything that arises, moving and unmoving. From pleasing him, as the cause for liberation for the Tayis, there is heaven. This is indeed the teaching of Rahman (Arabic for “compassionate one,” and epithet of Allah) for men.

Pundarika elaborates in Stainless Light

Now, as for the assertions of the Tayi mlecchas, the creator Rahman gives rise to every functional phenomenon, both moving and unmoving. The cause for liberation for the Tayis, namely the white-clad mlecchas, is pleasing Rahman, and this definitely brings a higher rebirth (in Paradise) for men. From not pleasing him, comes (a rebirth in) Hell. These are the teachings of Rahman, the assertions of the Tayis.

Islam in general asserts that Allah created the heavens and the earth. Al-Sijistani, however, elaborates the process of divine creation in a unique manner. According to his explanation, Allah, through His command or word, created the universal “intellect.” The universal “intellect” is an eternal, motionless, unchanging, and perfect primal being. It is an undifferentiated universal encompassing everything and is somewhat like a universal “mind,” but in the form of a being. The universal “intellect” emanated a universal “soul,” which is likewise eternal, but is always in motion and is imperfect. Within the universal “soul,” the physical world of nature emerges. The universal “soul” has two contrary dispositions: movement and rest. Within physical reality, movement creates form and rest creates matter. Matter remains inert and static, while its forms are continually in motion and changing.

Thus, it is perhaps in reference to al-Sijistani’s explanation of creation that The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra notes: “Created by the Creator is everything that arises, moving and unmoving.” Although the concepts of a universal “intellect” and a universal “soul” have remained prominent in Isma’ili thought, they do not occur in other forms of Islam.

Al-Sijistani, however, does not assert pleasing Allah – in the general Islamic sense of obeying the Shari’ah laws or, in the general Shi’ite and later Isma’ili sense, of acknowledging the infallibility of the line of imams – as the cause for “a higher rebirth in Paradise.” His explanation of the cause for going to Paradise is quite different.

For al-Sijistani, the universal “soul” gives rise to individual, particular souls that descend into the physical world of matter and form. Within each particular individual human being, the individual soul appropriates an individual portion of the universal “intellect,” which is thus partial and limited. The cause for going to Paradise is an individual soul’s discrimination whereby it turns away from the delights of the physical world and turns, instead, toward the pure realm of the universal “intellect.” In doing so, an individual soul learns the distinction between truth and falsity, and between good and evil.

Circumcision, the Ramadan Fast, and Halal

Pundarika, in The Glorious Deepest Service (dPal don-dam-pa’i bsnyen-pa, Skt. Śrīparamārtha-sevā) explains: 

According to others, the cause for a higher rebirth (in Paradise) is having the skin from the tip of one’s own penis cut off and eating at the end of the day and the beginning of the night. This is certainly what the Tayis do. They do not enjoy the flesh of cattle that have died (a natural death) by their own karma. Rather, they eat those that have been slaughtered. Otherwise, there is no going to a higher rebirth (in Paradise) for men.

Pundarika amplifies the second part of this line in Stainless Light

With a cleaver, they slit the throats of cattle with the mleccha God’s mantra Bishimilla (Ar. Bismillah, “in the name of Allah”), and then eat the flesh of those cattle that have been slaughtered with their God’s mantra. They do not eat the flesh of those that have died (a natural death) by their own karma.

These passages indicate the general Islamic customs of circumcision, eating only after sunset during the Ramadan fast, and obeying the injunctions concerning the restrictions of the halal dietary laws. Pundarika, in Stainless Light, however, mistakenly takes the halal method of slaughter to signify a sacrifice to God, similar to the Vedic ritual. Addressing himself to a Hindu audience, Pundarika states,

You will consider that (Tayi) teaching to be valid, because of the words in your (Vedic) scriptures, ‘Employ cattle for the sake of sacrifice.’

Ethics, Prayer, and Injunction against Statues of God

In The Essence of the Further Tantra of the Glorious Kalachakra Tantra (dPal dus-kyi ’khor-lo’i rgyud phyi-ma rgyud-kyi snying-po, Skt. Śri-kālacakra-tantrottaratantra-hṛdaya) it is stated, 

In keeping with the teachings of those whose women wear veils… the hordes of Tayi horsemen destroy in battle any statues of gods there may be, without exception. They have one caste, do not steal, and speak the truth. They keep clean, avoid others’ wives, follow definite ascetic practices, and remain faithful to their own wives. (First) having washed themselves, then, at an individually desired time during the pitch-black night and at noon, twilight, mid-afternoon, and when the sun rises over the mountains, the Tayi non-Buddhists (Skt. tīrthika) pay homage five times (each day), prostrating on the ground facing their holy land and taking singular refuge in the ‘Lord of Those with Tamas’ in the heavenly realm above the earth.

Here, the Kalachakra text also explains beliefs common to all Muslims: not making “idolatrous” statues, honoring the equality of all men in Islam, keeping strict ethics, and praying five times a day.

Although the above cited quotation indicates the general Muslim response to statues believed to represent a god and worshipped as an idol, nevertheless the Islamic world was also struck by the beauty of many of these statues and of the monasteries and temples that contained them. Persian poetry of the time, for example, often used the simile for palaces that they were “as beautiful as a Nowbahar (Nava Vihara).” Further, at Nava Vihara and Bamiyan, Buddha images, particularly of Maitreya, the future Buddha, had moon discs behind their heads. This led to the poetic depiction of pure beauty as someone having “the moon-shaped face of a Buddha” (Persian: bot-e mahruy). Thus, although the Persian term, but or bot, deriving from the Sogdian purt, was used for both Buddha and an idolatrous statue, and the Arabic term for Buddha, al-Budd, was also used for all idols from India, nevertheless early eleventh-century Persian poems, such as Varqa va Golshah by ‘Ayyuqi, used the word bot with a positive connotation for “Buddha,” and not with its second, derogatory meaning as “idol.” It implies the ideal of asexual beauty in both men and women.

The Afterlife

When it came to the discussion of the nature of the afterlife and the effect on it by a person’s deeds in this life, the Kalachakra texts did not merely report the Tayi mleccha assertion. They felt it necessary to point out its contradiction with the Buddhist beliefs. The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.174, states:

Through an (eternal) afterlife, a person experiences (the results of his) earlier committed karmic actions of this world. If that were so, then depletion of humans’ karma from one birth to another would not occur. There would be no exiting from samsara and no entering into liberation even in terms of immeasurable existence. That thought, indeed, appears among the Tayis, although dismissed by other groups.

Pundarika elaborates on this passage in Stainless Light

The assertion of the mleccha Tayis is that humans who die experience happiness or suffering in a higher rebirth (in Paradise) or in Hell with their human bodies, through Rahman’s decision.

This passage refers to the general Islamic belief in the Day of Judgment, when all men will rise from the dead in their human bodies and will be judged by Allah. Based on their past deeds, they will pass to either eternal happiness in Paradise or eternal suffering in Hell, still retaining their human bodies. The Isma’ili tenet, however, as formulated by al-Sijistani, denies the resurrection of the human body. According to al-Sijistani, the happiness of Paradise and the suffering of Hell are experienced purely mentally by the individual soul, without any physical aspect.

Buddhism, on the other hand, with its teachings of karma, asserts recurring rebirth by the force of one’s karmic actions motivated by disturbing emotions and attitudes. Destructive actions, motivated by anger, greed, attachment, or naivety about behavioral cause and effect, result in rebirth in a hell, or as a ghost, or an animal. Naivety may be due to either lack of knowledge or an incorrect understanding. Constructive actions, but still associated with naivety about reality, result in rebirth as a human, an asura demigod, or as a worldly god in a heaven. Each of these types of rebirth that anyone may experience – including rebirth in a heaven or a hell – has its own type of body specific to that realm. One cannot be reborn in a heaven or a hell with a human body.

Moreover, Buddhism teaches that the karmic aftermath of any karmic deed ripens into happiness or suffering for only a limited period of time. Once that karmic aftermath has finished ripening, it is depleted. One then dies from a heavenly or hellish rebirth and is reborn in yet another samsaric realm. From a Buddhist point of view, rebirth in a heaven or a hell cannot be eternal. However, one’s recurring samsaric rebirths will continue eternally, one after the next, unless one completely rids oneself of their true causes. Moreover, even the happiness of a heavenly rebirth is a form of suffering, since it never satisfies and eventually comes to an end.

Thus, Buddhism teaches that if one rids oneself of all disturbing emotions and attitudes, one stops committing karmic actions that would lead to continuing samsaric rebirth, whether in a heaven, a hell, on this earth, or elsewhere. Likewise, one gets rid of the karmic aftermath already accumulated. Then, on the basis of constructive deeds done without any naivety about reality, one gains an eternal, peaceful, joyous state of nirvana, liberation from recurring samsaric rebirth. There is no Day of Judgment and no judge. Continuing samsaric rebirth is not a punishment, and the attainment of nirvana is not a reward. The connection between behavioral cause and effect operates purely in a mechanical way, without divine involvement.

The main issue that the Buddhist texts dispute, then, is that heavenly rebirth is the ultimate spiritual goal and the final attainment that any person can reach, since this contradicts the central Buddhist assertion of final liberation from karma and rebirth.

The Atomic Nature of Matter and the Nature of the Soul

Concerning some other points, the Kalachakra literature attempts to put the mleccha assertions into a Buddhist context in order to make them more understandable to its audience. For example, the nineteenth-century CE Tibetan commentator Mipam (Mi-pham ’Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho), in his Illumination of the Vajra Sun, Clarifying the Meaning of the Words of “The Glorious Kalachakra Tantra”: Commentary to Chapter (Five), Deep Awareness (dPal dus-kyi ’khor-lo’i rgyud-kyi tshig don rab-tu gsal-byed rdo-rje nyi-ma’i snang-ba, Ye-shes le’u’i ’grel-chen), explains: 

The mlecchas have two (philosophical points) that they hold. They hold external phenomena to have the nature of a collection of atoms, and they hold the existence of a self of a person that temporarily takes birth or that has an aspect that takes birth in samsara. The goal is to achieve the happiness of the gods as the fruit. Aside from this, they do no assert any other type of nirvana.

Mipam goes on to point out that the mleccha assertion of the atomic nature of matter fits into the Buddhist beliefs. He explains that the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools of Hinayana Buddhism assert indivisible, partless atoms; while the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana Buddhism assert atoms that are endlessly divisible.

Mipam does not elaborate on the Muslim position concerning atoms; however, among the philosophical views that had developed within Islam before the mid-tenth century CE, certain writers also asserted indivisible atoms. They included al-Hakam and al-Nazzam, within the Shi’ite Mu’tazili school of disputation, and the Sunni theologian al-Ash’ari. Most other Islamic theologians of that time, as well as afterwards, asserted atoms as being infinitely divisible. Al-Sijistani, however, seems to be unclear about the divisibility of atoms.

Mipam continues, 

Knowing their dispositions and thoughts, Buddha taught sutras of what they (the Tayis) could accept. For instance, in The Sutra of Carrying Responsibility (Khur ’khu-ba’i mdo), Buddha said that persons carrying responsibility (for their actions) do exist, but without speaking of the soul of a person as being either permanent or impermanent. These points are true on the face of their (Tayi) assertions. Buddha’s intended meaning is that persons do exist as continuities of a self that bears responsibility for karma, but which is merely imputed onto a continuum and, by nature, is neither permanent nor impermanent.

Buddhism teaches that there is a finite, but uncountable number of individual persons and of mental continuums. An individual person is something imputed on an individual mental continuum, much like a habit can be imputed on a continuum of repeated forms of similar behavior.

The continuity of each individual person, like the continuity of each individual mental continuum, is eternal, but nonstatic. These continuities are eternal, in the sense of having no beginning and no end. However, they are nonstatic in the sense of changing from moment to moment. In each moment, each person does something different, such as cognizing a different object.

While under the influence of naivety, each person commits karmic actions and bears responsibility for those actions. The karmic legacies of these actions ripen into the person’s experience of samsaric happiness or suffering through a continuity of rebirths. When a person is able to maintain continuous correct awareness of reality, the person becomes liberated from ever experiencing the ripening of these legacies. In this way, the continuity of the samsaric existence of that person ceases forever and the person attains liberation, nirvana. Nevertheless, the everchanging continuity of that individual person and of the mental continuum on which that individual person is imputed, go on eternally, even after the attainment of nirvana.

In short, according to Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhist branch to which Kalachakra belongs, an individual person is not permanent in the sense of being static; nor is an individual person impermanent in the sense of being temporary. Moreover, the samsaric existence of an individual person is not permanent in the sense of being eternal; nor is the nirvanic existence of an individual person impermanent in the sense of being temporary.

Mipam’s description of the mleccha assertions concerning the soul fits loosely with al-Sijistani’s explanations. Al-Sijistani also asserts that persons – in this case, souls – bear responsibility for their actions and are neither permanent nor impermanent. However, the metaphysical basis for his assertions is quite different from the Buddhist one. The universal “soul” is not permanent in the sense of being static, but rather it is in constant motion and flux. Nevertheless, it is also not impermanent in the sense of being temporary, but rather it is eternal.

According to al-Sijistani, all individual souls of men are “aspects” of the same universal “soul,” in the sense of being parts or portions of it. When an individual soul leaves a human body, its temporary bodily existence comes to an end. It reverts to the undifferentiated universal “soul” and does not take further bodily rebirth before the Day of Judgment. Nevertheless, an individual disembodied soul somehow retains its individuality. At the time of resurrection and judgment, the individual soul attains the mental pleasures of eternal Paradise if it has gained sufficient rational knowledge of the truth, through its association with an individual intellect while embodied. If the individual soul remained enmeshed in corporeal sensuality while embodied and did not acquire rational knowledge of the truth, it attains eternal mental tortures in Hell.

Thus, the individual soul is not permanent, in the sense that it is not eternally in its embodied state. However, it is also not impermanent, in the sense that after resurrection and judgment, it continues forever, bearing responsibility for its actions while embodied.

The Ghaznavid Dynasty (975–1187 CE)

There is no evidence that, after the emergence of the Kalachakra literature in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE, Muslim scholars became aware of the descriptions contained in it of their beliefs. Interest in Buddhism, however, persisted among them, as seen in several historical works; while, aside from Kalachakra exegetical commentaries, further Buddhist interest in Islam in the centuries that followed was nil.

For example, during the Ghaznavid Dynasty, the Persian historian, al-Biruni, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his early eleventh century CE invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Based on what he learned there, al-Biruni wrote A Book about India (Ar. Kitab al-Hind). In it, he described the basic Buddhist customs and beliefs and noted that the Indians regarded Buddha as a prophet. That does not mean, of course, that he was suggesting that Muslims accept Buddha as a prophet of Allah, but it does indicate that he understood that Buddhists do not assert Shakyamuni as their God. Serving under the Seljuk Dynasty, al-Shahrastani repeated al-Biruni’s account of Buddhism in his twelfth-century CE work, The Book of Religions and Creeds (Ar. Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal).

We can also find continuing examples of literary borrowings from Buddhism into Islamic literature during the Ghaznavid period, 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.

The Ilkhanid Dynasty (1258–1336 CE)

In 1258 CE, Hulegu, a grandson of Chinggis Khan, conquered Iran and overthrew the ’Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and established the Ilkhanate Dynasty. Hulegu followed the Tibetan form of Buddhism and soon invited to his court in northwestern Iran Buddhist monks from Tibet, Kashmir, and Ladakh. The sixth Ilkhan, however, Ghazan (r. 1295–1304 CE), converted from Buddhism to Islam with the Shi’a Sufi master Sadr ad-Din Ibrahim. Nevertheless, when he commissioned his minister, Rashid al-Din, to write Universal History (Ar. Jami’ al-Tawarikh), he instructed him to include descriptions of the belief systems of the various peoples whom the Mongols had encountered, including Buddhism. Thus, he invited to his court Bakshi Kamalashri, a Buddhist monk from Kashmir, to assist Rashid al-Din with his work. The result of their collaboration was The Life and Teachings of Buddha, which appeared, in both Arabic and Persian versions, as section three of A History of India, the second volume of Universal History.

Like the previous works by al-Kermani and al-Biruni, Rashid al-Din explained Buddhism in Muslim terms. Thus, he listed Buddha as one of the six religious founders accepted as prophets by the Indians: three theistic – Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma – and three non-theistic – Arhanta for Jainism, Nastika for the Charvaka system, and Shakyamuni for Buddhism. He also referred to the deva gods as angels, and Mara as ‘Iblis, the Devil. The text also mentions the six rebirth realms, the laws of karmic cause and effect, and that the words of the Buddha were preserved in the Kangyur, the collection of their Tibetan translations.

Rashid al-Din also reported that in his day, eleven Buddhist texts in Arabic translation were circulating in Iran. These included Mahayana texts such as The Sutra on the Array of the Pure Land of Bliss (Skt. Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra) concerning Amitabha’s Pure Land, The Sutra on the Array Like a Woven Basket (Skt. Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra) concerning Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, and An Exposition on Maitreya (Skt. Maitreyavyākaraṇa) concerning Maitreya, the future Buddha and embodiment of love. Some aspects of Rashid al-Din’s description, however, were quite fanciful. For instance, he claimed that before Islam, the people of Mecca and Medina were Buddhists and worshipped idols resembling Buddha in the Kaaba.

A little over a century later, in the early fifteenth century CE, Hafiz-i Abru, serving in the court of Shahrukh of the Timurid Dynasty in Samarkand, compiled A Collection of Histories (Ar. Majma at-Tawarikh). The section in it concerning Buddha and Buddhism based itself on Rashid al-Din’s work.

Although histories of India written by Muslim scholars include descriptions of the Buddhist beliefs, we do not find comparable accounts of the Islamic beliefs in histories of India written by Tibetan or Mongolian Buddhist authors after the spread of Islam in India. For example, in A History of Buddhism in India (rGya-gar chos-’byung) by the early seventeenth-century CE Tibetan scholar Taranatha, the author described the early thirteenth-century CE destruction of the Buddhist monasteries of central North India by the Muslim armies of the Guzz Turks during the Ghurid Dynasty. Nevertheless, he remained completely silent about Islam itself.

Present Prospects

Although Muslim scholars of the past have shown repeated interest in gaining knowledge of Buddhism, while Buddhist scholars have shown comparatively less interest in learning about Islam, this situation is slowly changing at present. In a lecture delivered in Milano, Italy, in December 2007, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has exhibited very clearly this changing attitude:

Since September 11, although I’m a Buddhist, an outsider to Islam, nevertheless I have been voluntarily making efforts as a defender of Great Islam. Many of my Muslim brothers – very few sisters – explain to me that if anyone creates bloodshed, this is not Islam. The reason is that a true Muslim, a true follower of Islam, should have love toward entire creation the same as he or she has love toward Allah. All creatures are created by Allah. If one respects and loves Allah, one must love all His creatures.

One reporter friend of mine spent time in Tehran at the time of Ayatollah Khomeini. Later, he told me how the mullah there collected money from wealthy families and distributed it to poorer people to help with education and poverty. This is the real socialist process. In Muslim countries, bank interest is discouraged. So, if we know Islam and we see how followers of Islam implement it sincerely, then like all other religions, it is truly wonderful. In general if we know others’ religions, we can develop mutual respect, admiration, and enrichment. Therefore, we need constant effort to promote religious interfaith understanding.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders have also shown growing interest in interfaith understanding and dialogue. Thus, various international organizations have convened Buddhist-Muslim conferences in recent years. For example, in September 2008 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the Global Family for Love and Peace, in cooperation with the Museum of World Religions in Taipei, Taiwan, sponsored the tenth in its series of Buddhist-Muslim dialogues, “Towards a Global Family,” commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Previous conferences in this series have included “A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue Conference on Global Ethics and Good Governance” at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, in May 2003 CE and a symposium on “Dharma, Allah and Governance: A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue” in July 2004 CE in Barcelona, Spain, as part of the Parliament of the World Religions. Buddhist and Muslim leaders both agree that interfaith understanding, fostered through such dialogues and conferences, will undoubtedly contribute greatly to religious harmony and world peace.

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