Education as the Key to Buddhist-Muslim Harmony

Both Buddhism and Islam teach the universal values of love, compassion, patience and forgiveness. When, through education, Buddhists and Muslims recognize and appreciate this commonality, then despite their philosophical differences, they have laid the foundation for religious harmony.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often said that the key to interreligious harmony is education. This is because mistrust and hostility toward other religions is most often based on ignorance of those religions’ teachings. All religions share a belief in the universal values of love, compassion, forgiveness and kindness. They also share the same aim: making a happier life for individuals and society. The philosophical differences they have, in no way negate the importance of those values for achieving those aims. They merely indicate the wide variety of frameworks and reasons that are equally effective for practitioners to develop these same virtues. Therefore, to foster religious harmony, followers of different religions need to learn that each other’s religions affirm these same moral values. It is only on the basis of correct knowledge that they share this common ground, that trust, respect and harmony can grow.

The need for interreligious education is especially relevant with respect to Buddhist-Muslim relations, particularly in the regions of Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka where communal conflict has arisen. Although communal violence is abominable enough within the lay community, it is intolerable when it is the monastic community that fosters it. Let us explore what steps can be taken to alleviate this situation.

For over 700 years, Nalanda University was one of the major seats of learning in the Buddhist world. There, the great Buddhist masters wrote and taught their treatises presenting the four Indian Buddhist tenet systems; and there, they met and debated with masters of the various other systems of thought of their time. Whichever side lost the debates would have to accept as the ultimate truth the victor’s assertions. The stakes were high: royal patronage was rewarded only to the winners of these debates.

At Nalanda, monk students, in turn, trained in debate and studied the assertions of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. The aim of their study was to refute these views. The Tibetan monastic institutions have continued the Nalanda tradition of learning through debate, and contrasting the Buddhist assertions with those of the ancient Indian non-Buddhist tenet systems.

Now is the time to expand the Nalanda tradition of Buddhist study of non-Buddhist thought in both monastic and secular education. The curriculum needs to include the study of Islam, but with some important changes. The aim of the study needs to be to explore the common ground of universal values shared by both religions. Learning the philosophical differences should not be for the sake of refuting an opponent’s position in debate. Instead, debate should focus on exploring how the universal values of love, compassion and so forth can be supported equally well by completely different systems of thought.

As a result of their study, Buddhists will come to understand, appreciate and respect the teachings of Islam and realize that Islam does not pose a threat to their beliefs. This, in turn, will contribute to more harmonious communal relations, specifically in areas of South and Southeast Asia where conflict has previously erupted. In this way, the monastics can set the example and take the lead in fostering peace.

Let us look briefly at some examples of how the teachings of Islam and Buddhism both uphold these universal values.

According to Islam, God created all men and women with a pure predisposition and inclination to believe in and submit to God and to follow God’s will. God’s will is for them to obey the ethical laws He created and to worship Him through maintaining excellence in character and in acts of service. Excellent acts of service to God mean acting with love toward all God’s creations. Doing so is a form of worship and brings the worshipper closer to God, in accord with God’s will.

But God also created humans with an intellect and free will. Exercising free will and using their intellect, people can decide whether to obey God’s will. If they choose not to obey, they come under the influence of destructive emotions and become self-centered. This leads to negative behavior forbidden by God.

Acting with love toward others is also an act of free will, and people can use their intellect to make that choice. If they act with love and kindness toward others, they are following their inner predisposition to come close to God. In Islam, when people develop love for the universe and for humanity in the purest way, their love is not for the universe or humanity in and of themselves, but is love for God who created the excellence in them.

According to Buddhism, all beings have a pure Buddha-nature with no beginning: it enables them to become Buddhas themselves. In Islam, their pure innate nature allows people to come close to God, and in some Sufi orders, even to merge with God, but never to become God themselves. In Buddhism, no one created this Buddha-nature in them. It is just there as a fact of reality.

Buddhism also, like Islam, asserts that people have good qualities, such as innate compassion and an intellect capable of discriminating between what is helpful and what is harmful. But in Buddhism, ethical discipline is based on understanding which actions bring suffering and which bring happiness. Using their intellect, people can analyze and discriminate for themselves what is helpful and what is harmful. In Islam, intellect is used to decide whether to obey God’s will. In both cases, people have the freedom of choice to act in a helpful or harmful manner and to use the discriminating abilities of their intellect to decide which one to do. Although both God and Buddha are omniscient, neither of them predetermines what choice people will make.

According to Islam, God created the laws of ethical behavior, and God hands out judgement, with reward and punishment. But God is merciful and compassionate, and forgives those who repent their ill deeds and submit to God’s will. According to Buddhism, no one created the laws of karma and behavioral cause and effect. They are just the nature of reality. Suffering follows naturally from destructive behavior done out of ignorance; whereas happiness derives from constructive behavior committed out of wisdom and compassion. As in Islam, however, if people openly admit their wrongdoings and sincerely regret them, Buddhism teaches that they can avoid experiencing the suffering effects of their negative acts. Purification, however, does not entail requesting and receiving Buddha’s forgiveness.

Love in Buddhism is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. It is based on the realization that everyone is equal: everyone wants to be happy and nobody wishes for suffering. In Islam, everyone is equal in the sense that all beings are equally the creations of God. In both cases, however, all beings are equal.

Buddhism teaches that all beings have the ability and right to be happy, since all have Buddha-nature. So, development of love for others is out of consideration for their happiness. Love and serving others is not an act of worship of Buddha. In loving others, people build up the positive force to become Buddhas themselves. In this sense, they come closer to Buddhahood, but not, as in Islam, coming closer to Buddha himself.

It is clear from these examples that despite their philosophical differences, the teachings of Buddhism and Islam equally foster the basic universal values of love, compassion and forgiveness. Interreligious education, however, is not enough to bring about religious harmony. The causes for Buddhist-Muslim conflict are multiple and complex. Moreover, they are not the same in each of the areas in which friction has arisen. Differences in religious belief are hardly ever the reasons for conflict at present. More frequently, economic, political, linguistic, racial and historical issues play a larger role in causing hostilities. Nevertheless, interreligious education is extremely important for each side to gain respect for the other. But only with more extensive education can the focus be shifted from blaming the conflicts solely on religious differences and be directed instead at addressing the underlying social, historical and economic causes. For any policy shifts regarding politics or economics to be successful, however, they need to be based on an affirmation of the basic universal values shared by Buddhists and Muslims in common. Education is the key and, hopefully, Nalanda can once more take its place as a leader in this field. Thank you.