The Practice of Love in Buddhism and Islam: A Comparison

All Religions Share a Common Goal

All religions share the common message of love, patience, forgiveness, overcoming self-centeredness and selfishness. This is something that all religions teach in common and is the basis for inter-religious dialogue. The philosophies and methods behind them to teach these qualities may be different, but the goal is the same. All the world religions are aiming to improve the quality of life and bring happiness to individuals and society. Given this as the common ground and acknowledging that there are philosophical differences, the question is how to encourage and develop religious harmony, something very much needed in the world today.

When we look in terms of the Buddhist and Islamic worlds, they interacted and intersected both historically and presently in many different parts of the world such as India, Central and Southeast Asia, and now many Muslim immigrants are coming to Europe and North America. We are having much closer contact with these societies and cultures. They are meeting and interacting not only with people from Jewish and Christian backgrounds, but also Buddhist. Some of us here today may have a Buddhist background and might find it interesting to know how these two religions compare.

This is an area that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very concerned about in terms of inter-religious harmony. He always stresses that the basis for this harmony is education. When people are uninformed and often misinformed about other religions, then there is fear and mistrust. People tend to identify an entire religion with a very small group of what His Holiness calls “mischief-makers.” These exist in all societies and all religions.

This is very unfortunate; therefore, the basis for religious harmony is education. Based on education, there can be respect if we understand each other’s philosophies and ways of cultivating these positive qualities that we all share. They are the universal qualities of love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. To this end, let’s examine these two religions and see what they say about the development of love, beginning with Islam.

Basic Principles in Islam

The Pure Innate Drive to Follow God

Central to everything in Islam is God, the creator. God created men and women with a pure predisposition or inclination or an innate drive to submit to God and follow God’s will. We might find that a bit odd from our point of view, but if we think about it from a biological point of view, we are created by our parents, the mother, and there is an innate drive for the infant to connect with the mother so that the infant, if a mammal, will automatically go to the breast to suckle and derive nourishment and so on. There is a drive to come close to our creator.

Therefore, this drive that we find in Islam, although taken to a higher level, isn’t such a strange idea in terms of this innate, almost like a magnet, to draw people to the creator and to follow and submit to God’s will. Even if we look within the animal world, the infant will follow the mother. This is an instinct, and that is what is being discussed.

However, God also created humans with free will and intellect. Under the influence of the intellect, with free will, the soul can choose to either obey God or become subject to negative emotions that derive from disobedience to God’s will. That becomes very self-centered. We have this in the development of children as well. There is self-will and disobedience with parents and so on.

This leads to negative behavior, forbidden by God and, as a result, black stains accrue and accumulate around the heart. This creates a veil between one’s heart and the message of Muhammad. One’s heart becomes closed off to the truth of God, but since it’s the soul that exercises free will, it’s the soul that needs to exercise the free will of the intellect to remove the stains from the heart. With intellect, one discriminates and sees what is or isn’t God’s will, and one has the choice to follow or not.

This effort to open the heart is described as a struggle. That’s the meaning of the word “jihad.” Although there are many levels in which the word jihad can be used in different forms of Islam, the central meaning of it is an internal struggle or fight to overcome the influence of negative emotions, disobedience to God’s will, and following an ethical life – having a lack of faith or coming under the influence of lust or anger.

The Three Dimensions of Islam

What does it mean to follow God’s will? It means a sincere worship of God. In Islam, this encompasses what is known as the three dimensions of Islam. These are submission or surrender to God’s will, faith and, very importantly, a concept in Islam called “excellence.”


Submission means accepting as absolute truth that there is no God other than God and Muhammad is God’s messenger. It also means knowing and following God’s laws, the Shariah. “Shariah” is the word in Arabic that means the ethical way to lead one’s life. Very central to following God’s will is to lead an ethical life as is outlined in the Shariah. This entails praying five times a day and is an incredibly powerful unifying force of a society.

In very strict Islamic societies, everything stops five times a day. In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village, we have the mindfulness bell, which occasionally will ring to remind us to become mindful of what we’re doing. This can be understood on many levels, but here we have not just a small isolated village but an entire society which stops five times a day to remind themselves of following God’s will, an ethical type of life.

I’ve done a bit of traveling around Africa and the Islamic world on the behalf of the Dalai Lama to find out more about what we can learn from them. In Zanzibar, one of the interesting things was that they used this strict Islamic discipline for helping drug addicts to overcome their addiction. If a person has a very strict schedule to follow instead of an addict’s life, and it’s one that has an ethical basis to it, it helps very much to give a structure to life. When one is a drug addict, one loses all structure to life. This gives one a lot of thought because there’s also a problem like that in Tibet. If drug addicts are given something to accomplish, what we call ngondro in Tibetan, which includes prostrations and so on, if they are given a strict routine, this can be very helpful.

Therefore, following God’s will and living an ethical life means:

  • Praying five times a day
  • Paying a tax for the poor, something that all Muslims do as part of the general welfare of society
  • Fasting during Ramadan; this is also seen as one form of jihad, an inner struggle to overcome one’s attachment to food or drink and so on. One has this discipline during this period of not just following one’s attachment to food and entertainment and so on, but leading a very mindful life of a month of God.
  • There is also a pilgrimage, going to holy places of Islam and re-enacting some of the events in the life of Muhammad. Of course, this makes one mindful of the teachings that he revealed in the Koran.

Faith and Excellence

The second dimension, faith, means to accept the basic truths of Islam and the infallibility of the Koran, the word of God.

The third one, excellence, is extremely relevant in our discussion of love. This is usually translated as “love,” and it means excellence both in character and acts of service to God. God created all of humankind with this excellence, excellent qualities of character and the ability to serve God. God has a feeling of closeness and love toward the excellence that he created in humankind. These excellent qualities include love and the ability to care for others. Acts of service to God means to act with love toward all that God created, and doing this is a form of worship of God.

It’s a very interesting concept and approach to love. By loving God’s creations, this is a way of serving God and of fulfilling the excellence that God created in each of us by serving God’s creations. One of the Arabic words for love connotes the feeling of closeness to excellence, while another word connotes a feeling of closeness expressed in one’s conduct and actions toward others. One learns quite a lot based on the meaning of words and based solely on the Koran itself. We look at the words that are used for love, and they have these connotations: feelings of closeness to excellence and closeness expressed in conduct and actions toward others.

Acting with love toward others is an act of free will. People can use their intellect to make a choice in this way. They follow their inner predisposition to follow their closeness to God. It’s very interesting. God creates us, has this sort of magnet to draw us close to our creator, creates free will to choose, and also there are all the temptations and things like that. The way that one becomes close to God to fulfill that innate nature is through love and serving and helping others. This can be in terms of paying the tax for the poor or other ways that they have societal help within Muslim society. Also, what is very interesting here is that each member of humanity is equally the creation of God. There’s a feeling of the equality of everyone. Everyone has a spirit and a heart sealed with this innate predisposition that can draw each person to God.

God, as the Judge, the Punisher and the Compassionate One Who Forgives

Also, coming together with ethics in Islam, God judges everyone with equal fairness and loves only those who submit to God’s will, and this leads to an ethical life, according to Shariah. For the sake of the welfare of society as a whole, God punishes those who disobey and cause harm. Therefore, as a service to God and as a sign of love, mankind needs to enforce the laws of Shariah. Thus, laws and justice play a very crucial role in Muslim society.

We have a rule of law in all our Western societies coming from the Old Testament in the Judeo-Christian world as well. There is judgment and reward; the society loves us and takes care of us if we obey the laws and punishes us if we disobey. This isn’t an alien concept at all from a Western point of view.

If one engages in this inner struggle, this jihad against one’s own self-centeredness, and it causes one to turn away from God and God’s love, but one sincerely repents, then one earns God’s forgiveness. This is a very central role in Islam; God is the compassionate one, the one that always forgives. God enters the heart of wrong-doers who want to repent and helps them to repent and then forgives them.

We can see this in comparison to Buddhism; repentance entails feeling remorse. We regret what we’ve done; and we repent and drop any grudges we might have toward those we have harmed because they had caused us harm. Then we make restitution by doing something to counteract the wrongdoings that we’ve done, a virtuous act, and we resolve never to repeat the wrong deed again. This is similar to what is straight out of the Koran.

Shariah and Forgiveness

Shariah courts of law also involve forgiveness. This is an incredible aspect of Shariah that we don’t really hear much about. We just hear about what the punishments are, which are rather grim, but the victim of a crime or the victim’s family has a choice. They can always choose either strict punishment or getting some sort of compensation, goats and camels in the old days or some monetary compensation or a pardon. They can forgive. If the family or the victim forgives the person who committed the crime against them, they are set free.

This practice of forgiveness in the legal context is also an excellent act of service to God. This is quite something and is interesting in terms of the imposition of Shariah law. Sometimes people become very confused in the West. Why, when there is such a strict form of law, and this forgiveness aspect is usually unknown, why would a society want that? The thing that one needs to see in places like Somalia, where the society is overrun with warlords and chaos and is horribly dangerous, is that people want some sense of order. What comes from their culture is Shariah. If they have this, then they can feel safe. They know that a thief is going to have the hand chopped off. This really discourages theft very much more than just being thrown into a jail. It is this promise of some sort of order that is very appealing.

Also, when traveling around in Africa, one sees that the religion that is growing the most is Islam. We might ask why? The reason that people say this is that there’s a feeling of equality, a brotherhood where everyone is equal. When they think of the West, they think of colonial power in which there was absolutely no sense of equality between the white colonialists and Africans. This is a big draw and appeal of Islam in many African countries.

When people develop love for the universe and humanity in the purest way, in Islam, their love isn’t for the universe or for humanity in and of itself. In Islam, it’s the love of God and the excellence that God created. This is the philosophical thinking behind love. Developing love in this way, based on the equality of everyone, allows for a very wide development of love. It’s not that one loves one person but not the other person. As long as people are striving for good and this type of excellence, then one’s love is for everyone. God created this excellent quality and goodness in everyone, and this allows people to love everyone. If people are acting out of anger and lust and violently, first, they are encouraged to repent and turn back to an ethical type of life. This is the philosophical basis underlying love in Islam.

Basic Principles in Buddhism

When we turn to Buddhism, we have quite a different conceptualization of how love is developed, but what is quite interesting is to see how many things are similar in the two religions.

Innate Quality of Buddha-Nature without Beginning or Creator God

In Buddhism, all beings have a pure Buddha-nature with no beginning. It enables them to become a Buddha themselves. In Islam, the pure innate nature allows people to become close to God, and in some Sufi orders, even to merge with God, but never to become God themselves. Whereas, in Buddhism, this innate nature, Buddha-nature, allows everyone to become a Buddha. These are different philosophical views and explanations of a very similar type of phenomenon.

In Buddhism, no one created this Buddha-nature in beings. It’s just there, by nature, beginningless. In Islam, God created this. It’s another way of viewing it because if we ask if God has a beginning, God is beginningless as well. We still come up with no beginning as the ultimate answer, but in Buddhism, we have no creator God in that way.

According to Buddhism, people also have good qualities, such as innate compassion and an intellect that is able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Buddhism and Islam agree on that, and also science agrees that this is part of our innate instincts, this instinct to care for oneself – the survival instinct – and to care for others of the species. This isn’t in contradiction. We all have the ability to discriminate what is helpful and harmful.

Ethical Discipline

In Buddhism, ethical discipline is based on understanding which actions bring suffering and which bring happiness. Buddha taught these; he didn’t create these like God did the laws of ethical cause and effect in Islam. In Buddhism, with discriminating awareness, one is able to analyze and discriminate for oneself what is helpful and what is harmful. This is the way that intellect is used, whereas in Islam, it’s conceptualized differently. Intellect is used to decide to either obey or disobey God’s will to love all creations and lead an ethical life.

God created the laws of ethical behavior, and God hands out judgment with reward and punishment in Islam. According to Buddhism, suffering just follows automatically from destructive behavior, and happiness follows automatically from constructive behavior. If we act under the influence of disturbing emotions and ignorance then, by the natural laws of cause and effect, this will cause suffering; whereas, in Islam, it’s God that punishes us for that. It’s the same type of result, but it’s just explained differently.

In Buddhism, likewise, if one refrains from acting under these disturbing emotions, that’s considered constructive. If one helps others with love and compassion, this will bring happiness. From the Islamic point of view, God rewards us; one comes closer to God and one’s innate pure nature. It’s similar, but it’s a question of how cause and effect work. This is a difficult question and point to understand really. In Buddhism, it just says, that’s the way it is, and one believes Buddha as a valid source of information based on other things that Buddha has said. In Islam, one just accepts that God created this, and it’s infallible and true.

Faith and Refuge in the Buddha

Faith in Buddhism is actually based on logic and reason to demonstrate to oneself that Buddha is a valid source of information. After all, Buddha said to question and analyze what he said for ourselves. According to Islam, one is asked for total submission and faith. That’s quite different. When confident of Buddha as being a valid source of information, one takes refuge. Refuge means a safe direction that we put in our lives that basically brings us closer to our Buddha-nature. This is what is going to protect us from harm and being lost.

We can explain that from an Islamic point of view, in that we need some sort of direction in our lives. However, unlike Islam, refuge in Buddha doesn’t mean that we worship Buddha, although many people might look at it that way. If we look at it in terms of the teachings, it’s not blind faith, and just “Buddha, Buddha, how wonderful you are,” nor is it submission as it exists in Islam.

If we dig deeper, it becomes very interesting because what does it actually mean to submit to God? It means to overcome one’s self-centeredness or self-will, thinking that we know everything, we know what’s best. What does it say in Buddhism? It’s that we have to overcome this big ego-trip about how we’re the center of the universe, the most important one, this type of thing.

Again, this is just a different flavor of what we need to do. We need to surrender, in a sense, grasping for this solid concept of a self. In Buddhism, there is a self, of course, but not this one that is this solid thing that always has to have its way, always is right, always has to be first, always has to have everyone’s attention and all of that. This gets us into so much trouble and difficulties in our lives. We have to renounce this and give it up. These are different philosophical flavors and conceptualizations, but the results are quite similar.

Refuge in the Dharma and the Basis for Ethical Discipline 

The word “Dharma” means a preventive measure, something to hold us back from suffering. This is indicated by the Buddha’s teachings. The teachings are something that one analyzes to discover the truth in them. It’s not an unquestioning faith as it is in the Koran and Shariah. Dharma isn’t a holy book or a legal system. It’s interesting that the Chinese translated the word “Dharma” with the Chinese word for “law,” and they look at Buddhism through what we can call Chinese glasses and understood it in terms of Confucian culture.

In any case, law doesn’t play a central role in Indian or Tibetan Buddhism the way it plays in our Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions in the West. There aren’t really laws that we follow or the idea that if we obey the law, then we’re a good person. We have this in the West not only from the biblical background, but we also get this from ancient Greek society as well. If one follows the laws, one is a good citizen. Either the laws have been made by God or the laws are made by a legislature, but nevertheless, this role of ethics is very central, and it’s based on obedience.

In contrast, in Buddhism, ethics are not based on obedience. It’s based on using pure discrimination to understand that if we act in a destructive way, it’s going to produce a lot of problems – problems for society and problems for ourselves. For instance, killing insects: when we analyze that, if our first instinct when something buzzes around us is to slap it and kill it, then we need to think about that first instinct. It’s like a dog; if we poke a dog, it’ll growl or bark. Are we like a dog? With anything we don’t like, is our first instinct to strike out, hurt it and kill it? Then, we can see that there’s some wisdom behind this being destructive and causing unhappiness and problems. It certainly doesn’t make for a very calm and peaceful mind that anything alien, we immediately strike out.

Just think about the attitude if we’re trying to go to sleep and there’s a mosquito buzzing around, how absolutely upset we are; most people just want to hunt it and catch it. It’s this sort of thing that one discriminates. It’s not because it’s against the law to kill mosquitoes, and we’re a good citizen or a good Muslim or Christian if we don’t kill it.

It’s a different concept, and this approach to ethics gives us a great deal to think about. What is behind our ethical behavior? Again, just as an aside, when I was teaching about Buddhist ethics in Berlin, where I live, I asked my students why they didn’t steal. Some answered that it was fear of worse rebirths and stuff like that. I asked if that was really the motivation. Nobody really believed that. Putting that aside, I asked, “Why don’t you steal?” The answer that came up was that it doesn’t feel right. That’s the reason.

That’s exactly what Buddhism says, that behind ethical behavior is a sense of self-dignity and self-worth, that we have enough respect for ourselves that we wouldn’t act in that way. It reflects badly on us, reflects badly on our family, our values, on everything. This is what Buddhism says is the basis for ethical behavior. With that as the foundation, then with our marvelous human intellect and ability, we discriminate and choose what would be helpful and what would be harmful. We don’t want to do what’s harmful because we have too much respect for ourselves to act in this way. This is the wonderful way that it’s presented in Buddhism. It’s not a matter of obedience. In the end, of course, we have ethical behavior, but how we approach this is the question. So, we have refuge in the Buddha, refuge in the Dharma and next, refuge in the Sangha.

Refuge in the Sangha: Comparison with Islam Brotherhood and Sisterhood

The Sangha is the community of those who are on the path, and not just the conventional representation of it with the monastic community, but those who are highly realized beings. Is there an equivalent in Islam? Maybe the brotherhood of all Muslims acts as a supporting community. The main function of the Sangha is to give us encouragement in the fact that there are others on the path to becoming a Buddha. It’s very hard to relate to a Buddha with all the qualities a Buddha has, but here are people striving toward that and have made some progress, and we are not alone. This gives us some support as a community.

In Islam, we have the brotherhood and sisterhood of all Muslims. No matter how wealthy or poor you are, everybody dresses the same when they go on the pilgrimage, for example. There’s this sense of equality. In Buddhism, what is interesting is that there is no moral judgment of those who aren’t on the path; therefore, there’s no necessity to forgive them or to try to convert them. In Islam, this is a bit different.

Obscured Buddha-Nature: Similarities with Veils Covering the Heart

Buddhism asserts that despite our pure Buddha-nature, the mind is clouded by unawareness or ignorance of the true nature of reality. We have these obscurations, and Buddha-nature is obscured by the clouds of ignorance. This sounds very much like what Islam asserts as well. It speaks about the disturbing emotions, and the heart is veiled, and they describe the veils that cover the heart. In Sufism, a subdivision of Islam, they speak about uncovering these veils. This is a similar type of metaphor. This ignorance leads to self-centeredness and disturbing negative emotions and destructive behavior.

In Buddhism, one can remove these obscurations or these veils to our true nature through understanding reality and through developing love, compassion and bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is this mind focused on our own individual enlightenment, which hasn’t happened yet but can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature. This isn’t that dissimilar to focusing on God. God and Buddha are, of course, quite different, but this idea of focusing on the goal of one’s innate pure nature that one is aiming to come close to and achieve acts as a very powerful driving force for both Buddhists and Muslims.

Development of Love in Buddhism as Compared to Islam 

Definition of Love 

Love in Buddhism is defined as the wish for others to have happiness and the causes for happiness. It’s based on understanding the equality of all beings with each other and with ourselves in that everybody wants to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s the aim of life, the pursuit of happiness. Plants grow and want sunshine in their pursuit for happiness; we can go quite far in our poetic descriptions of what is the pursuit of happiness in general in life.

Development of Love

In Buddhism, the wish for others to be happy is based on the understanding that all beings have the ability to be happy because all of us have Buddha-nature. And further, we all have the same right to be happy. Again, we do have something similar in Islam. It’s also based on the interdependence of each other and the recognition and appreciation of the kindness we’ve received from all others. In Islam, the emphasis isn’t so much on the kindness we’ve received from others, but the kindness we’ve received from God, who has created all of us. It’s looking at the equality of everyone from a slightly different angle.

Love is developed in Buddhism through consideration of the happiness of others. We work to always be better able to help them by attaining enlightenment. Loving and serving others isn’t an act of worshipping Buddha, whereas loving and serving others in Islam is an act of worshipping God. Still, we help others, and the result is the same.

In loving others, we build up the positive force to become a Buddha ourselves. In this sense, we come closer to Buddhahood, but not as in Islam, which would be coming closer to Buddha himself. There’s quite a difference between the goal of Buddhahood and becoming Buddhas ourselves and coming closer to the Buddha. In Buddhism, we don’t focus on Buddha as the individual being he was. The Buddha is very important as a teacher, but not as a creator whom we worship.

Natural Cause and Effect as Compared to God’s Punishment 

To love others, we need to overcome self-cherishing. This is similar in Islam, with the inner jihad being the struggle against self-centeredness and disobedience of God’s will. However, in Buddhism, it doesn’t require asking Buddha to forgive us for our sins or our misdeeds or acting out of ignorance. When we see others acting in a negative, destructive way, it’s not because they are bad or disobedient. It’s because they are confused through ignorance and don’t really understand what they are doing and what will be the consequences of their actions. We use this as the basis for compassion. It’s not that we are forgiving them, in a sense, but we’re understanding them and developing love and compassion in that type of way.

Therefore, when suffering follows from destructive acts, it’s not as a punishment but as a natural consequence of the laws of cause and effect. We don’t take it upon ourselves to enact God’s laws by punishing others. In Tibet or India, there certainly was a legal system, even in these Buddhist societies; however, it’s not based on holy laws created by God and that we’re carrying out God’s work on earth by enforcing God’s will. This is very different.

Parallels in Buddhism and Islam Regarding Repentance 

There is repentance in Buddhism similar to what we have in Islam, and it is quite interesting to see the parallels: 

  • In both, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, those made out of ignorance in Buddhism, not out of disobedience as in Islam.
  • We regret, the same as in Islam.
  • We resolve not to repeat our misdeeds again, the same as in Islam.
  • We reaffirm the positive direction that we are going in life. That’s not quite the same as asking God to forgive us, but it reaffirms something positive. By asking God’s forgiveness, we are turning again toward that positive direction.
  • Lastly, we counteract mistakes with some positive actions. This is similar to Islam.

Clearly, there are many things similar to Islam in Buddhism and many things that are different. In the end, both teach love, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and so on. When we can recognize and appreciate these commonalities that are shared between these two great world religions, then despite the philosophical differences, we have a basis for dialogue, religious harmony and learning from one another.

Questions and Answers

Learning from One Another

I think I have a memory of the Dalai Lama when speaking about dialogue with other faiths, that he often recommends that we don’t try to convert others, but inspire them in their own faith. It’s better to use wisdom, to maybe see their own faith in another way. How do you approach dialogue?

As I said, and the Dalai Lama says this as well, there are many things that religions can learn from each other. For instance, Buddhism is very rich in methods for developing concentration, love and compassion, etc. Contemplative orders, for instance, find that they can learn quite a lot from Buddhism. We find this, particularly from Catholic monasteries, that people come to learn about meditation that they can then use in their own religion.

The Dalai Lama is always saying, particularly in regards to Christianity, that Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, can learn from the social service practiced by the monastic communities. This is something that for various geographical reasons never developed very much in Tibet in terms of monastics teaching school and providing orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals, and so on. We find that these are things we can definitely learn from Mother Teresa’s activities.

There’s that type of interchange. As I said, I reported back the phenomena I witnessed in Zanzibar, of Islam using a very scheduled type of spiritual practice as a way to help recovering drug addicts. This is something very helpful. This way, there’s a very helpful interchange between religions, without trying to convert each other.

What the Dalai Lama is particularly interested in is having closed private meetings with the really serious contemplatives from each of the religions to get together and compare notes of their experience. That would be very wonderful if that could take place.

Universal Values 

It seems that, in this detailed comparison with Islam, perhaps you are saying that we shouldn’t be so satisfied with ourselves and think that Buddhism is the best. That way, it seems to be very positive because any type of belief tends to be self-sufficient. To open up the doors to Islam is a way to opening up the doors to other things.

Yes, I would agree completely with that. The Dalai Lama says that there is no best religion for everybody, just like there’s no best food for everybody, but one can decide what is the best for oneself, what’s the right path. We can’t impose that on others. These basic universal values are found in all religions and are valid for everyone, even those who don’t follow any religion. This is what is important. What His Holiness is so concerned about is how to instill these basic universal values of love, compassion, patience, forgiveness, how to further this dialogue and how to introduce these universal values into the education system. The way to actually bring that into the world is to start by teaching these basic values to young children in schools. For example, it can be so simple: If we start to get angry or frustrated, count to ten or focus on our breath for three breaths, or talk rather than fight.

Some educators in India and America are developing some curriculums for gradually introducing this into education systems in a respectful and, as His Holiness calls it, secular way, meaning respectful of all religions, not being specific to one or another.

Is There the Concept of Enlightenment in Islam?

When you spoke about the understanding or the practice in Islam that you try to get closer to or merge with God, is there an understanding of enlightenment in Islam, and if so, how is that understood?

Coming closer to God is found in general in Islam, while merging with God is the belief only in some of the Sufi orders, a sub-group within Islam. Enlightenment depends on how it is defined. If we define it in a specifically Buddhist way, then we can’t say that others are actually aiming for that. One of my teachers put it very nicely: If we pray to go to a Christian heaven, we’re not going to land in Buddhist heaven, and if we pray to go to a Buddhist heaven, we’re not going to land in a Christian one.

In each religion, there is a goal that one is trying to achieve, to be the best type of person, whether it be the most ethical, loving type of person or more, but we can’t say that following this path, we would reach goals specified and outlined specifically in another religion.

Does that mean that in their concept of paradise is where enlightenment exists?

While alive, there is being the best kind of person, and then there is almost like a bardo period, an in-between period, before the final judgment in which there is a sense of what is coming, and then there is the final judgment, and yes, there is paradise. This is the highest type of goal in Islam.

When we look in the Buddhist Kalachakra literature, Islam was mentioned, as there was already interaction. There are only two things that are mentioned in all the Kalachakra literature of the time that are found to be strange. One of the things was that heaven and hell are eternal, and that there isn’t the concept of impermanence. From the Buddhist point of views, a rebirth in a heaven lasts for a tremendous long time, but the it will end and life in another rebirth state will follow. The other thing mentioned that the Kalachakra texts found strange was that Muslims thought that the halal way of butchering animals for meat was a form of sacrifice to God. Because when slaughtering the animal, they said “Bismillah, in the name of Allah,” the Buddhists interpreted this as a blood sacrifice to Allah, and they thought that this wasn’t right. That was obviously a misunderstanding of the dietary rules within Islam. There was nothing else that they objected to. There was nothing mentioned about a creator, nothing. That says a lot, actually.

Can Everyone Attain Enlightenment?

There are just so many texts that say different things, there is one sutra, and it mentions that there are people that don’t have Buddha-nature. There are many things that change, but if someone doesn’t have Buddha-nature, then they can’t change. There was a time when we had those conflicting concepts.

The way that I’ve heard it explained is not that they don’t have Buddha-nature. First, we need to look at what Buddha-nature is. It is those factors that will allow one to become a Buddha and which transform into the various qualities of a Buddha. This is the network of positive force, sometimes translated as “collection of merit,” and the network of deep awareness, sometimes called “collection of wisdom.” Everybody has this positive force from acting in a positive way, based on compassion and the way the mind works, with understanding and so on.

In opposition to this network of positive force is what we could call “a network of negative potential” from negative actions. We can get rid of all the negative potential, but the whole question is whether or not we can somehow rid ourselves of all that positive potential so we would be unable to attain Buddhahood. That is the question. The debate has to do with whether or not we can lose a lot of that positive potential, but that there’s always something that is there. That’s what this debate is all about.

There’s another debate about, if we attain liberation as an arhat, is that a dead-end, or can we go on to become a Buddha? When they say that one can’t become a Buddha, that is when one considers becoming an arhat a dead-end.

It’s important to look at more and more commentaries and explanations of what that actually means. One can say that a person is condemned to always being liberated and can’t become a Buddha, as if they are these poor arhats in paradise and feel sorry for them, how boring. But Buddha saw very clearly that people are different. When we look at the life of the Buddha, he went with his group of monks to people’s homes. He was invited for lunch and people gave a nice lunch to Buddha and his group of monks and then asked the Buddha to teach them something after lunch. Then, Buddha taught and, seeing the mentality of the people who invited him, taught accordingly in a way that they would be able to understand.

In that way, if we look at the names of the sutras, so many of the sutras have the name of the person that the sutra was taught to as part of the name of the sutra. Not everybody was on the same level with the same background or understanding. Therefore, there were many explanations; this is very wise.

Not Many People Turn to Buddhism from Islam

There seem to be many people coming to Buddhism from Christianity or Judaism, but not so many from Islam. Do you have any thoughts on that?

First of all, in many Islamic societies, if a person gives up Islam, this is the worst thing possible. In some societies, a person can be severely punished for that. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of correct information and encouraged me to help spread the message of inter-religious harmony. I have focused mostly on Buddhist-Muslim harmony and lectured in several different places in the Islamic world. Once, I lectured in Cairo, Egypt, and about 300 students came by their own choice for a lecture on Buddhism. They said they were starved for information and wanted to learn something.

His Holiness very much encouraged me to make some basic Buddhist teachings available in the major Islamic languages. We’ve done that in about six Islamic languages now, and many people read them. We analyze the different languages on our website to see which are the most popular articles. In Arabic, for example, it is “How to Deal with Anger.” This is something that one doesn’t need to become a Buddhist to benefit from. Buddhism has many helpful methods for overcoming anger and how to deal with fear and these sorts of things. In Iran, in Persian, the most popular article concerns how to meditate. They are very interested in that. In Indonesia, where there is a large Chinese Buddhist population, together with the Muslim population, they are very interested in articles about interaction between the two religions.

Clearly, there is this interest. Also, what we find in Pakistan is that there are a lot of young people who are really fed up with all the violence and terror and feel that it’s enough already. They are looking for something to give them some sort of peace of mind. As long as we present the Buddhist methods in a way that isn’t trying to convert someone, it is acceptable. No one has to give up Islam or Christianity, but Buddhism has a great deal to offer to the world, and this is what we try to do. This is what the Dalai Lama tries to do in terms of promoting universal values that are helpful to anyone.

As long as we don’t reduce Buddhism to just these universal values, which is unfair to Buddhism, this is OK. The wisdom of the Buddha, the wisdom of Tibet, is part of the world heritage, and it’s very important to make it as accessible and sustainable as possible. Many people are involved in that effort, including myself.

Emptiness and the Conventional Self

Thank you for these teachings. My colleagues and I traveled eight hours just to attend these teachings. You mentioned that there is a self, and normally we hear about the emptiness of inherent existence and the identity-less-ness of the “I” and so forth. Can you explain the difference?

From a Buddhist point of view, there is a self. It’s not saying that there’s no self, but the self is something dependent on body, mind, emotions, etc. All of these things are changing all the time. We can’t say that the self is just the body or just the mind or just the emotions, or the intellect, or this or that. However, on the basis of that, we can say there’s “me.” All these different things that it’s based on are changing all the time. Our emotional state changes, our bodies are growing all the time. If we look at the body, every single cell in the body is different. Everything changes; there’s not one cell from when we were a baby. There is a self, but it’s changing from moment to moment to moment dependent on a body and mind. But there is no such thing as a self that is independent of the body, mind, emotions, etc., and which doesn’t change from moment to moment as the body, mind etc. change from moment to moment.

Does that mean there’s no permanence?

There is no beginning and no end, so in that sense, each individual self is eternal, but it’s not something that doesn’t change. The problem is because this word “rtag-pa” in Tibetan, translated as “permanent,” has two meanings. One meaning is forever, and to that Buddhism says, yes. There is no beginning and no end, even as a Buddha. The other meaning is that it never changes, but the self does change from moment to moment. Although you as a baby and you as an adult are still you, we can’t say that you as an adult are exactly identical to the baby. You have changed. In that sense, the self changes from moment to moment, but it’s eternal because it goes on forever. This is the confusion, because the Tibetan word from the Sanskrit word has two meanings.

Hindu or Buddhist Influence on Sufism

You mentioned Sufism. I would guess that there are more parallels there with Buddhism. There is an uneasy relationship and connection with mainstream Islam, though it is close to Islam. For some people, they have the concept of rebirth. Do you think there is some sort of historical connection, because I have a Sufi master from what’s called Northeast Persia, in Central Asia? Islam was quite strong when it came to that area. Have you in your research found any historical connection?

There seems to be a little bit clearer an influence from Hinduism on Sufism, particularly in the Afghan, Pakistan, Indian, Kashmir region. There was an influence in terms of yoga and things like this. There is chanting and repetition of phrases and names, and one can say this is like mantra recitation, which is also found in Hinduism as well. The issue is where the influence comes from, is it from Hinduism or from Buddhism? The evidence points a little bit more toward Hinduism. However, there are certain things that are reminiscent of Buddhism, but this is more in terms of the shrines of Sufi masters. Some people say that this is a type of stupa. Meditation methods seem to be coming more from Hinduism.

There are many things in Sufism that are very interesting. When we talk about love, they use yet another word for love, which isn’t found in the Koran, but has more of the connotation of “beauty.” There is a natural yearning and longing to return to being merged with God and the beauty of God. This love of beauty is expressed with music. It plays a very central role in Sufism, and this isn’t found in Buddhism. There’s chanting and so on, but it’s not as a vehicle to coming closer to Buddha.

One has to look at the different aspects in Sufism that might be similar. There is meditation and mantra-like recitation, living in a community with a teacher, but we have all of that in Hinduism as well. It’s hard to say, but Central Asia was certainly the melting pot where these three cultures interacted with each other – Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Comparing the Dying Process

 Could you say a little bit in the Koran about how one should prepare to die? Should a person look at the light?

I’m not familiar with anything, and I’m certainly not a scholar of the Koran. I can imagine that it’s just the remembrance of God. I don’t know if what actually happens during the process of dying is explained in as much detail as we have particularly in the tantra teachings in Buddhism. That I haven’t seen, although that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means that I haven’t seen it.

I asked because I used to live in Dubai with many students, and it’s quite close to a really heavy Islamic culture. I didn’t see anything with women except total devotion to fathers and being totally ready to be handed over to husbands. Since then, and even more now, there were students and other teachers who were really devoted like that, but when it came to the issue of death, it wasn’t addressed. It was like: Be really the best one can be in life, and then I will go into paradise. Even to get there, it’s a really big deal, and how does one prepare for dying. I was raised in a Christian family, and there seems to be no parallel in terms of what Buddhism can provide when it comes to preparing to die.

When preparing to die, Buddhism says that the best thoughts to have are refuge, what direction we want to go in, bodhichitta, aiming toward enlightenment, and wishes such as being able to continue to meet with the teachings, teachers and so on and to be able to continue on the spiritual path. We die thinking of the Buddha or our spiritual teacher. Similarly, in Islam, thinking of God as the main thought when one dies would be quite parallel actually.

There are teachings very specifically concerning what happens after we die in Islam. There’s a record being kept of positive deeds and negative deeds, and this is looked at after we die. Then, we go to a type of holding place similar to what’s coming ahead, either terrible or nice, until the day of judgment. Then, everybody comes up from the grave again, before God, and then there’s the actual final judgment. Then, it’s either eternal heaven or eternal hell.

In Islam, one would think in terms of that. If one were a good Muslim, there would be a great emphasis to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness for any negative things that one has done. This is also done in Buddhism. If one has, for example, violated bodhisattva or tantric vows and so on, then before death, one would want to renew them so that one dies with fresh purified vows. That certainly is there. There is a similar idea of regret and cleaning one’s slate before we die. I think that we can find that quite parallel in both Buddhism and Islam if one is a sincere practitioner of the religion. Of course, most people are not, but if a person is, this is what we would do.

We do look forward to what comes next as opposed to not wanting to let go of what we have. There is, of course, martyrdom, and that is yet another issue.

Anger Management and Loyalty Conflicts

I work as a teacher in a school in Oslo with about 60% Islamic students, can you tell me something about anger in the behavior especially of the boys in this school? There is a lot of war going on in the Islamic world and a lot of anger from this here as well. My daughter went with the girls to a mosque, and there was terrible gossip and bad behavior. These are people that don’t live in their homelands anymore, with second generation children, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and also Syria now. What do I tell my daughter? It’s really hard work. What do you think about this aggression and anger?

It obviously is very frustrating to anybody coming from these parts of the world, even if they are second generation, to see how much suffering and bloodshed is going on. That, of course, makes young people very upset; they don’t really have the ability to handle their emotions very well. It comes out with open displays of anger. One of the psychological problems with minorities, whether Muslim or any other migrants, is this issue of loyalty. On one hand, the host country is asking for loyalty to the values of their country, but yet they have their own culture and religion to which they feel the need to be loyal.

It’s very similar to the issue of split loyalty in children of a divorce. They might feel if they are loyal to the mother, they are disloyal to the father and vice-versa. The question is how to find the harmony that allows them to be loyal to both. What happens is, for example, if we say one should only be loyal to the state and not the original culture and religion, then, unconsciously, because of this drive to be loyal, one becomes loyal to the negative aspects of the original culture unconsciously. This appears in terms of aggression and so on.

From a therapeutic point of view, it is helpful to have them be able to acknowledge the positive things that they can be loyal to in their cultural background that would allow for a joint loyalty without a conflict. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. This is something that really needs to be explored in society. In some societies in Europe, they say the women can’t wear the veil and so on. This is horrible from their point of view and that really leads to anger.

What’s the big problem with a veil? If their face is completely covered and they are in a trial at a court, in America, for example, that’s the only situation in which they are required to remove a veil, or driving a car, obviously.

We have to see which are the values that people have from the culture they are coming from that could fit harmoniously into society and isn’t a problem or conflict. This helps to resolve this aggression. For a child, of course, this is difficult to understand. Perhaps you can ask your daughter if, when she is having a tough time, doesn’t she get frustrated and angry, and don’t you say bad things to people then that you don’t really mean? You can help her to understand that they don’t really mean that, and people often say things when they are upset. That sometimes can help, but it depends on how old the child is.

Thank you all. It’s been a pleasure to discuss this with you, and I hope it gives you something to think about.