Budddhism and the Critique of Islam
Contribution to a Discussion on Islam, answering
by Victor Gunasekara
1. Introductory Comments
2. The Critique of Islam
3. Buddhism: Non-human beings (Devas etc.)
4. Buddhism: Supernormal Powers
5. Buddhism: Faith and Worship
6. Final Comments
1. Introductory Comments
This is a contribution to the current debate debate between Islam and Buddhism.[NOTE 1]. Some typical arguments of the two sides may be mentioned The critics of Islam argue that the notion of God (Allah) in Islam is a fiction without any empirical proof. It is accepted by Muslims purely on blind faith. The Muslims counter this by saying that the gods (devas) in Buddhism, and other non-human beings, are equally without proof. Some of them even argue that the Buddha not only acknowledged the existence of gods but that chief amongst them Mahā Brahmā can even be considered the Buddhist equivalent of God. [NOTE 2]. The Muslims also claim that certain Buddhist practices which are contrary to Muslim practice show the alleged "inferiority" of Buddhism. These include what they regard as "statue worship" in Buddhism which they equate to the idolatry proscribed in Islam. Another is the consumption of alcohol which is prohibited in Islam but they regard is partly tolerated in Buddhism, and indulged in widely by Buddhists [NOTE 3]. These and other issues deserve to be considered objectively as they contain many misrepresentations and misunderstandings. In this Essay we shall develop what the real critique of Islam should be, and then examine certain aspects of Buddhism which are the subject of attack by Muslims.
Part of the problem arises because many of its critics consider the popular beliefs and practice in Asian Buddhist countries are the authentic teaching of the Buddha. In Sri Lanka Buddhism has become the cultural religion of a large majority of the Sinhalese. They are sometimes called 'Boduhelas', [NOTE 4] because a minority of Sinhalese are Christians (called Jesuhelas). The Boduhela religion cannot be considered authentic Buddhism. Throughout its long history Buddhism has been corrupted and the corruptions of the Helas are no different to the other corruptions that have gone before which have resulted in many schisms and sects. The Boduhelas have absorbed many of the beliefs and practices of the Hindu religion. The original Canon of Buddhism is the Pali Canon which had been maintained in an oral tradition until it was written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. During the many centuries in which the Canon had been transmitted orally it is quite possible that some changes may have been introduced. In fact the process of the "Hinduization" of Buddhism started in India some time after the death of the Buddha. Some scholars have compared the Pali Canon with texts maintained by other early (pre-Mahāyāna) schools like the Sarvāstivādins (whose Canon was written in Sanskrit), and taking the common content as representing the original teaching of the Buddha. But even this procedure may not give a correct result. An alterntive way of determining the authentic teaching of the Buddha will be considered in the concluding section of this Essay.
On the theological side much of the debate has centered on the subject of God and gods. The notion of 'god(s)' (with a simple 'g' and in the plural) emerged quite early. Most primitive religions postulated the presence of gods or spirits. More advanced civilizations like those of pre-Christian Europe (e.g. Greece, Italy, Germany, Nordic countries etc.) developed complicated patheons of gods. India had one of the most elaborate system of gods in the Ṛgveda, the earliest text of the Vedic tradition. It postulated a number of gods such as Brahmā, Indra, Mitra,Mitra, Bṛhaspati, etc. At the end of this tradition came the Upanishads which developed the notion of a single, impersonal godhead which it called Brahman (in the neuter, not to be confused with the masculine god Brahmā). The Buddha, who came after the principal Upanishads were composed, burrowed much of the gods of the Vedic pantheon, giving them different names. But there is no mentnion of Brahman directly in the Buddha's discourses. But there is no criticism of it either (unlike some other aspects of the Vedic system). But it is not difficult to see the Upanishadic notion of Brahman in the Buddha's concept of Nibbāna (nirvāna). Like Brahman of the Upanishads Nibbāna too is left largely undefined. It was the ultimate aim of the Upanishadic seer to achieve Brahman just as the achievement of Nirvāna is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist. On the Upanishads see my article Upanishads in a Buddhist Perspective by clicking at the link given. But this aspect will not be developed further in this essay.
The notion of a single monotheistic entity called God (with a capital 'G' and in the singular) is central to the three Abrahamic religions if Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While the old gods could be rationalized as personifications of the forces of nature, the God concept was a pure arbitrary superstition based on a doctrine of Creation, and came to personify Ignorance. The Buddha was one of the first to denounce this concept of a creator God (issaro). For the Buddha's refutation of this concept see my article The Buddhist Attitude to God (by clicking on the link given). This article also contains a refutation of the God idea from the Buddhist standpoint. Indian religion which was originally polytheistic too turned towards the notion of a single God behind the multiplicity of his manifestations. This happened after the Bhagavat Gitā (BG) generally dated about the second century BCE. Now the Upanishadic notion of an abstract Brahman was converted into a personal God known under various names like Kṛṣna, ViŚnu, Siva, etc. Modern Hinduism is largely the (mono)theistic religion of the BG.
The rest of this essay will deal with the critic of Islam and the supernatural elements in Buddhism to which the critics of Buddhism have drawn attention. We shall also deal with some aspects of the Boduhla religion especially in the areas of faith and worship. This essay will not consider Christianity which poses a whole set of special problems [NOTE 5], and which will have to be considered in a separate essay.
2. The Critique of Islam
Islam can be considered on two grounds. One is on the theological ground where it presents an uncompromising mono-theistic version of God. The other is on the social, economic and cultural aspects. Most Buddhists in their critique of Islam concentrate on the the theological assumptions of the religion, particularly the notion of God (Allah). A Muslim's formal commitment to Islam (the Sahada) begins with the declaration "bismallah hur'allah" (there is no god but Allah). It is not difficult to refute this notion for a Buddhist, a rationalist or an atheist. The paradox here is that despite the notion of God being one of the easiest to refute it is affirmed by a majority of people who are considered to be religious. Christians and Muslims today account for over 3 billion people. By contrase the people who consider themselves to be Buddhist number less than half a million, and of these the followers of Theravāda probably number less than 300,000. Most Buddhists are being rapidly converted to Christianity. Counties like Korea and Mongolia who were historically Buddhist have been converted to Christianity in recent times. During the period of Islamic expansion many Buddhists, especially in Central Asia had been made Muslims. Today the Buddhists of Sri Lanka are rapidly being converted to Christianity, and even to Islam. But numbers do not necessarily prove the correctness of a system of belief.
What is most harmful in Islam is not the mere acknowldgement of God but the social, legal, political and other consequences that flow from this belief. It is not my intention to present a comprehensive critique of Islam here. I have already done this in my essay Some Aspects of Islam., which can be seen in the Internet by clicking on the link given. The aspects of Islam which are critically examined in this essay include in addition to their notion of God also other social issues like the treatment of women in Islam, the Sharia law, the system of slavery, etc. There is no need to repeat this material again.
We may conclude this discussion by assessing the character of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The affirmation that he is "the (last) prophet of God" ("mahammad'ullah") is the second term of the Sahada, the profession of faith of Islam. Muslims regard Muhammad as the most ideal of men. This is a curious claim to anyone who had studied the biograhy of Muhammad, almost the whole of which has been written by Islamic scholars themselves at a time when they were ruling a good part of the world. What we would do is to assess the character of Muhammad in Buddhist terms. The minimum criteria by which Buddhists usually assess an individual is in in terms of his observance of the five basic precepts of Buddhism. Applying these to Muhammad we get:
So Muhammad fails, and fails badly, on all the major precepts of Buddhism.
We must now consider explicitly what may be considered the outstanding problem areas in Buddhism, as seen from the rationalist, scientific and humanist perspectives. In the following section we identify three areas – the supernatural aspects contained even in the earliest texts, the supernormal powers said to be acquired by religious adepts, and the promotion of faith and worship. We have excluded the consideration of the doctrines of rebirth and post-mortem karma-vipāka as these theories raise several special problems that have to be discussed in a separate essay.
3. Buddhism: Non-human beings (Devas etc.)
The world of the Pali Canon is replete with gods (devas) and other non-human beings who cannot be explained on rational lines. The term "deva" is also used to denote high dignitaries like kings. This usage as an honorific is not what needs to be explained but the "real" devas who inhabit the celestial planes, but who visit and interact with people on the earth. (As mentioned below there are also purely terrestrial devas living on this earth, as also other beings like prethas or ghosts.) Buddhism recognises many planes of existence. These could be divided into two groups, the Higher planes and the Lower planes with the human plane in the middle.
The Higher Realms
Consider first those planes superior to the human plane. In Buddhism there is a broad distinction between the planes of existemce belonging to the sensuous sphere (kāmavācara), and those that are considered higher planes without much emphasis on sensuality. Most Buddhist lay persons aspire to rebirth in the heavens of the sensuous sphere, and it is these that are promised to those who keep the precepts. Monks on the other hand who practice the other disciplines of Buddhism may aspire to re-birth in the higher planes.
There are six heavens in the sensuous sphere as follows:
In adddition to mundane pleasures provided in all these heavens some of these sensuous heavens provide carnal pleasures for the male gods. In these there are a large number of female gods (accarā, surakaññā, suraṇganā) who provide sexual pleasues for the male gods! Special places like the Nandana pleasure garden are provided for this kind of sport. These 'godesses' appear to be more numerous than the proverbial 72 virgins per male provided in the Islamic paradise!. Again as in the Islamic paradise only males are catered for. The females are there only to serve the males,they do not have paramours of their own! No wonder some Islamic apologists delight in recounting this similarity with his own paradise.
The lifetime of these celestial gods is truly astronomical going into millions of years. There are also terrestrial gods (bummādevā) who live in this very earth usually in trees. Their lifetime is relatively short corresponding to the human life span. It is to these gods that pious Buddhists give merit after every dāna and other meritorious act. Of course they expect that this will led them to be reborn in one of heavenly spheres tjemselves.
There are superior heavens above those identified above. These are the Brahmalokas with Mahā Brahmā as their chief. There are two main categories, the "ministers of Brahmā" (Brahmāpurohitā) and the "retinue of Brahmā") (Brahmāparisajja). There are sub-classifications in each of these main categories that will take too long to describe.
The devas as gods invite comparison with the mythological gods of pre-Christian Europe (such as the Greek, Roman and the Scandinavian gods). The devas of the Buddhist heavens seem to be more numerous that the gods recognized in the early European pantheons, or even in the Vedic pantheeon. unlike these gods who are specifically named beings, often constituting a pantheon, with some ability to interact with humans the devas of Buddhism refer to a genre of beings who are much more numerous. A proper comparison may be with the Angels of Christianity or the Jinns of Islam. Another feature of the Buddhist devas is that they do not have a permanent tenure to that status, and in course of time when their karmas are exhauted they "fall away" and could be reborn in some other destination.
The Lower Realms
On the opposite side of the divine realms considered superior to the human plane [NOTE 8] there are the sub-human planes. Of these it is only the animal plane (tiraccanā-yoni) that humans are familiar with. The earth is also said tobe populated by other sub-human beings like pretas (hungry ghosts). It is said that only arahants can see them. [NOTE 9] The Petavattu , a later addition to the Canon deals extensively with this kind of beings. It is curious that some Buddhists consider that merit given to deceased persons can only be transferred if the departed persons have been re-born as petas, usually haunting their former places of residence. [NOTE 10]
But the real counterparts of the heavens are the hells (niraya) of which there are plenty in Buddhism. It is significant that neither the Vedas nor the Brāhmaṇas speak of Hells, so this may have been a Buddhist innovation. The chief hell of Buddhism is the Avici hell. Even though beings cast into these hells eventually come out their duration of stay goes into millions of years. The punishments in these hells are truly horrendous and bear comparison with the punishments in the Islamic Hell! In some Bodhela temples there are graphic pictures of the punishments in hell that await wrong doers.
Another fictitious character in the Pali Canon that deserves a word is Mara the Evil one (māra [pāpino). He appears frequently trying the dissuade the Buddha from his path, or detracting the Bhikkhus from their meditations. He is the embodiment of death and corresponds to the Grim Reaper in Christianity or Satan (Iblis) of Islam. His relation to Yama the king of the Hellish realms and principal torturer, is not made explicit. In the Canon he is more a comic rather than a tragic figure. When the monks hear a sound "like the earth splitting" the Buddha assures them that it is only Mara upto his mischief. [NOTE 11]. Mara seems to disapper from the texts after the death of the Buddha.
The empirical question is whether there is any evidence that these devas actually exist. In the Buddhist texts the devas are represented as visiting the Buddha, usually early in the morning, and asking various questions in reply to which the Buddha would deliver a discourse or make a pithy comment. In the Saṃyutta Nikāya there are whole sections devoted to such conversations. Very rarely are devas shown as conversing or interacting with humans. Of course the Buddha does not recommend praying to devas as they have no power over humans. Some people look at the devas as purely literary devices merely providing an opportunity for the Buddha to make some kind of pronouncement. But his explanation does not always fit.
Te matter-of-fact way in which devas are referred to, and the fact that they have been readily absorbed into popular Buddhist culture, means that they cannot be entirely dismissed as a literary device. Another way of rationalising the existence of devas is to consider them as extra-terrestrials (ETs) in the manner of science fiction. Like an ET a deva comes from a different world but they may live for a time on earth. Of course there is no conclusive evidence for the existence of ETs but there is nothing in science which would preclude the existence of life outside earth.
Some people interpret the different planes of existence not as separate locales located somewhere in the universe but as meditative states that can be achieved in this very world. Indeed some of the 32 places are clearly meditative absorptions that can be achieved through intense concentration (called jhāna or trance in Buddhism). In this usage devas are not ETs but persons who have achieved these jhanic states. According to this way of looking at this issue the beings inhabiting the lower planes are actually humans in extreme situations of insanity, suffering or despair. While this may be a comfortable explanation for the logically minded unfortunately not all references to devas and the sub-human categories of beings can be brought within it.
Thus we have to conclude that the non-human beings of the Buddhist texts do refer to a category of beings for which no scientific or empirical proof has been adduced. However as they are of minimal consequence for the Buddhist teaching they may be safely ignored without dire consequence.
4. Buddhism: Supernormal powers
Buddhism also claims that certain states of spiritual attainment involve the ability to have super-normal powers (iddhi or abhiññā) We shall refer to these as "magical powers". Examples of these magical powers are the "divine eye" (seeing things not visible to ordinary humans), "divine ear" (hearing things outside the normal auditory range), the power of making oneself manifest, the power of adopting another form, the power of letting proceed from the body another mentally created form, the power to remain unhurt in danger, the power of levitation, passing through solid walls, etc.
These powers should be capable of experimental verification. Usually these powers are attributed to persons of great spiritual attainment (arahants) or to the Buddha himself. The extreme rarity of person who have attained to these spiritual levels, at least in the modern world, make it extremely difficult to verify them.
Another point about supernormal powers is that they are specific to the person actually obtaining these powers. The powers do not usually involve any ability to create ex nihilio as is claimed for God. Nor do they normally involve any interference with the normal laws of physics. There are instances of the Buddha disappearing from one place and rematerialising somewhere else a great distance away. There are instances of arahants flyng through the air or creeping under doors (as Ananda is supposed to have done after he became an arahant to get entry to the First Council from which he was first excluded). Some of their powers are enhancements of normal human powers like hearing or sight. They are made acute and could be compared to an athlete training himself to carry weights which normal human cannot or to run faster than is within the normal range. The only difference is that while athletic powers are obtained by physical exercise the spiritual powers are said to be obtained by mental exercise.
Also some of these powers are simply powers to create an illusion on others, e.g. the power " spiritual creation" (manomayiddhi). As we know empirically illusions can be created by magicians or by hypnotists using powers which would not normally be considered as being abnormal. The supernormal powers of Buddhism may well belong to this category. Certainly some of the miracles (prātihṇra) attributed to the Buddha may be of this kind. Also the Buddha (like Jesus) is said to have walked on water!
5. Buddhism: Faith and Worship
Popular Buddhism in Asia (even when introduced to the West) has developed into faith and worship which cannot be justified on a strict reading of the original teaching of the Buddha. So while this would not be a problem to the way we have defined Buddhism confining it to the original teaching of the Buddha a few words on the subject may not be inappropriate.
Faith in Buddhism is a misapplication of the notion of confidence (saddhā). The confidence which the Buddha expected of his followers was a confidence in his teaching based on a rational evaluation of that teaching and on personal experience. It was never expected to be a kind of blind faith as for instance in the Christian or Islamic faith in God. It is however a fact that many Buddhists particularly in popular practice equate the confidence which the Buddha spoke of into simple faith in the Buddha.
It was a small step to move from faith of this kind into worship. Much of the devotional activities of popular Buddhists consist of various kinds worship. This shows the urge for a religious experience in the mind of its followers. It must be remembered that despite all the advances in Western science the bulk of the people there still rely on religious faith. Amongst Buddhists this yearning for religious faith has seen the rise of many kinds of worship.
Sometimes the worship has been derived from other religions like Hinduism. In the latter an important part of the practice is related to making ritual offerings to its various gods. These offerings may consist of food, articles of personal use, even money. Some Buddhists have burrowed the practice of pujas from Hinduism and the offering of trays of food before a Buddha image is a practice seen in many Buddhist temples.
The ubiquitous Buddha image can also be seen as a reflection of this trend. The original Buddhists did not make any representation of the Buddha in painting or sculpture, but this faded away, some claim under Greek influence following Alexander's invasion of India. Whatever it be the Buddha statue took off, and some people still hold on to it as an object of worship. Originally it was merely an object of meditation to remind people of the teaching of the Buddha.
6. Concluding remarks.
What conclusions can we derive from the above analysis? As far as the Abrahamic religions and Islam are considered they seem to be marchng on despite the absurdities of their thelogy. The current view that Buiddhism is making great strides especially in the West is a delusion of the Buddhists. The fact is Buddhism is declining as it has been since medieval times. Christian evangelaization is making great strides after the end of colonialism especially in Theravada countries. In Sri Lanka the Jesuhelas have made great strides, and even the regime has fallen victim to the Puruṣyāni and Striyāni (see ACSLU Glossary) techniques of conversion. So little could be said on this score.
However Buddhists may be able to defend their share still left over if they adopt the right technique. The present techniques they adopt will not work. This is either to retreat from the real world into "forest sangha orders" or to "vipassanā meditation groups" . Others try to intensify their statue worship, pūjās, and other devotional activities like chanting and bhakti gīta singing. They have also developed a false theory of "Dhammo rakkhati dhammacāri". According to this they tie reams of pirit thread around their wrists and engage in other magical activities. Of course these do not provide any protection, and only give them a delusion of protection.
The real method should be to distill the original teaching of the Buddha from the mass of material that has crept into the Pali Canon and other Buddhist scriptures. Fortunately the Buddha has left the key for doing this in a much neglected part of the Canon. This is in the Kālāma sutta. An analysis of this sutta is contained in my article The Signigicance of the Kālāma sutta (which can be seen by clicking at the link given). [NOTE 12]. This sutta lays down what Buddhists should and should not believe. The task is to apply the instruction given in this sutta to the mass of material now in the Pali Canon, and reject those that do not conform to it. This is a task which I am attempting to do. If this is done we will be left with the core of the real teaching of the Buddha in the way he wanted it to be preserved. The Buddha instructed that after his death the Dhamma should be the guide. Unfortunately the Dhamma has been obscured by the mass of supernatural material now embodied in it.
If we take all that is now in the Canon as the real word (ippisima verba) of the Buddha the question may be asked why he incorporated such a lot of unverifiable material in his teaching (especially if he was omniscient as modern devotees claim). The Buddha rejected much of what he found in the accepted Vedic religion of his day like animal sacrifice and the caste system. But he incorporated much of the cosmology including the heavens and heavenly bring. As we have seen he addid to these myths by introducing hellish realms to counterbalance the heavenly realms. Today science and learning has advanced to such an extent that these could be abandoned. If the Buddha thought that by threatening punishment in hell for wrong doing and primising sensual bliss in heavens for right doing will encourage people to adopt his ethical system he has been proved wrong. Today people are no better than they were in his day, and in fact have become more greedy, more hateful and more delutionary.
Buddhists today should ally themselves more with rationalists and humanists than with other religionists. Even in the Buddha's day the rationalist option was avaialble in the teaching of the Cārvakas and the
uccedavādaof Makkhali Gosāla. But the Buddha completely rejected these because of certain wrong moral principles they had adopted. What is needed is to incorporate the rational content of secular teaching with the moral vision of the Buddha. This has not ben done. This is the task for the modern Buddhists. The technique of incorporating the Buddha's moral teaching with Vedic supernaturalism has not worked.
1. An illustration is the debate between between Wimal Ediriwira of the Sinhela Centre (London), and Niyas Abbas (affiliation unknown). Arguments and counter-arguments given by these protoganists will be referred to in this Essay.
2. This is a simple misunderstading. In the Dīgha Nikā II, p.263, the Buddha presents Mahā Brahmā as claiming .. "I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be." The Buddha then proceeds to assert that all these claims are false.
3. This is based on the view held by some that the Fifth Precept of Buddhism allows the consumption of alchol "in moderation". Others interpret it as consuming alcohol so long as it does not "confuse the mind". These are controversial interpretations of this precept. Some Muslims claim that many Buddhists consume alcohol, but this is not a valid argument, and there are Muslims too who consume alcohol. What followers of religion do does not necessarily invalidate those religions.
4. The word 'Boduhela' (බොදුහෙල) comes from two Sinhala words 'bodu' meaning Buddhist and 'hela' which is a common designation of modern Sinhala people.
4. Islam preserves more of the primitive features of the Abrahamic religion than Christianity. Jesus did introduce some moral content to the Abrahamic teaching, and in the so-called European Enlightenment of the 18th century introduced a modicum of rationality to certain interpretations of Christianity like the doctrine of Deism.
6. The Abhidhamma, the third section of the Pali Canon is clearly a later addition and was first recited in the third Council held during the reign of Asoka. In order to validate it as a genuine utterance of the Buddha the story that the Buddha preached it to his mother in the Tusita heaven was invented.
7. The Pali word nimmāna (Sanskrit nirmāṇa) is taken to mean creation. The Buddha uses the term "issaranimmānahetu" to denote "due to creation by God" (Devadahasutta in the Majjhima Nikāya), so gods in some of the "nimmāna" realms can also "create", so the claim that there are no creator gods in Buddhism cannot be completely accepted..
8. The human plane is considered superior to the celestial heavens in one respect. Generally people can reach Nibbāna only from the human plane. The heavens only provide comforts but the human has the right mixture of pleasure and suffering. This will encourages people to seek total release which is possible only in Nibbāna.
9. Thus Moggallāna is a said to have encountered a party of Pretas while coming down from the Gijjakśta mountain. One of them said that he had become a preta because he had accepted bribes and defrauded the Rajagaha treasury! The bribe-takers in the current SL regime beware.
10. The practice of "transferring merit" to dead persons is quite common in Boduhela Buddhism. It does not seem to have any serious support in the Pali Canon but some oblique references to passing merit to relatives who have been born into the Peta world exists. But this has been exploited especially by monks to induce lay persons to offer them alms on the ground that the merit so acquired could be passed to their dead relatives.
11. But Mara can create real trouble. In the Samyutta Nikāya he is shown as being responsible for the suicide of a monk. But a different version of this incident is given elsewhere in the Canon.
12. The rediscovery of this sutta is largely due to the early interest in Buddhism in the ninteenth century by rationalistically inclined Westerners. Unfortunately this is declining even in the West where the fad has turned towards Tibetan Buddhism and the forest and Vipassanā tendencies of Theravada.