Oneness: The Highest Common Denominator

Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism

~Reza Shah-Kazemi

Say: He, God, is One
God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all,
He begets not, nor is begotten,
And there is none like unto Him. 
(Qur’ān 112:1–4)

There is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded;
and were it not, monks, for this unborn, not become,
not made, uncompounded, no escape could be shown
here for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.
But because there is, monks, an unborn, not become, not
made, uncompounded, therefore an escape can be shown
for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.’
(Udāna, 80–81)

The juxtaposition of these two scriptural citations shows us the possibility of arguing that the ultimate Reality to which Islam and Buddhism testify is one and the same. One can ask the question: is That which is described as absolutely One in the Qur’ān metaphysically identical to that which is described as ‘uncompounded’ by the Buddha?
Let us take a look at how this oneness is described in Islam, before comparing it to the ‘uncompounded’ in Buddhism. The first testimony of Islam, ‘No divinity but the one and only Divinity’ can be understood to mean not just that there is only one God as opposed to many, but that there is only one absolute, permanent reality—all other realities being relative and ephemeral, totally dependent upon this One reality for its existence: Everything thereon is passing away (fān); and there subsists (yabqā) only the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Glory (55:26–27). Thus, this first testimony comes to mean, in metaphysical terms: ‘No reality but the one and only Reality’. The false ‘gods’ of paganism are not just idols made of wood and stone, but also, and more fundamentally, so many erroneous views of reality, so many mistakes on the level of thought. This epistemological mode of affirmation of tawhīd, or the oneness of God, together nwith its corollary, the censure of shirk, or idolatry, might be seen to resonate deeply with the following simple statement by the Buddha, which figures in the very first chapter of the Dhammapada:

Those who think the unreal is, and think the Real is not,they shall never reach the Truth, lost in the path of wrong thought. But those who know the Real is, and know the unreal is not, they shall indeed reach the Truth, safe on the path of right thought.

This statement echoes the first testimony of Islam, understood metaphysically or epistemologically, rather than simply theologically. It also echoes the verse of the Qur’ān:

There is no compulsion in religion. Indeed the right way has been made distinct from error. So whoever rejects [lit.‘disbelieves’: yakfur] the false gods and believes in God, he has truly held tight to the firmest of handles, which can never break (2:256).

The Unborn

It is possible to discern in the Buddha’s saying from the Udāna two affirmations of the oneness of ultimate reality, one temporal and the other substantial. At this point we will endeavour to address the temporal aspect, later the substantial aspect, relating to the distinction between compounded and non compounded, will be addressed. In terms of time, then, the ‘unborn’ and the ‘not become’ can be understood to refer to a reality or essence which, being above and beyond the temporal condition, is perforce the origin of that condition; it is from this ‘not become’ that all becoming originates. This unnamed degree of reality thus has an explicit resonance with the way in which Allāh is described in 112:3, as being unbegotten; and one might discern an implicit relationship with certain dimensions of the divine reality, in particular, ‘the First’, al-Awwal, and ‘the Originator’, al-Mubdi’.

Much more is theologically implied in these qualities of Allāh than in the simple reference of the Buddha to what is ‘unborn’, needless to say, given that in Islamic theology each of the Names designates an attribute of Allāh. The sole ontological substance of all the Names is Allāh, that which is ‘Named’ by the Names; each Name thus implies not only the particular quality it designates, but also Allāh as such, and thereby all of the other ‘ninety-nine’ Names of Allāh, such as ‘the Creator’, ‘the Judge’, ‘the Master’, ‘the Conquerer’ etc. Many of these attributes will be alien to the Buddhist conception of what is meant by the ‘unborn’. While some Buddhists may feel obliged to deny belief in a divinity possessed of such qualities, others, following the example of the Buddha, will prefer to maintain silence rather than affirming or denying these qualities.

Here we see a major, and perhaps unbridgeable, divide between the doctrines of the two faiths on the plane of theology. However, on the plane of metaphysics and even on that of mystical psychology, one might ask whether the Buddha’s silences can be interpreted positively, in the light of his clear affirmation of the Absolute as that which is ‘unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded’; if so, then his ‘non-theism’ will not be seen as negating the Essence of the Absolute which transcends all attributes, but rather, as methodically ignoring every attribute that can be predicated of this Absolute— ignoring that is, the Personal divinity, for the sake of an exclusive focus on the supra-Personal Essence. If, by contrast, one interprets his silences negatively, that is, as if they implied a negation of the things about which he remained silent, then one will be making his ‘non-theism’ into an ‘atheism’, a denial both of the Personal divinity and of the supra-Personal Essence—the Essence implied by the Personal divinity, and without which the Personal divinity is nothing.

Nobody can deny that the Buddha’s doctrine is non-theistic: there is no Personal divinity playing the role of Creator, Revealer, Judge in Buddhism. But to assert that the Buddha’s doctrine is ‘atheistic’ would be to attribute to him an explicit denial and negation of the Absolute—which one does not find anywhere in his teachings. The citation we have given above from the Udāna, 80–81, together with several other verses from the Pali canon which one could cite, makes it clear that the Buddha did indeed conceive of the Absolute, and that this Absolute is affirmed as the ultimate Reality, to which one must ‘escape’. There is a conception—and therefore an affirmation— of this Reality, however ‘minimalist’ such a conception is as compared to the more detailed theological conception found in Islam. The fact that there is a conception and affirmation of the Absolute makes it difficult to qualify the Buddhist doctrine as atheistic.

Mention was made of mystical psychology above. This is connected with the use of the word ‘escape’ in Udāna 80–81. It will be recalled that Nirvāna as described by the Buddha was framed entirely in terms of an escape from bondage into supreme security:

• unborn supreme security from bondage
• unageing supreme security from bondage
• unailing supreme security from bondage
• deathless supreme security from bondage
• sorrowless supreme security from bondage
• undefiled supreme security from bondage

The whole purpose of presenting the reality of the uncompounded—of the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless and the undefiled— is to escape from what is compounded, subject to old age, death, sorrow and defilement. In other words, the Buddha was not primarily concerned with describing, in theological mode, the various attributes of the Absolute, but rather with stressing the imperative need of escaping to the Absolute; escaping, that is, from the painful illusions of the relative—the compounded—to the blissful reality of the Absolute, which is Nirvāna. Here we feel a resonance with such verses in the Qur’ān as the following: …when the earth, vast as it is, became narrow for them, and their own souls became narrow for them, such that they knew that there is no refuge from God except in Him (9:118); … so escape unto God (51:50).

From the point of view of these verses, what matters is the urgency of fleeing from the world of sin and suffering to the only refuge, that of the Absolute. In a situation of dire urgency, we do not ask for subtle definitions of what it is that will save us. It is this urgency which Buddhist teachings directly address, it is this urgency which determines the modalities and the language of the Buddha’s message. It is this urgency which provides one answer to the question which plagues Muslim-Buddhist dialogue: why, Muslims ask, do the Buddhists deny the existence of a Creator? We would argue, first, that such a denial goes much further than the Buddha himself went; and secondly, that if one takes into account the context of the Buddha’s teachings, the reason why he chose not to speak of such a Creator-God becomes more intelligible. First, the fact that the Buddha refused, on the whole, to speak of the process by which the ‘compounded’ elements come together in the world that we see around us does not imply the necessity of denying the objective existence of a dimension of the Absolute which can be called ‘the Creator’. The Buddha’s silence was part of his ‘mystical rhetoric’, one might say: the dialectical stress of his teachings was on escaping from the suffering attendant upon the compounded world, rather than on understanding the cosmological process by which one becomes enslaved by that compounded world.