I have decided to start a new category called "Essential Reading."
This will contain reviews of books that I have recently read, good or bad, and perhaps more importantly books that I think are essential reading, either because of their impact on me personally, or because of their effect on society, thought and perceptions.
I'd also be very happy to receive any recommendations.
My first book review is by an author who's writings I really like, and highly recommend her books, including this one. I hope to review some of her other books in the future.
Having read, studied and practiced some form of Buddhism in the past during my years of searching, it was with growing fascination that I revisited the life and teachings of that extraordinary man through the mostly sympathetic and insightful guidance of Karen Armstrong in her book entitled Buddhism.
My reaction as the life and journey of Siddhartha unfolded in those pages was a mixture of familiarity, excitement, admiration and ultimately confusion.
The familiarity was partly because the story and the teachings and experience of Buddha’s eightfold enlightened path was one that I had trodden, and ultimately abandoned, unfulfilled, but not untouched. There was, and perhaps still is, a core to the Dharma that instinctively appealed something within. This, however, was not the familiarity that caused my excitement. Now I was looking back on the life and teachings of Buddha, but through the mindset of a Muslim, utterly convinced that Islam is the true and ultimately only path to true happiness and salvation in this life and the next. The familiarity here was between the teachings that Buddha expounded and truths of Islam, the searching and seeking of the blessed Prophet to find truth and that of Siddhartha. How both rejected the religions and philosophies of their time. Both made such efforts to teach and preach the ideas in which they believed, and how many accepted them just by looking at the manner of each. One cannot help but admire the dedication and tenacity and self discipline that Buddha enforced upon himself and his single-mindedness in pursuing his desired goal to “understand.” My confusion was because ultimately their conclusions are so different. Buddha never talks, or guides to God. His path is ultimately “humanist”, because according to him the human being alone is the source of his or her own salvation. One must seek, he teaches ones own path. It was in fact this very conclusion that ultimately lead me to reject Buddhism, and having read again about the life a teachings of Buddha again I came ultimately to the same conclusion.
One who fails to find Allah, fails to find anything. The one who finds Allah finds all.
Muslims often ask, and it is a question I thought over again and again, could Buddha have been a Prophet? The answer to this seems that if, what has been preserved of his teaching is true, then there is no possible way he could have been.
We could speculate that his message was lost and corrupted, like that of Jesus, or Abraham. Certainly Karen in her book tries to equate Buddha’s experience of Nirvana with that of some monotheist’s experience of God, but I found this ultimately unconvincing.
At the heart of Buddha’s teachings is the belief that life is suffering, and that this suffering is caused by the self. Thus by annihilating (nirvana means “annihilation”) ones “self” you escape misery and unhappiness. This means that there is in fact no room for individualism and personalities in Buddhism. Once one has become “enlightened” the individualism and personalities associated with self disappear. Of course a Buddhist considers this a virtue, not a criticism, but from the point of view of our history we have towering personalities that dominate our relgion, from the Prophet (saws) hiself, to his close companions, such as Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Khalid bin Waleed and others, Hasan al Basri, Abdul Qadir al Jalani, Salahudeen, ibn Taymiyya, AlGazzali…..scholars, thinkers, soldiers, mystics! At the same time Islam never looses sight of the needs of society. This is, in fact, what has always struck me about Islam, its balance. It never falls into extremes. It is middle way, that accounts for all the multifaceted aspects of human life and activity and guides the best way through. Indeed, this is one of clear evidences for its divine origin.
All this makes it more difficult to reconcile Buddha’s teachings with Islam. Perhaps this could be explained by assuming that Buddha’s teaching were time and place specific, as indeed were all the divine messages previous to Islam. The Prophet Mohammed was in fact the only universal messenger. So perhaps these teachings were what was needed then, and was suitable for that place. This is of course possible, but all of this reminds me of a timely warning. Muslims must be very careful what they borrow from other religious traditions, if indeed we can or should do that all. Even if those traditions were divinely inspired, they were for a certain time and place. It would like trying to squeeze an adult into children’s clothes. Surely an act of absurdity and ignorance! How about then if these traditions are only the product of the human mind?