CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Indignation at the ongoing destructive fury of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia has been unanimous, with protests coming from the Muslim as well as the non-Muslim world. In fact, the recent destruction of the unique Buddhist monuments in Bamiyan prompts reflection on the huge gap between blind religious fanaticism and tolerance and moderation.
First, it has to be stressed that the present fury flies in the face of the Koran: The fountainhead of the Muslim faith “does not condemn other religious traditions as false or incomplete, but shows each new prophet as confirming and continuing the insights of his predecessors,” writes Karen Armstrong in her “History of God.” Ismail al Faruqi, an authority on Islam and comparative religion, attributes the diversity of religions to history and reminds everyone of the principle of “al din al hanif,” the primordial religion of God, the converging point of mankind before acculturation.
“Let there be no compulsion in religion” are the very words of the Koran that inspired the prophet Mohammed to incorporate tolerance in his charter to the people of Medina, a document that has been described by the great scholar of religions Huston Smith as “the first charter of freedom of conscience in human history.”
This is one dimension of contrast to the Taliban’s action. The second is the diametrically opposed spirit of tolerance permeating all Buddhist teaching.
This great religious system expanded to every part of Asia — latterly even to the West — and was always characterized by a spirit of assimilation. Some friction did occur, but in general the faith absorbed pre-existing beliefs to a point where clear distinction is now often difficult. In Japan, we have the phenomenon of “honji-suijaku,” the harmonious adaptation of Shinto divinities into the Buddhist pantheon. In China, there is a syncretism where, in the words of H. Nakamura, “Buddhism is the sun, Taoism the moon and Confucianism the five stars.” In India, among an ocean of instances, there is the great king Asoka’s edict: “All sects deserve reverence for one reason or another. By thus acting, a man exalts his own sect and at the same time does service to the sects of other people.” In Korea, Buddhism assimilated pre-existing Shamanistic beliefs, in Myanmar previous “nat” worship, in Thailand previous animistic beliefs: everywhere signs of tolerance, acceptance, harmonization, assimilation.
Even within Buddhism itself, it is natural that differences of opinion have surfaced over time. One hears of various “schools” and equates this, with a Western logic, to noisy antagonisms, if not imputations of heresy. But the truth is quite different: The famous Chinese pilgrims to India from the fourth to the ninth centuries A.D. testify that despite the early Buddhist split into 18 schools, “bhikkhus belonging to different schools could be found living together in the same monastery, practicing and conducting communal business in peace and harmony.”
The imposing Buddhas of Bamiyan and many other priceless Afghan Buddhist artifacts are now dust, to the loss not only of the cultural heritage of that torn country, but of all humanity.
Still, it is the religious fanatics’ very ruthlessness that will prove their undoing in the long run. Not only that, but their brutality will provide a stark contrast, forcefully reminding the world of the Buddha’s supreme message of harmony and moderation, of an inspiring “middle way” in all human situations in an impermanent world.
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