Comparing Buddhist and Muslim Attitudes to Scripture
Please note the limited scope of this article, as it does not compare attitudes towards ‘secondary’ literature such as hadith in Islam and Abhidharma and Mahayana Sutras in Buddhism.
It can be useful to compare the roles that scripture plays in different religions, for example Buddhism and Islam.
Muslims are united in their belief in the Qur’an as their definitive scripture. The Qur’an is the revelation that Mohammed received from God via the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is definitive, but there are four classical schools of Qur’anic interpretation, and Muslims disagree over the scope for ongoing interpretation. ‘Moderate’ scholars such as Tariq Ramadan argue for a relatively wide scope for interpretation compared to ‘fundamentalists’.
In Buddhism there is some debate over which scriptures are authentic. The Theravada tradition denies the authenticity of Mahayana scriptures such as the Perfection of Wisdom and Lotus Sutras which are central to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. (For a Sutra, authenticity means that it was spoken or authorized by the Buddha himself.)
The earliest Sutras (or Suttas) were written in the Pali language, and preserved by the Theravada school in the Pali canon. The Buddha did not write down the teachings himself, nor is it likely that they were transcribed by any of his immediate disciples. Instead they were transmitted orally for a number of generations until the Buddhist Sangha decided it was important to preserve them in writing.
“According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what was remembered as the authoritative ‘word of the Buddha’, took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rajagriha in northern India when 500 arhats took part in a ‘communal recitation’ (samgiti). This event is commonly referred to in modern writings as ‘the first Buddhist council’.” (from ‘The Foundations of Buddhism’ by Rupert Gethin, Oxford University Press 1998, p40)
Gethin goes on to say:
“the notion of a fixed canon of Buddhist scriptures is somewhat problematic. And we must be careful not to impose inappropriate notions of ‘canon’ and authenticity – derived say from Christianity [or Islam] – on the Buddhist tradition. Even in the accounts of the first Buddhist council we are told of a monk who, on hearing the recitation of the Buddha’s teaching by the 500 arhats, declared that he preferred to remember the teaching as he himself had heard it from the Buddha.” (ibid, p46)
This latter comment is interesting because, although the two are held to be mutually supportive, Buddhism prioritizes direct personal experience over scriptural understanding. It is one thing for scriptures to be authentic, it is another to have an authentic realization of Dharma. Correct scriptural understanding is excellent, but deep personal experience is truly liberating. The Theravada monk Ven. Analayo writes:
“The philosophical setting of ancient India was influenced by three main approaches to the acquisition of knowledge. The Brahmins relied mainly on ancient sayings, handed down by oral transmission, as authoritative sources of knowledge; while in the Upanishads one finds philosophical reasoning used as a central tool for developing knowledge. In addition to these two, a substantial number of the wandering ascetics and contemplatives of that time considered extrasensory perception and intuitive knowledge, gained through meditative experiences, as important means for the acquisition of knowledge. These three approaches can be summarized as: oral tradition, logical reasoning, and direct intuition. When questioned on his own epistemological position, the Buddha placed himself in the third category, i.e. among those who emphasized the development of direct, personal knowledge.” (from ‘Satipatthana – the direct path to realization’ by Analayo, Windhorse 2003, p44)
Whilst emphasizing the priority of direct, personal knowledge:
“the Buddha once illustrated the dangers of relying entirely on one’s own direct experience with the help of a parable. In this parable, a king had several blind men each touch a different part of an elephant. When questioned on the nature of the elephant, each blind man gave an entirely different account . . . Although what was experienced by each of the blind men was empirically true, yet their personal direct experience had revealed only part of the picture. The mistake each made was to wrongly conclude that his direct knowledge gained through personal experience was the only truth, so that anyone disagreeing must be mistaken. This parable goes to show that even direct personal experience might reveal only a part of the picture and therefore should not be grasped dogmatically as an absolute ground for knowledge. That is, emphasis on direct experience need not entail a complete rejection of oral tradition and reasoning as auxiliary sources of knowledge.” (ibid pp.45-46)
In comparison to the Buddhist scriptures, the interval between the Qur’an being spoken by the Prophet and written down by his followers was much shorter:
“An inner circle of his followers wrote down verses of the Qur’an as they learned them from the Prophet and there are records of there being a total of twenty-nine scribes for this. By the end of the Prophet’s life (632 CE) the entire Qur’an was written down in the form of uncollated pieces . . . The standard Muslim account is that, during the second year after the Prophet’s death (633 CE) and following the Battle of Yamama, in which a number of those who knew the Qur’an by heart died, it was feared that with the gradual passing away of such men there was a danger of some Qur’anic material being lost. Therefore the first caliph and successor the the Prophet, Abu Bakr, ordered that a written copy of the whole body of Qur’anic material as arranged by the Prophet and memorized by the Muslims should be made and safely stored with him.” (from ‘The Qur’an’, trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press 2004, pp.xv-xvi)
The Qur’an is the source of authoritative knowledge in Islam, but understanding the Qur’an also implies a commitment to understanding the world and one’s own soul. William C. Chittick says that the Qur’an:
“tells us repeatedly that God creates the world by speaking. Just as the Qur’an and other scriptures are collections of God’s “signs” or “verses” (ayat), so also the whole universe is a vast collection of God’s signs and verses. In effect, God creates the universe by revealing three books – the universe, the human self, and scripture. In each book he displays his signs and writes out his words. Once we understand that reality is configured by speech, we see that the human task is to read and understand what has been written and to follow the instructions. The interpretation of the Qur’an is the foundation and fruit of all Islamic sciences, and it has always entailed the simultaneous interpretation of the universe and the soul. Every Muslim, by accepting the Qur’an as God’s Speech, has accepted the responsibility of understanding what God is saying . . . Every soul will answer for its own reading, not only of scripture but of the other two books. And, given that the soul’s understanding is written out in itself, the soul’s own book is the all-important determinant of its destiny . . . The crux of knowledge, then, is to understand one’s own soul.” (from ‘Ibn Arabi – Heir to the Prophets’ by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications 2005, pp57-58)