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Buddhism and the Baha'i Writings

Buddhism and the Baha'i Writings

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Published by: BVILLAR on May 31, 2010
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09/13/2010

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Buddhism and the Bahá’í Writings
An Ontological Rapprochement
*
 
Ian Kluge
Buddhism is one of the revelations recognised by the Bahá’íFaith as being divine in origin and, therefore, part ofhumankind’s heritage of guidance from God. This religion,which has approximately 379 million followers
1
is now makingsignificant inroads into North America and Europe whereBuddhist Centres are springing up in record numbers.Especially because of the charismatic leader of TibetanPrasangika Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, Buddhism has achievedglobal prominence both for its spiritual wisdom as well as forits part in the struggle for an independent Tibet. Thus, forBahá’ís there are four reasons to seek a deeper knowledge ofBuddhism. In the first place, it is one of the former divinerevelations and therefore, inherently interesting, and second, itis one of the ‘religions of our neighbours’ whom we seek tounderstand better. Third, a study of Buddhism also allows usto better understand Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that all religions areessentially one.
(PUP 175)
Moreover, if we wish to engage inintelligent dialogue with them, we must have a solidunderstanding of their beliefs and how they relate to our own.We shall begin our study of Buddhism and the Bahá’íWritings at the ontological level because that is the mostfundamental level at which it is possible to study anything.Ontology, which is a branch of metaphysics,
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concerns itselfwith the subject of being and what it means ‘to be,’ and theway in which things are. For example, it is readily apparent thata physical object such as a hockey puck, an idea like Einstein’srelativity theory and attribute of redness are three different
*
Dedicated to the memor of Rad Gaic 1948 — 2006.
 
126 Buddhism and the Bahá’í Writings
kinds of realities, have different ways of existing and arerelated to the world in different ways. We do not treat themalike because as a result of experience though oftenunconsciously, we perform an ontological analysis that saysalthough we can throw another physical object such as a ball ora chair at the goalie, we cannot throw Einstein’s theory orredness at him. This is an example of practical, every-day,conventional ontology. At a deeper level, ontology concernsitself with questions such as ‘What is being?’ or “Why is theresomething rather than nothing?’ or ‘What do we mean when wetalk about a ‘thing’?’ Abstruse as questions like these might appear, they are dealtwith directly or indirectly by all philosophical systems,religions and even by science. For example, if we ask, ‘What is athing — in this case a flower?’ we will get various, ontologicallybased answers. A scientist will answer that it is ultimately aself-organising aggregation of atoms whose materials inter-actamong themselves in certain ways and it is a product ofevolution, a Madhyamaka Buddhist will say that it is aconventionally existing aggregate produced be dependentorigination and ultimately empty, whereas a Bahá’í, a Christianand a Muslim might reply that ultimately it is a creation ofGod. In all cases we have fundamentally different ontologies inregards to the kind of things that exist — physical beings and aGod — and their ways of acting. In other words, both answerscontain an implicit ontology.The ontology explicitly or implicitly present in every idea-system functions like a constitution: it is the philosophicalframe of reference in which ideas take on meaning and againstwhich they must not offend. It determines whether or not anidea is viable in its particular context. If an idea offendsagainst its ontological frame of reference, then problems oflogical consistency arise and create all kinds of problems in theidea-system. For example, if we introduce the concept of anactively participating God into the reigning physicalist andpositivist ontology of science, then we could start formulatinganswers to scientific questions in terms of God’s will —something that is hardly repeatable, measurable, predictableand testable as required by science. The introduction of aparticipant God into the ontology of science would create all
 
Lights of ‘Irfán Book Eight 127
kinds of consistency problems because that conceptcontradicts the goal of explanation strictly by physicallymeasurable means. The ontological constitution of sciencedoes not allow such a concept.Like science, every religion has an ontology which is the basisof its identity and, of course, the basis for its differences fromother religions. From this it also follows that if we seriouslyintend to study how two religions are alike, then we mustcompare their respective ontologies. Without that, nophilosophical understanding of a religion is possible.However, before we plunge into our exploration, we mustdraw attention to the fact that contrary to the impressiongiven by many popular books, Buddhism does not speak with‘one voice’ even on some fundamental, ontological issues. Forexample, the often cited concept of emptiness is interpreted inat least three logically incompatible ways. Even the famous
anatman
or no-self doctrine is subject to variousinterpretations and at least one major Mahayana sutra
 , TheMahaparinirvana Sutra
specifically asserts the existence of aself. Of course, it is not up to this paper to decide whichdoctrine represents ‘true Buddhism’; that is best left toBuddhists to settle amongst themselves. All this paper can do ispoint out and explore the ontological similarities wherever theyexist in the spectrum of Buddhist ontology. Doing so, willcover the following topics:
anicca
(impermanence);momentariness; dependent origination; God; nirvana; the
trikaya
and the concept of Manifestations; emptiness;
anatman
(no-self) and re-incarnation.
Anicca
Logically speaking, the fundamental ontological principle ofBuddhism is the concept of
anicca
, universal impermanence orthe transitoriness of all things. In the words of the Buddha,Impermanent are all component things,They arise and cease, that is their nature,They come into being and pass away,Release for them is bliss supreme.
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