A new approach in Buddhist-Muslim relations and dialogue is for the Buddhist participants to discuss their equivalent of God in order to relate to Islam on a doctrinal level, writes Kieko Obuse in the journal Numen (62). The trend is not coming from those societies facing Muslim-Buddhist conflict and even violence, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, but rather from a group of Buddhist thinkers and leaders who have extensive international careers and are concerned with enhancing interreligious harmony and mutual understanding on a global scale. The absence of a belief among Buddhists in a deity who creates and governs the universe has been seen as an obstacle to dialogue with Muslims. But a group of contemporary Buddhist scholars in the Theravada, Tibetan, and Japanese Pure Land traditions have sought to “overcome the psychological gap between Buddhists and Muslims created by perceived doctrinal remoteness between the two traditions, by drawing parallels between the Islamic concept of God and Buddhist notions of the ultimate reality…” Obuse writes. Such Buddhist notions of emptiness and Amida Buddha as a personified God taking many forms have been put to use by key thinkers as Bhikkhu Beddhadasa, Alexander Berzin and Rikyu Kono to create common ground between Buddhism and Islam.
Berzin, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar associated with the Dalai Lama, has been particularly active in adopting ideas conducive to fostering peaceful relations between the two religions. He has sought to develop such concepts as Buddhists as “People of the Book,” and Buddha as being one of the prophets in the Islamic tradition (and thus also viewing Muhammad as one of the historical emanations from the Adi Buddha). These thinkers tend to embrace “parallelism,” which seeks to equate and draw connections between the two views of God — a minority position among most Buddhist theologians. Thus, they claim that the Buddhist view of God as formless and an abstract creating principle can relate to Islam’s view that Allah is not personified (though downplaying Allah’s personal attributes). Obuse concludes that there’s a personal and grassroots dimension to these theological innovations, as suggested by Kono’s work as a Jodo-shin monk who works with both Muslims and Buddhists on interfaith relations, as well as a concern to “communicate potentially conflict-resolving, peace-building perspectives in order to promote interreligious harmony and world peace.”