A few weeks ago, I spent the morning at Great Tree Zen Temple just outside Asheville, NC. I wasn’t expecting to be thinking about Islam as I sat through a Buddhist teaching, but that’s exactly what happened. Sitting on a meditation pillow in a log cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I was about as far from a mosque, both mentally and physically, as I could be. And yet, the strikingly similar missions from two very different faith traditions merged abruptly in my mind like a Magic Eye stereogram that suddenly becomes three-dimensional.
At 10:00AM sharp, the bell rang, and the teaching began. We had just completed a 30-minute zazen (seated meditation). The Reverend Abbess Teijo Munnich was now gracefully sharing her wisdom with us. At some point, Teijo recalled Buddhism’s Three Jewels: the Buddha (either the Buddha, himself, or Buddha Nature more generally), the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha that illuminate the path to enlightenment), and the Sangha (the community – of those who have attained enlightenment, of monks/nuns, or of Buddhist practitioners more broadly).
What she said, precisely, was this, “Return to the Buddha. Return to the Dharma. Return to the Sangha.” I felt myself exhale as my body moved one step closer to deep relaxation. This was the message I needed to hear. It’s the message I always need to hear. As a wife, mother of two, dog-owner, home-owner, administrator, curriculum-writer, blogger, and speaker, there are a million things on any given day drawing me away from the Great Mystery. It’s hard to find any jewels in after-school interstate traffic or long lines at the supermarket, let alone “the Three Jewels.” As always, the Truth is there, but I have my back to it, rushing forward as I cross items off my to-do list. Re-turn to that which is sacred she whispered. Re-turn to that which is holy. Re-turn to that which is blessed.
But as I sat there listening to this Buddhist teaching, all I could think about was Islam! Islamic practice is full of rituals meant to remind Muslims to return to Allah. My Muslim friends regularly end sentences about future plans with in sha’Allah (God/Allah willing). It is a reminder that Allah, the Caring and Compassionate, abounds in all. Michael Sells, in his book Approaching the Qur’an, described Islam’s emphasis on reminding in this way:
According to the Qur’an the human being is born not sinful, but forgetful, caught up in cycles of acquisition and competition that obscure matters of ultimate concern, matters represented and condensed in an ultimate way in the day of reckoning or moment of truth. (Sells, p. 40)
Daily life, with its modern first-world annoyances, constantly pulls us away from that which is divine. As many people know, one of the Five Pillars of Islam is salat, the obligatory 5-times-a-day prayer. While theologically important as a way to communicate with God, salat also serves a more practical purpose. It is a reminder. Salat, physically and mentally, moves the pray-er away from everything that distances us from the Ultimate One. It helps us return to all that grounds us.
Another devotional practice in the Islamic tradition serves the same purpose – the dhikr. It involves reciting, silently or aloud, the names of Allah. Certain phrases, like la ilaha ilallah (there is no god but Allah), are also used. Importantly, the word dhikr means “reminder,” and the practice means “remembrance.” As a Muslim friend once said to me, “We always says to one another, ‘May Allah be with you,’ but that isn’t really correct. Allah is always there. We are the ones moving away. What we should say is, ‘May you be with Allah.’”
Maybe it’s time to reconsider – to think again in a special effort to change a conclusion – what these differing religious practices offer us. Saying that Buddhism is about mindfulness and Islam is about monotheism is an over-simplification that focuses on the means rather than the ends. Such approaches fail to honor the ultimate goal of any religious practice – to connect us, once again, with all that is Holy – in the world, in ourselves, and in others. That connection can be made through seated meditation, carefully listening to the wisdom imparted by a Buddhist lama, praying, or chanting the names of God. In that sense, there may be no difference between a Meditation Hall and an Islamic mosque, after all.
Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999. Print.
(This blog was first posted at Project Interfaith on 5/28/2014 at Return, Remind, Reconsider. Project Interfaith is no longer in business, but the original post can still be seen.)
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]