Dr. Masoud Shadnam
(Faculty Member of NEOMA Business School, France)
Our first interfaith journey on Hinduism was so fascinating and memorable that we decided to rapidly expand our explorations into the world of different faiths. So we immediately planned for the second journey, this time on Buddhism. Once again, Imam Ali Islamic Youth (IAIY) and Mahdi Yaar Group (MYG) –formerly called Mahdieh Youth Group– joined together to organize and host this journey. Those who signed up for the event had little prior knowledge about Buddhism, though even from distance one could see several appealing elements:
• Buddhism started four to six centuries before Jesus Christ (as) in the Northeastern part of Indian subcontinent. It has expanded tremendously since then such that currently, it has about half a billion adherents in the world, which makes it the fourth largest religion after Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism.
• Buddhism is usually represented as a nontheistic religion, one that is silent about God, and is for the most part focused on teachings about lifestyle. That is part of the reason why in the last centuries it has easily penetrated the life of secular societies and today concepts such as Karma, Nirvana, Zen, and Meditation are well known in the public discourse of Western societies.
• The original figure whose teachings have led to formation of Buddhism was called Gautama Buddha. At the core of his teachings was an invitation to “the middle way”, a path of moderation between hedonism and self-indulgence on one hand and extreme asceticism and self-mortification on the other.
• The renowned book of Panchatantra (called “Kalilah wa Dimnah” in Farsi and Arabic), which is a beautiful collection of ancient animal fables, is said to be rooted in Buddhist teachings.
With this background in mind, a group of participants showed up around 8:00 in the morning of September 6th, 2015 in the front yard of Iranian Islamic Centre of Imam Ali (as). We then boarded the yellow school bus that was waiting for us and headed towards Proctor Park where we joined another group of participants, making for a total of about thirty excited souls.
There first part of the journey was an outdoor training session of Shaolin martial arts, which is an ancient form of martial arts rooted in Zen Buddhism. When we arrived at the park, Master Shi Yan Chong from Shaolin Cultural Centre of Canada was already there. We circled around him in silence and he started to explain the worldview behind the martial arts of the Shaolin temple. He was speaking in Chinese; but fortunately he was accompanied with two of his students and one of them was acting as the translator. After a brief speech about the importance of having control over our mind, Master Yan Chong asked us to spread out on the green field and to follow his lead in some basic moves of Kung Fu. It was not easy! But we finally managed to learn a sequence of offensive and defensive moves. He then taught us few tricks of self-defense and we practiced that in groups of two. It was a fun morning and one could hear lots of giggling while participants were trying to practice together. The last part of the training was dedicated to some primary techniques in Qi Gong, which was focused on controlling the breathing and intentionally stretching the duration of inhale and exhale. By the time this training session was over, we all felt that the exercises had made us fresh and energetic.
From the Proctor Park, it took us few minutes of walking to arrive at Cham Shan Temple, which is the oldest and one of the largest Buddhist temples in Toronto. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by Reverend Shan Ping Sik who dedicated her next two hours to answer our questions and to give us a full tour of the temple. We observed several sculptures and many more drawings of those who are believed to be either reincarnations of Gautama Buddha or those who have achieved Buddhahood themselves. We also noticed that when Buddhists enter the temple, they bow down and prostrate in front of those sculptures, give them offerings of food and fruits, and ask them to fulfill their wishes. Throughout the tour, our participants were constantly posing questions to the Reverend, which soon led us to the limits and contradictions of their belief system. At times, it was so easy to see the unconvinced faces of our participants and the uncomfortable face of the Reverend!
A particularly interesting part of our visit was when Reverend Shan Ping taught us how to meditate, and then for about ten minutes we all experienced the inner peace of meditation. Many of us felt rejuvenated afterward. Lastly, we visited the graveyard where they were keeping the ashes of their deceased ones. It was more or less like a library of drawers with the name and photo of the deceased person on each drawer. We also noticed the photo of dogs among the photos on drawers!
Following this unique experience at the temple, we boarded the bus and headed back to Iranian Islamic Centre of Imam Ali (as). There we had our noon prayers and had a delicious lunch together. Then we had a discussion session with a distinguished guest speaker, Dr. Hosein Khimjee, who teaches in the field of world religions in several universities of Eastern Canada. He was a very knowledgeable scholar and introduced the pillars of Buddhism in a systematic manner in his slides. We also had a very engaging question and answer session with Dr. Khimjee where we learned about different strands of Buddhism and it has taken the color of context in every geographical area. A particularly important lesson that we learned from this dynamic discussion was that Gautama Buddha could have been one of Allah’s prophets whose teachings have over time been distorted into the current versions of Buddhism. The two most revealing indications in this regard are the following:
1. Gautama Buddha has lived and taught in a cultural context where Hinduism was the dominant religion of people and Hindus typically build statues of their gurus and great teachers to worship those statues. So when Buddha became famous and many disciples gathered around him, we expect to see people who start to build his statue for worshipping. But historical records show that for several centuries after the decease of Buddha, no statue of him was built. There should be a reason why Indians went against such a widespread practice and it seems likely that the reason is that Buddha himself had instructed his disciples against building and worshipping statues.
2. There is an old and long tale called “Buddhasaf and Blaohar” which is narrated by great Shia scholars such as Shaykh Saduq and Allameh Majlisi. The character of Buddhasaf and his story in this tale is strikingly similar to the story that Buddhists have about Gautama Buddha. In this tale, Buddhasaf who was the son of a powerful king escapes the palace life and starts a journey and he ended up becoming a prophet when he was praying under a fig tree.
In short, we learned a lot and had such a fun fieldtrip together. One of us, sister Diba, took it upon herself to videotape most parts of our journey and afterward she created an amazing clip out of that. Now we all look forward to our next interfaith journeys!