‘Common Ground’ brings Dalai Lama, Islamic leaders together in Bloomington, Ind.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The Dalai Lama's entourage stood ready to whisk him across the Indiana University campus on Wednesday afternoon to a waiting audience of thousands at its main auditorium, where he was overdue to resume a daylong series of teachings.

But he wasn't rushing. He lingered patiently with several prominent American Muslims at a table, admiring a book newly published in Louisville that formed the basis for their short but momentous meeting in a nearby campus building.

And he left only after standing and blessing each one, draping prayer scarves across their shoulders.

One by one, he and several Muslim leaders had issued statements recognizing each other's religions as valid spiritual paths, which participants described as a potential breakthrough in relations between the two religions that encompass much of Asia and count nearly 2 billion people as followers worldwide.

“All major religious traditions (are seeking) something beyond words,” said the Dalai Lama, the 74-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and for many the most recognizable face of Buddhism in the world. He said it's “very unfair” to paint all Muslims as terrorists for the actions of some.

“All have some ability to bring holiness to all of humanity,” he said.

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America, praised the Dalai Lama for “remaining dignified in the face of persecution” from Chinese authorities and thanked him for defending Muslims from accusations their religion is inherently violent.

And Plemon T. El-Amin, imam of a large Atlanta mosque, said the Quran calls on Muslims to “relate to those who believe and practice righteousness,” which he said includes devout Buddhists.

The meeting followed years of dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims and was timed to coincide with teachings the Dalai Lama is giving this week at IU, hosted by the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, which was founded by his late brother.

The leaders were drawing on a new book of scholarly essays, “Common Ground Between Islam & Buddhism,” published by Fons Vitae of Louisville. In addition to the Dalai Lama, several prominent Buddhists also have endorsed the book.

Essays in the book candidly acknowledge “unbridgeable” gaps in the two religions' doctrines and views of the world and the afterlife. But they also cite deep theological, social, historical and ethical ties.

“Clearly, compassion lies at the heart of the teachings of both Islam and Buddhism, as it also lies at the heart of other great religious traditions,” the Dalai Lama wrote in a foreword. This, he wrote, should “be grounds for Muslims and Buddhists to overcome any sense of wariness they may feel about each other and develop a fruitful, trusting friendship.”

Added lead author and British Muslim scholar Reza Shah Kazemi: “We are aiming here at commonalities on the level of the spirit,” rather than dogma.

Mattson said she would use her organization's convention and magazine to spread word of the “Common Ground” project.

“It can be very helpful, particularly in Asia, but also in America,” Mattson said in an interview.

Book follows other calls for unity

She said the latest effort follows the Amman Message of 2004, a call for Muslim unity across Sunni, Shia and other lines, and the 2007 document “A Common Word,” an open letter from Muslim leaders and scholars to their Christian counterparts following Muslim protests — some violent — over Pope Benedict XVI's quotation of a medieval emperor's harsh criticism of Islam.

“A Common Word” says Christians and Muslims can cooperate around their shared values of love for God and neighbor. Some say this oversimplifies their profound differences, but many Christians and Muslims worldwide continue to use it as a study guide, Mattson said.

Among those attending Wednesday's gathering was Eboo Patel of Chicago, the Muslim founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, which organizes public-service projects for young people of different religions.

Patel, who in 2009 was named the first Muslim winner of the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, said in an interview that “Common Ground” provides the “theological architecture” for Muslims and Buddhists to cooperate in spite of major differences.

For example, the book notes that for Muslims, the declaration of faith in one God is central, whereas Buddhism is silent whether there is a God. And whereas Muslims believe in heaven and hell, Buddhists speak of cycles of rebirth while souls aspire for peace in nirvana.

Yet both believe in an absolute truth, which for Muslims is part of the nature of God, and in people being held accountable after death for their good and evil deeds, writers in the book say.

Patel said tools for cooperation are urgently needed for Asia's bulging youth population.

“Bad people are after those kids, but they could be bridge-builders just as easily,” he said.

Strains between Islam and Buddhism have emerged in recent bloody conflicts in Thailand and Malaysia and in the Taliban's destruction of giant Buddha statues in 2001 in Afghanistan.

Those conflicts have been overshadowed by better-known ones that have led some to describe a “clash of civilizations” between Muslim-majority nations and the predominately Christian and Jewish countries of the West, particularly the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by Muslim terrorists.

Yet leaders of Islam and Buddhism cite Wednesday's gathering as evidence of tolerance among the mainstream members of theirs and other world religions.

Quran seen as open to Buddha

Attempts to repair relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims have often drawn on their strict monotheism and shared claim to the ancient patriarch Abraham and other biblical prophets. The Quran, the Islamic holy book, explicitly calls Jews and Christians “people of the book” who worship the same God.

Yet in “Common Ground,” scholars write that Muslims also have recognized Buddhists at that level, both historically and theologically. The book says the Buddha, who founded the religion in India a millennium before Muhammad, can be honored among a series of unnamed prophets the Quran says God sent to other people.

“The Buddha, whose basic guidance one in ten people on earth have been in principle following for the last 2,500 years, was, in all likelihood — and God knows best — one of God's great Messengers,” wrote Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, who has been developing a Muslim-Buddhist dialogue in recent years with the Dalai Lama.

The notion of “Abrahamic” religions helps make ““Islam less alien to Christians and Jews, but at the same time, we don't want to limit Islam to the Abrahamic box,” added Mattson, who also is professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, in an interview.

Islam and Buddhism's traditions of prayer, fasting and prostration show common ground of their own, she said.

Islam has an estimated 1.5 billion adherents, while Buddhists number close to 400 million, surveys say.

In the United States, each have at least tripled their populations to roughly 1.5 million since 1990, according to a 2008 survey by Trinity College of Connecticut.

Gray Henry, who directs Fons Vitae out of her Louisville home, said representatives of the Dalai Lama and Prince Muhammad of Jordan asked her to publish “Common Ground” based on her decades of experience publishing books on Islamic and other spirituality.

The effort marks “the beginning of the thin edge of a good wedge,” Henry said

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.