Narrow Roads Meet: In and to Japan

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Religion is very often, if not always, defined by your prophet, the one you and your fellow believers have ascertained to be embedded with the most divine essence. For Muslims, this is Mohammad; for Christians, this is Jesus Christ; and for Buddhist, this is Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni Buddha). And quite often these divisions establish what is to be the backbone of each faith, respectively. Furthermore, these divisions eventually become the foundation of what I consider disruptive religion: when the difference of accepted prophets begins to hinder religious communication rather than unifying them through a diversity of the messages they offer.

In order to bring religion back to a state where humankind can rejoice in our uniqueness, we once more need to look back on what separates us: our prophets. In the eighteenth chapter of the Quran, there is a parable of a mysterious figure named al-Khidr— The Green One, in Arabic— who goes on a spiritual journey with Moses, but as Moses’ teacher rather than his disciple. Al-Khidr is said to have been directly endowed with experiential knowledge and compassion from God; two of the markers of a Bodhisattva, a “wisdom being”, in Pure-Land Buddhist theology.

Al-Khidr is also said to have been wandering the earth since the beginning of life, thus putting off his attainment of Nirvana in order to turn to and preach for the people, another marker of a Bodhisattva. So, the question I am trying to answer here in Japan: is al-Khidr a a reference to the Buddha, or the archetype of the Buddha, in the Quran? And, how would answering this question change my personal beliefs and also the current state of Islamic-Buddhist relationship?

I am currently in Matsushima, Japan, in the Miyagi prefecture, a place famous for its natural hot-springs. My first interview will take place in Sapporo, then Otaru, Osaka, Kobe, and Tokyo. I will travel to each cities’ Islamic intuitions and speak with the Imams of each masjid. And when the Imams asks me why I came to Japan for this specific research project and why does such an issue matter to me, I will give him the same answer I will give you. I came to Japan because of its religious diversity and they way the Japanese have been able to effortlessly incorporate Shinto and Buddhism beliefs in their culture. I hope this trait has been passed on the Muslims here so that we can all approach this notion with an open mind. And about myself, Islam is truly my only possession in this world and I feel is the one thing I can invest myself in without being selfish with myself and others around me.

In the language of the Buddhists, I feel like even before birth, I was Muslim, and even after death, I will be Muslim, and if I were to ever be reborn, I would be Muslim again. But as a Muslim, I don’t believe in the reincarnation— at least in terms of human life— and put so elegantly by the Indian Poet-Saint Kabir (who was neither Muslim nor Hindu, yet was both at the same time): Your chance of human birth/ Doesn’t come time and again/ Once the ripe fruit falls/ You can’t stick it back on the Branch. (Taken from “Songs of the Saints of India” by John Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer).

Lastly, as I sit in the misty cloudiness of the hot-spring air, fully submerged from head to toe in 35 degree celsius mineral water, from within the ancient Pine Islands of Japan, I was reminded of a haiku by the Japanese/ “Zen” poet Bashō about the very place I occupied currently, and suddenly it seemed as if my mind was cleared, and the purpose of my pilgrimage to Japan was clarified. I’m here to figure out where the Buddha’s teachings fit in my life when contrasted against my Muslim background, and by doing so, I hope to create an alternative yet equal path for the 1.6 billion Muslims who could also benefit from the healing aspects meditational practices can offer.

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Zane Alkoor

Zane Alkoor '21

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