This past month at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple we were honored to host our friends from the Pacifica Institute, a local Muslim community active here on the San Francisco Peninsula, for an evening of Muslim-Buddhist interfaith conversation that culminated with a delicious Iftar dinner. Iftar is the traditional meal that is shared by Muslims after sunset to break the fast that begins each morning at dawn during the holy month of Ramadan. We began our encounter in the Buddha Hall, where I briefly introduced the history of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition before we chanted Juseige and offered incense. Our guests enjoyed a taste of our Buddhist practice, and several came forward to join in the offering of incense.
We then adjourned to the Social Hall where my good friend Imam Yilmaz Basak provided a clear and informative introduction to the Muslim observance of Ramadan and the significance of fasting in Islam. Following a prayer at sunset by Imam Yilmaz and our customary Buddhist Words of Thanksgiving before the meal, we enjoyed some dates and water that had been set out on the table while we
waited for our turn to go to through the buffet line to receive a delicious Mediterranean meal. While we were chatting and getting to know one another, an elderly gentleman who was sitting across from me at the table turned to me and said, “I have a gift for you.” He then reached into his pocket and took out a tangerine, which he offered to me, saying, “I brought two tangerines, but one is enough for me.” Bear in mind that this gentleman had been fasting since dawn and had not had anything to eat or drink all day. As I bit into the juicy tangerine, I thought to myself, if I had been fasting all day and had two tangerines in my pocket, would I so readily share one with a stranger who had eaten two meals and several snacks in the time that I had been fasting? Would I be able to hold one tangerine in the palm of my hand and say, “This is enough for me”? If I were in his shoes, I would probably be thinking, “This guy has been eating and drinking all day. I need this tangerine more than he does.”
As I savored that tangerine, I realized that I was receiving a truly precious gift of Dana. In Buddhism, Dana, or selfless giving, refers to a gift that is given with a pure heart, free of self-interest. Imam Yilmaz explained to us that for Muslims, fasting during Ramadan deepens one’s appreciation and gratitude for what one has received and enables the faithful to cultivate awareness for the needs of those who are less fortunate. As gratitude for what one has received deepens, one’s practice of charity grows. Through this encounter with the Muslim observance of Ramadan, I discovered a deeper appreciation for the virtue of selfless giving. Dana is the first of the Six Paramitas, or perfected virtues, that Mahayana Buddhists aspire to embody in our daily lives. Similarly, selfless giving to those in need constitutes one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith. While Muslims and Buddhists follow the unique teachings of our respective traditions, when we come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are reminded of the common values shared by all who seek a path to liberation from the narrow confines of self-centered living.
Namo Amida Butsu