Category Archives: Buddhism

Humanism and Religion – part 2

The principal reason why some religious teachers are not humanistic is because they distrust human nature and have a pessimistic view of human beings. These religious teachers tend to downplay the humanity of the founders of their religions, emphasing their superhuman or even divine qualities. 

Traditional Christianity teaches that due to our Fall from the grace of Eden, humanity is in a state of sin and that this original sin passes from one generation to another as part of our human nature. The only redemption is considered to be through Christ, whose nature is believed to combine divinity with humanity. Therefore traditionally Christians were encouraged not to rely on or trust their corrupt human nature but instead to rely on the divine Christ their saviour.

In Buddhism there are different understandings of how human Gautama Buddha was. While all schools accord him a special status as the ‘wheel turning’ Buddha who presented the Dharma (doctrine/law) for his age, some schools play down the significance of his own human struggle in this life, claiming that he was already an enlightened being at birth and that he merely ‘manifested’ his actions of ascetism followed by meditation under the bodhi tree as a kind of act. 

There is a strand in Buddhism which distrusts human nature on the grounds that it is ‘samsaric’, the karmic product of impure causes and conditions, and contends that to achieve the ultimate fruits of the spiritual path we must abandon our ordinary human bodies and impute ourselves instead on subtle bodies of light. While developing and associating with our higher energies and potentials is surely a good thing, there can be a danger that practitioners will distrust and become alienated from their normal human urges and energies, which would not be a humanistic approach.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has a fundamentally positive attitude towards human nature. Muslims believe that, although Adam and Eve fell from the garden, their human nature was not corrupted or tarnished. Therefore there is no original sin passed from one generation to the next. Instead, Muslims believe that everyone is born with their basic purity (fitra) intact and it only through the vagaries of our upbringings and the difficulties of the world that we develop sin and alienation. Because of this basic postive view of human nature Islam does not require renunciation of the body. Therefore “there is no monasticism in Islam” unlike in Christianity and Buddhism. Bodily urges such as sexual desires are considered fundamentally healthy and to be enjoyed within “marriage [which] is half of the religion”.

No Muslim would claim that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was divine, because the fundamental tenet of Islam is that “there is no god but God, without partners”. Muhammad is considered fully human, the best of creation, and a perfect model for believers. God said to Muhammad ﷺ “but for you I would not have created the world” because Muhammad, as the perfect human (al-Insan al-Kamil), is most able to appreciate God’s truth, beauty, and love.

Through emulating and loving Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims are able to share in his grace and experience something of the truth, beauty, and love he experienced. This is why the following story of  Muhammad ﷺ and his companion ‘Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is recounted: “We were with the Prophet and he took the hand of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. ‘Umar said to Him, “O Messenger of God, you are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet said, “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) until I am dearer to you than your own self.” Then ‘Umar said to him, “By God, it is now that you are dearer to me than my own self.” The Prophet said, “Now, O Umar (your faith is complete).”

The point here is that the Muhammadan nature is the essence of human nature, and that by embracing this nature we fully embrace our humanity and are able to experience all its peace and blessings. We do not need to deny our humanity, but we do need to efface our normal, limited sense of self in order to achieve closeness to God, and become like his beloved.

To efface ourselves in Muhammad ﷺ we need to transcend our personality but not our humanity because Muhammad ﷺ is the epitome of humanity. Also, because Muhammad ﷺ was suffused with light (noor) we will find that, by cherishing him, our humanity becomes suffused with light and takes on a higher quality.

Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Sufism And The Two Truths

Blue sky with clouds

Two key concepts in Sufism are ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’ meaning annihilation and subsistence in Allah. These root words appear in the Qurʾān. “Everyone upon the earth will perish (fānin), and there will remain (yabqá) the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor.” (Surat al-Rahman 55:26-28). In Sufism, ‘fanaa’ refers to the annihilation of the individual ego or self (‘nafs’) in Allah and ‘baqaa’ refers to whatever is left, remains, or subsists once the ego has been annihilated. In this short piece I want to use the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the two truths to help explore the concepts of ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’.

The two truths are revealed in the Buddhist ‘Heart Sutra’ which states: “form is empty, emptiness is form.” Form and emptiness stand for the two truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth. In the terms of the verse from Surat al-Rahman, the ultimate truth (‘fanaa’/emptiness) is the fact that only Allah is Real and that everyone else “will perish” while the conventional truth (form) is “everyone upon the earth”. The annihilation of form to reveal emptiness is known as the ‘first profundity’ and it is revealed in the words “form is empty” and “Everyone upon the earth will perish (fānin)“.

The second profundity is revealed in the words “emptiness is form” and “there will remain (yabqá) the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor“. In ‘Heart of Wisdom’ Lama Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes “Whereas the first profundity of a phenomenon is the phenomenon’s emptiness . . . the second profundity is the phenomenon’s being a manifestation of emptiness.” This means that, once everyone has been annihilated in emptiness, any phenomenon that appears must be a manifestation of emptiness. Geshe Kelsang offers two analogies to illustrate this, the gold coin and the blue sky: “The underlying nature of the coin is gold; it is the gold itself that appears in the form of a coin. Clearly, the coin that appears to us is not separate from its gold and could not exist without it. We can say therefore that the coin is a manifestation of its gold . . .  [likewise] a sky that is completely clear appears to us as blue. We know that the actual nature of the sky is merely empty, just as the space around us is empty. Although the sky appears to be a blue canopy, if we travel towards it we shall never encounter a blue object; there is only space. Nevertheless, when we look at the sky we see blue and we point to this blue as being the sky. We can say therefore that the blue we see directly is a manifestation of an empty sky. Thus, from an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests.”

Created objects that appear to the mind following ‘fanaa’ are conventional truths: they are true because they are recognised as having no existence from their own sides being utterly dependent on the Creator, but they are not ultimate truth because they are not the Creator. Strictly speaking, objects that appear to the mind before ‘fanaa’ are neither conventional nor ultimate truths rather they are falsities because the ego mistakenly believes that they exist from their own sides independently of the Creator, like idols that need to be smashed.

The role of conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path



I want to offer a perspective on conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path. I will mainly draw on Buddhist source material, but will also include some references to Sufi Islam. In his ‘Root Text on the Mahamudra’, the first Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsän, says

“The mind that is free from conceptualization
Is merely a level of conventional mind;
It is not the mind’s ultimate nature.
Therefore seek instruction from qualified Masters.”

The Panchen Lama’s point is that it is possible to overestimate the importance of eliminating conceptuality. The Panchen Lama was/is one of the most eminent Lamas of the Yellow Hat tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by Lama Tsonghapa, this tradition sees itself as the heir and protector of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ path of Buddhism introduced to Tibet from India by scholars and sages such as Kamalashila, Shantarakshita, and Atisha.

A crucial moment in the history of Tibetan Buddhism was the 8th century CE debate at the Council of Lhasa between Kamalashila and the Chinese Chan (Zen) monk Hashang. In this debate Hashang advanced the characteristic Zen position of ‘sudden enlightenment’, emphasising the elimination of conceptuality, whereas Kamalashila maintained the position of ‘gradual enlightenment’ which employs conceptuality as a tool until the advanced stages of the Bodhisattva path. By most accounts Kamalashila was deemed the winner and Hashang had to leave Tibet. Yellow Hat Lamas such as my own former teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso have sometimes seen it as their mission to protect Tibetan Buddhism from the return of Hashang’s view. So, in his book ‘Understanding the Mind’, Geshe Kelsang writes:

“Some people believe that all conceptual thoughts are bad and should be abandoned. This mistaken view was taught by the . . . Chinese monk Hashang, who misunderstood what Buddha taught in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and believed that the way to meditate on emptiness was simply to empty the mind of all conceptual thoughts. This view still has many adherents today, but if we hold this view we will have no opportunity to progress on the spiritual paths.”

The Yellow Hat reading of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras hinges on the word ‘subsequently’. The relevant section from the ‘Essence of Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra) is:

“whatever Son or Daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should look perfectly like this: +subsequently+ looking perfectly and correctly at the emptiness of inherent existence also of the five aggregates. Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.”

In his commentary ‘Heart of Wisdom’ Geshe Kelsang provides the following explanation: “Here the word ‘subsequently’ has great meaning. It indicates that the mind with which we should first understand emptiness is an inferential cognizer, the Tibetan expression for an inferential cognizer being rendered more literally as ‘subsequent realization’. An inferential cognizer is a type of valid mind, or valid cognizer — a valid cognizer being a mind that realizes its object non-deceptively. Such a mind will never deceive us with respect to the object it ascertains. There are two types of valid cognizer: inferential valid cognizers and direct valid cognizers. They are distinguished by the fact that an inferential valid cognizer relies upon a sign, or reason, to know its object, whereas a direct valid cognizer knows its object directly without the need to rely upon a reason.”

Inferential cognizers involve conceptuality because they depend upon reasoning and the intellect. In ‘Understanding the Mind’ Geshe Kelsang writes:

“When we first realize subtle objects such as impermanence [or emptiness] in dependence upon inferential cognizers, we attain an intellectual understanding of them, but we should not be satisfied with this. We need to deepen our experience of the object through meditation. In this way we will gradually attain a profound experience induced by meditation, and finally a yogic direct perceiver that realizes the object directly. Inferential cognizers are seeds of yogic direct perceivers. Until we attain an actual yogic direct perceiver realizing a particular object, we need to continue to meditate on the continuum of the inferential cognizer realizing that object.”

What Geshe-la and the Yellow Hats propose is a gradualist epistemology starting with valid conceptual inference leading to ‘yogic direct perceivers’ (equivalent to ma’arifa in Sufi Islam). The conceptuality involved in generating inferential cognizers is seen as an important pre-requisite for gnosis / enlightenment / ma’arifa.

The effectiveness of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ method hangs on whether conceptual reasoning really can generate inferential cognizers. In other words, can conceptual reasoning actually cause our minds to alight on profound objects of meditation and engage with them so as to bring about spiritual transformation? The short answer is: only if we are using conceptual reasoning to genuinely challenge our deeply-held misconceptions about how we and the world exist.

For example, when meditating on “form is empty” using conceptual reasoning, it is not enough merely to deconstruct the body in abstract using Nagarjuna’s method. Rather, it is vital that first we clearly identify the object of negation, which is the inherently existent body we grasp at (the image of our body that we normally relate to). Once we have identified this body we try to find it among its parts or as the collection of its parts. We consider whether our body is our arm. Or our leg. Or our fingers. Or our head. And we conclude that it is none of these. We then ask whether the body is the collection of all these parts. But how can a collection of non-bodies be a body? How can the quality of ‘bodiness’ ever arise from non-bodies?

It is at this point that our clearly-held sense of our own body starts to shake and crumble. We are like a person who knows definitely that they parked their car in front of their house and is shocked and amazed to find that it has gone! Our mind sees only an absence where the image of the body used to be, and this absence is shocking and meaningful — it means that the body we normally relate to does not exist.

Once, when Lama Tsongkhapa was teaching the meditation on the emptiness of the body he noticed his disciple Sherab Senge grabbing at himself. Tsongkhapa saw that Sherab Senge had developed an inferential cognizer of the emptiness of his body and had felt his body disappear so he instinctlively tried to grab onto it. Sherab Senge later became the teacher of the 1st Dalai Lama, Je Gendundrub.

When we have generated an inferential cognizer we do not continue with discursive, conceptual reasoning. Instead we remain in meditation on the transformative realisation of emptiness that we have generated. Eventually we become so familiar with this realisation that we no longer need conceptual reasoning to bring it to mind.

The next place I am going with this is to emphasize that reason only functions as a spiritually liberating force if combined with purification of the soul. This is a key message I took away from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s (AHM) teachings at the Al-Ghazali Retreat I recently attended.

Al-Ghazali’s ‘Ihya‘ is a manual for the purification of the soul, and AHM positioned Al-Ghazali as a psychologist engaged in muraqaba to the greatest extent, understanding himself and others. Al-Ghazali is famous for his refutation of Ibn Sina, who attempted to assert reason (in the form of Greek philosophy) over revelation (the Qur’an). But Al-Ghazali did not reject the role of reason per se, only its usurping of revealed truth. He recognised that reason is necessary to interpret revelation.

However, according to AHM “reason deployed by an unrefined ego is a disaster” (he cites the example of Iblis). The ‘Ihya’ is a manual on how to sort yourself out so you can reason correctly. Here AHM points out the necessary relationship between Sufism and Sunni Islam: only through the practices of Sufism can a Sunni scholar purify him/herself in order to arrive at a non-egotistical reading of the Qur’an. The intellect will not work properly unless the nafs is at peace. AHM suggests that Al-Ghazali’s own spiritual crisis of 1095 CE was caused by his fear that all his eminent philosophical works to that point had been contaminated by egotism. He finally took the plunge into Sufism that his brother Ahmad Ghazali recommended, and eventually emerged to write the ‘Ihya’.

The classical Greeks, Sufis and Buddhists wouldn’t recognise Western ‘philosophy’ today, because it plays with reason in isolation from any serious attempt to discipline or purify the soul. In Islam, Sufism is a prerequisite for Sunnah and Fiqh so, within Buddhism, meditation and moral discipline are prerequisites for philosophy. Meditation (Sutra), moral discipline (Vinaya) and philosophy (Abhidharma) are the ‘three baskets’ (Tripitaka) into which the Buddha’s teachings were organised at the 1st Buddhist Council c.400 BCE. Together they form the whole corpus of Buddhism and anyone who wishes to realise the profound philosophical truths (Abhidharma) taught by Buddha must not neglect the other two baskets.

I’ve talked about the role of conceptual reason in providing a launch pad for the mind to alight on hidden, virtuous objects of meditation such as emptiness, but although conceptual reasoning is necessary it is not sufficient. The blessing [baraka] of Allah swt is also required (unmediated or mediated by a spiritual guide). Geshe Kelsang writes: “It is said that all the virtuous minds of sentient beings are the result of the enlightened activities of the Buddhas. The two principal ways in which Buddhas help sentient beings are by giving teachings and by blessing their minds. Without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise. All sentient beings have at some time or another received Buddha’s blessings.” (UTM). Poetically, Shantideva says in his ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ (ch. 1)

“Just as on a dark and cloudy night
A flash of lightning for a moment illuminates all,
So for the worldly, through the power of Buddha’s blessings,
A virtuous intention occasionally and briefly occurs.”

Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) talks about the function of the nafs as maintaining the continuum with the primordial memory of the day of Alastu Bi-Rabbikum, yet we are normally veiled from this deep level of our self by its grosser levels (“we are veiled from ourself by ourself”). These grosser levels of self must die (fana) in order for us to return to our true self (baka). We cannot achieve this unveiling just through the force of our own reason or effort — we need the help of God and his friends the auliya. AHM says that the mere presence of a wali activates our self, by reminding us at a deep level what the self is supposed to be (it can be frightening or exciting to be confronted by our self).

So even though reason can take us a certain distance we need faith to reach our goal. AHM says that “reason cannot storm the gates of heaven”. The rules of logic are part of the created world — they could have been different — whereas Ruh transcends the world and is our bridge of access to what lies beyond. AHM says that the Ruh partakes of infinity and eternity, it is something of Allah swt within ourself yet beyond ourself. The heart is the locus of the Ruh, and it is the heart that experiences the revelation of the Divine who “sent it down into your heart” (Al-Baqara 2:97).

However, if we don’t use reason we are like the Bedouin who trusts God but fails to tie his camel. The correct way of practice is to do everything we can from our own side and pray continually to Allah swt for his blessings. God has endowed us with the precious possession of reason and it is our responsibility to use it: “God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive.” (An-Nisa 4:95).

Post-Modern Religion

Passage from modern to post-modern era according to Hiroki Azuma in "Génération Otaku - Les enfants de la postmodernité"

I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.

Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:

“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”

Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).

Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.

The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.

Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.

Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.


Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi

In the Beshara translation of ‘Kernel of the Kernel‘, the great Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi writes: “It is essential to know that as there is no end to the Ipseity [Selfhood] of God or to His qualification, consequently the Universes have no end or number, because the Universes are the places of manifestation for the Names and Qualities. As that which manifests is endless, so the places of manifestation must be endless. Consequently, the Quranic sentence: “He is at every moment in a different configuration,” (Q55:29) means equally that there is no end to the revelation of God.” (ch. 3, p10) Alternative translations suggest that Allah is always in a different “work” rather than “configuration”.

Anyway, the point is that Beshara emphasises the Oneness of the universe with God. For Beshara, God is the substance of the universe. Everything we experience is God Himself in a different configuration. I would like to explore this idea, and contrast it with what I perceive to be the more orthodox Islamic interpretation that the Creator is separate from His creation. What does this imply about reality, about substance? If only God is Real, then anything other than God must be illusory. Does this mean that the creation is illusory? If we consider that “everything is perishing but His Face” (Q28:88) then this surely confirms that only God is Real, and that everything else, being impermanent, is illusory?

In ‘Kernel of the Kernel’ Ibn Arabi describes ‘five presences’ (ch 3), saying that all “these [myriad] universes are encompassed by the five presences”. The first presence is a station of God in which “no qualification or name is possible . . . Whatever word is used to explain this station is inadequate because at this Presence the Ipseity [selfhood] of God is in Complete Transcendence from everything, because He has not yet descended into the Circle of Names and Qualities. All the Names and Qualities are buried in annihilation in the Ipseity of God”. This station of Transcendence is how we think of God prior to creation. Moreover “When Hazreti ‘Ali heard the Hadith “At that time God was in a state such that there was nothing with Him.” he added, “Even at this moment He is still so.”” (ch 3). So Ali seems to be advancing the orthodox Islamic view of God as Transcending the creation.

The subsequent presences are the creation, starting with the reality of Muhammad (2nd presence), the degree of the angels (3rd presence), the universe of galaxies (4th presence), ending with the perfect man (5th presence). Orthodox Islam would consider these separate from God, but Beshara considers them One with God. One Beshara friend used the analogy of water: the 1st presence is described as “the Ocean-Deep point” and the subsequent presences are Rivers and Tributaries flowing from this Ocean. According to this view, all the Presences have the same Substance: God.

This Beshara view clearly emphasises immanence over transcendence. The strength of this view is that the mystical experience is one of closeness to God within His creation — the sense of immanence. However, I suggest that we can happily explain the creation as a series of signs pointing to God and the mystic as an adept sign-reader, so that there is no need to posit God as the Substance of creation. In fact, because the creation is illusory it has no substance, in my view.

When I say that created things are illusory, the best comparison is a rainbow. A rainbow is an appearance that depends on causes and conditions: if the necessary causes and conditions such as sunshine and rain are gathered then a rainbow appears. All created things are like this: each depends on its specific causes and conditions, and the Primary Cause is God. If any necessary cause or condition is absent then the thing does not come into creation. Because every thing is impermanent, sooner or later one of its sustaining causes will cease and the thing will disappear. This is why everything is illusory.

Another way of expressing the same idea is to say that created things lack essence. For example, if we look at a coffee table and we try to find its essence — the coffee table ‘in itself’ — we will not be able to find it. We might try to find this essence in the table legs or the table top, but we will not succeed. However, if we are satisfied with the mere appearance of the coffee table then it will function perfectly well for us: we can put books and magazines on it. By saying that things are illusory I am not saying that they don’t function. We may dream about driving a car, and the dream car may function perfectly as a car, but when we wake up we realise it was an illusion.

These lines of reasoning come from the Buddhist tradition, but I believe they are universally valid. When God finished the Quran by saying “This day I have perfected your religion” (Q5:3) He did not negate all the truths of previous religions. I believe that Islam contains or is compatible with all the key truths of the previous great religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism.

One of Buddhism’s key strengths is its path of negation (via negativa), its philosophical reasoning that challenges our sense of what is fixed and strips away illusion, leaving . . . emptiness. This emptiness is a negative phenomenon (a lack or void) without positive qualities or attributes — we cannot say (predicate) anything true about emptiness. As emptiness is the ultimate truth taught by the Buddha he could not describe himself as a Prophet — how can there be a Prophet of emptiness?

Nevertheless, the Buddhist path of negation is consistent with the theological via negativa of Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides, who both realised that it is impossible to say anything ultimately true about God. We can say what God isn’t (He isn’t a coffee table), but ultimately we cannot say what God is. This is the truth of Ibn Arabi’s first presence: “No qualification or name is possible at this station. Whatever word is used to explain this station is inadequate”. (ch 3)

So, created things are illusory because they arise in dependence upon their causes (including God), their parts and their names. Nevertheless, we do not normally relate to things as illusory. in fact we often grasp at created things as permanent, having fixed essence or self, as independent, and existing from their own side. According to Buddhism this self-grasping ignorance is the origin of suffering and the engine of samsara / maya.

From a Sufi point of view, if we use the example of our self, we see that our mistaken view of our self as independent from God, as existing from its own side, is the ignorance which obscures / prevents gnosis. Only if this false view of self is annihilated (fana) by God can we come to know God. We can see clearly that God is not one with the false self which we perceive in ignorance.

This same reasoning applies to all our other mistaken perceptions: insofar as I perceive trees,  cars, tables etc as existing independently of God then I am mistaken – I am perceiving things that don’t really exist – I am trapped in maya. However, if I negate my mistaken perceptions, and come to see the trees, cars and tables as depending on God, then my awareness is correct.

The problem with oneness is that it is tempting to apply it to the things I normally see, which are false. It is necessary to negate these things first, to annihilate them in God. Only once they have been annihilated can they arise again (baqa) in Truth. At this point it is meaningful to describe them as One with God. But if we prematurely apply oneness to the false things that appear to the mistaken mind prior to annihilation, we will create a barrier between ourselves and God. (May Allah guide and protect us all.)

In his book “Indian Philosophy” (p215), Richard King succinctly explains the concept of oneness according to Advaita-Vedanta. Taking the word Brahman as meaning God, the passage supports your view of the world as unreal if seen as independent of God, but real if seen as dependent. The passage also seems to support my view that we must negate the unreal before we can perceive the real.

“[The great Advaita-Vedanta philosopher] Sankara makes three major statements:

1. Brahman is real
2. The universe is unreal
3. The universe is Brahman

“The third statement is meant to explain the significance of the first two. The world is unreal as such, that is, as the world, but it is real in so far as it is seen as non-different from Brahman – the ground of existence. Clearly Sankara does not wish to imply that the world is absolutely unreal in the sense of being without any basis in reality. As he states in his famous commentary on the Brahma Sutra: “As the space within pots or jars are non-different from the cosmic space or as water in a mirage is non-different from a (sandy) desert . . . even so it is to be understood that this diverse phenomenal world of experiences, things experienced, and so on, has no existence apart from Brahman.” The world cannot be completely unreal then since it is a manifestation of Brahman. However, at the same time the world is not real in the same sense as Brahman, that is, from the level of ultimate truth, because it is subject to change. Only Brahman is real in this ultimate sense. Implicitly then, one can talk of three levels: [1] the unreal or delusory, [2] that which is real on a practical or empirical level and [3] ultimate reality.”

The challenge, as I see it, is to strip away the mistaken appearance of independence from practical [level 2] phenomena. In Buddhism this mistaken appearance is known as ‘dualistic appearance’ because practical truths normally appear mixed with a mistaken appearance of independence. They must undergo a process of experiential negation / deconstruction / annihilation before they can they appear unmistakenly as mere practical truths, mere dependent arisings.

The Beautiful Irony

A valid comparison can be drawn between money addicts and heroin addicts. Neither group can be trusted, but it is not appropriate to hate either heroin or money addicts because they are both sick. Addicts shouldn’t be allowed to run our industries or invest our money but we shouldn’t hate them. They are not in control of their own behaviour – they are not themselves. Not being themselves, they are incapable of experiencing empathy and compassion. The beautiful irony is that the self is entirely unselfish when it is at its healthiest. Only the diseased self, full of fear and insecurity, grasps onto what it perceives as “mine” at the expense of other people.

Elite education can drive out co-operative instincts like empathy and compassion. However I don’t think this is inevitable, and I believe it is possible to learn techniques of intellectual and emotional self-defence to protect against this brutalising effect. These techniques are widely applicable because, as George Monbiot points out (1), in modern society we are besieged by advertisements trying to undermine our healthy, intrinsic self-worth. Through causing alienation, corporations seek to refocus our self-esteem around their superficial products and brands, and delude us into pointless competition against each other.

Fitra is the Islamic concept of the underlying purity of the self. Fitra means ‘pure primordial nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ and is an Arabic word appearing in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said that every child is born with perfect fitra (1). Subsequent human impurities are ‘adventitious’, i.e. they arise due to upbringing, circumstance etc. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion which perfectly expresses this pure primordial nature because fitra is naturally drawn to the One God, to Whom the Muslim monotheistic practice of tawhid is the best path.

In his essay ‘Fitra: An Islamic Model for Humans and the Environment’ (2) the Sufi scholar and leader Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti discusses the relationship between fitra and care for the environment. He argues that spiritually healthy people (whose fitra is being well expressed) will naturally care for the environment and other people. For example, they will naturally be contented and will not require large quantities of consumer goods. He therefore argues that the solution to the environmental crisis must have a spiritual element – namely the clearing away of obstructions to fitra. Non-spiritual solutions on their own will not suffice.

The concept of fitra is similar to the concept of ‘Buddha nature’, which is also described as our natural, primordial purity. Buddhists believe in the interdependence of all life, and say that our Buddha nature is best expressed when we break down the egotistical barriers that falsely separate us from others. Therefore they say that “compassion is our Buddha nature” because, without a false ego and a diseased sense of self, like the Buddha we will naturally empathise with the suffering of others and want to relieve it.


1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (

2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441. “No child is born except in al-fitra and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”

What Is The Self?

June 2008

A Swiss couple on vacation in India found a beautiful picture in a store. They bought it, and in order to protect the picture the store-keeper rolled it up and slotted it into a long cardboard tube.

The couple continued to travel around India and so for the rest of their journey they had to carry the tube everywhere they went. It was long and awkward, and they were forever trying to protect it, to stop it getting bent or dented as they climbed into buses, or clambered out of rickshaws.

Eventually they took the tube home to Switzerland where they opened it, only to discover that the store-keeper had deceived them — he had never put the picture inside. All the time they had been carrying around an awkward tube, trying to protect it, when really it was empty!

At first they were angry, but then they laughed.

Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is a symbol of conditioned existence, known in Buddhism and Hinduism as samsara. The labyrinth is the prison we build for ourselves when we become alienated from our own nature. Whether we have ever truly been in harmony with our own nature is a matter for debate, but the prospect of escape from the labyrinth has appealed to humanity throughout history.

The labyrinth has its locus classicus in the myth of the Minotaur. On the island of Crete, Prince Minos was competing against his brothers for the throne. Minos asserted that the gods favored him, and he prayed to Poseidon, the sea-god (symbol of the unconscious mind in modern psychological terms) to send as a sign a white bull, which Minos promised to immediately sacrifice back to the god.

“The bull had appeared, and Minos took the throne; but when he beheld the majesty of the beast that had been sent and thought what an advantage it would be to possess such a specimen, he determined to risk a merchant’s substitution – of which he supposed the god would take no great account. Offering on Poseidon’s altar the finest white bull that he owned, he added the other to his herd” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, pp13-14)

Originally Minos was in harmony with his nature and the gods favored him, but his deception causes him to become alienated from his own nature. The alienation manifests itself as external success – the Cretan empire flourishes under Minos – but at the price of a growing inner sickness. At home, Minos’ wife is infected by Poseidon with an ungovernable passion for the white bull, and she conceives a child, the Minotaur, half-man half-bull. Discovering the child, the king summons the master craftsman Daedalus, and orders him to construct a labyrinth where the abomination can be hidden and imprisoned, never to see the light of day.

“So deceptive was the invention, that Daedalus himself, when he had finished it, was scarcely able to find his way back to the entrance. Therein the Minotaur was settled: and he was fed, thereafter, on groups of living youths and maidens, carried as a tribute from the conquered nations within the Cretan domain.” (ibid, p14).

This illustrates that the unhealthy mind, in its state of alienation, is full of complexes which are essentially destructive, even though on the surface all may appear to be well.

Eventually the hero Theseus slays the Minotaur with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne and escapes with her to Greece. Minos, enraged at the loss of his daughter and the killing of his son the Minotaur, imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus escape from the labyrinth and, to escape from Crete, Daedalus fashions wings out of feathers held together with wax. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as it will melt his wings, but Icarus is exhilarated by the thrill of flying and soars too high, whereupon the wax binding his wings melts and he falls to his death, drowned in the sea.

The story of Icarus epitomizes what Thomas Moore calls puer (boyish) spirituality:

puer is the face of the soul that is boyish, spirited in a way that is perfectly depicted in the image of a male child or a young man. But the attitude of the puer is not limited to actual boys, to males, to any age group, or even to people . . . Because the puer attitude is so unattached to things worldly, it isn’t surprising to find it prevalent in religion and in the spiritual life. For example, there is the story of Icarus . . . One way to understand this story is to see it as the puer putting on the wings of spirit and becoming birdlike as a way of getting out of labyrinthine life. His escape is excessive, exceeding the range of the human realm, and so the sun sends him plummeting to his death. The story is an image of spirituality carried out in the puer mode. Anyone can turn to religion or spiritual practice as a way out of the twists and turns of everyday living. We feel the confinement, the humdrum of the everyday, and we hope for a way to transcend it all.” (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, pp247-8)

When I was twenty-one I became a Buddhist monk, and I was the epitome of puer spirituality. Seeking to escape from the labyrinth, and exhilarated by an idealistic spirituality, I flew too close to the sun and came crashing down to earth. Aged twenty-four I disrobed, and ended up living in my mother’s house, where my brother bought me a framed picture of The Lament for Icarus by Herbert Draper to hang on my bedroom wall!

Hand-in-hand with puer spirituality goes what the psychotherapist John Welwood calls spiritual bypassing:

“Starting in the 1970’s I began to perceive a disturbing tendency among many members of spiritual communities. Although many spiritual practitioners were doing good work on themselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual practice to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional ‘unfinished business’. This desire to find release from the earthly structures that seem to entrap us – the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, personality [in other words the labyrinth] – has been a central motive in the spiritual search for thousands of years. So there is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personal issues – all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.” (John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Shambala pp11-12).

The antidote to puer spirituality or spiritual bypassing is a grounded spiritual practice. A grounded spiritual practice enables us to recognize our habitual, distorted patterns of thought and behaviour (our labyrinth) as material to work with and eventually grow out of. If we prematurely attempt to transcend the labyrinth we will discover the hard way that our neurotic tendencies are still compulsively, unconsciously conditioning us. John Welwood recommends we adopt a psychological approach to complement our spiritual practice:

“the essential practice, common to both psychotherapy and meditation, is to bring our larger awareness to bear on our frozen karmic structures. Often this larger awareness is obscured – either buried beneath our problems, emotions, reactions, or else detached, dissociated, floating above them. So it is essential first to cultivate awareness and then to bring it to bear on the places where we are contracted and stuck. This allows us to taste the poisons of confused mind and transmute them.” (ibid, pp20-21).