Category Archives: Metaphysics
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.
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).
“Ibn al-‘Arabî and his followers refer constantly to the fact that all of creation is but the outward manifestation (zuhûr), theophany (tajallî), or effusion (fayd) of God. Every single thing in the whole of existence is a form (sûrah) or a locus of manifestation (mazhar, majlâ) within which one or more of the Attributes display themselves. Ultimately, each individual thing manifests its own reality (haqîqah), immutable entity (‘ayn thâbitah), meaning (ma’nâ), or quiddity (mâhiyyah). These four synonymous terms refer to the “nonexistent objects of God’s Knowledge” (al-ma’lûmât al-ma’dûmah), i.e., the things (ashyâ’) as they are known in divinis by God Himself before their creation.
According to some formulations, these immutable entities are the reflections or theophanies of the Divine Names; from another point of view each individual thing or entity is a Name of God, deriving all its reality and entification from Him, just as is takes from Him its existence when it enters the created world. From this second point of view the creatures are looked upon as particular Names of God (asmâ’ juz’iyyah), while the Names and Attributes mentioned in the Koran and in Tradition are universal Names of God (asmâ’ kulliyyah). As Names [they are] aspects of the Reality (al-haqq), although the Reality Itself remains forever transcendent in relation to Its theophanies.”
(From William C. Chittick, “The Chapter Headings of the Fusus,” 1984) http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articlespdf/fususchapterheadings.pdf
THE POLITICS OF THE SOUL – JOHN MILBANK – PAPER PRESENTED TO THE TEMENOS ACADEMY – 1st November 2012
This is my remembrance / reworking of some of the many ideas in Prof Milbank’s paper.
Prof. Milbank started by stating that the soul (psyche) is what makes us human, it is the human realm par excellence. He cited Aristotle’s ideas from De Anima, talking about the bodies of humans and animals being the nature of their souls, and yet the soul as transcending mere matter.
He then moved on (or back) to Plato, citing the ‘Gorgias‘ where Plato relates politics to the soul, saying that politics is to the soul as medicine is to the body, and that the politician’s function is to make people’s soul’s good just as the doctor’s function is to make people’s bodies well. Politics is therefore psychological, but it is about collective psychology and the collective good, so the politician does not correspond to the modern psychologist who treats individuals.
Plato warned against the possibility of a type of personal political narcissism in which the individual learns too well to govern himself and subdue his passions, just for its own sake. Plato compares this to a general who undertakes unnecessary battles for the sake of glory.
Plato prefers to look upwards and outwards, locating the individual soul as an active participant in the polis (city), with the political function helping to minister to the individual’s soul just as the individual enriches collective life. Psychology is therefore political.
Plato talked about the importance of ritual, myth and liturgy in connecting the polis to the Divine, and of the necessity of a religious community within the polis. In Plato’s case this was the class of religious philosophers, but Prof. Milbank said it could be the Sangha, the Ummah, or the Ecclesia depending on the culture. This religious community performs a public function and is neither secret nor elite.
Prof. Milbank provided an extensive critique of liberalism. He argued that 17th century liberalism was a reaction to the European religious wars of the preceding centuries. These had been wars over ‘the truth’, with different Christian sects fighting for their own versions. Liberalism sought to create a neutral metaphysical space as a basis for public life, replacing feudalism which had based itself on a particular view of the human soul in relation to God. But liberalism’s neutrality has degenerated into a materialist metaphysics and is no longer a neutral space, and my displacing the soul from public life it has displace humans. Liberalism is therefore anti-humanistic.
Within the modern and post-modern world the human has become debased or at least marginalised from public life. Classical economics, with doctrines such as diminishing marginal utility, does not take account of truly human phenomena pertaining to the soul such as sentiment and virtue (whose utility does not diminish as they increase). Instead it emphases the trivial functions of human base matter such as food, shelter and copulation. Materialist ideologies appeal to base human instincts such as hatred of the other (immigrants, classes, races, religions). On the other hand the individual is disempowered from political involvement through liberal doctrines such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which pretends that these occasionalist, individual consumption patterns have some aggregated force. Even when liberalism attempts transcendence it debases humans further in its search for a soulless ‘brave new world’ of augmented bio-technological humans. Milbank calls these two modes of liberalism disenchanted immanence and transcendence.
Milbank characterised as ‘optimistic’ the pre-liberal Christian idea that people are fundamentally good even though this goodness is obscured by sin. He characterised as ‘pessimistic’ the Hobbesian liberal idea that people are fundamentally bad and must be restrained if we are to avoid the natural state of the ‘war of all against all’. He noted that Rousseau painted a more optimistic liberal picture of isolated people being good in the state of nature. However, following Rousseau, liberalism tends to rely on a system of contracts to bring about good behaviour once people are placed together, whereas non-liberal traditions like anarchism and socialism point to natural existing societies as manifesting harmony without the need for contracts.
Milbank promotes an ‘enchanted transcendence’ which he believes is the message of William Blake and other Romantics. He contrasts this with the ‘enchanted immanence’ of Spinoza and Goethe which he suggests compromises the (Western) monotheistic tradition. However Milbank’s vision is Christo-centric.
Knowing what we and others truly want is an important part of self-knowledge (1). The phrase ‘know thyself’ was carved into the temple at Delphi. However, the humanism of the modern and post-modern world has led to a novel quest for self-knowledge that places the human being at the centre, not God. “The post-modern definition of the human subject is frail and shifting” (2). The Enlightenment project has collapsed under its own weight – there is no ‘internal arbiter’ that can support its weight. It is no longer an intellectual project; it has degenerated into consumerism and commercialisation. How do we know what we want without an internal arbiter? Modernity encourages us to want a plethora of things. “What do I want?” can be difficult to answer. There is little consensus among people about what they want and what is good for society. How far can the human subject stretch and bend before it breaks? We are now so far away from the natural order. Technology is a method to avoid experiencing the world and nature. For example, central heating allows to avoid experiencing cold in winter.
Self-knowing itself is like a mirror looking at a mirror – there needs to be an ‘other’. God created Adam AND Eve because Adamic perfection requires the other. Mutual need is the basis for self-knowledge. Writ large, this becomes human society. Following on from this, we see that the Sunnah cannot be solitary, it must be in Jumu’ah. The key to self-knowledge is mercy to others, based on knowledge of who they are and their needs.
The community in Jumu’ah points to another sort of humanism, which originated on the day of Alast when the entire constellation of human souls was gathered in the presence of Allah. The collective, humanistic prototype of Alast is contrasted with the individual humanistic prototype of Adamic perfection. In congregational prayer the Imam represents Adamic man while the Jumu’ah represents the re-creation of the congregation of Alast, all facing the Qibla, hearts at one, all equal and in harmony. The Jumu’ah is the primal model for conflict resolution. The Madinah mosque reshaped the hearts of the nomadic Arabs. Their hearts engaged with one another through “the miracle of Jumu’ah”.
How do we know what is best for other human beings? Through the ability to empathise and engage in “basic human intersubjectivity”. Empathy must be accomplished through close observation of external behaviour because Allah has given us privacy of thoughts. The Auliya’s ability to deduce inner states from external signs is reliable. Should we accept the consensus of what people prefer or move to a universal standard? Muslims defer to what Allah swt has determined is best for others. Muslim Sharia is appropriate for end times, the ‘turba magna’ or time of great upheaval. Every generation is worse, though this cycle of spiritual entropy is not a constant degeneration, it is more like a spiral staircase. In this degenerate age we see human beings “entranced by matter”.
Islam has a primordial quality. As the ‘deen ul fitra’ it helps to reconnect people with fitra, with the natural world. It is “divine spiritual technology” for these unnatural times. The Qur’an is telling us to engage with nature at a deep level, to intuit the source of nature. Islam activates the recipient core of man. The Qur’an says “these are signs for people who know”. Faith is a natural condition, it is not about assent to propositions. The rituals of Islam serve to reconnect us with fitra and nature. For example, halal slaughter helps to reconnect us with animals, to reestablish our primordial relationship with animals. There has to be divine consent for slaughtering animals – a “momentous act”. True halal animal husbandry contrasts with modern inhumane methods of industrial farming. The Hajj reconnects us with the primordial landscape: circles, plains, wells. Salat reconnects us with the natural cycles of the sun and moon. The Muslim belief in Jinni is also a part of primordial humanity – but there is no need to engage with the Jinni.
(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, contention 3. set 17: “You will only discover what you truly wish for when you wish for what is best for other human beings”.
(2) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012, Alqueria de Rosales, Spain