Category Archives: Religion

Tell Me What I Want, What I Really Really Want

Sun and Moon

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

Art and Creativity in Islam

Tile from the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.

Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.

Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.

(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012

(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2

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.

Spiritual Constrictions

Based on the Taoist notion of Yin-Yang, I would like to introduce the idea of a ‘Yin’ constriction. (Please bear with me if you are already familiar with the basic concepts). Yin and Yang represent the two different aspects of the cosmos (similar to Jamal and Jalal in Islam). Yin and Yang have many different characteristics, which are all essentially relative, so I am not talking in absolutes here. In relation to each other, Yin is passive and Yang is active, Yin is yielding and Yang is penetrating, Yin is unstructured and Yang is structured, and Yin is soft and Yang is hard. As the popular Yin-Yang symbol suggests, cosmic balance is achieved when Yin and Yang are in balance with each other, and neither predominates overall.

Energy does not flow well if there is an unhealthy predominance of either Yin or Yang. In other words, an excess of either Yin or Yang is a constriction. A Yin constriction would occur if something is +too+ soft, +too+ unstructured, +too+ yielding. In spirituality (as with furniture) we require a combination of structure and unstructure, form and space, hardness and softness – otherwise we will end up falling on the floor. In this context the hardness means fixed points. Archimedes said “give me a fixed point and I can move the world”. If nothing is fixed them we have nothing to lever against to move through space, and we become immobile. In my opinion the ‘fixed points’ (principles) of religion should not just be criticised and dismissed as “precepts and dogma”, as then we will lose the opportunity to lever off them and gain spiritual momentum. This does not mean these principles have to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker: obviously an intelligent process of interpretation and jurisprudence is necessary.

Individual spiritual practitioners need different combinations of Yang and Yin, hard and soft, structure and unstructure, form and formlessness. A ‘one size fits all approach’ is not appropriate. The practitioners of the Yin side are just as capable of being dogmatic with their insistence on stripping away form as the Yang practitioners with their insistence on erecting it. Individuals should be free to choose the right balance for them.

Pushing religion at people is counter-productive – but so is pulling it away from them. Following the Buddhist example, it is important to develop equanimity (the middle way between attachment and aversion) to all phenomena including religion. The attitude of equanimity towards religion means understanding what it is, without prejudice, and making a conscious decision about how to relate to it. Certain modern, ‘spiritual’ schools express aversion to religion by focusing exclusively on the dangers of attachment to religion, ignoring the benefits of religion when practised appropriately.

Kashmiri Sufism and the Yogini Lal Ded

Yogini Lal Ded

The two founding figures of Kashmiri Sufism are Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani (1377 – 1440 CE) and Sheikh Ali Hamadani (1314 – 1384 CE). Both of them are said to have encountered a female Hindu yogini called Lal Ded (1320 – 1392 CE) who was in the habit of wandering around naked.

One story of Lal Ded mentions how she was teased by a number of children. A nearby cloth merchant scolded the children for their disrespect. Lal Ded asked the merchant for two lengths of cloth, equal in weight. That day as she walked around naked, she wore a piece of cloth over each shoulder and, whenever she was met with respect or scorn, she tied a knot in one or other cloth. In the evening, she brought the cloths back to the merchant, and asked him to weigh them again. Both cloths were equal in weight no matter how many knots were in each, showing that respect and scorn have no weight of their own.

It is said that, when Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani was born, initially he wouldn’t feed from his mother. After 3 days, Lal Ded arrived and suckled him herself. She said to the baby that, since he hadn’t been ashamed to be born, why should he be ashamed to drink from his mother’s breast?

According to another story, when Lal Ded encountered Sheikh Ali Hamadani she jumped into a tandoor (clay oven) and, when the Sheikh lifted the lid, Lal Ded came out dressed in flowers. When she was asked why she was dressed for the first time she replied saying “Today I saw a man for the first time”.

These stories are related to the differing attitudes of Kashmiris to the two Sheikhs: Sheikh Nooruddin is revered by both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris alike as a harmonizing force, the embodiment of Kashmiriyat. Sheikh Hamadani, revered by Kashmiri Muslims as a saint and true man (Insan Kamil), is resented by some Hindus as a Muslim supremacist.

The Kashmiri Sufi poet Shams Faqir paid tribute to Lal Ded (Lalla) in the following poem:

O you enlightened one,
Recognize the vital air and attain gnosis
To realize God:
Real worship is performed
In life’s workshop itself:
What the holy scriptures truly mean
By “the house of idols”;
Lalla achieved the fusion
Of her vital air and ether,
And thus realized God;
Sodabhai (on the other hand) got lachrymose,
What would he ask of the stone image?
Lalla dropped the pitcher of water
Inside the house of idols
And attained god-realization:
Intoxicated (as a mystic) she contrived
To bathe at the confluence of ‘sixteen rivers’,
And she built a ‘bridge’
Across the ocean of temporal existence;
She knocked off the Devil’s head
And gained self-recognition;
The ‘unskilled carpenter’,
Having built the palace in wilderness,
Learnt a lesson from Lalla!
She had to bear with the stone
Her mother-in-law kept concealed
In the plate of rice served to her
(She stood to gain from this austerity);
Lalla went to Nunda Rishi’s to teach him her doctrine –
What the rinda mystics call gnosis (irfaan);
She played ‘hide and seek’ with Shah Hamdan
And had a direct ‘encounter’ with God;
O, you learned Shams,
The sun does not have a shadow;
Lalla ascended to heaven like a cloud,
Realize God (as she did).

quoted from:
Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess
Edited by: Dr. S. S. Toshkhani
Proceedings of the National Seminar
Conducted by Kashmir Education, Culture and Science Society,
B-36, Pamposh Enclave, New Delhi – 110 048
November 12, 2000


Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It is rooted in both Hinduism and Buddhism, in texts such as the Charaka Samhita and the Medicine Buddha tantra.

Ayurveda is a psycho-physical system which treats mental and bodily states as a whole. In this regard it is similar to other holistic systems such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Ayurveda has much in common with TCM, but differs with regard to its founding cosmology: TCM is based on Taoist principles and uses its element structure (fire, earth, metal, water, wood). Ayurveda is based on Samkhya and Buddhist principles and uses a different element taxonomy (fire, earth, water, wind, ether). A useful book which explores these differences is ‘Tao and Dharma: Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda’ by Robert Svoboda and Arnie Lade.

Ayurveda treats people according to their elemental constitution. We are all composed of fire, water, earth, wind and ether, however there are three main categories of people according to their dominant elements: Pitha (fire), Vatha (air & ether) and Kapha (earth & water). See diagram below:

Ayurveda Humors

Pitha, Vatha and Kapha are known as the three doshas (humours). Ayurvedic treatment works by discovering the patient’s fundamental constitution (prakruti) and then diagnosing their disease state (vikruti), which is their divergence from their fundamental constitution. An Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner will use a range of techniques to discover and diagnosis, such as asking about family history, taking the pulses, and (in the case of Tibetan Ayurveda) urine analysis.

Once the diagnosis is complete, the doctor (vaidya) will prescribe treatments such as diet, exercises, herbs, massages, and meditations to bring the patient’s constitution back into harmony. The website offers resources to help people discover their own natural constitution, and provides basic dietary advice. It is run by Dr. Vasant Lad, whose Ayurvedic textbooks and manuals are some of the best available in the English language. An entertaining introduction to Ayurveda is provided by David Crow’s book ‘In Search of the Medicine Buddha’ which recounts his travels and studies with Ayurvedic practitioners in Nepal.

Varieties Of Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology is normally associated with Latin American Catholicism. However, it can be understood as a radical tendency existing within all the major world religions, which each contain currents emphasising the following themes:

* working with the poor
* challenging authority
* seeking liberation in this life as well as the next
* favouring activism over contemplation

Liberation theology focuses on the needs of the poor and, in their interest, is prepared to challenge political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. In Latin America, the prototype was Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484 – 1566), a Dominican priest who became Bishop of Chiapas (the area which in recent times gave birth to the Zapatista movement). Against the grain of Spanish colonialism, De Las Casas envisioned a just society where indigenous people would co-exist peacefully and freely with the colonists instead of as slaves.

In the 20th Century, an important figure was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, assasinated in 1980. Previously a conservative, Romero inclined to liberation theology after a Jesuit colleague was killed for creating self-reliant groups among poor peasants. When the government refused to investigate, Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assasinations and torture, until the death squads killed him too.

Within Hinduism, Gandhi pioneered liberation theology. He successfully challenged the colonial power, and he also challenged the orthodox Hindu authorities, particularly with regard to untouchability, which led to his assasination by a Hindu extremist in 1948. Gandhi practiced karma yoga, the path to liberation through work, which in his case meant social and political activism. Gandhi combined the traditional Indian ideal of non-violence (ahimsa) with the Christian ideal of active love, to produce satyagraha, the theory and practice of non-violent direct action. Later, satyagraha was successfully adopted by Martin Luther King, another major figure in the history of liberation theology.

Sheikh Amadou Bamba of Senegal (1853 – 1927) offers a great example of liberation theology in an Islamic context. Founder of the Mouride Sufi movement, Bamba led a non-violent struggle against French colonialism. The French exiled and tortured him, which only strengthened his movement. Notably, Bamba emphasised work as a spiritual practice, and his followers are renowned for their industriousness, being involved in many economic enterprises throughout Senegal, such as groundnut cultivation.

In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement uses traditional Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Wheel of Life to improve worldly conditions such as sanitation and food cultivation.

Understanding God’s Oneness

The key insight of monotheism is God’s Oneness and unique fitness to be worshipped. In Islam, the understanding of God’s Oneness or Unity is known as Tawhid. Statements of God’s Oneness typically emphasise transcendence – the fact that God cannot be compared to anything within creation. For example, Sura Al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Qur’an) says:

Say, He is God, the One,
God the Eternal,
He neither begets nor is begotten
And there is none like him.

From the point of view of Tawhid it is not advisable to represent God in ways that associate or mix him with created entities. Monotheists object to the visual depiction or representation of God because any picture or statue of God necessarily contradicts God’s Oneness, as many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue necessarily associates or mixes God with created entities such as human or animal forms, or even subtle objects like light. On the other hand, verbal descriptions (i.e. names such as ‘Merciful’. ‘Powerful’, ‘Just’, ‘Wrathful’ etc.) do not necessarily exclude other divine characteristics and therefore do not contradict God’s Oneness, nor do they necessarily associate God with created entities. In the Torah the commandment against idolatry (arabic: shirk) reads:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).

The key words here are ‘make’ and ‘form’, meaning that the commandment relates to pictures and statues, because words are not ‘made forms’, unless we really stretch this phrase. However, the dangers of idolatry do not entirely disappear simply by prohibiting the making of forms of God. When we use words to describe God’s qualities there is the danger that we may overemphasise some at the expense of others, to the point where we even fragment God in our own minds. Perhaps this disease can affect those who greatly overemphasise God’s Wrath because, as a hadith qudsi tells us, the inscription on God’s throne reads: “My Mercy precedes My Wrath”. To deny God’s Mercy is a serious misunderstanding, warped and partial.

Although many names for God are valid, it is preferable not to use names that might associate God with created things. Moreover, certain names belong to God and must be not be used for any other being or entity, for example “Possessing Supreme Power” or “The Lord Who Looks Down In Mercy”. It is not appropriate to use these names to describe or worship any other being. My own spiritual path has led me from a form of polytheistic worship in which I used to mistakenly associate other beings with those names, to a position (Islam) in which I now believe these names just apply to God. However, I believe that I received some blessings even in the earlier stage, because these names always belong to God and, even if we think we are worshipping other beings through these names, we are really worshipping God. Ascribing these names to other beings than God is a form of idolatry and is seriously not recommended, though God in His Mercy may choose to accept the prayers of someone who uses these names in ignorance. However, once this person realises that God is One, and that these names belong to God, he or she must certainly stop worshipping any other being through them.

Some Hindus and Buddhists practise a mystical form of monotheism because they realise that all the apparent manifestations of God are in fact illusions, and that there is only one God. Annemarie Schimmel describes mystical monotheism as

“the secondary monotheism in which, starting from polytheistic tendencies, at last theological speculation comes to understand that one single reality underlies all the varied manifestations which are called deities, and reaches the conclusion to explain the manifold gods and goddesses only as functions of the One Divine Being; this type of monotheism may also result from mystic experiences in which the seeker finds himself united with the profoundest depths of the Divine, and regards, thus, the deities only as emanations from the Most high indivisible Essence; or in prayer man chooses one out of the great number of gods and turns towards him in faith and trust as if only he be effective; or different deities become united for purposes of cult and rite or as a result of the political unification of two peoples with different objects of worship. But this kind of monotheism which is characteristic of the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc., is always deductive; it does not make a clear cut between the One and the many, and admits the existence of deities besides the Highest Being.” Gabriel’s Wing, p87

Schimmel contrasts this mystical, deductive monotheism with prophetic monotheism:

“It was prophetical experience in Israel (plus Christianity) and in Islam which realized the overwhelming uniqueness of God besides whom all those whom man might have adored until then were nothings and which cannot tolerate the worship of any other than that God who reveals Himself in the individual life and in history. Mystic monotheism may include all forms of reality because there is nothing existent but God and everything is a part of His life; but prophetic monotheism is always exclusive . . . . that is why the negation in the beginning of the Muslim creed la ilaha illa Allah—there is no god but God.”  (ibid)

The key characteristic of prophetic monotheism is that it negates deities: “there is no deity but the Deity”. Mystical monotheism proposes a unification of deities but does not negate deities, because they are still regarded as valid objects of worship. For this reason many adherents of prophetic monotheism believe that mystical monotheism is an inadequate understanding of the Deity, whose very existence negates deities.

Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities. One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, it not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a completely new entity which may be utterly different from both thesis and antithesis, but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it utterly negates both thesis and antithesis.

Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that there is no god but God. In a sense, God is the inevitable conclusion or ‘synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.

God is One in a similar way that the universe is one. The universe is the totality of all physical phenomena; God is the Totality, the Whole. God’s Wholeness is the source of all holiness and well-being. God is the Absolute in whom all opposites and contradictions are resolved. God is One because there is no other. God is One because no truth contradicts any other truth – they are all aspects of the Truth. By the same token, no goodness or virtue contradicts any other aspect of goodness or virtue, they are all aspects of the greatest Good. God is the Unity to whom the apparent multiplicity points. Sufis seek the signs of God within multiplicity: everything has a side facing toward God; everything points to the One God, and we delight in that recognition. God is Love.

The goal of Sufism is to know God in this life. All Muslims believe that we will meet God in our future life, especially on the Day of Judgement. However Sufis believe that it is possible to meet and know God in this life. My Sufi friend Abdullah advised me to “make friends with God before you die”. The Sufi saints (awliya) are the friends of God, who have achieved intimacy with God in this life.

Reflections On Satyagraha

Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.

At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.

Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out  as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.

Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.

Purification Through Patience – part 2

This is my adaptation of a teaching I received in 2006.

We need to be fully accepting of everything, welcoming it wholeheartedly without wanting it to be otherwise. For example, with respect to others, think how we can practice not just an acceptance but an allowance. We need to allow people to think, say and do things a little bit more than we presently allow them to. We should to allow people to have their own way. It’s difficult because we always want to have our way, to do things our own way, so it’s quite a step just once in a day to allow someone else to do what they want, because what we feel is “it’s still not right, there will be some harm here, because I know what’s best. The best results always come if we follow my way.”

So, in the same way I asked the question what does “it’s wrong” mean, now I’ll ask what does “it’s best” mean? Best for what, best for whom, best for when, best for where? We do what we want to do and another person becomes really unhappy. So is it best for them? No. Of course not, because they are unhappy. How can you say it’s best for them, they’re unhappy! “Well the long term result . . . in the long term they’ll be happy.” Ridiculous! What does it matter anyway if it is ‘best’? If we’re going to say something is ‘best’, ‘best’ allow someone to have their own way, to do things that they think are best, unless there is genuinely some harmful result.

If we’re really intent on purifying our mind so that we experience all good results, then just allow someone to do what they want. Allow someone to speak. We don’t even do that, not properly. We can’t because we want to speak. After a short while we’ve had enough of listening. We don’t fully listen anyway, because all these thoughts are coming up about what we want to say, aren’t they? Then there comes a time when we don’t allow that person to speak, we speak ourselves. Sometimes we speak over people: they’re speaking but, because we’re not allowing that, we just speak more loudly, at the same time. Actually in today’s society that’s quite normal, often you hear three or four people all speaking together. Who’s listening? No one, they’re all just talking, they’re not allowing anyone to speak and then listen to what they’re saying.

I would say even if someone’s being horrible to us, they’re saying horrible things, allow them to. Think carefully about the results you would really like to see, even the results for that other person. Just allow them to speak in that way. Perhaps they are criticising you for something, perhaps even for something you haven’t done. Allow them to, and then afterwards, if you are able, then apologise. It hurts, but you are trying. You are allowing that person to say what they want to say — so purifying. It depends what you want. I would say that in that case it is immensely purifying, because if you wanted to, you could do something about it: you could just tell them to shut up. But what good results? You keep telling someone to shut up, such intolerance, not accepting, not allowing that person to say what they want to say, not allowing any bad feelings to remain in our mind, what will happen? There’s no purification taking place whatsoever, because of our habitual negative, deluded response. What do you want? “I want to purify my mind.” OK, this is how you do it.

When we share similar wishes and another person wants just what we want, we should allow them to be “the first to get the best” as Geshe Chekhawa calls it. It’s so far-reaching this advice, allowing others to be the first to get the best. If together we’ve accomplished some great result, what we should want is for other people to receive praise. If someone else comes along and praises us we should say “no, it’s this person, they worked so so hard.” Or perhaps they didn’t, and that person’s praised, and we’re thinking “but . . !” Just allow it to happen, don’t do anything, because we could.

Think about all the things that happen in a day and what actually you just allow to take place without some kind of contribution, changing causes and conditions so that you can get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. If you can start patiently allowing, then you will find that your perception and experience of everything begins to change, through the purification that begins to take place. If you are genuinely taking these steps, the purification is strong, it’s deep and it can take place quickly. Please do not underestimate this practice as a purification practice. You will find that your perception and experience of suffering, of what you would normally consider to be going wrong, it changes. Really. Your perception and experience of people, situations you find yourself in, definitely they begin to change. Why are they changing? Because of the purification that is taking place. Over weeks, months, years. So many changes will take place in your mind, especially with respect to adversity. Our usual fear of adversity, of sufferings, of difficulties will diminish until finally it will cease. We won’t be afraid of what may happen, and when something does happen that most people would think would be terrible we don’t suffer, we don’t suffer anywhere near as much, we don’t feel ourselves to be in as much danger. Many of our fears and sufferings begin to disappear, oddly, because rather than working with the usual causes and conditions, we’ve stopped. Rather than being so concerned, looking outside for causes of things going wrong, for example, causes of our suffering and so forth, we stop. And then whatever happens we accept, we allow to happen, and the fears, sufferings, dangers begin to go.

Of course we need a lot of courage to engage in such a practice. It’s not easy, but if we rely wholeheartedly upon our Spiritual Guide [Al-Hadi], He will give us that courage. We need to rely upon our Spiritual Guide if we are going to engage in this practice, let alone achieve success in it. He will give us everything we need, He will help us to accomplish such great results with this practice, but we need to rely upon Him wholeheartedly. Our Spiritual Guide provides what is best for us. We don’t really know what’s best for us, our Spiritual Guide knows what’s best for us, so He provides just what we need. Our Spiritual Guide provides us with conditions that will bring out the best in us, conditions that will function to draw out the good potentialities that we have in our mind, conditions whereby we are able to purify our mind. In dependence upon our Spiritual Guide’s blessings our mind is transformed. We do not fully understand how our mind is purified and transformed through receiving blessings, but sometimes we feel that purification, that transformation taking place, such is the power of the blessings.

We ask our Spiritual Guide to help us in many ways to do many things. In this context we are asking our Spiritual Guide to help us to purify our mind. And then let Him help, allow Him to help, to do what He knows is best. So previously I was saying “our Spiritual Guide knows what’s best”; of course, with His omniscient wisdom He knows what’s best and will do what’s best out of His compassion and supreme skill. We need to give Him that opportunity: “You know what’s best, please help me to purify my mind.” We want opportunities don’t we? The more opportunities the better. If we really do wish to purify our mind and there is an opportunity to do so, surely we’re going to take it, aren’t we? Further, we’re going to look for opportunities aren’t we? “Please give me as many opportunities as possible.” Our Spiritual Guide will always provide us with opportunities. If we want, He will give us one opportunity after another. Recognise them, ask for those opportunities, look for them. He’s providing us with opportunities, so where’s the next one? “Ah ha – here’s another one. My Spiritual Guide has given me another opportunity. It’s just what I want. An opportunity to purify my mind. How wonderful. Thank you.” And we take that opportunity. We wouldn’t want to miss it. We take it. Believing also that He will help us to take that opportunity. He will help us during that time to purify our mind, as long as we are turning to Him, we must keep turning to Him for help. “Please help me, I want to purify my mind. Help me. Keep helping me. There’s this great opportunity. It’s a hard one this one. Help me.” And He always will, of course.

He knows what potentialities we have, He knows the obstructions in our mind, He knows those potentialities that are obstructing the ripening of our soul, He knows what’s getting in the way. If we ask, He will help us to remove those obstructions so that there is no longer anything obstructing our progress towards complete purity. If we believe that He knows what’s best, then we can appreciate whatever comes our way as an opportunity to purify our mind of such obstructions, especially when things are difficult, especially when we experience some discomfort or pain, physical or mental. Actually there are so many opportunities, if we check carefully. There are so many opportunities in just one day to purify our mind. Imagine taking every one of those opportunities! If we really take every opportunity, believing that we are being given those opportunities, how long would it take to purify our mind? Not long.

Many saints in the past have purified their mind swiftly especially in dependence upon a profound reliance on their Spiritual Guide. At the end of their life? No way. The end of their impure life took place within just a few years through purifying their mind completely. There are many, many examples, hundreds, thousands of examples of saints who purified their mind so quickly. They purified their mind completely by taking one opportunity after another that they felt in their heart was given to them by their Spiritual Guide, in one day, again and again and again. We can do that. We can be purifying our mind so much right now every day. Getting closer, and closer, and closer. The saints have done it in the past. Different circumstances, different times, different conditions and so forth, but essentially that purification can take place and in dependence upon that deep reliance on the Spiritual Guide, we can transform into pure beings.