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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.

Conceptions of the Ultimate

At the heart of the Samkhya school of Hinduism are the concepts of purusha and prakriti. Purusha is a passive, inert, witnessing consciousness. Prakriti is the active principle, the essence of subtle matter. According to the Samkhya school, the world we normally see -– called samsara or maya -– develops because purusha becomes fascinated with prakriti, which begins to divide and multiply. Soon purusha loses itself in the infinite variety of prakriti, which has now become the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth in all their manifestations.

The Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci writes:

“Having assumed all the characteristics of the prakriti . . . maya spreads out over all that exists, while God, the Absolute Soul, one or multiple – when imprisoned in the illusory individuality of maya – remains inert, taking colour, like a crystal, from the reflections projected on to him by the passions with which maya is stained.” (from ‘The Theory and Practice of the Mandala’, p55).

According to some Hindu yogis, the path to liberation can be described in terms of achieving a ‘oneness’ or unity with everything. Some yogis see maya as the active force of the Creator God, so that the phenomenal world, in all its variety, has a divine quality. Through identifying this divine quality both within himself and in the world, a divine ‘oneness’ is revealed within diversity, and the yogi becomes ‘one with everything’.

The Madhyamaka school of Buddhism puts ‘emptiness’ (shunyata) in a similar position to the Creator, because samsara is seen as an illusory manifestation of emptiness. For this reason emptiness is sometimes described as a ‘mother’. In ‘Song of Emptiness’ the Tibetan scholar Changkya Rölpai Dorje says:

“These various apprehended [objects] and apprehenders [minds] are the manifestation of the mother. This birth, death, and these changing [things] are the falsities of the mother.” (quoted, ‘Heart of Wisdom’, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

However, although all phenomena are said to be of ‘one taste’ in emptiness, the Madhaymaka school does not go so far as to say that emptiness is a ‘oneness’ pervading everything, because emptiness is not an entity in its own right and in emptiness there is no ‘number’, such as one or many. In the ‘Heart Sutra’, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says:

“Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics [such as number] . . . They have no decrease and no increase.” (quoted, Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso)

To say that all phenomena are empty does not mean that all phenomena are one entity, because emptiness is not separate from the diversity of phenomena. Emptiness does not possess positive attributes of its own such as oneness or manyness, it is a mere negation of the mistaken inherent existence of phenomena. Emptiness is, strictly speaking, a negative conception of the Ultimate.

In Hinduism there are both negative and positive conceptions of God, most prominently in the Advaita-Vedanta school (which owes a historical debt to the Madhyamaka). In Advaita-Vedanta God can be understood either as nirguna (without attributes) or saguna (with attributes). The negative way of understanding God is considered more profound. Negative ways of understanding God (viae negativae) can also be found in Christianity in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and in Judaism in the work of Maimonides in his ‘Guide for the Perplexed’.

Within Buddhism the strongest assertion of the positive attributes of the Ultimate is found in the doctrine of Tathagathagarbha or (Buddha nature). The teachings on Buddha nature are sometimes considered to be part of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma along with the teachings on Mind-only (Chittamatra). The First Turning is preserved in the scriptures of the Theravada Buddhist school and includes the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The Second Turning is the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, which are the core teachings of the Madhyamaka school.

Depending on whether a weak or strong interpretation of the Buddha nature teachings is employed, all sentient beings are either said to have the seed of Buddhahood within them (weak), or to be in some sense already enlightened (strong). In his book ‘Mahayana Buddhism’ Paul Williams says that the

“tension between innate, inherent enlightenment and becoming enlightened is a tension at the root of the Tathagathagarbha tradition” (p97).

Buddha nature is present in all living beings. While it is accompanied by defilements we remain ordinary, but when the defilements are removed the Buddha nature becomes the Dharmakaya (Buddha’s enlightened mind). A good example of positive qualities being attributed to the Dharmakaya and the Buddha nature can be found in the ‘Srimala Sutra’, where the Dharmakaya is described as:

“beginningless, uncreate, unborn, undying, free from death; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal; intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement store; and accompanied by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable.”

Paul Williams also says that “the Tathagathagarbha is said to be a substratum which is permanent, steadfast, and eternal.” (ibid p101). This is a strongly positive view of the ultimate, so it is clear that there is considerable scope for disagreement between those who believe that the emptiness teachings are definitive versus those who believe in the Buddha nature teachings.

As we might expect, positive and negative conceptions of the ultimate have been a major point of debate within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is possible to reconcile these views using a quote by the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa, who said:

“Everything is the nature of the mind. Mind is the nature of emptiness.”

When practicing the first part we can concentrate on positive qualities such as the radiant, brightly shining nature of the mind, when practicing the second we can emphasise the negative, empty qualities of the mind.

In the ‘Anguttara Nikâya’ I.8-ll the Buddha says:

“This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the citta [mind]. This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is freed from defilements which arrive. This is understood as it really is by those noble disciples who are spiritually educated, so they do develop the citta“.

Peter Harvey comments:

“A key idea is that whatever defilements or stains there may or may not be on the ‘surface’ of the mind, even if they have deep roots, these do not penetrate to the inner depths of the mind. The mind has a ‘radiance’ whether or not it is ‘corrupt’ and ‘defiled’ or ‘clarified’ and ‘freed from defilements’. Even the corrupt person destined for hell thus has a ‘brightly shining’ citta ‘covered’, so to speak, by the defilements which obscure it. The defilements ‘arrive’, like people arriving at a guest house . . . “Beneath the surface level of mind, which has such things as anger, pride, jealousy, worry etc., there is something ‘brightly shining’ – intrinsically stainless, a basic goodness, perhaps an ‘original sinlessness’. However terrible a person’s actions, which may lead to weighty karmic consequences over a long period, the seed of perfection is never destroyed, only more deeply covered over. Whatever heritage of previously developed character faults a child brings into this world, the seed of perfection is there to be developed. This expresses a very positive view of human nature and, indeed, of the nature of all beings.”