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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.


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.