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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.

The role of conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy

a leaf

a leaf

The most common, practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is mentally deconstructing compound objects. This sounds technical but is relatively simple with practice. It is one of the most important Buddhist practices, but it is not exclusively Buddhist, in fact it is universally applicable because it is based on reason and sound philosophical principles.

Buddha famously taught ‘anātman’ (no-self). He taught that people are made up of five constituent parts or ‘aggregates’: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness. Form = body and the other four = mind. People are compound objects because they are composed of these multiple constituent parts. The ‘trick’ come when you search for a real self or essence among these parts — when you look for the +real+ person. Buddha said that if you systematically look for the real person within the body and mind you will not find it, and the implication is therefore that it doesn’t exist: that there is no real person, self or essence in the aggregates. You have mentally deconstructed the compound object that is the person and found ‘anātman’ (no-self). The same technique can be used on any compound object (i.e. anything which has parts), e.g. tables, chair, cars, sports teams, armies, forests, trees, leaves etc. In the passage below David Edwards deconstructs the England football (‘soccer’) team using Nagarjuna’s technique ( )

“What do we mean by ‘the England football team’? On the face of it the question is absurd – obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff. But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not – he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams – there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played. Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely ‘parts of the team’, not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 – if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same – but because something beyond the individuals involved, ‘the England team’, had failed to win. The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals – none of whom are the England team – they might suddenly transform into an actually existing ‘England team’. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team – Beckham, Rooney, Lampard – there is nothing left, no England team. In fact, of course, ‘the England team’ is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind. The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, ‘England’ – a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals – has ‘lost’ or ‘won’. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose – a label is just a label, a mental construct.

“It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent – the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called ‘trees’ – but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is ‘a tree’? In fact a ‘tree’ is just a label applied to a collection of parts – it is nowhere actually to be found, just like ‘a forest’ and just like an ‘England team’. Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an ‘army’, we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns – the term ‘army’ is just a label. If we look for a ‘book’, we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers – none of which is the car – but which we label ‘car’ and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks: “Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature.” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)”

The phrase ‘inherent existence’ means absolute or real existence, or existence ‘from the side of’ the object. Following Nagarjuna we can conclude that everything in the world is empty of inherent existence: if we go looking for the real object we will not find it. However, this doesn’t mean that objects are completely devoid of existence: they can have a relative or conventional existence. If you offer to give me a lift to the airport in your car I will say ‘thank you very much’ rather than deny your car exists. Even though there is no real car to be found in its parts, your ‘car’ functions as a workable, conventional label to describe a set of gears, wheels, seats etc which can convey me to the airport. The problem is that these conventional labels become sticky. We get so used to them, and they work so well, that we assume that something ‘out there’ in the world really corresponds to the label. In technical terms we ‘reify’ (or thingify) the label.

What is the relevance of this to Sufi Islam? The immediate relevance is that Nagarjuna’s technique is philosophically valid and demonstrates that compound objects have no essence or real existence, whether or not we are atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians or whatever, therefore we need to take it on board. Moreover, from the position of ‘tanzih’ (incomparability) Sufism accepts that nothing in the world is real, because ‘there is no real but the Real (Allah)’, and Allah is not in this world. Nagarjuna’s philosophy therefore helps us to understand Sufism, particularly the work of Ibn Arabi.

Once we have established no-self (anātman), or ’emptiness’ (shunyata) as Nagarjuna called it, then we can enjoy considering how things appear from their emptiness or lack of self. In so doing we move from the ‘profundity of the ultimate’ which Buddha expressed as “form is empty” to the ‘profundity of the conventional’ which he expressed as “emptiness is form”. In a similar way, once we have established Allah’s Oneness, we can enjoy considering how the myriad things appear.

What Remains Is God

“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.

The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:

“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.

“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.

“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.

“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.

“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.

“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”

(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from

In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.

In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.

“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Desire Me
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”

(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)