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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.

Ayurveda and Geshe Kelsang

Elements and Physiological Types

Ayurveda uses the elements as its basis for understanding human physiology. Ailments and diseases are understood as imbalances in our basic elemental constitution. Ayurvedic doctors will first try to discover your basic constitution (Sanskrit: prakruti) and then diagnose its disease condition (vikruti)

Because Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it uses the Buddhist and Hindu elemental structure, i.e. wind, fire, earth and water. It groups the elements together to produce the three principal physiological types (Tri-Dosha):

  • Vata (wind)
  • Pitta (fire)
  • Kapha (water and earth)

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso refers to the four elements and the Ayurvedic disease aetiology in his book ‘Heart of Wisdom’ when he says: “Internal hindrances arise from causes within our body and mind. Like the external environment our body can be considered as composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, which, broadly, have the nature of solidity, liquidity, heat, and movement, respectively. If these four internal elements are in a state of harmonious equilibrium our body is healthy. When they are out of balance our body experiences a variety of problems and diseases. It has been said that our body is like a basket containing four poisonous snakes that constantly wrestle with each other. In that situation, if one snake becomes stronger than the rest it will overcome and kill the others. In a similar way, the very delicate balance between the four internal elements that is necessary for our body to be healthy can easily be disturbed by one element becoming dominant. Because of this the internal elements of our body are a source of recurring hindrances in the form of ill health, disease, and pain.” (from the chapter ‘A Method To Overcome Hindrances’).

Ayurveda uses a variety of remedies to rebalance the elements. Many of them work via the sense of taste, because taste is method for absorbing elements from the external world. Ayurveda divides tastes into six categories: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (hot), bitter, astringent. These tastes are produced by combinations of the elements in our food (e.g. pungent = fire + air, astringent = air + earth). The full set is listed here

Geshe-la mentions the construction of tastes in ‘Great Treasury of Merit’ when he comments on the line from ‘Lama Chopa’:

Nutritious food and drink endowed with a hundred flavours
And delicacies of gods and men heaped as high as a mountain;

“The text says that we offer food ‘with a hundred flavours’, which literally means a hundred and eight flavours. There are six principal flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, hot, and salty; and each of these can be produced in combinations such as sweet-sweet and sweet-sour, making a total of thirty-six flavours. Each of these flavours can be strong, middling, or weak — making a total of a hundred and eight different flavours.”

The Food Guidelines on provide a breakdown of which foods offer a balanced diet for each physiological type. For example, the foods recommended for Pitta types emphasise bitter, astringent and sweet tastes, i.e. those tastes which do not include the fire element.

Why I Stopped Practising Buddhism

One of the main reasons I stopped practising Buddhism and embraced Islam instead is because I could no longer bear to be caught up in the dispute between the Dalai Lama and my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso over the practice of Dorje Shugden, which relates to questions concerning the purity and preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. The following paragraphs explains the dispute in the context of my own, limited understanding of Tibetan religious history.

“Dalai” means “Ocean” in Mongolian, while “Lama” is the Tibetan for “Guru.” Putting the terms together, the best translation is “Ocean Teacher” meaning a teacher who is spiritually as great as the ocean. The honorific title ‘Dalai Lama’ was offered to the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588) by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan in 1578. The title was later applied retrospectively to Sonam’s two previous incarnations, Gendun Drup (1391–1474) and Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542). Gendun Drup was a disciple of the great scholar-saint and religious reformer Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) who founded the Gelugpa (yellow hat) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Gendun Drup wrote a special praise to Tsongkhapa called Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain (Shargangrima in Tibetan). In this song he says to Tsongkhapa:

For the fortunate people of Tibet, the Land of the Snows, your kindness, O Protector, is inconceivable.
Especially for myself, Gendun Drup . . .
The fact that my mind is directed towards Dharma
Is due solely to your kindness,
Although I cannot repay your kindness, O Protector,
I pray that, with my mind free from the influence of attachment and hatred,
I may strive to maintain your doctrine and cause it to flourish
Without ever giving up this endeavour.

Many of Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment and, as well as the Dalai Lama, the other major reincarnation lineage to come from the Gelugpa tradition is the Panchen Lama. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas often took turns to rule Tibet, with the Panchen Lama acting as regent if the Dalai Lama had not yet reached maturity. The Gelugpas had achieved political supremacy in Tibet in 1642, when the 5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682) was installed as ruler by the Mongols. The 5th Dalai Lama, who is known as the Great Fifth, secured his rule by overcoming opposition from the rival Kagyu and Jonang Buddhist schools, and also by suppressing opposition within the Gelugpa tradition itself, focussed around the orthodox Lama Dragpa Gyaltsen (1619-1656).

The 5th Dalai Lama and Dragpa Gyaltsen were both disciples of the fourth Panchen Lama Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570–1662) at Drepung Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities established by Tsongkhapa and his disciples near Lhasa. Although they had been friends, Dragpa Gyaltsen started to rival the 5th Dalai Lama, and became the focus for Gelugpas opposed to the 5th Dalai Lama’s practice of Dzogchen, a non-Gelugpa practice which the 5th Dalai Lama had adopted from the Nyingma (red hat) tradition and Bön. The conservative Gelugpa element believed the 5th Dalai Lama was corrupting the purity of the tradition by adopting Dzogchen, which had never been taught by Tsongkhapa. Dragpa Gyaltsen was killed at the age of 37, and his spirit started to haunt the 5th Dalai Lama, whose attempts at exorcism failed. Meanwhile, the conservative Gelugpas started to believe that Dragpa Gyaltsen had been an incarnation of the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, and propitiated his spirit as the Protector of Tsongkhapa’s tradition, calling him Dorje Shugden (Possessor of Supreme Power). Eventually the 5th Dalai Lama made peace with Dorje Shugden.

By the 19th century, Tibetan Buddhism had started to decline. Two reform movements arose: the Ri-me (eclectic) movement, and a Gelugpa reform movement. The Ri-me movement was initiated by the Lama Jamgon Kongtrul, partly as a response to the sectarianism from which he had personally suffered. Born into a Bön family he was a very able boy and, when he visited the town of Derge to visit his father, the local Nyingma Lamas were so impressed by his abilities that he was invited to join their monastery, where he received ordination. He enjoyed studying at the Nyingma monastery but, because of his talents, he was ‘requisitioned’ by the more powerful regional Kagyu monastery, where he was recognised as an incarnate Lama. Later, Jamgon Kongtrul began to “feel regret with what he considered a lapse with his connection with the Nyingma lineage, and he attributed this as the cause for later ill health and various mental and karmic obstacles”. Gradually, as he worked through these problems “Kongtrul developed a profound faith in all aspects and lineages of the Buddha’s teaching . . . The symptoms of the inner conflict caused by the sectarian and political problems seem to have been resolved by the time Kongtrul was forty years old, when he went on to establish the retreat center and continue his prolific writings. The program of the retreat included meditations from all of the practice lineages, some of which were disappearing within the overbearing monastic institutions of the four main schools . . . The non-sectarian (Ri-me) movement flourished in large part due to his contributions.” (quotes from ‘Creation and Completion’ by Sarah Harding).

Despite recognising the value of all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the Ri-me movement prefers to categorise practices according the Nyingma framework devised by Longchen (1308-63) rather than the Gelugpa framework devised by Tsongkhapa. This framework accords Dzogchen the highest position in the hierarchy of practices, so “although the Ri-me drew their leaders from the Sakyas, Kagyus, Nyingmas, and even the Böns, the movement was primarily a triumph of Nyingma eclecticism, in that it emphasised Dzogchen as an element in all true Buddhist practice and supported the idea that all interpretations of Buddhist doctrine are equally valid, with no one version in a position of orthodoxy above any others.” (from ‘Buddhist Religions’, 5th edition, by Robinson / Johnson / Thanissaro). Therefore Ri-me’s pluralistic tendency, rejoicing in the good qualities of all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, may be outweighed by its assimilationist tendency, seeking to integrate and unify the traditions under a common framework with Dzogchen at its centre.

The alternative reform movement was the revitalisation of the Gelugpa tradition by Phabongkha (1878-1941), who re-emphasised meditative practice because the Gelugpas had become somewhat lost in scholasticism. Like Tsongkhapa before him, Phabongkha emphasised the meditative practices (Lamrim & Lojong) brought to Tibet by the Indian Lama Atisha (980-1054), whose followers were known as Kadampas (the Gelugpa tradition is also known as the New Kadampa Tradition). Phabongkha also revived the practice of Dorje Shugden, and there was some hostility between his followers and the Ri-me movement in Eastern Tibet.

The current (14th) Dalai Lama (1935- ) initially studied and practised within the Gelugpa tradition under Phabongkha’s principle disciple Trijang Rinpoche (1900-1981) and engaged in the practice of Dorje Shugden. He later received teachings and initiations from Ri-me teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse (1910-1991) and started to practice and teach Dzogchen. He stopped practising Dorje Shugden and has subsequently banned and suppressed this practice, which greatly upsets my former Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931- ), who was also a disciple of Trijang Rinpoche. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso organises protests against the Dalai Lama when he visits Western countries, and has recently been involved with the publication of a book attacking the Dalai Lama entitled ‘A Great Deception’. The Dalai Lama’s biological brother Gyalo Thondup has been strongly linked to the suppression of Dorje Shugden practice.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about this magical mess any more, because Allah is my Guide and Protector. My Kashmiri Sufi Sheikh Ghulam Rasool has been very kind in helping me to escape when my spiritual practice was at a dead end. Some others are not so fortunate in finding a way forward. My new resolution is tawhid. 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, is not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a new entity, different from both thesis and antithesis but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it negates both thesis and antithesis. As I wrote elsewhere:

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.