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Reflection on God’s name ‘Al Azim’

azim-crack-683x1024

Review of the chapter ‘Al Azim’ from the book ‘The 99 Names of God’ by Daniel Thomas Dyer

I find myself drawn to Allah’s names of majesty and wrath such as al-Azim, the Tremendous. Daniel chooses strong words and images on these pages: earthquakes, sinews, mountains, cracks and dust.

Through the cracks wrought by earthquake and mountain-splitting, there is always the leavening of light, which Daniel invokes using a Leonard Cohen quote. Daniel could have gone back to Rumi for the original but it is in the spirit of this wonderful book to embrace variety and diversity wherever possible.

Just as light brightens cracks, the book reminds us how the awe expressed in the Prophet Muhammad’s earnest prayer of submission was softened, by his allowing his beloved grandsons Hassan and Hussein to climb and play on him as he prayed.

Meditating on Daniel’s picture of a wall destroyed by an earthquake to reveal the name ‘Allah’ behind, I recall the Hadith Qudsi “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake” and I dig out these words of Rumi: “Wherever there is a ruin there is hope for a treasure – why do you not seek the treasure of God in the wasted heart?”

I recall the powerful idea of being broken (shikast) as an initiatory stage on the path to God, which seems closely related to al-Azim. Daniel echoes the question from the Qur’an: Who could give life to bones that have crumbled to dust? It will be inspiring for readers to contemplate the answer.

I think that The 99 Names of God by Chickpea Press is a tremendous achievement, and I hope it will bring light and hope to many people.

The Ninety-Nine Names of God

Interior wall and dome ceiling of the Sheikh-Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran

Interior wall and dome ceiling of the Sheikh-Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran

The Muslim theologian Abdal Hakim Murad says “Sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine beauty and grace – and that’s preponderant – sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine rigour and wrath. And this is one of the big differences between our (Muslim) understanding and, say, the Christian understanding. The Christians say “God is love” and immediately they can’t explain the meningitis virus or whatever, and this is a major source of loss of faith amongst them.

“Now we say that Allah is indeed Rahman [intensely merciful] and Rahim [most compassionate] and He is Al-Wadood [the loving], and He has those beautiful attributes and they do predominate and at the end, when good and evil are finally differentiate, we will see that the Rahma [divine mercy] predominates over the divine wrath. Nonetheless we also believe that Allah is Al-Jabbar (The Overwhelming), Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger), The Judge (Al-Hakkam), and that’s one reason why Islamic theology hangs together so well when confronted by the paradoxes of evil and suffering in the world. We believe that the world is the endlessly subtle interaction of ninety-nine names that includes names of rigour as well as names of beauty.”

“. . . which also means that the perfected human being, the Adamic human being, sometimes (and predominantly) manifests mercy and forgiveness, but sometimes can manifest rigour as well, which is why the Prophet (saws) forgave the people of Mecca, but he also went to war against them. Because he is the true Khalifa, he has those names and he also has within himself something of the Rahma, and he has within himself something, also, of Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger).

“The true representative of Allah (swt) on earth is not just the woolly-minded, kind, benevolent saint who always turns the other cheek, but sometimes has to uphold Allah’s rule in the world through those names as well, and that’s part of the completeness of Sayyedina Muhammad (saws), that in him we can see manifested (so far as is possible for created mortal human beings) all of the names of Allah, not just the names of beauty and the names of mercy.”

The role of conceptuality and reason on the spiritual path

Lightning

Lightning

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).

Impractical Spirituality

The spirit is impractical. The spirit is of no use. It cannot be used. Any attempt to use the spirit contravenes its nature. Impractical spirituality is based on this recognition. Rather than try to use the spirit, impractical spirituality enjoys the beauty of spirit for its own sake.

To directly seek practical applications of the spirit such as ‘spirituality in the workplace’ is to miss the point. Sure, we can appreciate the beauty of the spirit anywhere: in the home, workplace, in the car, or on a plane — but attempts to put the spirit to use in those places are like trying to form water into a chair.

Better to let the spirit use us, because the spirit is not ours to command. In Arabic the path of the spirit (ruh) is called Ruhaniyat.

“They ask thee [Mohammed] concerning the spirit. Say: “the spirit comes by command of God. Only a little knowledge of it is given to you, (O men!)” Qur’an 17:85

At What Point Does the Gap Close Between God and Man?

The concepts of Divine transcendence and immanence describe humanity’s relationship with God. They can be simplified to separation and proximity.

Listen to this reed as it is grieving; it tells the story of our separations.
“Since I was severed from the bed of reeds, in my cry men and women have lamented.
I need the breast that’s torn to shreds by parting to give expression to the pain of heartache.
Whoever finds himself left far from home looks forward to the day of his reunion.”

These are the opening lines of Rumi’s spiritual epic, the Masnavi (trans. Williams 2006). Indeed, separation / transcendence is the starting point for much theology. Yet Divine proximity / immanence is also key. In the Quran, God says of His relationship with man:

“We are nearer to him than his jugular vein” (Q50:16).

How can God be both separate from and close to us, transcendent and immanent? The relationship or distance between a person and God is not fixed. In a Hadith Qudsi, God says:

“Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you.
Walk towards me, I will run towards you.”

If we take this to its extreme, at what point does the gap close between God and man? If we continue taking steps towards God and God continues running towards us, do we ever meet or, as Rumi suggests, achieve ‘reunion’? Some Sufi mystics such as Bayazid Bistami and Mansur Al-Hallaj have achieved states of union with the Divine, and the question “Who was greater, Muhammad the Prophet or Bayazid Bistami?” caused Rumi to swoon on his first encounter with his mystical initiator Shamsuddin.

“While the Prophet said: ‘We do not know Thee as it behoves!’, the Sufi Bāyezīd Bisṭāmī called out: ‘Subḥanī’, ‘Praise to me!’ If we are to believe legend, it was the contrast between these two utterances that awakened Mawlānā Rūmī to the spiritual life. Rūmī, so it is told, fainted when listening to Shams’s shocking question about whether Bāyezīd or the Prophet was greater, a question based on the two men’s respective sayings that express the human reactions to the meeting with the Divine. The tensions between the two poles of religious experience, that of the prophet, who knows his role as humble ‘servant’, and that of the mystic, who loses himself in loving union, became clear to him.” Annemarie Schimmel, ‘Deciphering The Signs Of God’ (Gifford Lecture)

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.

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.

Fundamentalism and Interpretation

Major religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed revealed eternal truths in specific times and places. The truths they revealed must be understood within those contexts. We might prefer, if it were possible, to receive the eternal truth context-free, but then we would be even less able to relate it to our own lives and draw practical conclusions. Even though the world has changed since our great religious teachers, the basic context — being human — has not.

Religious scholars from all traditions have applied great effort to the ongoing process of interpreting the original teachings in ways that apply today. It is difficult to be both faithful and relevant, and not all get the balance right. If they get the balance wrong they achieve neither faithfulness nor relevance. The fundamentalists are desperate to cling on to the literal meaning of every single word, and in doing so they lose the spirit of the original teaching. The modernists are desperate to update the teaching, and in doing so they distort the tradition and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Within both Judaism and Islam there are sophisticated schools of jurisprudence, which seek to apply the holy law today. The Talmud contains a record of how rabbis have applied the Torah in particular times and places, with their reasoning and discussions. Islam developed four main schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), and the process of interpretation (itjihad) continues today.

It is important to understand attitudes towards itjihad when studying Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, the modern Islamic movements most associated with fundamentalism, such as Wahhabi and Salafi, sought to reinterpret Islam, rather than accept the previous interpretations handed down by generations. Their interpretation was very much about taking Islam back to basics, trying to live exactly as the Prophet and his companions would have lived, and strongly rejecting anything they saw as ‘innovation’. But by rejecting the tradition of interpretation handed down through generations they in fact lost touch with the living essence of Islam, relating instead to an idealised version of the religion that they themselves had invented.

The beauty of the religions is their appearance in particular times and places, and their ongoing relevance today. God mercifully provided specific guidance for real human situations.  Specificity in religion is a strength, not a weakness. There is a parallel with art here: no painting or novel would show anything true or beautiful were it not for the specific detail. The skill of the artist is to take a specific scene and, while being true to it, lift it beyond the mundane. God has done the same, by offering real people the solutions to their actual, mundane problems, and at the same time revealing eternal truth.

Self Power and Divine Power

November 2008

On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.

Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).

Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The  main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.

One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.

Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:

“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6

In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.

As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:

“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.

Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:

“the Dakini is the ‘other’. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).

As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”

Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.

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 http://www.tharpa.com)

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)