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The Sufi Path of Service

How can we distinguish between fatal and liberating choices? That was the question posed this week by Sheikh Aly N’Daw, head of the International Sufi School. He was speaking at his book launch in Westminster, which was hosted by Ian Stewart MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Islam group. Aly N’Daw is from the Mouride school of Sufism founded by the Senegalese saint Amadou Bamba (1850-1927) who emphasised service to others as the path to God. Sheikh Aly encourages his students to study the lives of great men and women who have bridged the gap between politics and spirituality, and have demonstrated how peace within leads to peace in the world.

Sheikh Aly asked us to consider the choice that Martin Luther King made when he decided not to opt for a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago, but to take his ministry to the South and confront the spectre of racial discrimination. On the surface, it appears that Dr. King made a fatal choice, because his ministry ended with his assasination. However, in reality he made a liberating choice, because he could have suffered spiritual death by taking the easy option of remaining in Chicago, and his sacrifice contributed to the political and social liberation of millions of African-Americans.

Next we were asked to consider Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro-credit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A professor of economics, he became disillusioned with academic life and went to live with a group of peasants. Many people would consider this a fatal choice, at least professionally, but for Muhammad Yunus it was liberating because it showed him how small sums of money loaned on trust could yield massive results if targetted at the right people, particularly women. By 2008 the Grameen Bank had loaned US$7.8 billion to the poor.

Ian Stewart MP talked about his own difficult choice, to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that his motivation had been to help the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but now that hundreds of thousands of people had died as a result of the war, he could not be sure if he had been right. He described the whirl of conventional political life and how politicians, caught in the maelstrom, are on auto-pilot, without time or space to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As he is not standing in the forthcoming general election, he expressed the hope that he would now have time to learn more about what Sufism describes as the spiritual heart.

The first two books in Sheikh Aly N’Daw’s series are ‘The Initiatory Way To Peace’ and ‘Liberation Therapy’. If you would like to buy a copy, please email: contact_uk@international-sufi-school.org . The International Sufi School’s next event is a conference in Edinburgh in May entitled ‘Nonviolence Within: Peace For All’ (http://www.nonviolence-edinburgh.com/)

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Can We Attain Liberation In This World?

In his Lojong teachings Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that we can see this world as a Pure Land of Buddha, because for a Lojong practitioner every situation provides a perfect training opportunity. However in his Mahamudra teachings Geshe Kelsang emphasizes the impurity of this world.

During his Mahamudra teachings in the summer of 2007 Geshe Kelsang taught about sleep. He said that sleep is a subtle mind which causes sense awareness to cease. While awake we use our five sense awarenesses but

“these sense awarenesses, normally, for ordinary beings, always perceive inherently existent forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects”.

These are the five objects of desire.

“We are like flies, always wanting, seeking these objects.”

Our mind is always grasping at these objects, therefore we have no opportunity to experience inner peace during waking, instead we experience unpleasant feelings such as worry, attachment, anger and dissatisfaction.

“We are like a negative person during waking.”

When we sleep our gross minds such as our sense awarenesses cease. All the problems we experience during waking cease. Deep sleep activates our very subtle mind, which functions to perceive emptiness (shunyata), but we cannot recognize it because we have insufficient mindfulness. Therefore we need to train in Mahamudra meditation to activate our very subtle mind during waking. This involves trying to replicate the sleep process by causing our sense awarenesses and other gross minds to cease. (Please see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books Mahamudra Tantra or Clear Light of Bliss for a detailed explanation.)

Geshe Kelsang says that the path to liberation taught in Mahamudra Tantra is different from that taught in Sutra, because in his Sutra teachings the Buddha never mentions subtle or very subtle minds. In fact, in the Sutras the Buddha teaches that liberation (nirvana) can be attained by working with our normal (i.e. gross) perceptions. For example, in the Rohitassa Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6)) Rohitassa, the some of a god (deva) asks the Buddha if there is some place

“where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one’s sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world, or to see it, or to get there?”. The Buddha replies that there is no such place, but that “it is in this fathom-long carcass [i.e. the human body], friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”

In the Sutras the Buddha therefore recommends, as a path to liberation, meditative practices which work with our normal sense perceptions and mental awarenesses, such as the four ‘close-placements of mindfulness’. (For more information on these close-placements please read the book Satipatthana – The Direct Path to Realization by Ven. Analayo.)

The idea that this body is a suitable basis for achieving liberation is in accordance with the Abrahamic religions. At the core of all of these religions is God’s creation of Adam and Eve in His own image or form. According to Muslim tradition God fashioned man from clay and then breathed life into him. Muslims believe that man has a privileged place in creation because God taught man “all the names” (Qur’an:2:31).

“To say that God created man in his own form implies that man’s meaning is designated by God’s all-comprehensive name, which denotes both the Essence and all the divine attributes. When the Qur’an says God taught Adam “all the names,” this means that he taught him all the names of God and creation. These names designate God as the One/Many, the single Essence that comprehends all reality, what Ibn ‘Arabi commonly calls “the Divine Presence”.” (from Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld 2005, p74).

It is because God taught man “all the names” that man has the potential to achieve perfection (i.e. liberation).