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The Spiritual Journey of Noah

This text is an English translation of a Khutba (sermon) given in Spanish by Sidi Hashim Cabrera, specifically Khutba 4 from the book ‘Khutbas of Dar-as-Salam‘. The Quranic translations are by Muhammad Asad, but I have done the translation from Spanish myself and am responsible for any errors. I have left many of the key Arabic terms untranslated, as per the original sermon. A key term is ‘maqaam’ meaning ‘spiritual station’. Another key term is ‘nafs’ meaning ‘soul’.

The maqaam of Nuh [Noah], peace be upon him, is the beginning of the spiritual journey, of the interior voyage. It is the purification that our body needs to regain its natural luminosity. In this maqaam our Tahara is established, the deepest and most pervasive ablution or ghusl. This purification by water is the test that assays us, that prepares us, giving us the necessary strength and knowledge to be able to live the Revelation in our own being and thus be able to develop as conscious creatures.

Allah gives us form in the womb of our mothers. We evolve within the placenta, floating in nourishing, protective, hospitable water. In this way our Sustainer prepares us to receive light in the world of shadows where we must be born. In this maqaam, within our mothers, we experience another light, a light that is tinged with the blue of water, a light now screened by an animal skin, maternal and human.

According to Semnani, within our energetic body of light, the latifa related to this maqaam is called latifa nafsiya, and it is the subtle organ that governs the organic and vital soul, the sensing soul, the centre from whence surge the desires and passions. In the Qur’an it appears under the term nafs ammara, the commanding I (Sura 12, Aya 53). Of this nafs ammara Allah says, in relation to the human being, it “undoubtedly incites evil.” Is it the I of the senses, which lends credibility and reality to what our eyes see and our ears hear, and nothing more than that. It is the unconsciousness associated with entropy, it is a raw nafs, an unpolished I that overflows in waves without limit, which is always trying to find expression, the form it might be, a torrent of energy.

Our basic humanity is undergoing its test of maturity, the maqaam where the nature of our voyage is decided. Traditional medicine is very familiar with the purifying effect of this subtle center. To restore the energy balance lost by disease it is necessary to rid the belly of fire through cold water on the skin, causing a thermal reaction. The medicine of Nuh is a medicine of health as it works on the causes of chaos, of imbalance, which is always excessive fire, heat, inside of a human being who is essentially water. It is about restoring thermal equilibrium, levelling the balance between the internal and external through water. This tempers us, but we must be willing to withstand the cold on our skin during the journey.

It is precisely this nafs ammara, this impulse which overflows into chaos, toward entropy, that the Revelation of Nuh tries to redirect within us, initiating an inner journey that will transform us until, in the best case, as Allah wishes, we become a nafs motma’yanna, the calm soul that Allah gifts us in the Qur’an, in Surah Al Fajr:

“O thou human being that hast attained to inner peace! (28) Return thou unto thy Sustainer, well-pleased [and] pleasing [Him]: (29) enter, then, together with My [other true] servants (30) yea, enter thou My paradise!” (Qur’an, Sura Al Fajr, verses 27-30)

To make the voyage through this night of chaos, from the darkness of the senses to the luminous perception of Fajr, of the spiritual dawn, of Ishraaq, it is necessary to understand the deep meanings of the revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, to understand the purificatory meaning of conscious servanthood and submission to Allah.

Desire is life and life is heat that expands. Humans distract ourselves with the names and this distraction ends up altering our own sensibility. Our senses don’t only get drunk on chemical substances but are intoxicated by thoughts and images, and so our experience is degraded. We became a turbid consciousness, possessed of insufficient clarity to distinguish between what we’re seeing and what, without control, we imagine and project. Our heat stops expanding and gets locked inside, and our skin is cooled. We experience a walled-up combustion in the belly, an imprisoned energy in a moulded, permeable body of clay.

Turbidity is a resistance to the passage of light through water. They are impurities, ashes of light, but they are also living organisms because water is the placenta of our Earth. Life arises and grows like a light passing through the water, a white light that reveals blue bands, luminous blue, fluid and undulating. Interestingly they are the same symbolic colours that Christianity assigns to the Immaculate Conception. Light passing through the waters is the Revelation that Allah performs through His messengers, peace be with them. In this case Nuh, who brings the revelation of our spiritual birth, our first experience as creatures in a state of submission and as believers, as muslims and mu’mins, Alhamdulillah.

Adam became the first muslim when he submitted to Allah by making Tauba to Him. Nuh is the first mu’min because he is the first human to feel an inner recitation, a certain Revelation from Allah, an awareness of the Real in his heart. Nuh, peace be upon him, warned his people and pointed the way to submit to Allah, to worship Him, trying to bring them into the light, to show them Tawhid, but the dignitaries refused to acknowledge the truth and they fought against him, like all the prophets after him, with the same or similar arguments: “this man is nothing but a man like yourselves … if Allah had wanted to convey a message he would have performed miracles,” etc.

In ‘Sura Al Mu’minoon’ we find Nuh receiving the Revelation while feeling the rejection of his people: 23:26 Said [Noah]:

“O my Sustainer! Succour me against their accusation of lying!” (23:27) Thereupon We inspired him thus: “Build, under Our eyes and according to Our inspiration, the ark [that shall save thee and those who follow thee]. And when Our judgment comes to pass, and waters gush forth in torrents over the face of the earth, place on board of this [ark] one pair of each [kind of animal] of either sex, as well as thy family – excepting those on whom sentence has already been passed -; and do not appeal to Me [any more] in behalf of those who are bent on evildoing – for, behold, they are destined to be drowned! 23:28 “And as soon as thou and those who are with thee are settled in the ark, say: ‘All praise is due to God, who has saved us from those evildoing folk!’ (23:29) “And say: ‘O my Sustainer! Cause me to reach a destination blessed [by Thee] – for Thou art the best to show man how to reach his [true] destination!'” 23:30 In this [story], behold, there are messages indeed [for those who think]: for, verily, We always put [man] to a test.” (Qur’an, Sura Al Mu’minoon, verses 26-30)

Certainly there are many messages in this story. One of these is the crude expression of a fracture in humanity. Internal division forms part of the creation of the human being who, upon being made a confidant in the names of things, apparently loses Tawhid in the stare of the other but may be redirected through the consciousness of Allah, through the Tawhid of islam and iman up to the unitary and elevated light of ihsan. The wound may be closed but we must preserve awareness, cultivate it, because consciousness cannot be imposed but arises and grows in the nucleus of the human heart. But there are people who are refract the Light, who are closed to His message.

Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, wants to purify the community and admonishes Nuh, telling him not to plead for those who are bent on denying the truth and on evil-doing. On these has already been rendered judgement, precisely because their hearts have been closed and sealed. Nuh pleaded for them not out of naivety but out of compassion and kindness, out of the desire that all souls might be saved; not for nothing his mission was to build a ship and save the entire animal soul: a pair of animals of each species and his own human family. The surviving human being survived complete with his animal soul, organic and functional, but now it is a soul tested with submission to Allah and comforted with His Protection, with His aman [sic]. Whosoever can’t endure the test doesn’t just remain veiled to Reality but also his vital soul fades prematurely until it stops fluttering.

Nuh receives the Revelation while feeling the rejection and hostility of his own people, his own family. The maqaam of Nuh is the journey that we have to make from maqaam to maqaam, from prophet to prophet, until the luminous circle of Revelation is complete, crossing the great waters, the toughest circumstances. Along the way we acquire a spiritual force that arises in us and makes us mu’minoon, while we are immersed in adversity, feeling hostility and resistance from others and from ourselves.

Sailing in the ship of Nuh implies transcending the names, concepts and images, transcending one’s own vision. This navigation of light, crossing the great waters, feeling the moisture on our skin, is the first happening of the soul, the nafs, its first experience of the luminous and subtle world. It is the time when Allah blows Suruh [sic] into the gestating being and grants the dignity of being truly human. From this moment Allah is preparing us to face the moment of our earthly birth, the passage from the water world to the world of air, so that we may finally pass through the skin of our mothers. From that transcendental moment the ship sails on the waters against the current, scanning the horizon outside, trying to find the source from whence arise the waves and tides of appearance, until it finds calm.

It is the ‘hero’s journey through the night’ that Carl G. Jung describes to refer to the journey of consciousness through the dark sea of the human unconscious. It’s the return of Ulysses to his homeland on board a boat to whose mast he is tied: the hero’s ears are sealed with wax so that the Jinni do not distract him from his return and do not make him mad. But Nuh, peace be upon him, cannot cover his ears because it is Allah who talks to his heart and reveals the du’a that all who dwell in this maqaam must say. Nuh neither wants nor is able to cover his ears because he is a true prophet, the first of the messengers after Muhammad, peace be upon them. Because the soul of Muhammad was created before that of Adam and because in the Qur’an of Muhammad are all our du’as:

“O our Sustainer! Make us arrive at a destination blessed by You, for it is You who best shows man how to reach our true destiny! Amin”

The maqaam of Nuh brings us awareness of our voyage, of its scope and meaning. It is the awareness of our condition in the face of Reality. We submit or rebel. There is no half-stepping. The waters flood in and there is no longer any time for repairs. Those who climb into the boat of consciousness are saved, unbelievers inevitably drown because they are veiled with the things of the world, with their names and images, and do not realize that the waters overflowed a while ago. And this is what we perceive when we sail in this boat of the mu’minoon . . . we feel the desperate expressions of the unbelieving like a fire in the belly and our skin feels a chill, because we are human and we are affected by everything that affects humanity and creation.

Not only do we mu’minoon not cover our ears but we heed these desperate cries and see in them the expression of the immense power of Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, that does what it wants with the human heart. But we mu’minoon have already boarded the ship and we listen attentively to the recitation of Nuh:

“(11:41) So he said [unto his followers]: “Embark in this [ship]! In the name of God be its run and its riding at anchor! Behold, my Sustainer is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!” (11:42) And it moved on with them into waves that were like mountains. At that [moment] Noah cried out to a son of his, who had kept himself aloof [from the others]: “O my dear son! Embark with us, and remain not with those who deny the truth!” (Qur’an, Sura Hud, verses 41-42)

The caliphate, the realization of the promise of Allah in the human being, began its evolution in the ship of Nuh. It Is the first caliphate of the ummah because until that point the community had lived without guidance or direction, it was just a vital humanity abandoned to an irreversible dissolution, to entropy, gone astray through language. Then Allah arouses a luminous khalifa in us, a prophet who will guide us through the trial, who will purify us until we arrive at a doorway where every member of our community will eventually become a khalifa of Reality, a khalifa ullah. The mu’min navigates by the name of Allah and moors the ship with His name. This is the ship of fools [. . .] of Allah, of the enlightened who are saved because they feel that everything depends on His power, because they discover His compassion and His light in every heartbeat, Alhamdulillah.

Nuh, peace be upon him, is sailing with us as we listen to the Revelation that Allah is performing through him. The Nuh of our being is the consciousness of our essential vitality and the urgent need to purify ourselves, to separate the coarse from the subtle, to restore our balance in the world. It is the maqaam of the overall health of our body, because it is the balance of light in water, the key to the balance between the internal and the external, a corporeal manifestation of our submission.

We are created from a qutb, from an axis that opens up an intense polarity until there is a splitting into pairs of our kidneys and glands which, for balance, are required to compensate for the heat and the entropy in the midst of water. And all this leads to different states, maqaams which are like these giant waves that the Quran describes. The Revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, makes us voyagers through the maqaams, pilgrims from light unto Light. Alhamdulillah.

Nuh carries us across the great waters, guides us in the night sea. He shows us the compass indicating the direction of our journey, our qibla. Such guidance is not, in this case, to the geographical east or the east of the Orientalists, but to the east where the Light of lights dawns, towards the Ishraaq. Nuh takes us from the west of the shadows, from the twilight of fire, darkness and ignorance.

During his journey in this maqaam, Suhrawardi witnessed the appearance on the horizon of the Star of Yemen, Suhail or Canopus, which rises “on some wispy clouds woven by the spiders of the elemental world, in the world of generation and dissolution.” The Star of Yemen points us to the east of spiritual dawning, the direction in which the Fountain of Life is found.

It was this bright wink which Muhammad felt, peace [and blessings] be upon him, when he said, “I feel the Breath of the Merciful coming from the direction of Yemen.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, was referring to the spiritual light of his contemporary gnostic who lived in that land, a salih called Oways al Qarani who knew him without ever having physically seen him, and whom the prophet also knew in the same way. Oways had no visible human teacher but this didn’t stop him from feeling the Guide inside him. For that reason seekers without a visible guide call themselves owaysis.

The appearance of the Star of Yemen during the spiritual journey means that we have already abandoned the west of the shadows, that now we are crossing over to our true destination which is none other than the Fountain of Life, the Light that is neither from the east nor the west and which burns without having been touched by fire. Light upon Light. Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, enlightens whom He will.

Allahumma: Draw us to Your presence in the ship of Nuh. Oh Allah: We are grateful for the wisdom that is hidden in Your trials. We ask strength, courage and dedication to live in the maqaams that You decree for us. Make us understand the luminous meaning of our difficulties, show us the Star of Yemen. Amin

Difference Engine

Thanks Rumi’s Circle for diffusing Rumi’s wisdom, and also for sharing my poem ‘Difference Engine’:

Opposites and Difference Engine

Sufism: traditional, modern, and post-modern

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I want to posit that the jump-off point between modern and post-modern philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of language games. His point is that there are multiple human language games in operation simultaneously; each language game functions to establish a different type of truth, and the truth established by one language game may have only limited relevance to the truth established by another.

Science is a key language game. In the modern era the truths established by science have swept all before them and proponents of scientism claim that science has a monopoly on truth. However, in the post-modern era Wittgenstein’s notion of language games provides breathing space for other types of truth e.g. ethics; aesthetics; and religion.

Regarding ethics, in the modern era David Hume’s statement that “an is does not justify an ought” severed the link between scientific understanding and ethical imperative: science can describe what is, but we can make no clear inferences about what we ought to do from scientific understanding.

Wittgenstein’s point is that just because scientific truth does not speak to ethical truth does not mean that ethics have disappeared, merely that they are a discrete language game that we need to play on their own terms; likewise aesthetics and religion.

If we look at W’s insight in regard to religion we can see that it negates the need for modernisation of religion, a project that has gained significant momentum since the 19th century. (NB. This doesn’t imply that religion should be fossilised, unchanging, or immune to social criticism).

Under the onslaught from scientism, religious modernisers have sought to dispense with all that is ‘superstitious’ or supernatural and metaphysical in religion (e.g. heaven, hell, angels, miracles) and place it in on a rational, scientific basis. In doing so they have made a fundamental category error, thinking that there is only one type of truth in town (scientific) when in fact there are many.

Scientific truth and religious truth have quite different characteristics and purposes: the purpose of science is to find publicly demonstrable (objective) truths that can explain physical / external phenomena; the purpose of religion is to demonstrate eternal truths to the consciousness (subjective) of individuals and groups so as to bring us to salvation / liberation. There may be little overlap between these two enterprises or language games. Note that the vast majority of people who have achieved liberation / salvation in human history have been ignorant of science and its truths.

For those of us living in the West it is impossible to revert to pre-modern, traditional Sufi perspectives. The alternatives are modern or traditionalist approaches to Sufism. Whereas modern Sufism makes significant concessions to the predominant Western, modern language games of science, rationalism and individualism, and is therefore at risk of de-naturing Sufism, I argue that the traditionalist approach need make no such concessions.

Traditionalism is highly compatible with post-modernism because it accepts that the force / truth of religion derives largely from its narrative structure, enveloping adherents in its myths, and thereby re-orienting them towards the Divine and eternal.

Moreover, a traditionalist who is conscious of post-modernism is able to participate simultaneously in multiple language games: through the force of faith and imagination they can commit themselves fully to traditional Sufi narratives / myths while also being able to participate in scientific / rationalistic language games. There may be little overlap between these games, but there may also be little conflict, depending on the context.

The difference between the post-modern traditionalist Sufi and the pre-modern traditional Sufi is the post-modern characteristic of ‘knowingness’: the ability to consciously step between narrative frameworks / language games. In the post-modern world we can be fluent in multiple language games: we don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket. The scientific language game provides some truths, the religious provides others. If we are working on medical hygiene we will use the scientific framework; if we are working on our salvation we will use the religious framework. It would be a mistake to dispense with either.

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.

Metaphysics of Light

Aurora-worlds_1427194i

Before light there was Light –
invisible, previsible.
Moses asked to see the Light
but how could he see with eyes?
Light beyond light,
Light beyond eyes.

Light’s mercy was to create shadow
so that we might see light –
a pale, obscure, wavering reflection.

Light’s mercy was to create eyes
so that we might see yellow, red and blue.
Light’s mercy was to create green
so that we might see Beauty.

Hashim Cabrera advances Sufi metaphysics of light and colour in his book ‘Ishraq’, available for free download in Spanish via Webislam, the leading Spanish language websiteI was fortunate to meet Hashim last week near Cordoba, and the following summary is based on the explanation I received from him. My poem above is inspired by Hashim’s metaphysics.

One of the 99 names of Allah is ‘Nur’ meaning Light. The absolute or pure Light which is Allah cannot be perceived directly by created beings. Moses asked if he could see Allah, but Allah did not show himself directly to Moses, instead he appeared to him via the burning bush. The flames of the burning bush were yellow, which is the first colour in which light appears to created beings, like the rays of the sun. In order to be perceived Allah created the universe, where light can appear against the darkness.

The three fundamental colours are red, black and white. In Surah Fatir verse 27 Allah (swt) says “among the mountains are streaks white and red, of varying colours and (others) very black”. A meteorite goes through three stages: it is bright white in space, burning red as it enters the atmosphere, and charred black when it comes to earth. Black, white and red also mark the three alchemical stages of nigredo, albido, and rubedo. Red contains all of the other colours in potential form. One of the Spanish words for red is ‘colorado’ which just means ‘coloured’.

The physical primary colours are blue, red and yellow. Green is not considered a physical primary colour because it is composed of blue and yellow. However, from the point of view of perception, green is a basic component of our perceptual field, as in the RGB screen palette. Hashim believes that the ambiguity of green’s status is no accident, indicating its status as the liminal colour, demarcating the physical and spiritual worlds.

Hashim’s research into the Sufi chakra system (latifa) of the Ishraqiya school bears this out (see Henry Corbin, ‘The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism’). In Sufism, the seven chakras are each associated with a colour and a prophet. The chakra at the anus is associated with the black of the ‘materia prima’ or ‘negredo’ and is associated with Adam (as) who was fashioned from clay. The navel chakra is associated with the blue of water and the emotions and is associated with Nuh (as). The chakra at the solar plexus is associated with the colour yellow and the prophet Dawud (as). It is where the spirit enters us, as recognised in the Chinese and Japanese notions of ‘Dantian’ and ‘Hara’. Dawud (as) was renowned for receiving divine inspiration which caused him to sing the Psalms. The heart chakra is associated with the colour red and the prophet Ibrahim (as). The expansive heart chakra experiences emotions such as love and vulnerability. The throat chakra is associated with black light and the prophet Isa (as) who represents the divine word or logos and the power of miraculous speech. The 3rd eye chakra is associated with white light and the prophet Mousa (as) who wanted to see the pure Light of Allah.

The crown chakra is the mountain of emeralds, associated with the colour green and the prophet Muhammad (saws). The crown chakra is where our personal soul (nafs) and the transpersonal spirit (ruh) meet. It is where the spiritual realm transcends the physical body. Green shows this juncture or transition. Muhammad (saws) guides the way to the divine and is the summit of all the prophets. Though the absolute Light of Allah cannot exist in the created world, our eyes are lifted to behold Allah’s Beauty via the green nur of Muhammad (saws).

Sufism and Quakers

Quaker meeting

Quaker meeting

I am a Muslim who sometimes attends my local Quaker meeting. In England, Quaker meetings offer unstructured worship where one sits in silence until someone feels moved to speak. In my local meeting I can generally enjoy 30 mins of silent meditation or dhikr until someone speaks. In the silence, Quakers wait on God “as if none were present but the Lord” and the metaphors they commonly use to describe God are spirit and light, which map to the Sufi concepts of ruh and noor.

The ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ book which sets out the current rules for Quakerism in England says that you need to be “broadly Christian” to be a Quaker (i.e. to be a member of The Religious Society of Friends which is the English Quaker congregation). However, many Quaker meetings (including my local one) make no distinction between members and regular attenders. There is no requirement for an attender to be Christian, as long as one is “in sympathy” with the meeting.

In fact, I have found a number of Quakers to be in sympathy with Sufism. One lady at my local meeting is planning a return trip to Konya after a moving visit. She asked the Sufi brethren who were her guides in Konya to take her to Rumi’s mausoleum but they insisted on taking her to Shams first. Soon after arriving at Shams’ tomb she was overcome by emotion and found herself kneeling on the floor weeping! However, when she was taken to Rumi’s tomb she found it quite ordinary in comparison. When she asked the Sufi brethren why, they asked her “where do you think Rumi is?” In death there is nothing to keep Rumi apart from Shams so Mevlana can be found at the tomb of his friend.

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).

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.

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/)

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)