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Sufi Wisdom: Losing It

As militant Islam does its level best to discredit the religion, it's important to remember that there are other voices within the faith. One such is the Sufis, the Islamic mystics who live islam (submission), iman (faith) and ishan (awareness of G-d, "to act beautifully"). I've come to appreciate the Sufis for their poetry, their humour, and their body of wisdom. Every Shabbat, therefore, I share some of that here. The great poet Rumi was a Sufi, as is the popular folk character Nasruddin (also known in some places as Hodja or Nasreddin Hodja):
Young Nasreddin had a leaky ferry-boat, and used it to row people across the river. One day his passenger was a fussy schoolteacher, and on the way across he decided to give Nasreddin a test and see how much he knew. "Tell me, Nasreddin, what are eight sixes?" - "I've no idea" replied Nasreddin. "How do you spell magnificence?" - "I don't" replied Nasreddin. "Didn't you study anything at school?" - "No" replied Nasreddin. "In that case, half your life is lost." Just then a fierce storm blew up, and the boat began to sink. "Tell me, schoolteacher," said Nasreddin. "Did you ever learn to swim?" - "No" replied the schoolteacher. "In that case, your whole life is lost."
Sufi stories generally have multiple meanings, from the practical to the spiritual. What is this one trying to tell us? Use the Comments link. UPDATE: You have got to read T.L. James comments. Brilliant.


Nasruddin's retort sounds a lot like this one:

Shelby Foote once remarked about the runaway slave who became a Union soldier and found himself guarding his former owner among some POWs. "Bottom rail top now, Massa," exclaimed the former slave.

One level is the lesson: Focus on what is important, rather than superficialities. The schoolteacher focuses on pedantic matters, schoolbook learning, rather than what might be called practical life skills.

Another level is the lesson: There are different types of learning, and each has its place. The schoolteacher is right, in that Nasreddin is handicapped by his lack of booklearning and unable to reach his full potential. But Nasreddin is right, in that not everything worth knowing comes from books. But both are wrong, because they appear not to recognize the value of the learning the other has...there ought to be a balance between the two types of learning.

Another level concerns the Sufi distinction between study and practice (the two types of learning noted above). Shah frequently reminds his readers that scholarly study is incomplete, that one can only understand Sufism and what it teaches through practice. Thus, Nasreddin only misses out on half his "life" by not having studied scholarly topics, but the schoolteacher forfeits his whole "life" by not having practiced in the real world.

On yet another level, it is a slap at the rote repetition of exercises without regard to their applicability to the circumstances. Shah frequently warns about this tendency, as well, with descriptions of ossified Sufic schools perpetuating rituals originally intended for a specific audience in a specific place at a specific time in history (whirling dervishes are a frequent example). Here, the schoolteacher considers himself enlightened because he "knows" more than Nasreddin...but the examples of his superior knowledge are both memorized, recited, formalized bits of information (a mathematical relationship and the spelling of a word). The "right answer" is the same for everyone. Nasreddin's retort is deceptively simple -- there are many ways to swim, each with its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. The "right answer" requires proper judgement of the situation; there is no single, predefined "right answer", and when the circumstances to which the schoolteacher is accustomed change unexpectedly, his inflexible, memorized learning is of no use to him.

An other aspect of the ossification theme is in the way the schoolteacher looks at his knowledge. Math and spelling skills are just that: skills. Tools. They are means to an end, but the schoolteacher displays the attitude that booklearning is an end in itself. This parallels the ossified schools, which have long since forgotten what the intent of the ritualized exercises might have been, and pursue them as an end in themselves rather than as means to a higher end.

Then there is Nasreddin's answer to the spelling question. He does not reply that he doesn't know how to spell "magnificence", he significantly states that he does not spell it. This could be another rejection of the superficial, or a rejection of the worldly...Nasreddin has no use for the word and its proper spelling, because he (presumably) has no use for those considered magnificent. Unfortunately, I have no idea if his answer to the multiplication question has any significance...being Rumi, it's been translated, and may have had a symbolic meaning in the original language (Persian?) that is lost in English.

What a wonderful exegesis, T.L. James. Thank you for sharing your interpretation and obvious knowledge of the tradition.

And I've just found a new Saturday must-read-blog.

TL James - Magnificence is not the same as magnificent. A practical man may see a magnificent horse and remark upon it, seek to gain it, and use it. But he has no use for the quality of magnificence unattached to any practical thing. In a way, it is the rejection of the system of platonic idealism, pretty good for a poor ferryman.

On the mathematical question, what are eight sixes? is the answer 48 or 66,666,666? Can you answer without a clarifying question? And why would a ferryman want to play along with such a passenger?

TL James... that was fantastic. I really look forward to having you drop by on Saturdays.

My thanks also to T. L. James.

My brother tells me that the Iranian mullahs recently condemned a writer for publishing a collection of Nasrudin stories that included unauthorized stories - thus creating what may be the ultimate Nasrudin story!

Lesson: Pay attention to what's important.

Gee, thanks!

TM Lutas: that was just what I was trying to say w/r/t "magnificence", but didn't quite get across.

Swimming is not just a means to an end either. Here it can be taken as a metaphor for partaking a variety of experiences in depth. The fussy schoolteacher has would have lost his whole life even if he had never gotten in the leaky ferry-boat to begin with.

Survival is qualitatively different from flourishing? Just a guess.

To build on T.L. James' insightful explanation, it's a wonderfully clever tale about wisdom. Knowledge + Experience = Wisdom. You could have all the knowledge this world affords, but what does it profit you? You just know a lot. Likewise, you can experience all the world affords, but you're still only half a person ("half your life is lost"). You've just experienced a lot.

It isn't until you mate your experience with knowledge that you can actually attain wisdom. Nasreddin may survive the ship's sinking, but he'll merely be a person wandering the world, just having things happen to him. The opposite goes for the schoolteacher. They are two halves of a whole that has not yet expressed itself. At least Nasreddin lives another day, but what kind of life is it? To dumbly bumble through life and then die? The schoolteacher is dead, but what kind of life did he have in the first place? Surrounded by books and words, but never going out and actually experiencing the things he had only read about.

I forgot to add that if Nasreddin had mated his experience with book-knowledge, he wouldn't have had a leaky ferry-boat in the first place and the teacher's swimming abilities would never have been put to the test. Both would've made it across safely.

High taxes keep small business owners from repairing their equipment. Government representatives are incompentent paper pushing boobs.

Let the buyer beware.

Perhaps worth noting that Nasruddin and the teacher were both in the boat together, and the boat was sinking.

Perhaps not the best time to squabble like donkeys and elephants.

Perdar o ne perdar? January 10, 2004

Sri Idisti: --- Aujourd'hui en pleurs//fleurs, demain en fleurs//pleurs.

Olim Sufism-mastro Nasreddin-hodjo voyajis e vizitis Zen-mastro Rinzai en
Chinia e rakontis yene .. por sondar la profundeso dil famoza Zen-mastro.

Kande me esis yuna, me posedis mikra paromo ma poke likema' e me omna'die
remadis olu por transportar pasajanti trans la fluvio. Un'die skol'mastro
pasajis sur mea kanoto. Sur la voyo lu questioneskis me pri kozi skolala.

Skol'mastro: Nasreddin, quo esas quaradek e ok sur ok?
Nasreddin: Me ne povas bone kalkular.
Skol'mastro: Nasreddin, quo do esas ok per sis?
Nasreddin: Regretinde me tote ne povas kalkular.
Skol'mastro: Nasreddin, ube do esas Japonia, granda lando de animismo?
Nasreddin: Ups!, me nek lernis geografio en mea skolo.
Skol'mastro: Nasreddin, ta'kaze la duimo de tua vivo esas perdita.

Lore subite violentoza vento sufleskis' e la barko esis ya pronta sinkar.

Nasreddin: Dicez a me, Sro Skol'mastro, ka vu ul'tempe lernis natar?
Skol'mastro: No, me ne lernis. Ho, Lala!
Nasreddin: Ta'kaze la toto de vua vivo regretinde esos perdita.

Ed audinte la rakonteto da Nasreddin-hodjo, Zen-mastro Rinzai paroleskis.

Kande tu voyajas sur tua mikra kontenilo en la fluvio dil vivo, de ul'ube
certe aparos omna skol'mastri e questionos tu pri la kozi cerebral pro ke
li multe prizas instruktar tu pri quale tu devez vivar segun lia maniero.

Tu ne bezonas askoltar li, pro ke nur to quon tu experiencabas e lernabas
per tua korpo povas salvar tu de la barko en la mezo di violentoza vento.
Pro ke tu esas tu tote sola en tua unika paromo sen skalii del ideologii.
Do tu devez lernar to quon tu destinesas lernar per experienci autentika.

Se tu renkontras tua skol'mastri sur la voyo, for'jetez li ek tua batelo.

Kande onu havas febla o povra vidopovo e do ne povas klare vidar la mondo
cirkum su, lu weras binoklo kun chera lensi por ad'justigar sua vidofoko.

Kande onu posedas povra vidopovo anmal e nur surfacale komprenas la mondo
rotacanta, lu bezonas sua Deo o Dei por ganar des'facila e chera expliki.

Kande miopo esas yuna, lu bezonas bona ma simpla lensi kun nur "un" foko.
Tamen kande lu oldeskas, lu wereskas binoklo lensizita ma kun plura foki.

Yuna populi quala USA-ani bezonas lensi kun nur un foko, t.e. monoteismo.
Nun West-Europani oldeskas e do bezonas lensi kun plura foki, politeismo.

E per bona lensi onu afordas od lektar jurnali od spektar ecitanta operi.
Regretinde la lensi di Yudismo, Kristanismo, Islamo, Hinduismo edc. havas
kelka kolori' e ne esas perfekte diafana ke onu mustas recevar prejudiki.

Tamen se onu esas nek miopa nek presbiopa, lu facile vidas per sua propra
nuda okuli la mondo existanta per tanta klareso ke lu bezonas nula lensi.
Kande onu bezonas nula lensi o religii por klare vidar la mondo aspiranta
quale olu vere e fakte esas, lu vidas la mondo en sua nirvaneso. Capisce?

Religiala pelmelo en Globalismo?
Violentoza vento od religiala pelmelo sufleskis sur la voyo en la fluvio.
Kad onu en West-Europa ul'tempe lernis natar en la fluvio dil globalismo?

Adio! ......sincere via, vua ed anke tua
B.Y.T. .....Idisto ed Idiotisto pro mea nur limitizita e povra edukado
ed anke ....Ido-Kavaliero per bona oreli vice mea skarsa e povra cerebro
Ido-Biblioteko (Sro FT).:

Toyre kumt nit b'yerushe. Onu ne heredas la lernado. (Mea Yida proverbo)
Wem nicht zu raten ist, dem ist auch nicht zu helfen. (Germana proverbo)

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