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Sufi Wisdom: Still Normal

by new team member T.L. James of Mars Blog and Man of Two Worlds. Part of our weekly Sufi Wisdom series. As militant Islam does its best to discredit the religion, it is important to remember that there are other voices within the faith. One such is the Sufis, a branch of Islamic mystics with roots in many religious traditions. The lessons of Sufism are often communicated through humorous stories and mystical or romantic poetry. As a part of Joe's Good News Saturdays, we spend some time each week with the Sufis and their "wisdom of idiots". In the essay "Decline in Religious Influence" from his book Learning How to Learn, Idries Shah discusses the confusion between what is religion and what is merely called religion, and relates this tale:
There is a wry joke in the East, aimed at stressing how the decline in religion is due to the ineptitude and sometimes worse of the practitioner, especially at the supposedly higher level of the activity. Like a cartoon, it is deliberately over-emphasised, to make the point:
A spiritual teacher is saying: 'My first disciple was so weak that the exercises killed him. My second drove himself mad by doing his meditations too concentratedly. My third pupil became dulled by contemplation. But the fourth is still completely normal.' Someone asked: 'Why is that?' 'It could be', said the guru, 'because he refuses to do the exercises...'


One thing that I learned in eastern christianity is that you are neither to do less, nor to do more than your spiritual guide says. To do more prayers than directed opens the doors to Satan. Trying to do too much certainly has its hazards, as trying to do too little.

SOmeone read this story to the NEA.

Four rabbis entered Pardes (the orchard, the garden of Eden). One died, one went mad, one became an apostate, and only one came out again as he went in.

PS OK here's the passage.
The Rabbis taught: Four [Sages] entered the Pardes [literally "the orchard." Rashi explains that they ascended to heaven by utilizing the [Divine] Name, i.e., they achieved a spiritual elevation (Tosafot, ad loc) through intense meditation on G-d's Name]. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya, called Acher - the other one - because of what happened to him after he entered the Pardes] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them [prior to their ascension]: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed [at the Divine Presence - Rashi] and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity - Rashi]. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings [he became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. (Chagigah 14b)

In Shah's version, the context suggests that the guru himself isn't seeing the truth of the situation. The "decline in religious influence" Shah appears to be pointing to is manifested not so much in the apparent failures of the disciples (the guru's point of view) as in the guru's own inflexible insistence on certain exercises.

The guru doesn't seem to heed the Sufi advice that exercises need to take into account the time, place, and people involved (witness Shah's dim view of the utility of "whirling" as a modern religious practice). Instead, the guru prescribes "the exercises", a phrase which implies a one-size-fits-all approach, and is dismayed with the pupils when these practices fail to yield the intended results. The point Shah appears to be making is that when the guide doesn't know the way, the pupils become lost themselves.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well (though this doesn't quite fit the context in which Shah relates the story, it is in line with the Jewish version Yehudit relates above). The guru might actually know what he is doing, and may be prescribing the proper exercises for his pupils (suited to the time, place, and people involved). The differing results could be a manifestation of the qualities and suitability of the pupils -- just as the rabbis had different reactions to the experience of Pardes. The exercises can be interpreted as a "weeding out" process, whereby the guru separates the true student (the one with the wisdom to see through the process and refuse to perform the exercises) from those with lesser promise.

In approaching the mysteries, a requirement for application (rather than a reflexive distance) can be found in the Lurianic Tikkun. It means that knowledge without works is meaningless. "The ‘Tikkunim’ are to Kabbalah what engineering is to physics: through their application the Laws of Kabbalah are constellated in action."

There are similar operations in the non-literal interpretations of the Koran, and especially in the hermeneutic operations of Ta'wil, which date back in the mystical Sufi tradition almost a thousand years to Ibn 'Arabi and Avicenna. Astonishingly, these thinkers recall the same problems of application and its productions that are to be found in modern hermeneutics. (Ta'wil is “to cause to return, to lead back, to restore to one's origin.)

I am studying these parallels, especially where they duplicate the necessity of application and the subsequent indeterminacy arrived at in modern hermeneutics. My favorite writers in this vein are Scholem, Gadamer and Corbin.


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