Wednesday, February 10, 2010

the Sufi message

9 feb 2010, delhi

We often confuse unity with uniformity.
Unity is the goal and uniformity the means to reach that goal,
but often the means has obscured the purpose.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

One of the speakers at the Urs urged us, in the Sufi way, to be non-definitive, inclusive and experiential: to trust intuition rather than categorical beliefs; to allow view and method to respond to the need of the moment; and to favor simple presence over "intellectual figuring out and position-taking." So it was with some trepidation that I did some intellectual figuring out with Lori over lunch on Sunday, though I did try mightily to avoid taking any position.

These past years back in Santa Cruz (I'm going to say this baldly but with all respect) I have often been confused about the use of the title or adjective "Sufi." I associate Sufism with Islam, the mystical movement within Islam. This is in agreement with Kabir and Camille Helminski, and our friends from Pacifica, I'm pretty sure, though they are all extremely open in sharing thier gatherings with everyone and all. But I just couldn't get my mind around the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace. As wonderful as I think they are, I know that it would be anathema or "shirk" to many observant Muslim to sing songs to Shiva or Krishna, and maybe to Jesus as Lord, so I couldn't figure out how they could be "sufi." And I have had some trepidation about being involved in them at the risk of offending our Muslim sisters and brothers, just as I try to be careful about co-opting anything from another tradition.

So I watched carefully as the Universal Worship, based on Hazrat Inayat's own model, was celebrated Friday afternoon, the first thing I attended. It was quite mild really, a prayer was invoked, a candle was lit before the scriptures of each tradition, then a reading was done from each of them by two different readers, and another prayer was chanted at the end. Nothing was read that anyone in the room could not have heard and absorbed easily. It was what I call, after Fr Bede, universal wisdom. No one was asked to acclaim Mohammad as the Prophet, call Jesus Lord, take refuge in the Buddha, or offer praise to any of the Hindu deities. But apparently when the group visited Humayun's tomb, a famous 16th century landmark that is considered to be the prototype of the Taj Mahal, after singing some Sufi songs, one of the Westerners in the group led the singing of a kirtan to Shiva. That, someone else in the group told me, made a few of them quite uncomfortable, to do that in the presence of observant Indian Muslims.

I also noted that, outside of the dhkr and the words to some of the qwalis and ghazals, in the speaking there was little if any mention ever made of Mohammad (peace be upon him), Allah or the Qur'an. Another man I spoke with had been through this when he studied with a Turkish teacher. When he announced himself to be a Sufi already, the teacher insisted, "Then you are a Muslim" and proceeded to encourage his practice of the Five Pillars of everyday Islam. The man in question eventually left that teacher and now does not consider himself to be a Muslim but still follows the Sufi path.

"The scriptures given to the Jews, the Muslims, Parsis, Hindus, Buddhists, all have as their central truth the message of unity, but we have been so interested and absorbed in the poetry of these scriptures that we have forgotten their inner voice."

Honestly, I really was withholding judgement on the whole thing during the conference and ardently wanted to see what it meant to these good people to be "Sufis." It does seem to have little to with Islam. There are those who say the Inayat Khan himself was using the term "Sufi" loosely or even wrongly but as a convenient umbrella term to explain his notion of the universality of religion, and that his message has always had more appeal in the West than among Muslims in India. (Indeed, there were very few Indians in attendance except for the musical performances.

So, then the question formulated itself in my mind in this way: can one do adapt Sufism the way I have adapted Yoga, or how others have adapted Zen. Can Sufism be a praxis and a philosophy that can frame and articulate any content? Can one be a Christian Sufi as I think of myself sometimes as an aspiring Christian Yogi, or how Amasamy and many others are Zen Christians? I heard at least one Christian theologian and author describe himself in that way. Can Sufism actually be lifted off of Islam and serve people of other traditions? Mind you, there are both fundamentalist Hindus and Christians who claim this cannot be done with Yoga, as I am sure there are Muslims who will say no. With all due respect to their sensibilities, I'm just exploring what that might means.

"If anybody asks what Sufism is, what kind of religion is it, the answer is that Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the thing of promary importance is to seek God in the heart of humankind."

Now, who could argue with that accent? Who could not use that as an incentive and goal? I can hear some folks thinking out loud that that is still a little vague. Here is something a little more solid. Hazrat Inayat teaches that there are three ways to seek God in the human heart: to recognize the divine in everyone and to be conisderate toward every person with whom we come into contact because for that reason; to think about the feelings of those who are not present--to speak well of those who are absent and sympathize with those who are far away; and finally to recognize in one's own feeling the feeling of God:

"to realize every impulse of love that rises in one's heart as a direction from God, to realize that love is a divine spark in one's heart, to blow that spark until a flame may rise to ilumine the path of one's life."

I actually asked a number of questions about the specific practice/technique of meditation and got some great answers. Certainly the marvelous practice of dhkr-repetition of a name or attribute of God/Allah. There as the deep teaching on fana and baqa--absorption and revival both in God/Allah and in one's sheikh. And then one teacher spoke, in connection with dhkr, about the three stages of prayer with words: dhkr, then fhkr and then fhkr al-sur. Forgive me if I have those transliterations wrong, but as she explained it, it was very much the same as Theophane the Recluse's stages in connection with in the Eastern Christian tradition of hesychast prayer: prayer on the lips, then it goes to the mind and rolls around there, until finally we "put the mind in the heart." (That works pretty well in connection with mantra meditation as well.) Of course in the Christian tradition this is when we say we discover the Holy Spirit already in us praying "Abba!", Jesus' own mantra and we join our prayer to the divine song of love that is the center of our own being.

One other person told me firmly that, even though it may seem like it sometimes among his followers, Hazrat Khan did not want to start a new religion, but simply wanted to offer the Sufi way as an inspiration to anyone from any tradition to find a new approach to their own tradition. So in this way, yes, a Sufi Christianity, a Jewish Sufism, a Buddhist Sufi are all in some way possible, though we may still be using the word in a way that would offend Muslims, and I think we have to be careful of that, or at least not consider the conversation ended. (The same with authentic pure blood Zen Buddhists and Hindu Yogis, not to mention the real mystics and students of the Kabbala, etc.)

If there is some universality in the Sufi message, and I think there undoubtably is, here is this one other long quote of Hazrat Inayat that I want to end with, that has some real teeth in it and is very inspiring for our work in the world:

"The Sufi message does not give a new law; it awakens humanity to the spirit of family, with tolerance on the part of each for the religion of the other, with forgiveness from each other for the fault of the other. It teaches thoughtfulness and consideration, so as to create and amintainharmony in life; it teaches service and usefulnessm which alone can make life in the world fruitful, and in this lies the satisfazction of every soul."