Volume VIIIa - Sufi Teachings
THE SYMBOL OF THE CROSS
MANY THINK that this symbol has existed only from the time of Jesus Christ, and no doubt it became better known after the time of the Master; but in fact this symbol is an ancient one used at different times and in all ages by the mystics. It has many mystical meanings.
The cross shows a vertical and a horizontal line. Everything that exists has come from these two lines and extends vertically and horizontally, as may be seen in the leaf which develops in length and in breadth. In its first meaning, therefore, the cross is the symbol of manifestation; it belongs also to the journey towards the spiritual ideal, and no better picture could be given of this journey than a cross.
Then, whenever someone begins to speak or act for the truth, he finds his way barred; there is a cross standing in his way. Speak the truth before the nation, in the face of the world, and the cross, the bar will come from the nation or the world to oppose one. Thus another side of this mystery is the destiny, the life of a teacher: the cross signifies what he has to meet with when delivering the message of truth in the world.
There is still another great mystery of the cross which is very little understood. Everywhere outside us there is space – space being that which can accommodate, which can contain. But within us also there is space, a space which extends in another direction.
Besides these symbolical meanings the cross is a natural sign that man has always made either from his artistic faculty or from his reasoning faculty. It is the nature of light to spread its rays, especially when the light is in its perfection. By looking at the sun – at the setting sun in particular – one finds lines forming on the sky and on the earth: first there is one straight line, and if one watches carefully out of that first vertical line a horizontal line develops. By keen observation of light one realizes that it is the nature of light to form a perpendicular and a horizontal line; and if it is the nature of the external light to form a cross it is also the nature of the inner light. The external light is the reflection of the inner light, and it is the nature of the inner light that is expressed in the outer light; by this one can see that the inner light is not only manifested in the outer light, but that the outer light is the picture of the inner light.
We can also see by observing nature's forms – the form of a tree, of a plant, of a flower, the forms of the animals and birds, and in the end the most developed and finished form of the human being – that they all present a cross. One cross may be seen by observing the formation of man's head. Another cross is suggested by the whole human form. It is always a horizontal line and a perpendicular line that suggest the symbol of the cross, and there is no form that has not a horizontal and a perpendicular line; it is these two different aspects or directions which form the cross. In this way one can understand that in the mystery of form the cross is hidden.
Now coming to one of the first mysteries mentioned above, namely that man's journey towards spiritual progress can be pictured as a cross: in the first place man's ego, man's self, is his enemy and stands as a hindrance to his progress. Feelings such as pride, conceit, selfishness, jealousy, envy, and contempt are all feelings which hurt others, and which destroy one's own life and make it full of that misery which springs from that selfish personal feeling: the ego of man. The more egoistic, the more conceited he is, the more miserable a life he has in the world and the more he makes the lives of others miserable. This ego, or Nafs, is a natural development in man's life or heart: the more he knows of the world, the more egoistic he becomes; the more he understands and experiences the world, the more avaricious he is.
It is not that man brings his faults along with him when he is born. He arrives with innocence, with the smiles of the infant, the friend of everyone who comes near him, ready to cast his loving glance on everybody, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, friend or foe, attracted by beauty in all forms; and it is that quality in the infant which attracts, every soul. This shows that the same soul which comes with such purity of heart, purity of expression, beauty in every movement, develops in his nature as he grows up in the world all that is hurtful and harmful to himself and to others. It is in the world that, as he grows up, he creates his Nafs. Yet at the same time there is in the depths of the heart that goodness which is the divine goodness, that righteousness which man has inherited from the Father in heaven.
A longing for joy and rest and peace is in him, and this shows that in man there are two aspects: there is one nature which is in the depths of his heart; and there is another nature which has developed after his coming on earth. And then there arises a conflict, a struggle between these two natures, when the nature which belongs to the depths begins to feel that it yearns for something. It must have goodness from other people, it must have peace in life, and when it cannot find these the inner conflict arises. Man creates his own disharmony in his soul and then treats others in the same way; therefore he is neither satisfied with his own life, nor is he satisfied with others because he feels that he has a complaint against them, although it is caused mostly by himself. What he gives he takes back, yet he never realizes that. He always thinks that everybody should give him what he yearns for in the depths of his being: love, goodness, righteousness, harmony, and peace; but when it comes to giving he does not give because he lives in the other life he has created. This makes it plain that in every man a being is created, and that being is the Nafs; in point of fact it is the same as the conception of Satan found in all the scriptures and traditions.
People have often divided the world between two spirits: a small part of humanity for God, and a greater part of humanity for Satan, making the dominion of that Satan-spirit even more extensive than the dominion of God. But if one understands the meaning of the word Satan, one sees that it is this spirit of error which has been collected and gathered in man after his coming on earth, this Nafs, which acts as Satan, leading him continually astray and closing the eyes of his heart to the light of truth. As soon as a revolution comes in the life of a man, as soon as he begins to see more deeply into life, as soon as he begins to acquire goodness, not only by receiving it but by giving it, as soon as he begins to enjoy not only the sympathy of others, but the giving of sympathy to others, then comes a time when he begins to see this Satan-spirit as apart from his real original being, standing before him constantly in conflict with his natural force, freedom, and inclination; and then he sees that sometimes he can do what he desires, but at other times this spirit gets hold of him and does not allow him to do what he wishes. Sometimes he finds himself weak in this struggle, and sometimes he finds himself strong. The result is that when he finds himself strong in this battle he is thankful and satisfied; but when he finds himself weak in it he repents and is ashamed, and wishes to change himself.
This is the time when another epoch begins in the man's life, and from this time on there is a constant conflict between himself and that spirit which is his ego. It is a conflict, it is a kind of hindrance to his natural attitude, his natural inclination to do good and right; and he constantly meets with that spirit because it was created in his own heart and has become part of his being. It is a very solid and substantial being, as real as he feels himself to be and often more real, and something within him in the depths of his being is covered up by it. And this constant conflict between his real, original self and this self which hinders his spiritual progress, is pictured in the form of a cross.
This cross he carries during his progress. It is the ugly passions, the love of comforts, and the satisfaction in anger and bitterness that he has to fight first; and when he has conquered these the next trouble he has to meet is that still more subtle enemy of himself in his mind: the sensitiveness to what others say, to the opinion of others about himself. He is anxious to know everybody's opinion about him or what anybody says against him, or if his dignity or position is hurt in any way. Here again the same enemy, the Nafs, takes another stand, and the crucifixion is when that Nafs is fought with – until there comes an understanding that there exists no self before the vision of God.
It is this which is the real crucifixion; but with it there comes still another which always follows and which every soul has to experience, for the perfection and liberation of every soul depend on it. This is the crucifixion of that part of a man's being which he has created in himself and which is not his real self, although on the way it always appears that he has crucified his own self.
The mystery of perfection lies in annihilation, not annihilation of the real self, but of the false self, of the false conception which man has always cherished in his heart and has allowed to torture him during his life. Do we not see this among our friends and acquaintances? Those who attract us, and those whom we love and admire deeply, have always only one quality which can really attract us: personality. It is not only that their selflessness attracts us, but what repels us in the life of others is nothing but the grossness of the Nafs, or one might call it the denseness and hardness of that self-created spirit or ego.
The teaching of Christ when he said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit', is little understood. He does not mean poor in divine spirit, but poor in this self-created spirit; and those who are poor in this self-created spirit are rich in the divine spirit. Therefore one can call the Nafs the spirit of grossness; but a better word is ego.
There have always been two tendencies: one of sincerity, and the other of insincerity and falsehood. They constantly work together. The false and the true have always existed side by side in life and nature. Where there is real gold there is false; where there is a real diamond there is an imitation diamond, where there are sincere people there are insincere ones; and in every aspect of life – in a life of spirituality, in the acquisition of learning, in art or science – we can see both sincerity and insincerity. And the only way to recognize real spiritual development is by understanding the extent of selflessness; because however much a person pretends to spirituality and wishes to be godly or pious or good, nothing can hide his true nature. For there is the constant tendency of that ego to leap out; it will leap out from his control, and if he is insincere he cannot hide it. Just as the imitation diamond, however bright, is dull compared with the real one, and when tested and examined will prove to be an imitation, so real spiritual progress must be proved in the personality of a soul. It is the personality that proves whether a man has touched that larger realm where self does not exist.
The next and still greater mystery of the cross can be observed in the life of the messengers, the prophets, the holy beings. In the first place no one has entrance into the kingdom of God who has not been so crucified. There is a poem by the great Persian poet Iraqi, who tells us how he went to the gate of the Beloved and knocked at the door; and a voice answered, 'There is no place for anyone else in this abode. Go back to where you came from', and he went back. Then, after a long time, and after having gone through the process of bearing the cross and being crucified, he came again, this time full of that spirit of selflessness, and he knocked at the door and the word came, 'Who art thou?' and he said, 'Thyself alone, for no one else exists save thee. ' And God said, 'Enter into this abode for now it belongs to thee.' 1
It is this selflessness, to the extent that even the thought of self is no longer there, that it is dead, which is the recognition of God. One finds this spirit to a small extent in the ordinary lover and beloved, when a person loves another from the bottom of his heart. The one who says, 'I love you but only so much; I love you but I give you sixpence and keep sixpence for myself; I love you but I keep a certain distance, I never come closer; we are separate beings', his love is mixed with self. As long as that exists, love has not done its full work. Love accomplishes its work when it spreads its wings and veils man's self from his own eyes. That is the moment when love is fulfilled. And so it is in the life of the holy ones who have not only loved God by professing it or showing it, but to the extent that they have forgotten themselves. It is that state of realization of being which can be called a cross.
But then such souls have a cross everywhere; every move they make is a cross, a crucifixion. In the first place living in the world, a world full of falsehood, full of treachery and deceit and selfishness, every move they make, all their actions, everything they say and think prove that their eyes and hearts are open to something which is different from what the world is looking at. It is a constant conflict. It is living in the world, living among people of the world, and yet looking at a place which is different. Even if they tried to speak they could not. Words cannot express the truth; language is too inadequate to give a real conception of the ultimate truth. As it is said in the Vedanta, the world is Maya. Maya means something unreal; to these souls the world becomes most unreal as soon as they begin to see the real, and when they compare the world with this reality it seems even more unreal. No ordinary being can imagine to what an extent this world manifests itself to their eyes.
People in the world who are good yet without having arrived at spiritual perfection, who are sensitive, tender, and kind, see how the world treats them; how they are misunderstood, how the best is taken by the selfish, how the one who is generous has to give more and more, how the one who serves has to serve more and more, how the one who loves has to love more and more; and still the world is not satisfied. How jarring life is to these! And think of those who have arrived at such a stage of realization that there is a vast gulf between the real and the unreal, whose language when they arrive at that realization is not understood any more, so that they are forced to speak in a language which is not their own, and to say something different from what they are realizing. It is more than a cross. Not only Jesus Christ had a cross to bear; every teacher who has a portion of the message to give has his cross.
But then one may ask why the masters of humanity who have come throughout the ages and have had such a cross to bear did not go to the forests, to the caves, to the mountains; why did they stay in the world? Rumi has given a beautiful picture of this. He tells why the melody of the reed flute makes such an appeal to our hearts. It is, he says, because first it is cut away from its original stem, and then holes have been make in its heart so that the heart has been broken, and it begins to cry. And so it is with the spirit of the messenger, with the spirit of the teacher: by bearing and by carrying his cross, his self becomes like a reed, hollow. This makes it possible for the player to play his melody; when it has become nothing, the player uses it to play his melody. If there were still something there the player could not use it.
God speaks to everyone, not only to the messengers and teachers. He speaks to the ears of every heart, but it is not every heart that hears Him. His voice is louder than the thunder and His light is clearer than the sun – if one could only hear it, if one could only see. In order to hear and to see man should remove this wall, this barrier, which he has made of his self. Then he becomes the flute upon which the Divine Player may play the music of Orpheus which can charm even the hearts of stone; then he rises from the cross into the life everlasting.
1. similar story in Mathnawi I-3056-64, Jalaluddin Rumi