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Volume X - Sufi Mysticism

The Path of Initiation and Discipleship

Four Kinds of Discipleship

There are four kinds of disciples, of whom only one can be described as a real disciple. One kind is the disciple of modern times, who comes and says to his teacher, 'We will study this book together,' or, 'Have you read that book? It is most interesting,' or, 'I have learned from someone else before, and now I would like to learn what I can from you, and then I will pass on to something which is still more interesting.' Such a person may be called a student, but not yet a disciple. His spirit is not that of a disciple; it is the spirit of a student who goes from one university, from one college, to another, from one professor he passes into the hands of another. He may be well suited for such intellectual pursuits, but the spirit of the disciple is different.

Then there is another type who thinks, 'What I can get out of him I will get. And when I have collected it, then I shall use it in the way I think best.' Well, his way is that of a thief who says, 'I will take what I can from the purse of this person, and then I shall spend it for my own purpose.' This is a wrong attitude because spiritual inspiration and power cannot be stolen. A thief cannot take them. If he has this attitude, such a disciple may remain with a teacher for a hundred years and still leave empty-handed. There are many in this world today who make intellectual theft their occupation; anything intellectual they find, they take it and use it. But they do not know what harm they do by this attitude. They paralyze their minds and they close their own spirit.

Then there is a third wrong tendency of a disciple: to keep back something which is most essential, namely, confidence. He will say, 'Tell me all you can teach me, all I can learn, give me all that you have.' However, in his mind he says, 'I will not give you my confidence, for I do not yet know if this road is right or wrong for me. When you have taught me, I shall judge, then I shall see what it is. But until then, I do not give you my confidence, though my ears are tuned to your words.' This is a third wrong tendency. As long as a disciple will not give his confidence to his spiritual guide, he will not get the full benefit of his teaching.

The fourth kind is the right kind of discipleship. This does not come by just thinking that one would like to go on the spiritual path, or that one would like to be a disciple, a mureed, a chela. There comes a time in every person's life when circumstances have tried him so much that he begins to feel the wish to find a word of enlightenment, some counsel, some guidance, a direction on the path of truth. When the values of all things and beings are changing in his eyes, that is the time he begins to feel hungry for spiritual guidance. Bread is meant for the hungry, not for those who are quite satisfied.

If a person like this goes in search of a teacher, then he takes the right step. However, there is a difficulty. If he wants to test the teacher first, then there is no end to the testing. He can go from one teacher to another, from the earthly being to the heavenly being, testing everyone, and in the end, what will he find? Imperfection. He is looking for it, and he will find it. Man is an imperfect being, a human being, a limited being. If he wants to find perfection in a limited being, he will always end up being disappointed with whoever he meets, whether it is an angel or a human being. If he were simple enough to accept any teacher that came his way and said, 'I will be your mureed,' then it would be easier, although this is perhaps not always practicable.

Someone asked a Brahmin, 'Why do you worship a god of rock, an idol of stone? Look, here I am, a worshipper of the God who is in heaven. This rock does not listen to you, it has no ears.' And the Brahmin said, 'If you have no faith, even the God in heaven will not hear you; and if you have faith, this rock will have ears to hear.'

The middle way and the best way is to consult one's own intuition and inspiration. One's intuition may say, 'I will seek guidance from this teacher, whether he is raised high by the whole of humanity, or whether he is looked at with contempt and prejudice by thousands, I do not care.' Then one follows the principle of constancy in adhering to that one teacher. But if a person is not constant on the spiritual path, he will naturally have difficulty in the end. For what is constancy? Constancy is the reflection of eternity. And what is truth? Truth is eternity, and so in seeking for truth, one must learn the principle of constancy.

The disciple has to have full confidence in the teacher's guidance, in the direction that is given to him by the teacher. The Buddhists who regard a spiritual teacher with great reverence say, 'We do not care whether he is well-known or not. Even if he is, we do not know if he will accept our reverence. If he receives it, we are not sure he needs it.' Worship can only be given to those whose presence we are conscious of; and it is especially intended for the spiritual teacher, for he shows us the only path that frees us from all the pains of this life. That is why amongst all other obligations involving earthly gain and benefit, the obligation to the spiritual teacher is the greatest, for it is concerned with the liberation of the soul on its journey towards Nirvana, which is the only desire of every soul.

The teacher does not always teach in plain words. The spiritual teacher has a thousand ways. It may be that by his prayers, he can guide his disciple. It may be that by his thought, his feeling, or his sympathy, even at a distance, he may guide him. Therefore, when a disciple thinks that he can be taught only by words or teachings, by practices or exercises, it is a great mistake.

In order to get the right disciples and the right people to come to him, a Sufi who lived in Hyderabad made a wonderful arrangement. He got a grumpy woman to sit just near his house; and to anyone who came to see the great teacher, she would say all kinds of things against the teacher about how unkind he was, how cruel, how neglectful, how lazy. There was nothing she would leave unsaid. As a result, out of 100, 95 would turn back, they would not dare to come near him. Perhaps only five would come wanting to form their own opinion about him. The teacher was very pleased that the 95 went away, for what they had come to find was not there, it was somewhere else.

There is another side to this question. The first thing the teacher does is to find out what the pressing need of his disciple is. Certainly, the disciple has come to seek after truth and to be guided to the path of God; but at the same time, it is the psychological task of the teacher to give his thought first to the pressing need of his disciple, whether the disciple speaks of it or not. The teacher's effort is directed towards removing that first difficulty because he knows it to be an obstacle in the disciple's way. It is easy for a soul to tread the spiritual path because it is the spiritual path that the soul is looking for. God is the seeking of every soul, and every soul will make its way naturally, providing that there is nothing to obstruct it. So, the most pressing need is the removal of any obstruction. Thus, a desire can be fulfilled, it can be conquered, or it can be removed. If it is fulfilled, so much the better. If it is not right to fulfill it, then it should be conquered or removed in order to clear the way. The teacher never thinks that he is concerned with his disciple only in his spiritual progress, in his attainment of God. For, if there is something blocking the way of the disciple, it will not be easy for the teacher to help him.

There are three faculties which the teacher considers essential to develop in the disciple: deepening the sympathy, showing the way to harmony and awakening the spirit of beauty. One often sees that without being taught any particular formula or receiving any particular lesson on these three subjects, the soul of a sincere disciple will grow under the guidance of the right teacher, like a plant that is carefully reared and watered every day, every month, and every year. Without knowing it himself, he will begin to show these three qualities: the ever-growing sympathy; the harmonizing quality increasing every day more and more; and the expression, understanding and appreciation of beauty in all of its forms.

One may ask, is there no going backwards? Well, sometimes there is a sensation of going backwards, just as when one is at sea and the ship may move in such a way that one sometimes has the feeling that one is going backwards, although one is really going forwards. One can have the same sensation when riding on an elephant or a camel. When in the lives of some disciples this sensation is felt, it is nothing but a proof of life. Nevertheless, a disciple will often feel that since he became a disciple he finds many more faults in himself than he had ever seen before. This may be so, but it does not mean that his faults have increased; it only means that now his eyes have opened wider so that every day he sees many more faults than before.

There is always a great danger on the spiritual path that the disciple has to overcome – he may develop a feeling of being exalted, of knowing more than other people, of being better than other people. As soon as a person thinks, 'I am more,' the doors of knowledge are closed. He will no more be able to widen his knowledge because automatically, the doors of his heart are closed the moment he says, 'I know.' Spiritual knowledge, the knowledge of life, is so intoxicating, so exalting, it gives such a great joy, that one begins to pour out one's knowledge before anyone who comes along as soon as this knowledge springs up. But if at that time the disciple could realize that he should conserve that kindling of the light, reserve it, keep it within himself and let it deepen, then his words would not be necessary and his presence would enlighten people. As soon as the spring rises and he pours forth what comes out of that spring in words, although on the one side his vanity will be satisfied, on the other side his energy will be exhausted. The little spring that had risen, he has poured out before others and he remains without power. This is why reserve is taught to the true disciple, the conserving of inspiration and power. The one who speaks is not always wise; it is the one who listens who is wise.

During discipleship, the first period may be called the period of observation. In this, the disciple, with a respectful attitude, observes everything good and bad, right and wrong, without expressing any opinion about them. Every day this reveals to the disciple a new idea on the subject. Today he thinks it is wrong, but does not say so; tomorrow he wonders how it can be wrong. The day after tomorrow he thinks, 'But can this really be wrong?' On the fourth day, he may think that it is not wrong, and on the fifth day he may think that it is right. He may follow the same process with what is right, if only he does not express himself on the first day. It is the foolish who always readily express their opinions; the wise hold their opinions to themselves. By holding their opinions back, they become wiser every day; by expressing their opinions, they continually become less wise.

The second thing that is most important for the disciple is learning. How is he to learn? Every word the disciple hears coming from the lips of the teacher is a whole sacred book. Instead of reading a sacred book of any religion from beginning to end, he has taken in one word of the teacher, and that is the same. By meditating upon it, by thinking about it, by pondering upon it, he makes that word a plant from which fruit and flowers come. A book is one thing, and a living word is another. Perhaps a whole book could be written by the inspiration of one living word of the teacher. Besides, the disciple practices all the meditations given to him, and by these exercises, he develops within him that inspiration, that power which is meant to be developed in the disciple.

The third step forward for the disciple lies in testing the inspiration, the power that he has received. One might ask, how can one test it? Life can give a thousand examples of every idea that one has thought about. If one has learned from within that a certain idea is wrong or right, then life itself is an example that shows why it is wrong or why it is right.

If a person does not become enlightened, then one can find the explanation by watching the rain. It falls upon all trees, but it is according to the response of those trees that they grow and bear fruit. The sun shines upon all the trees, it makes no distinction between them. However, it is according to the response that the trees give to the sun that they profit by its sunshine. At the same time, a mureed is very often an inspiration to the murshid. It is not the murshid who teaches, it is God who teaches. The murshid is only a medium, and as high as the response of the mureed reaches, so strongly does it attract the message of God.

The mureed can be inspired, but he can also cease to inspire. If there is no response on his side, or if there is antagonism or lack of interest, then the inspiration of the murshid is shut off; just like the clouds which cannot produce a shower when they are above the desert. The desert affects them; but when the same clouds are above the forest, the trees attract them and the rain falls.

The attributes of the disciple are reserve, thoughtfulness, consideration, balance and sincerity. Special care should be taken that during the time of discipleship, one does not become a teacher; for very often, a growing soul is so eager to become a teacher that before he has finished the period of discipleship he becomes impatient. It should be remembered that all the great teachers of humanity, such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad and Zarathushtra, have been great pupils; they have learned from the innocent child, they have learned from everyone, from every person that came near them. They have learned from every situation and every condition of the world. They have understood and they have learned. It is the desire to learn continually that makes one a teacher, and not the desire to become a teacher. As soon as a person thinks, 'I am something of a teacher,' he has lost ground. For there is only one teacher: God alone is the Teacher, and all others are His pupils. We all learn from life what life teaches us. When a soul begins to think that he has learned all he had to learn and that now he is a teacher, he is very much mistaken. The greatest teachers of humanity have learned from humanity more than they have taught.

checked 18-Oct-2005