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The Essence of Sufism

by Pir Zia Inayat Khan

From a talk given at “The Power of Love” conference at Omega Institute, October 14, 2005. Pir Zia Khan is the grandson of Hazrat Inayat Khan and president of the Sufi Order International. Pir Zia has studied Buddhism under the auspices of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Sufism in the classical Indian tradition of the Chishtiyya.

We each come from a different background. Perhaps some of you are following a Sufi path in your own life and perhaps others are drawn to the name and wondering what this path of Sufism might be. If you’re in the latter category I thought it might be helpful to begin by saying something about the meaning of the term Sufism. Even if you’re in the first category it might be helpful. Because Sufism, it should be remembered first of all, is a neologism - a newly coined word. And I must say it’s not only a neologism but also a misnomer, a badly coined word, and that is because it contains an “ism” and the “ism” subverts the essential meaning of the word because an “ism” always suggests a closed community, an ideology, a doctrine -- and Sufism, in essence, is none of those things. So if we want to truly know what Sufism is it would be helpful to go back to the original word in Arabic which is tasawwuf. It’s not quite as easy to pronounce but it contains a more accurate meaning because it is a verbal noun, and so it refers to a process of becoming. It’s not static, but dynamic. Tasawwuf literally means the process of becoming a Sufi. So from the outset one understands that it is not a club to which you belong or do not belong, it is a transformative experience.

But then the question is: What is a Sufi? What is the end result of that process? Since the earliest days when this word came into currency -- tasawwuf and Sufi -- the Sufis have given their answers to the question, what is a Sufi? Each of those answers differs. Each of those answers is a facet of the single reality that is the meaning of being a Sufi. This evening I would like to share with you some of those definitions which are like Arabic koans that help to orient us in a process toward which we can only distantly perceive its goal. I’ve brought with me some of the definitions and I will read them in Arabic and also in translation.

The first is from a Sufi named Abu’l-Hasan Bushanji:

“Sufism today is a name without a reality that was once a reality without a name.”

That was said back in the eighth or ninth century.

And this from Ibn al-Jalla:

“Sufism is an essence, a truth. There is no form, no ritual, no custom in it. It is pure essence.”

These two sayings go together. Sufism was a reality that has now become a form, has now become a name that is no longer a reality. True Sufism is always a reality that eludes form. It can never be fully embodied in form and takes on all manner of forms, innumerable forms for its expression and manifestation. And yet its whole essence remains secret, hidden, beyond form. The Sufis have always recognized the process whereby a hidden secret is institutionalized, commodified and known to the world as a form while the Sufis themselves, in secret, concealed its essence and carried on. This has happened over the generations. Time after time a transmission has been passed down from person to person from heart to heart without intermediary, always from heart to heart.

If you think about your family history -- you can perhaps identify some oral traditions in your family -- family customs and memories. How far can those be traced back? Two or three or four generations? Can you imagine a tradition that has been passed down, without form, but continuously and without interruption, as the primary imperative of the life of each of its carriers, over millennia? That is the formless tradition that is alluded to in these sayings.

Of course, it’s not to say that Sufis haven’t written books. The very same Sufis who said that it could never be put into words went on to write multi-volume encyclopedias. But at the end of the day, they knew that words fail. 

I am sure you here are all familiar with the eloquence of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great poet. He was a professor in Konya and he used to teach his students with big piles of books stacked up in front of him. One day a seeming madman blew in from the dessert and rather rudely interrupted the class. He came to the front and, pointing at the books, said, “What’s all of this?”

Rumi couldn’t be bothered by a foolish question like that and said, “You don’t know.” He gestured to him to sit in the back and there Shams, the dervish, sat. Suddenly the pages of the books started to burn. Great flames were leaping from the desk. Rumi jumped up and said, as he looked at Shams, “What is this!”

Shams replied, “You don’t know.”

Ultimately, transcendent knowledge can never be encapsulated in words and is always passed down from heart to heart.

Here is the next definition, from Abu’l-Hasan al-Nuri, a great early Sufi:

“Sufism is not rituals and forms and is not bodies of knowledge, not doctrines, not ideas, not theories. But it is impeccable manner, the manner of the lover in the presence of the Beloved.”

That is the very essence of the law. The religious law exists to keep us in check when we are unaware of the presence of the Beloved. When one is in the awesome intimacy of the Beloved, one’s behavior rises to a degree of perfection that is otherwise unattainable. Probably you have all noticed in your own life that you behave according to different standards depending on who you are with. And the one that you most idealize, the one who is most beloved, in the presence of that one, you are on your best behavior. Sufism, then, is living life in that constant presence.

There was a Sufi murshid (teacher) once in India who said to his students, “Unfortunately the time has come that we have to change our tactics. Until now we’ve just been receiving alms from whomever will spontaneously give, but things have become very difficult and now I will have to ask you to take something surreptitiously. Go out and steal something. The one provision is that you can’t do it when anyone is looking.”

People came back with all kinds of things: someone had a chicken and someone else brought a purse, and only one of the students came back with empty hands. And the murshid said, “I gave you very clear orders to steal something and you have brought back nothing!”

The student said, “I had to obey your caveat not to do it when anyone was looking, and God was looking everywhere.”

This, then, relates to the next definition, which is again from that very great early Sufi, Abu’l-Hasan al-Nuri.

“The Sufi is one who possesses nothing and is possessed by nothing.”

In the East you will find fakirs who interpret this very literally. They possess nothing. They are wandering mendicants who own nothing. And there are others who live in palaces in great opulence but are completely detached from the wealth, ready to release it at any moment. They are playing a role in the world. That is the essence of what is meant by not possessing and not being possessed. Possessing means grasping, being addicted, being unable to part from something. The Sufi is addicted, being unable to part with only one thing and that is the One Being who is ever-present and can never be lost or stolen. So one finds that the less one possesses, psychically possesses, the less one is possessed. Because all the things of life, as one collects them, just weigh one down. Of course, there will come a time, whether in this life or in the next when everything, item by item, will have to be released. It can be voluntary or involuntary.

This lesson was learned by a very great early Sufi whose name was Ibrahim Adham Balkhi. He was the king of Balkh which was a kingdom in Afghanistan. At that time it was a rich, composite culture in Afghanistan which included a strong Buddhist element. I am sure you are familiar with those incredible Buddha monuments that were destroyed by the Taliban regime that were the legacy of that period. And Ibrahim Adham himself was a saint in the footsteps of the Buddha. If you study the Sufi tradition you will find the trace of Buddhism. The Sufis in their Persian poetry speak of the but 1, the idol, as a manifestation of the divine beloved. And this word but comes from Buddha.

Like Buddha, Ibrahim Adham was a great king living in opulence. Of course, each of us in this contemporary era live, by comparison to the people of former times, like kings. So in some sense, Ibrahim Adham was a person just like any one of us. But he was the king of the court of a mighty kingdom. And this king was visited by another strange mystic from the dessert. This was Khizr, the green man of the dessert. He blew in, evaded the guards, and made his way into the inner court. Instead of bowing in obeisance as was the protocol, he impudently went up to the throne. The king was deeply offended and said, “What brings you to the court of the great king?”

And Khizr replied, “Oh, I’m just passing through this caravanserai,” which means motel. You can imagine how angry the king was to hear his palace called a motel.

He said, “How dare you say that!”

And Khizr said, “Well, who sat on that throne before you?”

The king answered, “My father.”

Khizr said, “And before him?”

“His father,” said the king.

“And before him?”

“His father.”

And Khizr replied, “And you mean to tell me that this isn’t a motel with people constantly coming and going all the time?”

Suddenly a revelation came to the king. He realized that all he had invested himself in, his persona of grandeur and wealth and power, was ephemeral; it was trifling in the grand scheme of things. He was just passing through a motel. The words of Khizr went straight into his heart, like a barb. He was compelled to leave his crown and his throne and live as a wandering dervish. For many years he wandered. One time, he came upon a dervish who was complaining about his poverty and the ex-king said, “You must have bought your poverty very cheaply.”

The dervish said, “Does one buy poverty?”

Ibrahim Adham said, “I paid all the wealth in the world and still I feel I got a very good deal.”

Then he became a disciple of Fuzail bin Ayaz who was a highway robber turned Sufi. There at the khanqua, he was made to renounce his false pride. His murshid, his teacher, was very strict with him, and he made him carry out the garbage; this, for a man who was pampered all his life. But Ibrahim Adham took it in stride and carried the garbage. The other students couldn’t bear to see that great noble being subjected to humiliation so they said, “Please, take it easy on him.”

The murshid said, “Well, alright, we'll have a test.”

He sent someone to knock over the garbage while Ibrahim Adham was carrying it. The former king looked at him very sternly and said, “When I was king, I would have never put up with that.”

This report went back to the murshid and he said, “He’s not ready yet.”

Some months later, they did it again. This time, Ibrahim Adham just looked at the one who knocked over the garbage. When he heard this report, the murshid said, “Hes still not ready.”

Then, finally, months later when they again knocked over the garbage, Ibrahim Adham didn’t even look to see who did it. He just picked up the garbage and continued with his chore. His murshid went and embraced him and gave him a very high initiation. He became successor in that order. In fact, that is the order that we are continuing in this line. So he followed in the footsteps of the Buddha who was also a great king who renounced his worldly position to discover an eternal reality.

Here is another definition of Sufism:

“The Sufi is the possessor of breaths.” 

The previous definition said the Sufi does not possess anything. This is an exception to the rule. “The Sufi is the possessor of breaths.” “The one who breathes well” is another translation or “The one who is awake to the breath.” You know it is an idea in the East that each person is born on earth with a certain limited number of breaths. Some yogis try to extend their breath, slow down the breath, so they will live much longer. Well, the same principle applies here, but it is not extending the breath in time, but extending the breath beyond time, making each instant, in the awakened breath, eternal. It is through the breath that we attain presence and through the neglect of the breath that we are absent. My grandfather was told by his murshid that in this path of Sufism there is only one sin and one virtue. The sin is the breath that escapes in forgetfulness and the virtue is the breath that is breathed in awareness of the unity of being. It is as simple as that. Just one lesson in Sufism: each breath to be breathed in remembrance of the One Being. It is something very simple, but it is a lifetime study.

And now another definition from Abu Muhammad Murta’ish:

“The Sufi is the one whose thought keeps pace with his footstep. The one who is where she stands. The one who is present here with feet firmly planted on the earth. The one in whom body and soul are united in presence, in awareness.”

To illustrate this I will share a story -- this time from my own life. As a child I was living in India and studying breath and movement, the subject of the above definitions. I was studying with a teacher of Tai Chi from Japan. He was teaching me the movements of a particular form. Everyday we would work together. After some months like this, he told me, “You have attained a certain proficiency in this form and it is now time that we invite our friends and have a demonstration of this form.”

We did this on the roof of the Tibetan National Library in Dharamsala, a very auspicious place to do Tai Chi, and gathered some good friends. He was doing the movement and I was doing the movement. As we were doing so, I suddenly felt a little itch on my neck right at the jugular vein. I very gently deviated from the movements, and brought the fingers down over my neck and then brought them forward. And then I could see there was a black scorpion with its stinger poised to strike. At that moment the consciousness of breath, the consciousness of movement -- all that was lost. I dropped the scorpion. But I wondered how did the scorpion get from the ground to my neck? It must have crawled all the way up.

I just thank meditation for saving my life. I can truly say from that experience that meditation saved my life, that the awareness of breath, the awareness of the soul in the body, something that is inculcated in Tai Chi allowed me to be in a state in which the scorpion felt no animosity. So that has been a profound lesson that has lived with me ever since. And I think it applies to many situations, not only deadly insects, but all kinds of adversity in the world. The greatest protection that is possible is the serenity of the awakened breath.

Here is another definition -- a very wonderful and provocative saying:

“He is a Sufi whose religion is God.” 

Not Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, any ism. The religion itself is just God. God is the religion. A religion is an accommodation in which one can more and more orient to the divine presence as it transpires in the horizon and in oneself. The attainment of a state of mystical realization is one in which one’s religious obligation is directed to that reality. So one follows a religion whose forms are every form. Every revealed tradition is an element of this universal religion which is the divine religion that encompasses all of the human traditions that are reflecting its one light.

This is the universality of Sufism and the universality of every mystical tradition in its essence. A reality, not a ritual, not a form. The essence is always the reality behind the form. It is always illuminating to recall the words of Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn al-‘Arabi who says,

“Beware confining yourself to a particular conception and denying all else, for much good would elude you. Indeed the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself a substance for all forms, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one form of belief rather than another.”

That is a direct quote from Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn al-‘Arabi from his Fusus al-Hikam and one that speaks in a very relevant and timely way in our time when humanity is struggling to find a common spiritual language that transcends the boundaries of difference. Not merely a globalized market but a globalized spirit.

Here is another definition. Al-Shibli was a great mad friend of al-Hallaj. When al-Hallaj was sentenced to death and people were throwing stones at him, al-Shibli threw a rose. He used to frequent the asylums of his day. People weren’t sure if he was totally mad or totally sane. He said:

“A Sufi does not see in the two worlds, in this world and the hereafter, anything with God except God. Nothing in addition to God.”

In every situation, in every place, at every time, in every relationship, the Sufi keeps coming back to the One and sees the innumerable masks as veils on the face of a single infinite personality, divine being. Not for a single moment does the Sufi imagine that anything could be additional, recognizing immediately, intuitively, that everything is essentially singular in its essence. The Sufi recognizes that this whole manifestation is one phantasmagoria that is the refraction and reflection of a single Light.

A Sufi teacher was once speaking in this way in a group like this. Afterward he was walking home and someone from the audience followed behind and took a stick and whacked him on the back. He looked back. That person who had whacked him said, “Gotcha! You said its all one but when I beat you, you turned to see who it was. The shaykh just smiled, “Yes. I knew it was all God. I just wanted to see what kind of an ignoramus God would choose to fulfill this act.” It does take the edge off one’s reactions when one knows that God is behind it all. You cannot really hold anything against anyone personally after a certain point.

And now finally, these words of Shaykh Abu Yazid Bistami:

“The Sufis are like infants in the bosom of God.”

To be a Sufi is to be in that state of reliance, assurance, loving resonance, non-individuated consciousness, feeling oneself enclosed in a loving embrace that is eternal and infinite and irrevocable, knowing the essence of reality to be not ambivalent but in truth essentially compassionate, accepting, forgiving, nurturing. Infinite mercy. Eternal compassion. These are no longer theories or wishful thinking but one’s essential experience, incontrovertibly true because one resides in the embrace of the Divine Love. And this is the true meaning of the title of the conference this weekend: “The Power of Love.”

God bless you.

1. Farsi  but:   Idol, image, statute; a beloved object.