Reading anything and everything in Sufism is like reading all kinds of books on different subjects without the necessary basis. It is a calamity, and, like indiscriminate medication, may make a man worse than before he started.
Hadrat Bahaudin Naqshband, from Idries Shah, "The Way of the Sufi"
So now I've finished "The Way of the Sufi", mentioned th' other day in our last entry.
The rest of it was less annoying, being small (mostly very very small) stories and paragraphs and aphorisms attributed to various persons. I do wonder how accurately the selections represent the larger body of writings that make up Sufi literature under various definitions, and how much is the stuff that best reinforces the collector's particular outlook; but that's inevitable (if, as it turns out, extremely germane).
The basic premise seems to be that, in all times and cultures, there have been people in possession of a higher sort of knowledge, and these people have worked, largely behind the scenes, to generally raise the level of human beings toward this higher sort of knowledge, because this is the "next step" in the purpose of humanity. Because people and cultures and places differ, these people have done different things, and taught different things, in different times and places, as appropriate. But most people are still far, far (far) from the higher sort of knowledge.
Two major themes in all this are worth special blathering about, I think:
- Most people are not only not in possession of the higher knowledge, they are not even in the proper state to receive and profit from it if they were in possession. People fool themselves in all sorts of ways, mistaking greed or narcissism or vanity for actual desire for knowledge, mistaking mere attraction or attachment for love, mistaking charlatans for wise teachers, mistaking mere hanging-on for real discipleship. All the ordinary person can really do is cultivate honesty and sincerity and a desire for knowledge, and hope a true Sufi happens by and does whatever is necessary.
- Because the Sufis change their actions and their teaching to fit conditions, and conditions always differ, Sufi teachings written for some occasion and audience may be of no value, or even harmful, to a different occasion and audience. Different Sufi teachings may seem to contradict each other, even though they are in fact, in ways that ordinary humans have no hope of seeing, aimed at the same goal.
Both of these positions are self-disrecommending in interesting ways.
The first seems clearly to imply that we can't ever know if we've actually found the higher knowledge. Someone who hasn't attained the higher knowledge can fool himself into thinking that he has, of course, but more remarkably it would seem that even someone who does have the higher Sufi knowledge can never actually know that he has it.
Why not? Well, since people are so good at fooling themselves, both the deluded ordinary person and the true Sufi think "ah, I have had these experiences, and I have this knowledge, and I have had these teachers, and I am a member of these associations of the wise, and from this I conclude that in fact I am a true Sufi, and have the higher knowledge."
The deluded ordinary person believes this falsely. The true Sufi believes it and is correct, but his evidence is exactly the same as the evidence that the delude ordinary person has.
Since the true Sufi believes the same thing, on the same evidence, as the deluded ordinary person, and the deluded ordinary person is mistaken, the evidence must not be sufficient to justify the belief, and therefore the true Sufi cannot be said to know (since his evidence is insufficient).
(This analysis is based on a simple notion of knowledge as justified true belief, which is of course known to be insufficient; but the same argument could be made, albeit with even more words, with for instance Nozick's Tracking Theory of knowledge, which is pretty good.)
Which is to say, the true Sufi, being honest with himself, would say "I believe that I am a true Sufi because I have this-and-such knowledge and belong to this-and-such Circle of the Wise, and have experiences this-and-such states; but that is exactly what the deluded ordinary person thinks; yow!".
And that's kind of fun. *8)
To get out of this quandry, we would have to have some agreed-upon criterion for some thing that the true Sufi can actually do with this higher knowledge that he has (attain inner peace, show great compassion, project laser-beams from his eyes, levitate goats, or whatnot); but at least the bits of Sufism that we get from Shah here don't tell us anything like that. So it's a problem.
The second theme above is one that also shows up in the Buddhist notion of Skillful Means, at least as it figures in say the Lotus Sutra. In both of these cases, what seem to be contradictions in doctrine, or critical differences between teachings that a sect says are both authoritative, are explained by saying "oh yeah, the Wise always say whatever it's best to say at the time, and that can be different, and even apparently contradictory, on different occasions".
The problem here is that once you've said this, you might as well give up, really. Anything else someone says after saying this might as well be random character-strings.
Language works, really, only because we can assume that in general people try to say what is true (modulo mutually-understood exceptions like fiction and metaphor), with only the occasional rare exception, in the form of lies that we have social measures to detect and deter.
But as soon as you say "I say whatever I think will have the best effect on the hearer at the time", or as soon as you praise someone else who says that, you're out of the language club.
So when in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha says "oh yeah, I talked about escaping suffering back then, because that's all that you were ready for, but the real truth is that you can become immortal Buddhas!", the natural response is "uh-huh, and why should I believe you this time?".
And when the Sufi teacher sends a questioner away with some simplistic answer, and when questioned by a disciple says "oh yeah, it wasn't exactly true, but that's all that he was ready for", the disciple will of course think "wow, I guess I can't believe anything the teacher says to me, either; I sure hope he knows what he's doing."
So just what is the greater knowledge, and just what is the aim toward which the Sufi have been secretly working all these millenia? Well, we don't know. And anything they say about it can't be trusted (or at least can't be trusted to be true), because by their own admission they say whatever will best futher the aim at the time.
For instance, if the ultimate aim of Sufism were (just as an example) for all of humanity to worship the rat-god Floon by getting themselves into certain esoteric mental states and then squeaking loudly, they presumably wouldn't tell us this, but might speak about (for instance) higher and purer forms of knowledge instead; and they wouldn't feel any guilt about this, because they aren't players of the language-game, but instead do whatever will most hasten the Great Day of Floon.
Less comically, whatever a Sufi writer writes about the ultimate aims of Sufism, and just what is "higher" about the higher knowledge, can't be taken at face value since, again, they are committed to saying whatever will most "help" the hearer, rather than whatever is true.
Which makes it tough, as a hearer, to decide in the first place whether or not one actually wants the help, or whether the Sufis and their higher knowledge are not something one is especially interested in after all. Can't tell, because by their own description the speech of the Sufi teachers is basically marketing, not truth-telling.
Which sounds a bit harsh put that way *8), but that's where I ended up after reading this.
It's easy to make a simple "Sufi is to Islam as Zen is to Buddhism" sort of analogy, but I don't think it quite flies. Zen does make some statements (obscure and somewhat paradoxical as they admittedly are) about what the end-goal is, and this attitude that the teachers work in secret to push the world in a certain unspecified direction, by saying whatever seems likely to work at the time, is pretty much absent.
So that's me blathering about "The Way of the Sufi" tonight. *8) If anyone has any other sources to recommend that might not have this air of self-disrecommendation, and any explicators who might not annoy me like Shah, I would as always be appreciative.
And Happy Boxing Day!
Good boxes to all.