The great Sufi figure, Ibn Arabi:
“My heart is a pasture for gazelles and a monastery of Christian monks; a temple for idols and the Ka’bah of pilgrims; the Tables of the Law in the Torah and the Book of Qur’an. I follow the religion of Love, wherever Love takes me; there is my religion and my faith.”
Notto Thelle, a Norwegian theologian relates this encounter:
Zen Master: Why have you come here? You Christians also have meditation and prayer.
Thelle: “Yes we do, but I wanted to see what Buddhists had to teach us.”
Zen Master: “Why are you so keen to learn about Buddhism–or indeed about Christianity?”
Thelle sat in silence for a while.
Zen Master: “It is raining outside tonight.”
They sat in silence. The rain fell gently on the moss and herbs in the monastery garden. Then came THE question.
Zen Master: “Is it Buddhism or Chrisianity that is raining?”
“All your theoretical thoughts about Buddhism and Christianity are separating you from the simple and fundamental matter.”
Self-styled atheist: “Jesus is a lot like Elvis to me. I love the guy. It’s his fan clubs that freak me out.”
Same atheist: “I wish all those suburban Christians would spend less energy in worshipping Jesus as God and more on living like Jesus.”
Bastami, an Iranian Sufi: “The thickest veils between the human being and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship, and the devotion of the devout.”
The Jesuit Desideri came to Lhasa in Tibet in 1716, one of the earliest Europeans to have reached Lhasa, He was granted permission to preach. Many came to talk with him because they were interested in what he had to say. Meanwhile, at almost the same time, Protestant Hugenots were driven from France by the Catholics and their books were burned.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Exactly who are you? What is the self? What is your identity? These three are really only one question which every spiritual tradition puts at the center of what it proposes. Society answers this question also: it gives you a number(actually many numbers); it points at you with a certain name and a certain description; it invites you to be unique through its various accouterments; it urges you to promote yourself through a resume; it holds up a mirror of pop culture for you to look at yourself and hopefully to gain approval; etc. etc.
Now the various spiritual traditions deal with the “problem of the self” in different ways and the language can seem non-comparable, as if they were actually speaking of different things. But there is an underlying commonality that needs to be pondered a bit–we certainly don’t want to be simplistic and say that all traditions are saying the same thing, but if we work at it we might discover some important points of this commonality.
There is a fancy, slick magazine with an ad that says: BE SOMEBODY .
Exactly what else can you be? And why do you need their product for that? But of course they are pointing at a false self, a construct of the ego that continually needs this or that product to prop it up. Advertising, marketing, capitalism as a whole is based on a false self and on keeping you focused on that false self.
John Daido Loori, an American Zen teacher: “So, what is the self? What is it that sits here? What is it that thinks and feels? What we usually call the ‘self’ is this bag of skin; we consider everything inside the bag of skin to be ‘me’ and everything outside of it to be the rest of the universe. When we separate ouselves from the rest of the universe, then, obviously, everything we need is out there, outside our self. And so, the consequences of the illusion of self are desire, thirst, craving, need–which in turn form the roots of suffering.”
The great Japanese Zen Master, Dogen: “The way of the Buddha is to know yourself, to know yourself is to forget yourself, to forget yourself is to be enlightened by all things.”
This is the Buddhist program in a nutshell. Of course each phrase of this statement needs a whole essay, but D.T. Suzuki has already written them!
This statement is an invitation to a sense of identity that is unbounded. And it is an invitation to live in the phenomenal world being aware of its incredible richness, beauty and mystery–because it no longer is mere material for your ego self to manipulate or exploit or possess.
The poet Robert Bly:
“The question is: Who is this whiny one inside us who wants to be happy all the time? In the Muslim tradition, that whiny one is called the nafs, which is the greedy soul. You can also call it the insatiable soul, the rapacious soul. That’s who’s running the war in Iraq right now, for example. The Sufis say the nafs is part of our ancient animal soul, which is determined to have food, power and sexuality and to stay alive, even to the detriment of those closest to us. So our spiritual life is a constant battle between the part of the soul that loves others and the part of the soul that will gladly eat them up in a moment.”
Sufis: When we reach perfect servanthood, it is God himself who says “I.”