Revisiting Some Old Friends

It is summertime and a good moment in which to reacquaint ourselves with some old spiritual friends.  On the monastic path it is often not so much of “going forward” all the time but more of circling around and around certain fundamental truths until it dawns on you what they are saying.  So here’s just a few for consideration.



Lao Tzu


Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long,

true power seems weak,

true purity seems tarnished,

true steadfastness seems changeable,

true clarity seems obscure,

the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

the greatest love seems indifferent,

the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.

Yet it nourishes and completes all things.



The paradoxes of Taoism are more powerful and more comprehensive than even those of John of the Cross or of the other apophatic mystics. Notice how it all depends on “seems”–a matter of perception.  So who is doing the perceiving?  Thus the ego cannot traverse the path of the Tao—can’t even see it!!  

 It is a shame that Taoism never really develops but deteriorated over the centuries into a kind of  pop magic-religio concoction.  Apart from Lao Tzu (whose historical reality is even doubted–but then somebody wrote this!) and Chuang Tzu and a number of poets and mystics, Taoism at its roots remains a mysterious way–not surprisingly preferring to be nameless most of the time and of help to those who are on the Way without any name themselves.




Another great old friend is the Sufi Master Ibn Arabi.  Here he details the four stages of development in a Sufi:

(as condensed by Nasr)


  1. At the level of the law(shariah) there is “yours and mine.”  Individual rights and ethical relations.
  2. At the level of the Sufi path (tariqah), “mine is yours and yours is mine.”  Dervishes are brothers and sisters–open their homes, their hearts and  their purses to one another.
  3. At the level of Truth (haqiqah), there is “no mine and no yours.”  The advanced Sufis at this level realize that all things are from God, that they are really only caretakers and that they “possess” nothing.  Those who realize Truth have gone beyond attachment to possessions and beyond attachment to externals in general, including fame and position.
  4. At the level of Gnosis (marifah), there is “no me and no you.”  At this final level, the Sufi has realized that all is God, that nothing and no one is separate from God.


What can you say?  What can you add?  It is so simple and lucid, and also at the same time beyond any real comprehension.  For it is easy to mouth these words, but quite another to know their reality.  Another thing  note their universality–just as with Lao Tzu there is nothing here that is incompatible with the Gospel; indeed, it seems more like a fulfillment of the Gospel!  I suppose most religiosity operates at Level 1.  One would hope that Christian monasticism can at least bring a person to Level 2, at least to the level of your basic Dervish community!  With Level 3 we are at the more individual, personal level, heart level, and this is the beginning of true mysticism.  Lived rightly (and that’s a big IF!) one would hope that the monastic way would bring a person to that level eventually.  As for Level 4, well, very few make it.  The great modern Sufi master, Shaikh al-‘Alawi, said that only one in ten thousand Sufis get to this level.  Or as Han-shan would put it:  “Try and make it to Cold Mountain!”




From the venerable Ramana Maharshi:


We loosely talk of Self-realization, for lack of a better term.  But how can one real-ize or make real that which alone is real?  All we need to do is to give up our habit of regarding as real that which is unreal.  All religious practices are meant solely to help us do this.  When we stop regarding the unreal as real, then reality alone will remain, and we will be that.


Ah, if only it were that simple!  The “unreal” is not some “ghostly” mirage or delusion.  It is actually our daily world when we see it apart from God—when we see it only from the standpoint of our ego self.  The hurly-burly busy world of our urban centers is truly unreal in that in all that frenetic activity no one realizes that God is right there and that’s all that matters.  If that realization should hit everyone, then all that activity would stop–what’s the point of it?  The basis of civilization and culture would change.  Human beings would spend their time in prayer, contemplation, reflection, adoration of the Real, working just enough to maintain life….the world would be one big monastery!  Not that present monasteries aren’t caught up in the “unreal”! 





And we must never forget Merton:


“I am the utter poverty of God.  I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness.  When this is understood, my life in His freedom, the self-emptying of God in me is the fullness of grace.  A love for God that knows no reason because He is the fullness of grace.  A love for God that knows no reason because He is God; a love without measure; a love for God as personal.  The Ishvara appears as personal in order to inspire this love.  Love for all, hatred of none is the fruit and manifestation of love for God–peace and satisfaction.  Forgetfulness of worldly pleasure, selfishness and so on in the love for God, channeling all passion and emotion into the love for God.”


No need for comment here.





Then a very rare, little known figure from the Middle Ages, Marguerite Porete who wrote a thing called “The Mirror of Simple Souls”:


“If that soul had all the knowledge of God ever possessed or to be possessed by any creature, she would deem it nothing compared to what she loves, which never has been and never will be known.  She loves in God that which is in him and has never been imparted more than she loves that which she had already received from him or will ever receive. The soul is not drunk on what she has drunk, but on what she never has drunk and never will drink.  It is the beyond that has intoxicated her.  It is with this that without drinking she is inebriated.  She is free, all-forgetting, all-forgotten, out of herself.”


This is one of Abhishiktananda’s favorite quotes, and he makes that word “beyond” one of his favorite words.  The Abyss of God is fathomless, limitless, infinite; and to plunge into it endlessly, ever being drawn “beyond”, ever deeper into an endless bliss….

Oh yes, by the way, poor Marguerite was burned at the stake as a heretic.  A woman claiming this kind of intimacy with God…could be dangerous.  The fact that she wrote things down  may indicate that she somehow was educated, and some scholars believe she was an influence on Eckhart.





Ancient Greek saying:  “When the gods want to punish us, they grant us our desires.”


“Brother Ancient Greek, you are not far off from Buddhahood.”





And to conclude, to those who are puzzled by enigmatic spiritual sayings and wonder what they mean, here’s a piece of advice:

Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz tells about the time he played a dissonant contemporary composition at a private gathering.  When he had finished, someone asked, “I just don’t understand what that composition means, Mr. Horowitz.  could you please explain?”  Without a word, Horowitz played the composition again, turned to his questioner, and announced, “That’s what it means!”

                Philip Kapleau
























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