Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Communicating Esoteric Knowledge

... I tend to view the conceptions of "action" and "contemplation" as pathways of spirituality distinguished by their emphasis upon one of these vocations but not necessarily in a mutually exclusive manner. Whereas the path of contemplation tends to emphasize the existential or inward realization of divine qualities, the path of action tends to emphasize their outward manifestation, typically through such efforts as those of social and environmental welfare and concern. In either case, a path of contemplation does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world and its concerns completely, just as a path of action is not necessarily void of contemplative depth, although both of these extremes are also possibilities. In the language of the Vedantists, the gnostic must cease to become attached to the "fruit" of his actions. This may mean that one must cease to become preoccupied with the concerns of the world in so far as they distract one from the remembrance of God, but not necessarily that one must forfeit one's occupation in doing so.

This is a consideration of the subject in general, however, whereas you have invited the consideration of a specific situation, that is, how can I contribute what I have learned of esoteric teachings to my exoteric community, a question that I have encountered frequently in different forms and from various angles of approach among those exposed to the writings of the traditionalists. There is a tendency to be so enthusiastic about these insights as to naturally want others to benefit from them also. I have found that it is useful to pose an introspective question in such instances, specifically what are your motivations? Are you genuinely motivated by the interests of others or is there a subtle self-serving motive involved? For myself, I have found that if my convictions are strong enough that they do not require the collective support of others as an external validation, I can stand alone in my convictions, conversing with people according to their own aptitudes. When I encounter those inclined toward the consideration of metaphysical knowledge, we may engage in many interesting and mutually beneficial conversations on these subjects. If I were to try to engage in such conversations with those who do not possess these inclinations, however, the result may be a burdensome if not intolerable exchange. According to Baba Afdal al-din Kashani in his Advice to Seekers of Wisdom, "They should not sit and converse with anyone in other than that person's manner and path, for, if they speak of knowledge with the ignorant or of serious matters with the shameless, they have tormented their sitting companion and boonfellow." Ultimately, our own ability to convey esoteric knowledge to those around us, if it is not to be limited to theoretical discourse open only to those with the necessary mental capability, is predicated upon our own level of realization of or existential participation in that knowledge. If it has transcended the merely theoretical and been assimilated into the existential, it is through our being that we may then communicate it. In the context of social relations, this consists essentially of the outward expression of the virtues which are the the subjective manifestations of objective divine qualities and the means by which we come to embody esoteric knowledge. To reply to your question, then, "Can I, as a seeker, contribute to the community that housed me allowing me to discover the traditionalist sages, even though they may not understand or agree with the perspectives?", we may answer yes, if conveying your knowledge you do so in the "manner and path" that is common to all people, specifically, through practice of spiritual chivalry.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

About the Title

The title of this weblog is taken from the visionary treatise al-Qissat al-ghurbat al-gharbiyyah ("The Story of the Occidental Exile") written by the great Persian Ishraqi philosopher Shihab al-din Suhrawardi. It presents a development of the universal theme of the alienation of the human being from his spiritual home represented by the Orient as the source of the rising light of dawn. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr commenting on this work, "the universe becomes a crypt through which the seeker after truth must journey, beginning with this world of matter and darkness into which he has fallen and ending in the Orient of lights, the original home of the soul, which symbolizes illumination and spiritual realization." The themes of exile and imprisonment have long held particular fascination for me due to their reflection of my nostalgia for the luminous realm of paradise in the presence of my Creator prior to entering into this world. They represent the paradoxical nature of the human state wherein God is veiled from us only through the corrugations of the soul and the opacity of the ego. This veil of separateness and illusion causes Him to appear distant when in reality "We are nearer to him than his jugular vein." (50:16)

Evolution: Framing the Debate

Unfortunately, I did not share your sentiments as I read the article (Man vs. God). Instead of experiencing a serious and balanced discussion, I instead bore witness to an otherwise seemingly serious scholar descend into the realm of vulgar journalism and debate. One of the primary problems that I perceived deterring from the establishment of a preliminary balance of positions is the centrality of the theory of evolution. Rather than basing a discussion on such a subject as cosmogenesis or anthropogenesis and then presenting the contrary viewpoints of religion and modern science, the center stage is given to evolution with Dawkins eulogizing it and Armstrong taking a "reactionary" position which as you stated makes too many concessions. Regarding the nature of the reactionary position according to Guenon, ... [see Social Action and Reaction]

In the field of academic religious studies of which Armstrong is a scholar, the reactionary position is represented by the emphasis placed upon what is referred to as "the hermeneutics of suspicion". It consists of placing great value upon the criticisms of religion made by its greatest opponents, people such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. The rationale for such an emphasis is that it serves as a counterpoint to many of the uncritically accepted beliefs of popular religion and for the non-secular scholar that it may serve as a gauge to strengthen weaknesses in apologetics.

From the beginning of her discussion, Armstrong establishes very clearly that she employs the hermeneutics of suspicion eliciting the aid of Darwin and Dawkins to clarify the traditional understanding of God. In doing so, her efforts have proved to be both inadequate and even counterproductive as her perspective degenerates into the position characterized by Karl Marx who described religion as an opiate of the masses. In turns, she portrays various elements of religion as a psychology, a therapy, a kind of art form, an attitude, and ultimately a convenient fiction useful for achieving peace of mind in a tumultuous world removed from direct access to spiritual realities of a transcendent nature.

I hesitate even to mention the performance of Richard Dawkins, but will do so only to take note of the prime example that it affords of the usurpation of religious sentiments. Karen Armstrong began by stating that "Richard Dawkins has been right all along ... Evolution has indeed dealt a death blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived." On the contrary, what it has done is not to deal a death blow, so much as give it a new name. To quote Dawkins, "Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguable the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated ... Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the non-random survival of randomly varying coded information." Dawkin's seems to be continually singing the same refrain, "there is no god but evolution, and Darwin is his prophet."

Ultimately, I cannot but feel that in entering into a perspective determined by the framework of this debate in her forthcomming book, The Case for God that Armstrong's scholarship is taking a turn for the worst.

Now, this article does raise a few interesting observations and questions ... First, I do not believe that it is possible to effectively enter into a debate on evolution from a reactionary perspective alone. In order to be effective, the entire framework must be changed and the centrality of the evolutionary position must be exchanged for a subject of mutual consideration as for example, cosmology or the emergence of species. Furthermore, it is not sufficient merely to deconstruct the evolutionist hypothesis as a means of discrediting it because it is not only the hypothesis that is in question but its function as a modern worldview accepted to explain the origins of the universe and of life. It is relatively simple to provide the main arguments against it (as summarized by Nasr, Stoddart, and others) but what also must be done is to provide a viable alternative as in the form of a (or the) traditional perspective. As a worldview, however convoluted, the theory of evolution provides a focus for the derivation of a sense of meaning such that it will prove impossible to remove it without first positing a more suitable foundation.

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I would like to share some further considerations from the work of Frithjof Schuon concerning the ideas that were introduced in this discussion. The present article demonstrates the "framing" of the evolution debate, to borrow a term of George Lakoff, within which the opposing critic and representative of religion must take a reactionary stance vis-a-vis the evolutionary propositions rather than expressing in a positive manner the traditional perspective. In his article "In the Wake of the Fall" Schuon describes the negative ramifications of this form of debate as follows:

"One of the effects of modern science has been to give reli­gion a mortal wound, by posing in concrete terms problems which only esoterism can resolve; but these problems remain unresolved, because esoterism is not listened to, and is listened to less now than ever. Faced by these new problems, religion is disarmed, and it borrows clumsily and gropingly the argu­ments of the enemy; it is thus compelled to falsify by im­perceptible degrees its own perspective, and more and more to disavow itself ... The absence of metaphysical or esoteric knowledge on the one hand, and the suggestive force emanating from scientific discoveries as well as from collective psychoses on the other, make religion an almost defenseless victim, a victim that even refuses more often than not to make use of the arguments at its disposal."

According to Schuon, the corresponding perspective of the cosmologia perennis, an appeal to which may explain the phenomena misinterpreted by the evolutionist hypothesis, is based upon the traditional teachings concerning ontological hierarchy. In "The Five Divine Presences", he wrote,

... all the philosophic and scientific errors of the modern world can be said to proceed essentially from the denial of the [traditional concepts relating to the cosmogonic emanations]. In other words, what invalidates modern interpretations of the world and of man at their very root and robs them of every possibility of being valid, is their monotonous and besetting ignorance of the supra-sensible degrees of Reality, or of the ‘five Divine Presences’. This is an observation which cannot escape anyone who is more than a simple logician of sensory experience.

In a discussion of the process of anthropogenesis wherein the ontological hierarchy is taken as the framework of explanation or debate, the traditional perspective may be expressed as in the following words of Titus Burckhardt from "Traditional Cosmology and the Modern World":

"Fundamentally, the evolutionist thesis is an attempt to replace, not simply the ‘miracle of creation’, but the cosmogonic process—largely suprasensory—of which the Biblical narrative is a Scriptural symbol; evolutionism, by absurdly making the greater derive from the lesser, is the opposite of this process, or this ‘emanation’ ... In a word, evolutionism results from an incapacity--peculiar to modern science—to conceive ‘dimensions’ of reality other than purely physical ones; to understand the ‘vertical’ genesis of species, it is worth recalling what GuĂ©non said about the progressive solidification of the corporeal state through the various terrestrial ages. This solidification must obviously not be taken to imply that the stones of the earliest ages were soft, for this would be tantamount to saying that certain physical qualities—and in particu­lar hardness and density—were then wanting; what has hardened and become fixed with time is the corporeal state taken as a whole, with the result that it no longer receives directly the imprint of subtle forms. Assuredly, it cannot become detached from the subtle state, which is its ontological root and which dominates it entirely, but the relationship between the two states of existence no longer has the creative character that it possessed at the origin; it is as when a fruit, having reached maturity, becomes surrounded by an ever harder husk and ceases to absorb the sap of the tree. In a cyclic phase in which corporeal existence had not yet reached this degree of solidification, a new specific form could manifest itself directly from the starting-point of its first ‘condensation’ in the subtle or animic state; this means that the different types of animals pre-existed at the level immediately superior to the corporeal world as non-spatial forms, but nevertheless clothed in a certain ‘matter’, namely that of the subtle world. From there these forms ‘descended’ into the corporeal state each time the latter was ready to receive them; this ‘descent’ had the nature of a sudden coagulation and hence also the nature of a limitation and fragmentation of the original animic form ... the process of materialization, from the supra-sensory to the sensory, had to be reflected within the material or corporeal state itself, so that one can say without risk of error, that the first generations of a new species did not leave a mark in the great book of earthly layers; it is therefore vain to seek in sensible matter the ancestors of a species, and especially that of man ... let it be recalled once more that the bodies of the most ancient men did not necessarily leave solid traces, either because their bodies were not yet at that point materialized or ‘solidified’, or because the spiritual state of these men, along with the cosmic conditions of their time, rendered possible a resorption of the physical body into the subtle ‘body’ at the moment of death."

It is only natural that an explanation as sophisticated as this and relying as it does upon esoteric theses cannot successfully enter into the realm of popular debate wherein effective communication is limited to the least common denominator of understanding and experience, namely, physical matter. Ultimately, it seems best to remember that the position of the simple believer in a literal interpretation of scriptural symbols but who nonetheless retains a sense of the sacred and of dependence upon God is much better than the alternative of the scientific-materialist who denies the reality of the spirit in the pursuit of concrete facts. According to Schuon again,

"From the point of view of total truth— let it be said once more—it is a thousand times better to be­lieve that God created this world in six days and that the world beyond lies beneath the flat surface of the earth or in the spinning heavens, than it is to know the distance from one nebula to another without knowing that phenomena merely serve to manifest a transcendent Reality which determines us in every respect and gives to our human condition its whole meaning and its whole content."

Social Action and Reaction

Your first question presupposes that Rene Guenon desired either to return society to a previous state or otherwise cause a radical change within its present structure but this is incompatible with the traditional teachings concerning cyclic laws. In the context of these laws the decadence of humanity as with their social institutions is an inevitable outcome of the progression of the ages leading from a Golden Age or Satya Yuga to the present Iron Age or Kali Yuga. This process can be represented as that of a winding-down or solidification of the world prior to a renewal.

Although the majority of the writings in these books deal with what may be called synthetic assessment rather than analysis with an accompanying remedy, he does speak about the practical considerations to which these ideas give rise, generally toward the end of the volumes. Although I do not have the time to discuss all of the considerations that I have encountered in these pages, there are a few comments pertinent to your questions that I would like to share.

The first is the subject of “reaction” that he treats in Chapter 31 of The Reign of Quantity. Guenon discusses the tendency of those who become privy to the deficiencies of our present situation to take up a direct “reactive” opposition to them. In addition to posing as a diversion to the pursuit of authentic traditional knowledge, such preoccupations, determined indirectly by the perverted institution in question and limited to its field operation, merely add to the existing disorder and in the end contribute toward the chaos and dissolution which they were intended to neutralize. In the words of Guenon, “their reciprocal enmity [i.e. between the individual and what he is reacting against] is therefore no more than an enmity between the various and apparently opposed productions of one and the same modern deviation; thus the final result can only be a fresh increase in disorder and confusion, and that simply amounts to one more step towards final dissolution.”

The paragraph that follows is explicit on his determination of what is the position for one to take on such matters. He wrote, “As between all the more or less incoherent things that are today in constant agitation and mutual collision, as between all external ‘movements’ of whatever kind they may be, there is no occasion to ‘take sides’, to use the common expression, whether from a traditional or from a merely ‘traditionalist’ point of view, for to do so is to be a dupe. Since the same influences are really operating behind all these things, it is really playing their game to join in the struggles promoted and directed by them; therefore the mere fact of ‘taking sides’ under such conditions is necessarily to adopt, however, unwittingly, a truly anti-traditional attitude. No particular applications need be specified here, but it must at least be made clear in a general way that in all this agitation principles are always and everywhere lacking”.

To address the second part of your question, there is definitely an emphasis on contemplation over action. However, this does not necessarily imply the adoption of a posture of passivity or an attitude of aloofness and indifference. Rather than reacting impulsively to modernism and emphasizing its destruction or reform, Guenon suggests rather the affirmation and preservation of those elements of tradition that remain, wherever they may be found. Just as the majority of the deficiencies of the modern world can be accounted for in the gradual decline and eclipse of essential knowledge and genuine intellectuality, so are these the two things that are most in need of preservation. Both East and West and Crisis of the Modern World emphasize this point as well as the catalyzing force that eastern doctrines may (and have) had on the re-establishment of western intellectuality.

It is inevitable in the context of cyclic conditions that the world established upon the principles of modernism will inevitably decline and collapse, but according to traditional teachings, this is only in anticipation of a return to the Golden Age and a renewal of the cosmic process. The preservation of tradition is accomplished not in the aim of overthrowing the established order, but in preparing the seeds for the new one. Guenon’s message, far from the pessimism that is sometimes associated with it, is actually one of hope. “There is therefore no cause for despair,” he writes in the concluding remarks to Crisis of the Modern World, “and, even were there no hope of achieving any visible result before the modern world collapses under some catastrophe, this would still be no valid reason for not understanding a work whose scope extends far beyond the present time. Those who might be tempted to give away to despair should realize that nothing accomplished in this order can ever be lost, that confusion, error and darkness can win the day only apparently and in a purely ephemeral way, that all partial and transitory disequilibrium must perforce contribute towards the great equilibrium of the whole, and that nothing can ultimately prevail against the power of truth; their device should be that used formerly by certain initiatory organizations of the West: Vincit Omnia Veritas (Truth Conquers All).”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Contemporary Challenges to Islam

I am reminded of my response to a recent inquiry about the best point of departure for contemplating God in our present age. In this instance I will be quick to state that Islam does not need to be made relevant in America, for it already is so. As with other religions, Islam is fully capable of anticipating and fulfilling the fundamental spiritual needs of human nature, needs that the modern world does not provide for and in the absence of which man is left morally bankrupt, spiritually destitute, and a danger to both himself and his environment.

Despite its persisting relevance, however, there are a number of obstacles that prevent Islam from being accepted by non-Muslims and which deter both its practice and appreciation by existing Muslims. Fundamentally, this situation can be attributed to the degenerate Anthropocosmic Vision predicated by the developments of modern, chiefly western thought, which have affected not only the perspective, but also the organization, administration, and lifestyle of western civilization. The primary characteristics of the modern deviation have been adequately diagnosed by the traditionalists, especially by Rene Guenon in his books The Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. I believe that everything "essential" concerning this subject has been covered in their books such that any future issues or challenges brought about by changing conditions do not necessarily consist of something entirely new but rather of modifications or intensification of existing trends. As an example, although the increasing sophistication and dependence upon complex technologies has produced rapidly changing life-patterns and social relations and conditions, the fundamental nature of the deviation and hence the proper response to it have remained unchanged.

In my opinion, what is much more important than acquainting yourself with various representative selections of western literature so as to formulate an appropriate response and "reaction" to them a posteriori, is to formulate and solidify your position a priori with regard to their analogue within the Islamic Tradition. To clarify, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Islam in America is not the pressures infringing upon it from without rooted in perspectives that may easily be refuted by recourse to the proper arguments, but rather an obstacle emerging from within the consciousness of the Muslim community at large which is characterized by a persisting sense of intellectual inferiority vis-a-vis the west. To address your second question then, as an intellectual, I believe that the subjects that an 'Alim will need to effectively overcome the challenges and obstacles with which Islam is faced in America include the traditional elements of the educational curriculum that are especially neglected in many of the modern madrasah systems, but which are distinctly Islamic. I would emphasize specifically, the intellectual heritage including for example Islamic Philosophy, Theosophy, Sufism, Theoretical Gnosis, poetry, and visionary literature, and the artistic heritage including such pursuits as calligraphy, architecture, crafts, music, vestment, and decor.

The following are some comments by William Chittick that are relevant to all of the foregoing considerations. He wrote,

"...Islamic thought is indeed far more than an historical curiosity. It is a valuable repository of profound teachings about the human predicament. Not only is it relevant to contemporary concerns, it is far more relevant than any of the sciences, technologies, and ideologies that occupy the minds of most contemporary thinkers, Muslim or otherwise. In fact, traditional Islamic thought is so relevant to Muslim attempts to deal with contemporary issues that, if it is not recovered and rehabilitated, authentic Islamic thinking will cease to exist. In other words, there will be no escape from what dominates most contemporary Islamic thought already, which is warmed over ideology disguised by a veneer of Islamic rhetoric ... If genuine Islamic thought ceases to exist, the religion of Islam will lose touch with its living roots and no longer function as an alternative to modernity ... To think in Islamic terms one needs to reconnect one's thought to the transcendent truths from which Islamic draws sustenance. This needs to be done not only by having recourse to the guidelines set down in the Quran and Hadith, but also by seeking help from the great Muslim intellectuals of the past, those who employed the Quran and Hadith to clarify the proper role of thought in human affairs."

As with the Western Tradition, the Islamic Tradition is too vast to adequately provide a list of essential works on these subjects. Unfortunately, there is not yet an equivalent of the Great Books to provide at least a representative selection. Nevertheless, if I was to choose books that I felt every 'Alim taking up residence in America should read, I would hand them two, Islam and the Plight of Modern Man by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Science of Cosmos, Science of Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World by William Chittick (from which the above quotation was taken). I feel that these books clearly identify and explain the most pertinent issues facing the contemporary Islamic community and contribute to an understanding of how best to deal with them. Other works relevant to the contemporary rehabilitation of the Islamic intellectual tradition include, and may be identified by exploring, other books by these authors.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Occidental Exile by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I live in exile, exiled from my land of birth,
From her exalted peaks and vast deserts,
From the vivid colors of all that grows from her soil,
From her azure bright skies,
Exiled in the occident of this world.
But is not this domain of transience,
This world of birth and death,
Of shadows cast upon the cascades of light
Itself the occident, whether it be in East or West,
Of that Orient which is light pure,
Unadulterated by the imperfections of earthly life?
It is from that world that we are all exiled,
It is that world from which we all hail
And to that world that we must return,
Return after our earthly journey's end.
That Orient we carry in our hearts
At that center which is the seat of the All-Merciful,
Our very core, yet beyond our daily reach
Until we turn inward the wayward soul
And break the shell of our hearts
Hardened by the march of forgetfulness through time.
Our return from exile is return to that Center,
To our real land of birth.
I live in exile but in joy of being exiled from the world,
For did not the Blessed Prophet utter
'Happy are those who are in exile in this world?'*
Sensing as they do the home to which they belong,
The luminous Orient of all existence is ours,
joyous in the thought of their homecoming.


-Seyyed Hossein Nasr
State Park, Pennsylvania and Bethesda, Maryland
September 1997

*"Islam began in exile and shall become as it began, and happy are those who are in exile." A hadith of the Prophet.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Obstacles to Understanding

Greetings of Peace. Your reason for being removed from the forum was not due to censorship, as contrary to many of the other participants I welcome the discussion of challenging and controversial subjects. It was due rather to a lack of tact and sensitivity to other members who are predominantly of a religious persuasion. One manner in which this might have been avoided would have been to state something to the effect of, how do Muslims and others sympathetic to Islam view and/or justify the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad to his wife Aisha, when her age at the time of the consummation of the marriage is commonly held to be as young as nine years old, an age difference that severely contradicts contemporary western social mores.

It is important when seeking an audience with Muslims to take into consideration the fundamental perspective concerning Muhammad -Peace be upon Him, that he is a prophet, a sacred figure, and by virtue of this fact that the various elements of his life take on a sacred quality that is a priori not subject to serious question. In most cases, the possibility of the Prophet performing an action out of vice or some other serious human limitation simply does not arise owing to the acceptance of his magnanimity and superior character as exemplified in the numerous testimonies to this fact concerning his life before and after taking on the prophetic function. Due to the fact that you are a materialist and atheist, if you do acknowledge the reality of the sacred, your conception of it is far different from that of tradition based upon revelation, precluding thereby the acknowledgment of the reality of things such as prophecy.

It is because you have not demonstrated an effort to think about the differences of these perspectives and attempted to be sensitive to the very people that you are trying to dialogue with that it seems you may not have been very serious about achieving some kind of understanding, whether of your own ideas or of the traditional perspective concerning Islam and other religions.

I can empathize to a degree with the ideological persecution that you have suffered while living in a Muslim country, though of course certainly not the same degree. I appreciate the intellectual freedom provided by the fact of living in the west, but Islam is by no mean a luxury for me and others like me. Rather it is a matter of the utmost seriousness and sacredness. We are not without our own sometimes severe persecution particularly due to the undue emphasis upon Islamic fundamentalism and extremism following the events of 9/11. Generally speaking, the prevailing scientific ideologies of many academic institutions oftentimes make it difficult to communicate reasonably many of our ideas and many Muslims suffer religious persecution, alienation, even physical abuse in many parts of the United States at the hands of Christian fundamentalists and secular people.

It is owing to many of these attitudes that I tend to be somewhat reserved when discussing my religion at work and at school, instead seeking out the occasional sympathetic ear, or otherwise dialoguing with those who are capable of mutual respect despite serious disagreements.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ramadan and Remembrance

"Therefore remember Me, I will remember you. Give thanks to Me, and reject not Me." -The Holy Quran, 2:152
I feel as though the fast is emptying me of myself, of all individual and self-concerned volition, replacing it with the perpetual remembrance of God. He is in the pangs of thirst and hunger that I feel. He sits as judge over every thought that enters my mind. And he repeatedly leads me back to the remembrance of His Name.

Ramadan Reflections

"The Month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the Criterion of right and wrong. And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, let him fast the same number of other days. Allah desireth for you ease; He desireth not hardship for you, and He desireth that ye should complete the period, and that ye should magnify Allah for having guided you and that peradventure ye may be thankful." - The Holy Quran, 2:185
This month marks the third passage of Ramadan since I entered into Islam and once again I feel the shroud of holy poverty descend upon my heart, protecting it from base thoughts, just as I protect my body from the food and water forbidden it during this time and guard my tongue from unnecessary and ignoble speech. I say that it is me who does these things but in reality it is through God that they are made possible for the month of Ramadan, although outwardly a trial, carries inwardly the mercy of "Allah desireth for you ease." That which formerly was difficult, has been made easy by Divine Aid. I am grateful to God for first commanding and then allowing me to fast during this month and I pray for peace and blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad, my family, friends, companions, and myself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reconsidering My Limitations

In my previous reflections I had reached a satisfactory resolution concerning a suitable career path in psychotherapy. Since then I have put forth a a significant amount of time and energy researching the field of psychology, the efforts needed to secure this career, the various methods of research and primary schools of psychotherapy. I would need to complete undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate study and additional training. The field of psychology including its application in psychotherapy is considered an empirical science and its studies are principally research oriented, involving the collection of quantifiable biological and behavioral data, their statistical assessment, and publication or presentation. Even at the level of applied psychotherapy, the methods used and perspective held in each school are firmly grounded in statistical research guided by a central principle or "philosophy of life" essentially determined by the philosophical outlook of the founder of the school. Among the schools of Psychoanalysis, Individual Psychology, Analytical Psychology, Gestalt Therapy, Logotherapy, Existential Psychotherapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Psychosynthesis and Client-Centered Therapy, it was only the last founded by Carl Rogers and based upon a positive view of the inherent goodness and dignity of the individual that carried even a modicum of appeal.

While reading through a recently obtained book called Psychology as a Major: Is it right for me and what can I do with it? I obtained a significant breakthrough which I hope to be my final word on the subejct. In the third chapter were several assessment methods used by vocational counselors to determine our natural inclinations and apptitudes. Most of these did not provide me with information superior to what I obtained in my own reflections. However, there were two questions of great significance. The first was to reflect upon my previous educational and vocational experiences to determine those aspects which I most enjoyed or that I excelled at. The second was to recall at what point in my life I felt that I was at my best. Within my college career nearly ten years ago, it was in the field of comparative religion that I excelled and which I enjoyed the most. The period of my life during which I was at my best was when I was working at the Dharma Center Bookstore, and with the abundance of leisure available to me, pursuing self-directed studies of the world's religions.

After encountering these two questions and pondering my answer, I then began to think about my present situation. I have adequately overcome my resistance to returning to academia and already begun taking the steps necessary for my re-entry, albeit into a field of monotonous quantitative statistical research and necessary boredom. I immediately began to reconsider my self-imposed limitations to see if there was some way in which this situation can be avoided.

One of my primary limitations was that of the desire for freedom in my religious studies. If I was to accept the path leading to a career in psychotherapy, most of my time would be devoted to the study of psychology with only a minimum of time and energy left for my private study of religion. I accepted this as a matter of course and mentally prepared myself for it. If I was to study religion academically, however, I would be applying myself to the field of my greatest interest and although the sources would not necessarily be those chosen by myself, the subject itself is one which I enjoy the most and if given the opportunity would most likely excel at. There is also the possibility of directing research toward sources and topics that are more suitable to my personal preferences. I was also concerned with recieving financial remuneration for what I hold to be sacred knowledge. My thoughts concerning this are presently that the teaching profession is not necessarily that of the spiritual guide. In academia particularly, the teacher is the guide through the world of thoughts and ideas and the director of research. As a teacher, my principle role would be a to transmit my enthusiasm for the subject and the bestow upon others a perspective that is suitable to the apprehension of religion in the fullest possible manner within the domain of theory. As long as I do not cross over into the domain of practical spiritual direction, there is no necessary conflict between my self-imposed limitations and a career in the reasearch and teaching of comparative religion.

Perhaps it is possible for our work to be both financially supportive and personally fulfilling. I have decided to try and find out for myself. I am changing my career goal from psychotherapy to the academic research and teaching of religious studies.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Psychotherapy and Tradition

Thank you for providing with the helpful video by Rama Coomaraswamy and also for your inquires which happen to coincide with my own present line of thought concerning psychotherapy. Our society is not founded upon traditional principles including a knowledge of the reality of God and the orientation of life toward the achievement of salvation. As such, all occupations that are provided within it, excluding work for religious organizations and certain teaching professions which I have excluded as a self-imposed limitation, are subject to a secularized world-view and aims that are primarily psychological, material, and social in nature. I have accepted this situation as the condition in which I would be carrying out any activity if I am to live and work within our society.

As far as my chosen profession is concerned, I am interested in entering into the field of counseling psychology with the particular occupation of psychotherapy which essentially involves sitting down with people on an individual basis and helping them to give full consideration to their problems and undertake suitable steps to solve those problems. Most of these will be of a psychological, physical, and social nature and can be dealt with using the variety of techniques and internal and external resources at my disposal.

In this work I will encounter a variety of different clients, some who are religious and some who are not. For those who possess faith in God and are concerned with immortality, therapy can be based upon a mutual understanding of the full condition of the human being as Spirit, Soul, and Body. For those who are not, their receptivity to this perspective will be limited and it will be my job to communicate with them in such a fashion that they will not be resistant to the therapeutic process, even if it means limiting the explicit communication of certain ideas that may be valuable under other circumstances. As an individual, my knowledge of the human condition, my method and its intended effect will always be informed by traditional principles, regardless of whether or not I am actually giving voice to them. I believe that this the best that can be done under existing circumstances. In short, the process will always be rooted in tradition, whether or not the client is aware of it. It is impossible in any case to directly cause faith to blossom in someone's heart. That is ultimately a choice that rests with them. All we can do, in a profession such as this, is to set up the the best conditions possible for that to happen and provide the best guidance and direction that we possible can.

By not wanting to infringe upon the domain of tradition I was concerned specifically with not usurping the role of the shaykh. Traditional psychotherapy is not necessarily something that is practiced as an isolated science like modern psychotherapy, but a process that occurs organically through one's relations with the shaykh, his teachings and methods. If I encounter a person who is spiritually inclined and who desires guidance on the spiritual path, I feel equipped to assist them in obtaining such guidance while overcoming psychological obstacles to its achievement, but not in administering such guidance myself. In this as in all problems, you can only lead someone to the door. It is they who must make the decision ultimately to take it or not.

Just to give you an example of basing therapy on traditional principles without talking directly about them, consider my own problem of deciding upon a career. If someone asks me how they can determine what kind of work they should pursue, I can provide them with the three criteria that I worked out and that Schumacher teaches. These are essentially based upon the biblical injunction, "Whichever gift each of you may have received, use it in service to one another, like good stewards dispensing the grace of God in its varied forms." (1 Peter 4:10) These criterion of good work are firmly rooted in the perspective of tradition but, without necessarily drawing attention to this for those who are at present resistant to tradition, it is possible for them to apply and benefit from them.

I realize, like Coomaraswamy said, that most people will be entering into therapy to solve practical problems pertaining to the psychological, physical, and social domains. By resolving these problems, they will be in a better position from which to consider their most important spiritual needs. At that point I can only offer to introduce them to that domain by continuing therapy with the discussion of the fundamental considerations of human life, meaning, and purpose. It is up to them to accept that offer and consider these needs, and their frequent refusal to do so is one of the limitations of the profession that I am willing to accept.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Resolution

(Continued from Refinement of the Questions)

My previous arrangement of questions has ultimately proved to be unnecessary. All of the foregoing considerations have demonstrated that I desire above all, conditions wherein which I may maintain what E.F. Schumacher referred to as a "conscious culture of poverty", in which little emphasis is given to ephemeral or transitory goods, and greater emphasis is given to eternal goods and basic necessities. A conscious culture of poverty, as well as an orientation toward the sacred may be supported and maintained within any location and environment. The needs that I have determined to be fundamental may also be supported by virtually any existing career. Access to nature may be granted from virtually any situation provided that transportation is available and my ideal little house on the outskirts of the city may be reserved for retirement. It only remains for me to determine what kind of work I desire for myself and to carry out its attainment.

Schumacher and I agree on three fundamental principles. I derived my understanding of them through introspection while he obtained them through traditional doctrines. These principles state that human work should provide society with the goods and services that are useful to it, enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards, and to do so in service to and cooperation with others so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born egocentricity.

Fundamentally useful goods and services involve those occupations which provide for our basic spiritual, psychological, physical, and social needs. I should therefore, select an occupation that is supportive of one of these domains rather than one which arises out of the complications of increasing size and technological advancement. It should enable me to use and perfect my gifts, the primary one of which is thought and reflection which I tend to direct toward the solution of problems arising in my own life or those of others. These are oftentimes psychological problems of perspective or knowledge, but I have also demonstrated to my own satisfaction through this exercise that I can apply myself equally well to the solution of problems pertaining to the practical domain. This work should also be done as a service to others rather than for selfish reasons alone.

My primary self-imposed limitation concerns my spiritual life. I desire to retain freedom of inquiry and a degree of privacy. Neither do I wish my study and practice of religion and the knowledge and understanding that I share with others to be involved in any kind of pecuniary compensation. This rules out all spiritual occupations and academic involvement in religious studies.

Based upon these considerations, it appears that the ideal activity for the application of my innate talents in accordance with my self-imposed limitations is the practice of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy means literally the cure or healing of the soul, and it traditionally occurs within the context of the spiritual path. In this context the spiritual teachings and method provided by the master proceed to integrate the spirit, soul, and body of the initiate in accordance with a divine pattern and norm established by tradition. Modern psychotherapy on the other hand concerns primarily the establishment of functional equilibrium within the emotional and physical states. It is based upon a world view that is necessarily limited, but because it is primarily practical and individual, I believe that I can use the basis of my own worldview toward the accomplishment of these aims in accordance with my own values, drawing upon modern practices in a utilitarian fashion. This is essentially to take the good and leave the bad.

Modern man is beset with various ailments derived from the distorted conditions of the present social order. Without infringing upon the domain that is reserved for tradition alone, I believe that it is possible, within the framework of limitations that the modern practice presents, to instill within others values that may assist them in overcoming these ailments and thereby to establish an opening to the saving grace that tradition alone provides.

For the present moment, I feel resolved that I am capable and suited to this profession, that is ideals are noble albeit limited, and that I should endeavor to secure it as my career.

It remains now to find out precisely what area of psychotherapy I will specialize in and the steps necessary to get there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Refinement of the Questions

(Continued from Where, What, How, and When?)

Where?

I must determine which areas in or near California, New York, or Virginia are most suitable to my desired lifestyle and conditions.

I must determine quantitatively the financial burden of living in those areas.

What?

I must determine the activities that are available to me within those areas.

I must select one that has the capability of providing for my financial needs.

My selection will additionally be based upon my innate aptitudes, self-imposed limitations, sustainability during a period of economic decline, and an examination and comparison between the amount of time and resources that must be invested in obtaining appropriate training.

(Continued in Resolution)

Where, What, How, and When?

(Continued from In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread)

Where?

Continuing my reflections, the first step is to ascertain where and under what conditions I would like to live and act. I believe that I would be ideally situated in close proximity to my family and religious community but because this is not possible, one or the other would be satisfactory. I have therefore three primary options, to live in or near the states of California, New York, or Virginia. The possibilities are indeed far vaster, but for the moment I will accept these self-imposed limitations as ideal. I would also be situated in close proximity to the natural environment, therefore preferring rural areas to urbanized ones, small towns over large cities. As for conditions, I must consider the specific manner in which I want to live. My spiritual and psychological needs being presently fulfilled to my satisfaction and generally susceptible to fulfillment under all conditions, my primary concern is with my physical needs.

Food

My ideal diet is vegetarian and centered around the staples of rice and legumes, supplemented with various vegetables, and augmented with herbs and spices. The traditional African diet approximates this ideal. I would like to grow some of my own food to the degree possible, but in order to obtain the staples I will require additional financial resources.

Medicine

Self-medication and treatment is for the most part impractical. As such I must rely upon a subscription to medical and dental insurance services requiring suitable financial resources.

Clothing

I desire to dress as simply and inexpensively as possible. Ideally, simple traditional garments can be assembled with little difficulty and other clothing may be purchased second hand. Depending on the nature of my activities, additional expenses for clothing may be necessary to suit my needs. This will require suitable financial resources.

Shelter

Building my own home is impractical. It is therefore incumbent upon me to purchase one that has already assembled. A simple two-bedroom house, sparsely furnished, with the necessary utilities and appliances is the ideal. This will require additional financial resources.

Transportation

I will require a vehicle of some kind, the nature of which will ultimately be determined by my sphere of activity. Living vehicles such as horses and camels have become impractical for general use as transportation such that a motor vehicle is necessary. An ideal motor vehicle would be the smallest, most fuel efficient, and most inexpensive to purchase and maintain but which is also suitable to the circumstances. This will require suitable financial resources.

Miscellaneous Conditions

Additional requirements may include a surplus of financial resources for retirement and emergency savings, travel, and miscellaneous expenses.

Based upon these considerations, I may conclude that I desire to live as simply as possible in the fulfillment of my basic needs in a small sparsely furnished house with a spacious yard for growing at the outskirts of the city in close proximity to nature.

It remains for me to determine which areas are in or near the states that I hold as ideal, to determine the cost of living in accordance with my established conditions, identify which types of activities are both available in those locations and capable of providing me financial resources with which to fulfill the above conditions.

What?

Every community contains various activities suitable to fulfilling the basic needs of its inhabitants. Based upon my Hierarchy of Needs, these include the following:

Spiritual Needs

Religious Occupations

Psychological Needs

Thinking, Teaching, Artistic, and Therapeutic Occupations

Physical Needs

Growing, Medical, Tailoring, and Building Occupations

Social Needs

Government and Legal Occupations

In small communities, these activities are relatively simple and direct. As communities become larger, the activities become encumbered by elaborate and complicated administrative machinery. The larger the community and sphere of influence, the farther removed does the activity become from its initial state of simplicity. Thus, in extremely large communities with very broad spheres of influence, these primary activities are transformed into industries wherein the entire process is fragmented and distributed over a broad range of individuals or teams, each responsible for some minute dimension of the activity.

Larger societies also develop additional fields of activity based upon interaction with other communities, distraction from boredom caused by excessive fragmentation, the preservation of nature made necessary by the abuse of its resources, and improvement of existing industries. In the first category are such fields as communication, transportation, and warfare. The second pertains to entertainment media. The third concerns natural and wildlife preservation. The fourth is concerned primarily with technology, in which artificial machines are introduced with the intention of augmenting both the speed and quantity of production in the various industries. Thus, in larger societies each industry becomes subject to three primary dimensions each with occupational possibilities, the activity itself, the development and construction of more efficient technologies that augment the activity, and the administrative dimensions of managing and directing the various tasks into which the activity has been fragmented.

On a small scale, the value of each of these activities in terms of monetary compensation is proportionate to its desirability within the community. On a large scale, the value of any given occupation is proportionate not only to the desirability of the industry, but also to the situation of the occupant within the administrative hierarchy. Those participating in the activity itself receive the least amount of compensation. Those involved in development of new technologies receive a greater amount and those involved in administration the greatest.

Based upon these considerations, I find that it is ideally desirable to participate in an activity within a small community such that it is subject to the least degree of fragmentation possible and in which I may participate more directly in it without the complication of elaborate administrative machinery.

In principle, I believe that I am capable of participating effectively in any of these fundamental activities. Further consideration determining my ultimate choice of activity will include the possibilities that are available in the particular locations in which I want to live and any self-imposed limitations based upon my inclinations or disinclinations and present existential situation. I must also conduct research to consider in more detail the occupational opportunities that society provides in all the minutiae of the various fields. Additional factors for the consideration of suitable activity include the values and trends of society and what is most accessible and sustainable in times of economic decline.

How?

This will be determined once a specific field of activity is selected. It will primarily be concerned with obtaining the necessary occupational training and education.

When?

I propose the reasonable goal of reaching my desired state within ten years time.

(Continued in Refinement of the Questions)

Monday, March 09, 2009

In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread

(Continued from My Ideal Partner)

Now it is time to turn to my primary practical consideration, that of work. As I have established from my hierarchy of needs and in the consideration of my existential situation, it is possible in principle to fulfill nearly all of my basic spiritual and psychological needs in the absence of the fulfillment of my physical needs. As I stated before, however, it is not possible to do so in practice as the neglect of my physical needs serves as a serious deterrent to the others. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, for me to meet these needs adequately and fully and my primary means of doing so is through work.

Work consists of those activities which we engage in of necessity, to fulfill our basic physical needs of securing adequate food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Virgin nature is uniquely suited to providing us with the means of fulfilling all of our needs, including those which are spiritual and psychological. It is only primordial man, however, who is capable of making such a full use of nature. Concerning my physical needs specifically, I am capable in principle of growing my own food, caring for my medical needs with herbs and traditional medicine, making my own clothes, and constructing my own home. Situated between myself and this ideal of nature, however, is the social structure in which I live and in which the knowledge necessary to accomplish these tasks is compartmentalized and relegated to specialization. I am, therefore, bound to the framework of possibilities and limitations that the present social structure provides me with to meet my various needs.

In keeping with my ideal of simplicity, I must endeavor to provide for my own needs to the degree possible within this framework. I must grow my own food, take medicine through herbs, make my own clothes, and build and maintain my own home. To the degree in which I am unable to do this, I must engage in a specific activity that will enable me to trade my goods and services in exchange for those provided by others in compensation for my deficiency. Within our society, the medium for exchange of goods and services is currency, and the value in currency of any good or service is proportionate to its desirability by others within our society.

I must first determine where and under what conditions I would like to engage in my specific activity. Then I must determine which activities are available to me in the location that will meet my desired conditions. Then I must ascertain the steps necessary to arrive at that goal. Finally, I must choose a reasonable time frame in which to accomplish it. In all of the above considerations I must be as specific as possible.

(Continued in Where, What, How, and When?)

My Ideal Partner

(Continued from Simplicity and Perfection)

In my previous reflections I came to realize that the needs toward which I must devote the most attention are work and the consideration of a suitable marriage partner. Although I am perfectly capable of fulfilling all of my needs satisfactorily on my own, I consider the marriage partnership to be a great blessing that God has provided to us as a possibility. It affords spiritual, psychological, and physical opportunities that are not available to us otherwise and because of this I feel that it is necessary for me to embrace this union if it becomes available to me. Unlike work, one cannot simply select a partner, as there is necessarily an element of destiny or providence that enables us to come into contact with such a person and because this can happen at any time or place in our lives, I feel that it is important to give consideration to it first so that I can be prepared when that moment comes.

I believe that an ideal partner for me is someone who is in harmony with my spiritual needs, a complement to my psychological needs, capable and willing to join me in mutual support of our physical needs, and amiable to my social needs.

Spiritual Needs (Harmony)

In an ideal situation, my partner would be in an identical spiritual situation to me. She would be a Muslim woman possessing faith in God, who is committed to Islam, and has embarked upon the spiritual path. However, I do not believe that such an identity is absolutely necessary, the most important qualities being faith in God, a sense of the sacred, and sincere adherence to an orthodox religion such Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. Of course, if such is the case she must also be endowed with a great respect for Islam just as I possess a great love and respect for all orthodox religions. Together we should be able to support each other's spiritual endeavors while also sharing the beautiful elements of our respective traditions while being united through our shared faith in and pursuit of God and the sacred.

Psychological Needs (Complementarity)

I believe that my ideal partner would be someone who complements the particular manner in which I express my psychological needs. For instance, granted that I possess a propensity for thoughts and ideas and their written and oral expression, I believe that my ideal complement would be someone endowed with a propensity for imagination and creativity expressed through art, music, or narrative.

Our emotional needs must necessarily be harmonious rather than complementary as I have long held that friendship, love, trust, and the abilitiy to communicate are the essential conditions or cornerstones of any healthy relationship. Pendant to these emotional needs is the ability simply to enjoy one another and I believe that my ideal partner, because of who she is and how we relate to one another should be able to fill me with joy and that I should be able to do the same for her.

Leisure activities do not seem to hold the greatest significance in principle, but are endowed with a greater significance in practice. Both complementarity and harmony are necessary. The first endows the relationship with a degree of spontaneity through the willingness to try and introduce each other to new activities while the latter allows us to participate in them together. Concerning one of my specific leisure activies, I should like a partner that would be willing to at least to learn what the game of go is about for the mere reason that it is one of my favorite hobbies, though it is not necessary for her to take it up herself. Concerning travel, I believe that all people are naturally endowed with the desire to travel and see the world.

Physical Needs (Union)

Everyone possesses the same physical needs. With regard to their fulfillment, I believe that I would be happiest with the person similarly desrious of fulfilling these needs as simply as possible without ostentation or luxury. There is also the consideration of physical attraction and at least in the early stages of the relationship, I believe that it is necessary for there to be mutual physical attraction between myself and my partner.

Social Needs (Amiability)

A respect for the family is essential. The extended family or circle of friends is likely to be very harmonious if we have proved to be suitable with regard to all of the previous considerations. The religious community, depending on its nature may pose some difficulties if we are from different religions. As for myself, I am generally able to see the best in and amiably engage people from all religious denominations who are genuinely pious, good-natured, and well-intentioned. Perhaps my ideal partner is someone who possesses a similar attitude toward others.

(Continued in In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Simplicity and Perfection

(Continued from My Hierarchy of Needs)

The next step in this process is to ascertain which of my needs are being met and which are deficient. I consider it ideal that each of my needs be fulfilled in the simplest and most direct but also perfect manner possible.

Spiritual Needs

From an early age, I have been providentially endowed with faith in God. After over a decade of struggle and consideration, I entered into Islam and I also presently possess the guidance necessary for undertaking the inward journey on the spiritual path.

Psychological Needs

I regularly study the scriptures and their traditional commentaries of both Islam and other religions. Among the category of commentaries I also include such works as those of the traditionalist authors who elucidate the esoteric and universal content of the scriptures. I regularly communicate these ideas orally and through writing to my own satisfaction. I would, however, like to learn quranic Arabic to further my understanding and appreciation of the Quran.

I regularly listen to sacred music, observe sacred art, occasionally practice a sacred dance, and read sacred literature including poetry, myths and legends, and certain special narratives. I am satisfied with a passive appreciation, but my needs can be more fully engaged by actively practicing one of these arts.

I possess a great love of God and of others and my meditations and activities provide me with ample opportunity to participate in the expression of the virtues. The feeling of security is lacking, however, because of the realization that I do not meet all of my basic needs.

I practice the game of go which I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction to be a noble and worthwhile leisure activity (see The Way of Go). I have little interest in sports, but the martial arts hold great appeal for me and I may wish to take up their practice. I do not at present possess the resources to travel.

Physical Needs

The only physical need that I am presently fulfilling in a satisfactory manner is physical culture, through diet and exercise. I do not possess work or knowledge to apply the crafts to fulfill these needs. I am interested in such crafts as agriculture, building, and sewing and may to learn these in the future to assist in meeting my physical needs.

Social Needs

I possess a family, including the extended family of my circle of friends, and a religious community. I do not possess a marriage partnership.

Although the fulfillment of all of my needs may be improved to achieve perfection, those which require primary consideration are my physical and social needs of work and a marriage partner. Those which require only secondary consideration are my psychological needs which may be augmented by learning quranic Arabic, taking up the practice of one or more arts, achieving the feeling of security by fulfilling all of my needs (which this process ultimately aims to achieve), and taking up the practice of a martial art.

(Continued in My Ideal Partner)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

My Hierarchy of Needs

(Continued from Sit Down and Think)

Persistently continuing my reflections on how to solve the practical problems of living in the world, I have sought the answers to the following questions:

Who am I?
What are my needs and how may they be fulfilled?
Which of my needs are not being met? and
How can I overcome this deficiency?

Beginning with the understanding that I am a composite being possessing a spirit, soul, and body, living in society, I have come to formulate the following hierarchy of basic needs through the consideration of my existential situation.

Spiritual Needs (Union):

Knowledge of God and the Self, the practice of prayer, and cultivation of the virtues
through faith, religion (tradition), and spiritual guidance

Psychological Needs (Equilibrium):

Noble thoughts and Ideas and their communication
through the study of the scriptures and traditional commentaries and their expression in oral or written language.

Beautiful forms of the imagination and their expression
through the appreciation and creation of sacred art, music, dance, and literature

Feelings of love, security, and satisfaction, and their cultivation
through the love of God and the neighbor, the fulfillment of needs, and accomplishment of the virtues.

Leisure and repose from all of the foregoing activities
through the practice of sports, games, and travel

Physical Needs (Health):

Satisfactory and sufficient food, medicine, shelter, clothing, and exercise
through work, physical culture, and the crafts

Social Needs (Intimacy):

Reciprocal support in the fulfillment of all of the foregoing needs
through the family, religious community, and marriage partnership.

In principle, my needs may be considered hierarchically with spiritual needs being most important and social needs least important. In practice, however, each proves to be inextricably intertwined with the others such that any of my basic needs is neglected to the detriment of all.

(Continued in Simplicity and Perfection)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sit Down and Think

I once asked a wise man how I should decide what to do with my life. He essentially told me to sit down and think, about who I am, what I can do, what possibilities are available to me, and then to choose. For many years such a decision has evaded me and seemed to propose an insurmountable obstacle. Lately, however, I have come to see the wisdom in his advice. If I can use the intelligence that God has given me to solve difficult metaphysical problems, certainly I can apply it equally well to practical affairs and thereby come to solve many of the problems that life in this world presents. I have decided to use the time that is presently available to me in the consideration of my life as a whole in an effort to examine more thoroughly the answers to those fundamental questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? and Where am I going?

(Continued in My Hierarchy of Needs)

Go and the Arts

My essay is necessarily limited in that I took as my model the essay on Chess by Titus Burckhardt in Mirror of the Intellect and the appendix by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad in his book on sports and culture. For those who have not yet read it, my essay includes a brief introduction to the game, a discussion of its sacred origins, the symbolism implicit and explicit in the physical properties of the playing board and pieces, and my own observations concerning the experience of gameplay and how this experience readily lends itself as a support to the spiritual life.

In an set of rules for behavior in a Japanese Buddhist monastery dating from the year 701, one Abbot proscribed that "For monks and nuns who indulge in music and gambling, one hundred days of hard labor. The koto and go are not restricted." Overall, I sought to answer the question of why this particular game might not be subject to the same restrictions as other pastimes and also why it received such attention and refinement within the monastic communities of the far east. In terms of its essentials, I think that I was largely successful in presenting some significant and suggestive ideas that provide the foundation for such an answer. I did not take into consideration many of the peripheral subjects that, although important, do not contribute directly the substance of my thesis.

I do not think that Go bears a direct association with any of the subjects that you mentioned such as painting, calligraphy, music, tea ceremony, meditation, and the martial arts, in the sense that they are distinct activities, each of which possesses properties that are unique to itself without being synthesized with any of the others. However, there is also the sense in which they can and generally are used in conjunction with the others, each contributing a similar support to the spiritual life, but in a different and idiosyncratic way. Thus you may have a master of the martial arts who practices the tea ceremony and calligraphy while also enjoying the game of go. In Chinese culture, it was common to speak of the 'four accomplishments' which implies that in fact at least four endeavors, music, painting, calligraphy, and go, were practiced in conjunction. To speak in terms of dimensions, we might say that whereas there are outward differences in terms of formal endeavor, each possess an inner dimension which endows it with a position of similarity and complementarity to the other arts.

Two parallels seem to serve as the basis of all such similarity, the practice of ritualized action and the effort of contemplative concentration. The tea ceremony exemplifies the former and archery the latter. Within the tea ceremony, in addition to the symbolic properties inherent in the gestures and materials, the precise ritualized actions serve to embody in a ceremonial fashion the ideal of perfect behavior combined with the principles of chivalry and the contemplative element of awareness. Consciousness is fully present in and aware of every movement as it is made. In this manner, the regular practice of the tea ceremony allows one to periodically enter into the attitude and experience of the disposition of perfect "adab". The rhythm resulting therefrom then has the capacity to carry that disposition into life as a permanent reality that is continually refreshed and renewed by the practice of the ceremony. Parallels to the spiritual retreat and the rhythm of Muslim prayer are evident.

The practice of archery is different in that it does not emphasize awareness of bodily movement, instead positing a single pointed concentration on the target. Such a concentration involves a loss of awareness of the ego as of the body such that perfection in archery is sometimes referred to as effortless perfection. One does not perform the act. Instead it performs itself through you. I have not considered deeply enough the experiences of painting and calligraphy, despite my greater degree of practical familiarity with them. It is evident however, that both provide an added dimension of metaphysical knowledge, participation in which is necessary in order to produce a representation and manifestation of such knowledge within the concrete image that results from its practice.

Go necessarily partakes of both qualities of ritualized action and contemplative concentration but with an emphasis on the latter. Like the tea ceremony, it traditionally takes place within a room specifically designated for that purpose which bears the distinctive insignia of the traditional ambiance. Within China and Japan they are generally adorned with calligraphy depicting the cardinal virtues, Li or prioriety, Chih or wisdom, and Jen, human-heartedness or compassion. Although all are necessary and important to the game, Li is sometimes given emphasis through the outward postures and attitudes of the players, while Jen generally pertains to the inward attitude in relation to the opponent. There are elements of ceremonial behavior in traditional gameplay that include for example, traditional dress, the delicacy of physical posture and a gracefulness and reverence expressed through the placement of the stones. Opponents generally give each other a respectful greeting and wish upon the other a good game. Traditionally a weaker player approaching a stronger player will request a game by asking to "please teach me."

Ambiance and disposition aside, the emphasis in Go is clearly upon contemplative concentration for the game involves total concentration even at intermediate levels of skill. Like archery, it does not involve a deliberate act of will, but rather arises naturally out of the necessity of play. Fully engaging the memory in the recognition of common patterns, discerning the direction of play, and reading possible sequences of moves involves a complete absorption into field of gameplay. Unlike archery, however, it induces the effort of concentration through analysis rather than synthesis. Instead of being absorbed into the unitive point of the target, one is instead absorbed through the proliferation of oftentimes dozens of local situations which must all be taken into consideration within the overall context of the board. Likewise, although all virtues are contained implicitly within the singular state of absorbtion in archery, they are given a manifold expression within the Go game. In accordance with the text of I Ching which I have symbolically associated with the game, "Thus the superior man of devoted character heaps up small things in order to achieve something high and great." Whereas the symbolism of the arrow involves its pointing directly to the goal of the Absolute, the symbolism of the stones involves movement toward the Absolute through the theophanies of its manifold reflections within manifestation, hence the emphasis on a cosmological symbolism.

I suspect that you may enjoy the following writings on Japanese Prints and the Game of Go by William Picknard. The following statement concerning traditional motifs in images depicting the game is particularly pertinent:

"Faithful to ancient Chinese tradition and legends that portrayed go as integral to myths of beginnings and a contemplative pastime worthy of Sages and Immortals, artists situated players at the farthest reaches of remoteness, on the towering peaks of cloud-wreathed mountains emblematic of Taoist concepts of spiritual ascent and transcendence. In such surroundings the board was shown to inhere in nature itself -- incised in the rock's surface -- with the course of play possessing the power to dissolve all boundaries of time and space. Depicted is a way of being lost in thought, transported `out of this world,' and a means by which religious adepts could contemplate the infinite."

I recently added a section on recommended reading to the bottom of my essay that you may find useful in your endeavor to learn the game. Learning Go is a lengthy process requiring a considerable amount of effort. It begins by playing on a small 9x9 board to become familiar with the rules and patterns before progressing to a 13x13 board and eventually to the full-sized board. It is common to experience an initial sense of difficulty or foreignness in the game which comes from the need to develop skill at what is sometimes called 'lateral thinking', a thought process that is generally more intuitive than logical.

Considerations of Islamic Law

The two primary sources of Islamic law are the Quran, the revealed teachings themselves, and the Hadith, or the records of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad - may peace be upon him. Islamic Law is contained in principle in the Quran, which is to say that generally speaking it is implicit rather than explicit. The interpreter of Islamic law for the original Muslim community was the Prophet himself and direct access to his teachings and actions enabled a degree of homogeneity to prevail over the community during his lifetime. As Islam spread to other lands and a temporal distance was created between the existing Islamic communities and the original Islamic community following the passing of the Prophet, it became necessary to codify Islamic Law such that the degradation that naturally follows upon a distancing from the source might be guarded against. Islamic law gradually became codified into several distinct schools with different emphases and interpretations based on the same primary sources. This diversity of interpretations and applications of Islamic law is seen in Islam as an unfoldment of the possibilities of the Islamic revelation as sanctioned by the Quran which refers to it as a blessing to us and an expression of the Divine Mercy. Therefore each of these schools of law is considered to be orthodox, and together they have enabled Islam to be suitably adapted to the different cultural and racial types of humanity in the various lands in which it spread.

Although the differences between the schools are minor, there are differences nonetheless, a situation which has given rise to two distinct perspectives. There are some people who believe that it is necessary to adhere to the prescriptions of one school exclusively and without consideration for the others. There are also some who, more explicitly acknowledging the orthodoxy of all schools, believe that in addition to the school that one is primarily identified with, particularly through the form of prayer that one uses, it is permissible to consider the various rulings of the other schools and to draw upon them where it is deemed necessary according to individual circumstances. Farasha has made it explicit that she accepts this latter possibility for herself, calling it "Intra-religious Syncretism", and emphasizes the various manifestations of Islamic law within the Shi'ite tradition and its subsidiaries. In this case, it is not a matter of rejecting divine laws or otherwise creating one's own laws, but rather of choosing between the various orthodox manifestations of Islamic law according to individual circumstances.

I would also like to comment upon the idea that you expressed as "following Islamic law completely rather than piecemeal." Islamic jurisprudence as a whole generally adheres to the consideration of five types of acts, those which are obligatory and therefore incumbent upon all Muslims, those which are recommended and therefore superogatory, those toward which the law is neutral, those which are discouraged, and those which are forbidden. The first and last classifications comprise the essential elements of Islamic law while the second and fourth classifications pertain to the domain of voluntaristic piety. Within the perspective of Islamic esoterism, there is an emphasis on sanctity and from the standpoint of the law this is not determined a priori by the quantity of outward acts as with the perspective of voluntaristic piety, but rather with the quality of the inward state obtained and expressed in conjunction with essential acts. Exoteric piety and esoteric sanctity are both salutary expressions of the spiritual life, and although by no means mutually exclusive, the one tends to emphasize the horizontal dimension while the other tends to emphasize the vertical dimension. In this sense, an understanding of what it means to follow Islamic law completely may be broadened to include the dimension of depth in addition to that of breadth. From the esoteric standpoint, the first is generally given precedence over the second.

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Due to the multitude of different perspectives represented by the various divisions of the 'Spectrum of Islam' (see Nasr's Heart of Islam for details on this), it is only natural that disagreements should occasionally arise in the discussion of something as fundamental as Islamic Law. Each of the divisions of Islam contain scholars and gnostics who possess different criteria concerning the judgment of the authenticity of individual hadith from which juridical rulings are derived as well as unique perspectives concerning the manner in which Islamic Law should be emphasized, whether in the proliferation of its details or the perfection of its essential elements. It is precisely because of this spectrum of possibilities that I believe Islam is capable of being followed by all people, in all locations and conditions, at all times.

It is also due to this diversity and dynamism that Islam allows for a significant degree of individual initiative and personal creativity in the discernment and application of the Sharia. This is not to say that the law can be changed with regard to its fundamental principles, but rather that it is capable of being adapted according to individual needs and unique circumstances. Seyyed Hossein Nasr made some pertinent remarks on this subject in Ideals and Realities of Islam. He wrote,

Some may object that accepting the Shari'ah totally destroys human initiative. Such a criticism, however, fails to understand the inner workings of the Divine Law. The Law places before man many paths according to his nature and needs within a universal pattern which pertains to everyone. Human initiative comes in selecting what is in conformity with one's veritable needs and at the same time living according to the Divine norm as indicated by the Shari'ah. Initiative does not come only in rebelling against the Truth which is an easy task since stones fall by nature; initiative and creativity come most of all in seeking to live in conformity with the Truth and in applying its principles to the conditions which destiny has placed before man. To integrate all of one's tendencies and activities within a divinely ordained pattern requires all the initiative and creative energy which man is capable of giving.

Although I would not go so far as to say that the Sunnah has very little meaning in my daily life, especially as pertains to its essentials, I too have tended to focus more on the teachings of the gnostics than on those of the jurists. However, considering that many if not most of the gnostics were learned in Islamic jurisprudence and even considered masterful jurists themselves, I have gained much additional exposure to the Sunnah through their writings. Overall, I tend to follow the approach to Islamic law described by Al-Ghazali, as explained by Sachiko Murta and William Chittick in The Vision of Islam, one of the first books through which I learned about my religion. They wrote,

Because the existence of five categories instead of three, Islamic law goes into all sorts of details about everyday life that would not otherwise be discussed. It has many branches and subfields, expertise in which can require years of study. Many Muslims accord so much importance to the Shariah that it seems to become for them the whole of their religion, at least in practice. Nevertheless, many of the greatest Muslim authorities have warned against spending too much time studying the Shariah, since this can blind people to the other dimensions of the religion which are also essential to Islam.

Al-Ghazali, one of the most famous of the great authorities, held that each Muslim must have enough knowledge of the Shariah to put it into practice in his or her own life. But if Muslims do not need a given injunction in their circumstances, they have no need to know about it. There will be, in any case, people who devote their lives to the study of the Shariah, and they can be consulted when the need arises. This explains the basic function of the jurists in society; to explain the details of the Shariah to those who need to observe it in any given circumstance.

With regard to my own personal emphasis, I have derived my knowledge of the essentials from the Hadith of Gabriel of which the entirety of The Vision of Islam comprises a commentary, and the teachings of Mulla Sadra in The Elixir of the Gnostics. According to Mulla Sadra in the chapter "On the Knowledge which is individually incumbent upon man and must be learned for his subsistent existence",

This is certain knowledge of the encounter with God, of His unity, His attributes, and His acts, then knowledge of the human world and the manner of its first and second configurations. Anyone ignorant of these two sciences will fall short in the establishment of his existence and the perfection of his reality, even if he is proficient in the other sciences. He is like an infant, or like a sleeper who sees diverse forms in his sleeping and then, waking up from his sleep, finds no trace of them. So also is the property of the forms that man sees with his outward senses in this world or that he imagines with his inward senses. All these are unreal affairs and vanishing properties and dreams that have no subsistence in the wakefulness of the world of the afterworld - except for the true sciences, which are afterworldly forms and have entities fixed at God. And what is with God is better for the pious. [3:198]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spiritual Significance and Symbolism of the Hijab

... I have previously given little thought to the subject of the hijab for the mere fact that, as a man, it has not been made incumbent upon me and so I have not been in the situation of giving necessary consideration toward adopting it. Nevertheless, it is an important subject and one which may have a significance beyond that which has been addressed above. Thus far, the discussion of the hijab has centered around its association with the attitude of modesty. While this is certainly true, and constitutes an inward attitude both independent of and reflected within the outer garment, I do not believe that it exhausts the significance of the symbolic reality of the veil within the context of Islam. As an element of the sharia which derives from the Islamic revelation, the veil undoubtedly possesses a dimension of significance extending beyond the outward social domain.

Considered as a symbol, the veil (hijab) is an image of the metaphysical phenomenon of "Relativity", both divine and cosmic, the same phenomenon that is expressed in Vedantic terms as "Maya" or cosmic and metacosmic "illusion". Of the primary hypostases of the Divine Principle which qualify it as Absolute, Infinite Perfection, Maya results from the quality of Infinitude. This implies the tendency toward radiation of the Principle in the actualization of its possibilities including that of its own negation. Maya is the field of illusion within which these possibilities are realized and through which the Principle unfolds in the direction of its negation thereby giving rise to the ontological hierarchy of manifestation.

Maya possesses a dual nature and function owing to the complimentary qualities of transcendence and immanence of the Divine Reality. Maya both veils the Principle through its diminutive capacity and unveils it through its theophanic quality. According to Frithjof Schuon,

"The Hindu notion of 'Illusion', Maya, coincides in fact with the Islamic symbolism of the 'Veil', Hijab: the universal Illusion is a power which on the one hand hides and on the other hand reveals; it is the Veil before the Face of Allah or, according to a multiplying extension of the symbolism, the series of sixty-six thousand veils of light and darkness which either through clemency or rigour screen the fulgurating radiance of the Divinity."

The principial duality prefigured in the Divine Hypostases is reflected on all levels of reality giving rise also to the complementarity of the sexes which serve as their symbol on the human plane. According to Islam, God is both al-Jalal (the Majestic) in his quality of Absoluteness and al-Jamal (the Beautiful) in his quality of Infinitude. The beauty of woman is the summit of perfection of God's beauty within the terrestrial realm. Embodying the expression of His Infinitude, her beauty takes upon itself the dual qualities of the cosmic veil of illusion, or hijab, which in its physical form serves as her outward distinction and ensign, and of which she constitutes, in a manner of speaking, an incarnation. According to Schuon, "Woman, incarnating Maya, is dynamic in a double sense: either in the sense of an exteriorizing and alienating radiation, or in that of an interiorizing and reintegrating attraction." Concerning her feminine beauty we may say that, woman contains an element of physical seductiveness as well as contemplative interiority. Like music, she possesses the capacity to bestow either sensual inebriation or spiritual intoxication.

According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad - may peace be upon him - declared that "Three things in your world were made for me worthy of love, women, perfume, and prayer" a statement that in itself testifies to the great spiritual significance of women in Islam. Ibn Arabi elaborated upon this hadith in his Bezels of Wisdom, wherein, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated, he "goes to the point of describing the contemplation of God in Woman as the highest form of contemplation possible." In the chapter on the Wisdom of the Singularity in the Word of Muhammad, Ibn Arabi wrote,

"When man contemplates God in woman, his contemplation rests on that which is passive; if he contemplates Him in himself, seeing that woman comes from man, he contemplates Him in that which is active; and when he contemplates Him alone, without the presence of any form whatsoever issued from him, his contemplation corresponds to a state of passivity with regard to God, without intermediary. Consequently his contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect, for it is then God, in so far as He is at once active and passive that he contemplates, whereas in the purely interior contemplation, he contemplates Him only in a passive way. So the Prophet - Benediction and Peace be upon him - was to love women because of the perfect contemplation of God in them. One would never be able to contemplate God directly in absence of all (sensible or spiritual) support, for God, in His Absolute Essence, is independent of the worlds. But, as the (Divine) Reality is inaccessible in respect (of the Essence), and there is contemplation (shahadah) only in a substance, the contemplation of God in women is the most intense and the most perfect; and the union which is the most intense (in the sensible order, which serves as a support for this contemplation) is the conjugal act."

Frithjof Schuon stated that "the veil is a notion which evokes the idea of mystery, because it hides from view something that is either too sacred or too intimate." Within the spiritual economy of Islam, it appears that the incumbency of the veil upon women is intended not only as a means of expressing modesty and guarding society against a tendency toward sensual inebriation, but also a means of preserving the sanctity and inviolability of the outward manifestation of God's interiorizing beauty prior to the proper moment of its unveiling following the rite of marriage and prior to its consummation. Such a circumstance bestows upon the act the potential to realize the full value of its sacramental quality and contemplative depth. In Schuon's words,

"Woman is veiled as in Islam wine is forbidden, and she is unveiled ... with the aim of operating a kind of magic by analogy, the unveiling of beauty with an erotic vibration evoking, in the manner of a catalyst, the revelation of the liberating and beatific Essence; of the Haqiqah, the "Truth-Reality" as the Sufis would say."

Ultimately, it appears that in Islam woman has been given the veil as a symbolic reflection of her identity, as an expression of her inherent dignity, and as a responsibility owing to her providential birth as the ultimate theophany of God's beauty and bearer of the divine graces that such beauty may bestow upon those who see her unveiled.