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Newsletter for January 2011
Buddhist Mindfulness and Sufi Mysticism: Enlightenment versus
by Mohammad Nad-e-Ali Shamsi
Buddhism and Sufism are two religions that are
unique from other practices since they are not structured like
other major religions such as Christianity and Islam. Instead,
these two faiths differ in that Buddhism is more of a philosophy
than a religion and concentrates on living life based on moral
code and ethics. In Buddhism, there is no almighty God and
worship of a supernatural being. Also, in Buddhism there is no
belief of a Judgment Day but rather, emphasis is placed on this
doctrine of rebirth, called Samsara, regarded simply as “the
perpetual cycles of existence or endless rounds of rebirth among
the six realms of existence” (buddhanet.net) that Buddhists
believe in. Sufism is distinctive, as well, since it is
considered more of a mystical practice which places importance
on one’s connection with God and seeking the Divine through
spiritual practices. In both religions, spirituality and
meditation play a major role but the purpose or ultimate goals
of each religion are dissimilar. For, in Buddhism spirituality
and meditation are used as a tool to assist one in seeking
enlightenment or “liberation” from Samsara which is achieved
when one attains the level of Nirvana, which is “virtual
exhaustion of karma, habitual traces, defilements, and
delusions” (buddhanet.net). Rather, Sufism utilizes the practice
of meditation and spirituality in their ultimate goal to become
one and unite with God, in which the heart and the power of love
plays a significant part of the Spiritual Journey by acting as a
medium to connect one with the Divine.
Buddhism has its origins about 2500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, became “awakened” or enlightened and began teaching the principles of Buddhism, called the Dhamma or “Truth”, to his disciples or students. In his teachings, he mentioned “to lead a moral life, be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and to develop understanding and wisdom” (buddhanet.net) which could be accomplished by acknowledging what is known as the Four Noble Truths and embarking upon the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddha was able to follow what is called the “Middle Way” meaning that the “extremes of both hedonism and asceticism are to be avoided and that the middle course should be followed as the ideal” (Takakusu 22). Buddhist doctrine rests on the idea of knowing and perceiving reality as it is, meaning that one should look at life as it is without making any judgments or excuses and conducting one’s life according to this knowledge. The Buddha taught that life is made up of both pleasures and hardships, “but one must not be discouraged when hardship comes, or lose oneself in rapture of joy when pleasure comes” (Takakusu 22). That is what Buddhists mean by the” Middle Path”.
The idea of suffering plays a critical role in Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist dharma teaches one how to cope with suffering and how to still be able to live a noble life. What the Four Noble Truths refer to are “1) that life consists entirely of suffering 2) that suffering has causes 3) that the causes of suffering can be extinguished 4) that there exists a way to extinguish the causes” (Takakusu 26). These are the basis or foundations of Buddhist teaching and Buddhist believe that “all those who are seeking Enlightenment must understand the Fourfold Noble Truth” and that those who do not understand this “will wander about interminably in the bewildering maze of life’s illusions” (Kyokai 39). Buddhists preach to keep these truths in mind for the world is full of suffering, and that anyone wishing to escape this suffering must “sever the ties of worldly passion which is the sole cause of suffering” (Kyokai 39). In order to live such a life free of worldly desires and suffering can only come through enlightenment and this enlightenment can be achieved through the discipline of the Noble Eightfold Path.
What this path calls for Buddhists to practice are eight things, which when all achieved, will lead to enlightenment or Nirvana. These eight aspects consists of “Right View (by which to see the real state of all things), Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Mindfulness, Right Endeavor, Right Livelihood, and Right Concentration” (Takakusu 26). So, in essence, the spiritual journey of a Buddhist begins when one learns to recognize the real state of things, Right View. The following three practices of Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action can be seen as a method for a Buddhist to transform his or her human character by what he or she thinks, says, and behaves according to. After a Buddhist has changed their character, next, the teachings of Right Mindfulness, Right Endeavor, and Right Livelihood can be interpreted as the acts necessary to be taken to transform or change the elements of a Buddhist’s life. Living with mindfulness, with right effort, and a simplistic lifestyle will then prepare the Buddhist even further along the path to Enlightenment until Right Concentration, which is “the motive power to carry one through all the worlds—this world of desire, the heaven of bodily beings, the higher heaven of formless beings and holy beings” (Takakusu 26) will finally bring you to the state of Nirvana or the highest enlightenment, also known as the Buddhahood. So, to summarize “the Eightfold Way may be regarded as the practical ethics of Buddhism for the purpose of building up the human character and improving it, but at the same time it is the way for attaining the highest enlightenment” (Takakusu 27).
Meditation plays a crucial role in the pursuit of the Eightfold Path in that it assists Buddhists in attaining each of these eight “rights”. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, discusses various meditative practices in the Buddhist tradition and shows the significance of these meditations and how they relate to the Buddhist beliefs of mindfulness, living in the moment, being awakened, unity, and peace. For instance, when Hanh explains about the typical routine of washing the dishes, he points towards three of the eightfold truths pertaining to Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. He writes that, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes” (Hanh 3). This can be compared to what Right View and Right Mindfulness explains. Then, he states, “the fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality…completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There is no way I can be tossed around mindlessly” (Hanh 4). This refers to Right Concentration, or the point when nothing comes between you and what you are doing, when one’s mind is pure and clean, unaffected by the ego’s or worldly desires, and at which point thus, true understanding is reached. Hanh explains that “we practice mindfulness in order to build up concentration…mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life…Mindfulness enables us to live” (Hanh 15). To have a pure, clean, open mind plays a pivotal role in the journey towards Enlightenment for “an unenlightened life rises from a mind that is bewildered by its own world of delusion” (Kyokai 51). The mind is “the master of every situation…therefore, all things are primarily controlled and ruled by the mind, and are created up by the mind” (Kyokai 51). So, a man must speak and act with a good, clear mind in order to bring an end to one’s suffering and in order to get proper enlightenment. Meditation, thus, is used by Buddhists to practice harnessing one’s control over the mind and allowing it to become clear, open, and void of any delusions for it allows one to concentrate and focus the mind’s thoughts. Hanh writes of meditation saying that, “sitting in meditation is nourishment for your spirit and nourishment for your body…our bodies obtain harmony, feel lighter, and are more at peace…once you are able to quiet your mind, once your feelings and thoughts no longer disturb you… your mind will take hold of mind in a direct and wondrous way which no longer differentiates between subject and object” (Hanh 42). Thus, meditation is used by Buddhists along the spiritual journey to cleanse and purify one’s mind in order for the person to be ready for enlightenment.
So, in summary, Buddhism is based on a certain way of living and by following a code of ethics and morals, through which enlightenment is achieved.
Moving now to the topic of Sufism, it is unlike Buddhism in that whereas Buddhists do not believe in a divine being, God is at the center of Sufi faith and in which the heart rather than the mind, plays a critical role in a Sufi’s spiritual journey.
The practice of Sufism can be defined as being the “inner, esoteric, mystical, or purely spiritual dimension of the religion of Islam” (www.uga.edu). It is often referred to as “Islamic mysticism” and the essence or root of Sufi practice is complete surrendering towards God. Sufis, or practitioners of the Sufism, see themselves to be on a spiritual journey towards God, and this path is known as Tariqah in Arabic. While all Muslims believe to be on a pathway to God and that one will become close to God in Paradise after death, Sufis recognize that it is possible to attain this closeness and connection with God while one is alive. They assert that the attainment of knowledge of the Divine through experience and intimacy with God is the sole purpose of creation. In a particular Hadith Qudsi, or sayings of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H), Sufis reference that God states “I was a hidden treasure and I loved that I be known, so I created the creation in order to be known.” Hence, for Sufis, there is a continuous attraction on their hearts exerted by God, attracting them and pulling them closer towards God. They experience a joyous ecstasy of being drawn to the Divine “Beloved” and emphasize “the continual remembrance of God, intention, integrity, generosity, and respect for all life” (www.sufism.org). The “inner relationship of lover and Beloved is the core of the Sufi path…and God reveals Himself within the hearts of those who love him” (Vaughan-Lee 1). So, Sufis believe that through love, “the seeker is taken to God” and embarks upon the spiritual journey in which separation from God turns into union and a state of oneness with God.
Jalal al-Din Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, was one of the most influential Sufis of his time and his mystical poetry is widely recognized throughout the world. Contained in his poetic prose are tales of love, intoxication, life and death, realization, and passion. This leads to several questions which arise such as “Why does Love dominate much of Rumi’s poetry?”and “What does Love as described by Rumi really mean?”. In the end though, the main question to ponder is “What is the significance of love?”
It seems as though Rumi is talking about “Love” in a higher regard than just the emotional aspect of love that one senses and feels. Rumi is addressing love in terms of a spiritual sense. His poetry, though it addresses things such as love for ordinary things found in Nature, in the end, seems to all lead to something bigger which is the ecstatic love of the soul seeking to be one with the Divine God. Rumi utilizes the experience that we as humans possess in terms of emotions when in love as a way to point toward the spiritual union and relationship of the soul with God. Thus, he shows that the power of love that we feel in our human relations reflects the intensity of our soul’s love for God as well. But on a deeper note, Rumi is expressing the belief that love is the key to spiritual experience, much moreso than the mind or ego which acts as a barrier between the real and false self and hinders true understanding.
In Islamic doctrine, God is the source of all life, and whose essence cannot be described or compared to anything, but “who can be known through the spiritual qualities that are manifest in the world and in the human heart.” To Rumi and other Sufis, a person who is unenlightened is “faithless” and an individual who lives in slavery to the false self, or ego, and to the desires of the material world. The spiritual practices which Sufis such as Rumi performed were aimed at “transforming the compulsiveness of the false self and attaining Islam or ‘Submission’ to a higher order of reality.” Without submission, the real self would be concealed and enslaved to the false self, regarded as the ego. Thus, “the enslaved ego is cut off from the heart, the chief organ for perceiving reality, and cannot receive the spiritual guidance and nourishment which the heart provides.” This displays the power and purpose of the heart in terms of spiritual guidance. It shows that if the heart is trapped or dominated by the ego, then experience and understanding cannot be truly attained for it is being tainted by the thoughts of the ego. It is only when this enslavement is overcome that the realization is made that “the self is a reflection of the Divine, [and that] God is the Beloved or Friend, the transpersonal identity” (www.sufism.org) for love of God leads to the lover forgetting him or herself and immersing themselves in the love and favors of the Beloved.
For Sufis, you only begin to discover who you really are when you go beyond yourself. The real self is something much larger and different in quality than the ego, which is primarily concerned with success, popularity, or perceiving to look like something which one is not. So, the reason that love can be such a force is because, in love, the ego is no longer in control, or at the center. For instance, when a person feels such an affection or admiration towards someone or something else, then that thing or person becomes far more important than you yourself. So love transforms a person and forces one to go beyond oneself. When one starts to experience the depth in one’s lives, no longer identifying with the ego, that is the opening or point at which one discovers who and what we really are and true understanding and experience is reached.
It is the longing of the heart which opens up a person and awakens them to the pain of separation. This can be seen through the relationship between Rumi and his teacher Shams Tabrizi. It was predicted by the teacher of Tabrizi, Kamal Jundi, that Shams was to meet a person who would become his ‘tongue’ or alter-ego, referring to Rumi. It was in his counterpart, Rumi, that Shams was able to manifest his gift of divine wisdom as he was able to transfer his knowledge and wisdom into Rumi in a rather mysterious and startling manner (shamsitabriz.net). Rumi has mentioned in his book Divan-e-Shams that it was not him but Shams talking through him in his poetry (shamsitabriz.net). Later, Rumi would come to the realization that he and Shams were one and that Shams lived within Rumi himself. This phenomenon of the transfer of souls has never been witnessed before and what makes the tale of these two personalities so unique. This unique relationship is best expressed through the words of Gulpinarli that, "Rumi was like a purely clean lamp, where the oil was poured in the holder and a wick placed therein, ready to be lit; and Shams was the spark to set it afire" (shamsitabriz.net). When Tabrizi suddenly disappeared one night, it was this feeling of longing in Rumi’s heart which transformed Rumi and it was at this point when Rumi began chanting lines of poetry and falling into ecstatic and intoxicated forms of love towards Shams and the Beloved. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, in her book entitled Sufism: The Transformation of the Heart, writes that “the glance of the Beloved awakens the memory of the soul… the memory of this union makes us aware that we are now separate from the One we love, and so ignites the fire of longing. The exile remembers his real Home and begins the long and lonely journey back to the Beloved” (31). So, once again, the power and significance of the heart and love can be seen, which shows that it is not only what leads to realization and experience once the ego is destroyed and replaced by love, but also that this feeling of yearning or longing awakens one to the pain of separation and brings a person back on the path to seek their Beloved.
Now, let us see what Rumi, in his poetry wrote about the topic of love and intoxication. From the collection of Rumi’s poetry, translated by Nevit Ergin, in his book entitled The Forbidden Rumi, there is a poem by Rumi called “Love is its Own Proof” in which is contained the following stanza:
If you fall in love, Your love is your proof and that’s enough.
If you’re not in love, what good is proof?
This poem explains how Rumi views love as it being the only thing one needs, and that proof is not needed. Earlier in the poem, Rumi mentions a person crying and looking for a remedy or cure, and that one should seek out what he or she is longing for or desires. The next stanza describes a lost soul and a person riddled in sorrow and he advises that person to go try to find his lost soul, which the power of love can do. In the third stanza, Rumi explains that by just smelling a loaf of bread reveals everything you need to know about the bread. He is making the contrast that in a similar way, just as all is revealed about the bread by smelling it, similarly, love of the Divine will reveal to you true understanding about the Divine as it will cause you to immerse yourself in this love and allows for such a bond and connection to be formed. This again reiterates the power of Love as being the only thing a person needs when lost or saddened or looking to find someone whether it be someone searching for his or her soul, or trying to seek out the Divine. This portrays the message that by just following your heart, you will reach your destination and find what you have been seeking for.
Even in forms of meditation, the heart acts as a symbol and type of connection between Sufis and the Divine. In the Mevlevi tradition, the ceremony of the whirling dance, or the Sema, performed by dervishes (followers of Rumi) is very unique and mesmerizing to witness. From the view of an onlooker or outsider who does not know the significance and meaning behind this ceremony, it would seem rather strange and absurd to them. However, what these dervishes perform in these rituals holds great importance, for Rumi, who was the founder of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, was the first to perform this whirling dance out of a sign of devotion and remembrance (Zikr) for Allah. This dance can be regarded as a state of meditation since the dervishes, as they perform the turn, start chanting the name of God, and fall into a trancelike state, completely ignoring everything around them, and being in the moment, caught up in their quest to find deeper meaning and understanding through this dance. Everything that the dervishes perform during the Sema has a meaning: the turn, the costume they wear, the rose, even the music. The tall hat they wear represents “the tombstone of the ego”, the black cloth they take off is the “burial shroud”, and the white cloth represents “the shroud of the ego” which dies as they perform the turn. The word ‘dervish’ means “doorway”, so the Sema is performed by these dervishes as they look to reach that ‘doorway’ to God or to enlightenment. The music played during the ceremony of the flute is another symbolic instrument, as the sounds of the flute being played emits a wonderful melody, which in itself, helps the dervishes during their spiritual and meditative practice, as it creates certain emotions and feelings. When the dervish takes off the black cloth, it signifies the Sufi’s desire to remove and abandon one’s ego and need for material possessions, and keep one’s focus on God alone. Each movement made during the turn represents something. As the dervishes whirl, always from right to left, the Dervishes hold their hands in a unique position. The right hand is lifted palm-out towards the sky whereas the left hand is palm down towards the ground. The right hand is palm up towards God while the left hand (palm down) represents the Earth. So, this dance can be analyzed as the dervishes trying to find the center or connection between the two realms: one being the spiritual realm and the other is the physical realm and in the center or what connects the two realms is the heart or simply devout love for the Beloved/Divine.
In conclusion, the heart and its power of Love is the key or essence both in meditative practices and in the stages of a Sufi’s spiritual journey because it allows one to reveal their true self (which is trapped by one’s ego), and is the key for spiritual guidance and experience for when one is in love, they completely forget themselves and rather, become immersed in the love of their Beloved.
Having now examined both the Buddhist faith and Sufi tradition, it is apparent that spirituality and meditation play pivotal roles in each religion but for different purposes. Buddhists follow a moral and ethical code of conduct in their life and use meditation in order to prepare themselves for true understanding and enlightenment by purifying the mind and perfecting the Eightfold Path. Whereas, on the contrary, Sufism delves into connecting oneself with God, in which meditation is used for the purpose of harnessing the power of the heart and using it as a medium to connect the physical, material realm with the supernatural realm of the Divine.
Ergin, Nevit. The Forbidden Rumi: The Suppressed Poems of Rumi on Love, Heresy, and Intoxication. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
Helminski, Kabir. Love Is a Stranger: Selected Lyric Poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2000.
Kyokai, Bukkyo . The Teaching of Buddha. Tokyo, Japan: Kosaido Printing, 1966.
Lings, Martin. What is Sufism?. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1975.
Novak, Philip. The Inner Journey: Views from the Buddhist Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005.
"Rumi." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009 <http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9043269>.
Takakusu, Junjiro. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 1947.
Tajadod, Nahal. Rumi: The Fire of Love. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2004
Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn. Sufism: The Transformation of the Heart. Inverness, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 1995.
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