Thursday, November 25, 2004

Service, Traveling With The Shaykh

All the great Shaykhs seem to agree that the path of the Darvish lies in service. As a matter of fact, we hear this so much that there may be some tendency to take this idea for granted.

This is unfortunate, as we can assume from the stress put on the idea of
service in the "classical" period of Sufism, that this practice was considered of paramount importance.

We are reminded that the great sage of Bukhara, Bahauddin Naqshband, during
the course of his training by his teacher, was given tasks such as tending animals, working in the fields, and even cleaning filth from the city streets. So at least in those days service was seen as practical action.

Some time ago I spent a week traveling with Taner Baba to Oklahoma to teach an
extended workshop on Pencak Silat, including its relationship to Sufism. Being as it was just the two of us who went, I had a wonderful opportunity to deepen my understanding of service, and especially service to my Shaykh.

Now I must say, the first thing I learned was that Shaykh Taner is an
extremely difficult person to serve well. This in not, as one might imagine, because he is demanding, quite the opposite, he is entirely self sufficient, and really does not need anything from anyone. I had to be very alert, otherwise Baba would start cleaning or some such thing that I should be doing for him.

At first it occurred to me that this might be a teaching ploy to help me
sharpen my awareness, but the more I observed Baba I came to realize that his actions were motivated by a true humbleness. There was just nothing in him that even thought about being served.

The more I watched the Shaykh, the more I was reminded of the stories of the
old Masters such as the great Turkish Shaykh, Ahmed Yasavi, who lived in a hut he built with his own hands, earned his daily sustenance by carving wooden spoons, and would never accept even the smallest gift from anyone. This is rather remarkable given the high regard in which Khwaja Ahmad was held by everyone around him. Had he wanted to, he could have lived in a palace and have had servants waiting on him hand and foot.

Not only was Taner Baba taking care of himself (unless I could anticipate
his needs and get to them first), but I noticed that he was also, without a thought to his own position, taking care of me and everyone else who was around. He would address people's needs in ways that spanned the spectrum from the mundane to the profound. Often helping in ways that people did not even know that they needed.

Over the years I have learned that I can discover a great deal by observing
Taner Baba's actions, so I applied myself to this on the subject of service, both by watching him in the moment and reflecting on past experience with this topic in mind.

One of the more important conclusions that I came to was that accepting the
service of his murids was in fact mostly a burden on Taner Baba. For himself, he didn't need it, or even want it. He accepted it only as a duty to his students. I came to realize that on a personal level, service was a burden that he accepted for the sake of our development, and if it were not for that, he would never put up with it.

With this in mind I set myself to finding the answer to the question "what
benefit to our development is found in service?"

Again I set myself to observing Taner Baba. What I began to notice was that
when he spoke or acted he always pointed toward Allah, never himself. Even when he spoke about himself it was only to redirect peoples attention back to Allah. I came to understand that his "self" was effaced in his remembrance of, and service to Allah. This state was a product of the service that he had performed for his Shaykh, work he had done until he had reached a state of true and complete humility, no longer thinking of himself at all, but having his awareness turned only to Allah.

Toward the end of our trip we had a quiet moment where I was able to breach
the subject of service with Baba. While I was going over my observations with him I had a sudden understanding of one of the most important transformations that the practice of true service makes in us and its purpose for those of us who follow the path of Sufism.

Service to ones Shaykh produces a struggle between the desires of the nafs
and ones obligations to Allah. As one confronts ones selfish motivations and (insh'allah) overcomes them by constantly returning to service, a state of true and profound humility is created within the murid.

Without this quality of profound humility and effacement of the nafs, as the
murid is given authority and responsibility in the functioning of the Tariqa he or she would become a tyrant. The selfish desires of the commanding ego would color every choice and action of the student.

This made clear to me some of the Shaykh's actions that I had observed in
the past. Sometimes he would give a person authority for a time, and then remove it. This would often produce all manner of interesting reactions. If the person wanted the authority, or had become attached to it, the removal would make this readily apparent. If the person had the strength and will to look at their reactions for what they were, profound growth would occur. If not them the person would usually go away and cease to bother Taner Baba, most often going out to find someplace where they could regain the illusion of authority.

This made it clear finally, the reason that the true Masters of Sufism,
though they posses remarkable power, never abuse it. The long apprenticeship of service to ones Shaykh is the furnace which burns away the negative qualities of the nafs which would cause such abuses.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A Lesson

I had an instructive experience and lesson from my Shaykh some time ago that may be interesting.

I have just spent the last five days away from the home Dergah on business for my Shaykh, and having concluded it drove to Shaykh Taner's Pizza Parlor to spend some time with him.

I arrived arrived at Taner Baba's pizzeria, and after greetings and a little time catching up on news I found myself deep in conversation with Baba about all manner of interesting things, when this fellow came through the door to talk with Shaykh. He insisted that Taner Baba come sit with him at another table and talk.

Within a couple of minutes this fellow had disrupted what was going on and made himself the center of attention. He was bordering on rudeness toward Baba and after listening to him talk for a few sentences I realized that he had come not to ask questions and learn, but to prove to us and receive some sort of confirmation that he already knew everything and had attained a Really high state.

The conversation went on in this vein for quite some time. I expected Taner Baba to rake this person across the coals for his bad manners and lack of adab (and if you have ever experienced Shaykh explaining why he is unhappy with your behavior you know what I mean by "rake"), but the more obnoxious the guy became, the milder Taner Baba responded.

Now I have to admit that by this time I was becoming more than a little irritated with this fellow's loutish behavior. The other folks at the pizzeria were giving me that look that says "don't do anything that will break more furniture than you can afford to pay for dewd", and I was starting to think about how much fun I could have playing show and tell with this guy's vital organs.

But I knew that Shaykh Taner would not approve and I did not want say anything without my Shaykh's permission, so I bit my tongue, sat on my hands and listened. In listening to the conversation, I noticed that the more this person said "I, Me, My", Shaykh said Allah, Allah, Allah, and didn't draw attention to himself at all, so I decided to pay attention to what was being said rather than indulging my Nafs by dribbling the fellow out the door for his bad manners.

The discussion went on for another 20 minutes or so until the fellow found himself offering the point of view that he was arguing against. Shaykh then said "Good! That ends this conversation as we are in agreement." The fellow, looking more than a little confused got up and left.

I thought a good deal about what I had just seen but could come up with no good explanation of why Shaykh had put up with this fellow.

As we were driving back to Shaykh's house I suddenly remembered a story that Baba had recently related about his Shaykh having put up with some bad behavior on someone's part because he didn't want to hurt the person's feelings and break his heart. In a sort of sudden flash I saw the events in a new light. I turned to Baba and said, " I think I've got it! You treated that guy so nice even though he was a complete jerk because if he saw the truth about himself he would not have been able to bear it.

Shaykh Taner said that this was indeed the case. The fellow was actually extremely fragile and would have been crushed if he had seen himself for what he actually was. Baba went on to tell me that though this person was mostly lost in his ego, that he had some good traits that could, over time, be brought more to the surface. Baba explained that he had taken on an obligation to the man's father to help his son in a way that the father could not and so Shaykh was content to make one small change at a time. Perhaps only one a year for the moment, knowing that these changes will be cumulative.

Ya Sabur!

When we arrived at Baba's home I opened a book of poetry by Yunus Emre
and found this verse.

If you've broken a single heart,
The prayers you make aren't accepted.

The seventy-two peoples of the world
Could not wash your hands and face.

So many masters have come and gone.
They migrated. Only their ancient lands remain.

They opened their wings and flew to Al Haqq,
Not as geese but as eagles.

A Way is true if it is straight.
An eye is that which can see the Real.

And doing good even once is no small thing.
It can return a thousandfold.

Yunus combines words
As if mixing honey into butter.

He's in business among people,
With goods of the highest worth.

What my Shaykh is like

Today someone asked me what my Shaykh is like, this is what I told them.

Outside the gates of Nafsistan there is a small, overgrown trail that leads deep into the forest. Sometimes one of the inhabitants of the city will find it and follow it. If they do not get lost on the way, eventually the will find themselves at a still, quiet pool of water in the deepest part of the forest.

Being thirsty, they bend over to drink, but when they do they see them Selves reflected perfectly in the pool. When this happens they become frightened or repulsed by what they see and go away thirsty. Sometimes you can find them wandering in the forest, muttering to themselves about how impure and unpleasant the water looked, and hoping that they can find a pool to drink from that will not show them what they are afraid to see.

Sometimes though, a traveler will learn to close their eyes, so that they are not distracted by the reflection, then they drink.

The water is so cold that it hurts the teeth and throat to drink. It is so chill and pure that the chest constricts and the heart thinks that it will stop beating.

I don't know if you have ever drank anything really cold on a very hot day, but if you have you know that is like your eyes snap into a whole new level of focus.

This is exact what happens to the travelers when they drink. They are so shocked by the taste of the water that they open their eyes as they drink. Because their focus has changed they see beyond their own reflection to the bottom of the pool, where there is an arrow pointing the way out of the forest. If the travelers follow the arrow they will eventually find themselves in the Land of the Living.

"My Shaykh is like that pool." I told my friend.
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