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.
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