Category Archives: Eastern religion

Elif Shafak’s Perspective on Western Faith

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist whose Sufi faith is a powerful influence in her life and in her writing.  In this excerpt from The Forty Rules of Love she sheds a valuable light on faith from her tradition in which she can see unity where in the West often we see only difference, where our “distinction drawer” is too much in control.  (The italicized material will be my observations.)

Instead of losing themselves in the Love of God and waging a war against their ego, religious zealots fight other people, generating wave after wave of fear.  Looking at the whole universe fear-tinted eyes, it is no wonder that they see a plethora of things to be afraid of.  Wherever there is an earthquake, drought, or any other calamity, they take it as a sign of Divine Wrath—as if God does not openly say, “My compassion outweighs my wrath.”  Always resentful of somebody for this or that, they seem to expect God Almighty to step in on their behalf and take their pitiful revenges.  Their life is an uninterrupted state of bitterness and hostility, a discontentment so vast it follows them wherever they go, like a black cloud, darkening both their past and their future.

This is a picture of the ego in firm control, using their purported “love of God” to wreak havoc on the world, including those most dear and close to them.  When the ego is tyrannizing our world, it desperately functions as a distinction-drawer keeping parts of our human experience separate from our awareness and projecting it “out there.”

There is such a thing in faith as not being able to see the forest for the trees.  The totality of religion is far greater and deeper than the sum of its component parts.  Individual rules need to be read in the light of the whole.  And the whole is concealed in the essence.

But the ego is a constellation of rules that seeks to “rule” our world, that is impose order upon it to make it consistent with our need for order and perfection.  Its goal is to know all of the rules, never forget one of them, so it can always be right.  It builds for us what W. H. Auden called, “A life safer than we can bear.”

Instead of searching for the essence in the Qur’an and embracing it as a whole, however, the bigot singles out a specific verse or two, giving priority to the divine commands that they deem to be in tune with their fearful minds.  They keep reminding everyone that on the day of judgment everyone will be forced to walk on the Bridge of Sirat, thinner than a hair, sharper than a razor.  Unable to cross the bridge, the sinners will tumble into the pits of hell underneath, where they will suffer forever.  Those who have lived a virtuous life will make it to the other end of the bridge, where they will be reward with exotic fruits, sweet waters, and virgins.  This, in a nutshell, is their notion of the afterlife.  So great is their obsession is with horrors and rewards, flames and fruits, angels and demons, that in their itch to reach a future which will justify who they are today they forget about God…..Hell is in the here and now.  So is heaven.  Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven as they are both present inside at this present moment.  Every time we fall in love, we ascend into heaven.    Every time we hate, fight, or envy someone we tumble straight into the fires of hell.

The ego does not want us to live in the present moment.  It is a creation of this time/space continuum that we have been confined within by the biblical “fall” leaving us comfortable only when immersed in memories of the past…good or bad ones…or hopes of the future.

Is there a worse hell than the torment a man suffers when he knows deep down in his consciousness that he has done something wrong, awfully wrong?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what hell is.  Is there a better paradise than the bliss that descends upon a man at those rare moments when the bolts of the universe fly open and he feels in possession of all the secrets of eternity and fully united with God?  Ask that man.  He will tell you what heaven is.

Why worry so much about the aftermath, an imaginary future when this very moment is the only time we can fully experience both the presence and absence of God in our lives?  Motivated by neither the fear of punishment in hell nor the desire to be rewarded in heaven, Sufis love God simply because they love Him, pure and easy, untainted and unnegotiable.

And when you love God so much, when you love each and every one of his creations because of Him and thanks to Him, extraneous categories melt into thin air.  From that point on, there can be no “I” any more.  All you amount to is a zero so big it covers your whole being.

This “love of God” is a challenging notion as it is so easy to be trapped into loving only some idea of God, some culturally contrived notion of God, which has nothing to do with the experience of Him/Her/It/Whatever.  And here I pause as I’m at the threshold of silence, where all words become futile.

But when the “idea of God” is seen, and experienced for what it is, that being an idol, the theological teaching of God’s immanence and transcendence can become meaningful to one.  Yes, God is “out there” as well as “in here” and this intuitive insight can best be said as simply, “God is.”  And this God who we now see and feel “is” comes with a parallel development, the discovery of our own simple, bare, “is-ness” in what would be otherwise a cold and barren universe.  We discover our “zero-ness” which is so big it does cover everyone and everything, uniting us all.  In the Christian tradition we call this “the Spirit of God” which the Apostle Paul described as Christ and noted “by Him all things cohere.”

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Jesus Said, “Let Go of Your Stuff!”

My “literary license” has here been employed but I think that “let go of your stuff” is a good paraphrasing of the teachings of Jesus.  For example, this was conveyed in his observation that it would be easier for a rich man to enter the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And in another place, he responded to a query re what one must do to have eternal life with the response, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.”  Now, I don’t think these words were to be taken literally but were merely his ways of pointing out how deeply attached humans are to their possessions, their “stuff.”  And his teaching that we find our self only in losing our self is another example of the same them.  This detachment from the material world was, and is, a motif in Eastern spiritual teachings as eastern thought reveals less of an investment in the object world.

 

In my culture, interpreting the teachings of Jesus as “Let go of your stuff” would real ring dissonant with most people.  For, we are very attached to our “stuff” and attached to such a degree that we can’t understand the notion.  Asking anyone to see this attachment is like asking a fish to see water.  And this attachment issue also pertains to spirituality for in the West we tend to approach faith as just another item in the category of “stuff” and so we glom onto it and proceed to exploit the hell out of it just as if it were like any of the rest of the “stuff” that we are so attached to.  And, in most cases it is!  And this is actually just a form of addiction and even if the object of our addiction….the substance is something purportedly noble…it is still an “addictive substance” in our case and thus is used to avoid reality.  And this is the reason that so much of modern day religion appears to be absurd to anyone with a capacity for critical thought as they can readily see that it has nothing to do with anything other than practitioner himself.  This is what Karl Marx had in mind when he described religion as “the opiate of the masses.”

 

Shakespeare understood this sin of misplaced concreteness so well, that sin of taking for real that which is only ephemeral.  He saw that our investment in “stuff” reflected a disregard for our subjective experience…our heart…in preference for an inordinate investment in the object world.  His conclusion was “within be rich, without be fed no more.”

Here is the entire Shakespearean Sonnet:

 

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

Thrall to these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.