Reading Andrew Harvey’s 1994 book, The Way of Passion, about Rumi’s relationship with his teacher Shams i-Tabriz, is a riveting and enlightening dive into the poetry Rumi produced from that time. Why would I read this? Because devoted to my Buddhist niche as I may be, it’s dry in comparison to the ecstatic and explosively awakened passion of Sufism.
What the Buddhists call emptiness, rigpa or natural mind, is not so different from the meaning and translation of the term Allah—if you can look past the conventional definition. Natural Mind is the realization of unity, Oneness, the ego-less non-dual nature of reality. Allah is similarly without beginning or end, timeless, omniscient, the divine creator and destroyer, Divine Presence, Divine Love, including all existence and non-existence, the same awakened nature at the heart of reality, but also, at least for the mystics, Allah is the heart of passionate love and the ecstatic expression of (egoless) non-duality as an endless source of creation.
Is this wishful thinking? Why do I even mention these things? What do they have to do with anything?
Because in the territory of post-activism, in the desert beyond the last swimming pool of Las Vegas, beyond the greed, excess and overconsumption of the Industrial Growth Society, into which we’ve been cast naked and longing and lost, looking into the desolate face of extinction as we are–if that’s not overstating the case—however we revive ourselves, regenerate intimacy, rewrite the prime narrative, tell ourselves the connecting and comforting tales of our indigenous forebears, even with all the sense they make, opening the windows and doors to receive the benefits of cross-cultural awakening as we do, for all our talk of sacred activism, and yes, even with all the love we generate along the way, there is still a roof to be blown away.
There are yet more ways for us to be annihilated and awakened to the blindness of our pathetic little egos, to the repeated revelation of our clever and tenacious self-deception, the endlessly inventive ways we shore up our misguided aspirations to permanence. There’s still space to be shattered and swept into a storm of reckless and unconditional loving emanating from hearts broken open.
This is the unspoken transformation beyond what we typically imagine transformation to be. Transformation is not a destination. There is no there there. It is an ongoing event, the ethic of radical impermanence itself. Radical impermanence is a primary character of emergence, the very nature of reality. There is no end to it, just as there is no end to creation and radical renewal. Real change is messy, unpredictable and perpetually disruptive. And if we are to engage with life as emergence, we must live radical impermanence and renewal in our bones.
The lamps are different,
But the Light is the same.
So many garish lamps
in the dying brain’s lamp shop,
Forget about them.
Concentrate on essence, concentrate on Light
In lucid bliss, calmly smoking off its own holy fire,
The light streams toward you from all things,
all people, all possible permutations of good, evil, thought, passion.
The Lamps are different,
But the Light is the same.
One matter, one energy, one Light, one Light-mind.
Endlessly emanating all things.
One turning burning diamond.
One, one, one.
Ground yourself, strip yourself down,
To blind loving silence.
Stay there, until you see
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes.
We imagine this time on earth to be the most desperate, the most dangerous, the most insecure. We peer over the precipice of climate change and resource depletion, pandemics, pollution and pervasive conflict– and imagine this is a time like no other. Perhaps so. But Rumi’s time (13th C.) was no different, as have many times since.
There have always been those holding apocalyptic visions. Shiva is always at work. The earth has always been dying. And there have always been those driven by imminent loss, real or imagined. Humanity has always been astray from the Divine, always seeking re-union with the timeless source regardless of how lost we may become. Yet Brahma/Allah is always at work, creating the world anew. Has this not been the impulse of all sacred practice, formal and informal, institutional or not?
Sufis, perhaps even all of Islam, hold close the idea that everything we know or ever could know can be taken away at any moment. The world could end in an instant and only exists now by the benevolent forgiving hand of the Divine Source. That’s why there’s no time to lose. This fervent adherence to radical impermanence is perhaps unique in the world. Yes, it is aligned with the fundamental intent of Buddhism’s mindfulness of impermanence, though driven by an exponentially greater longing for union; indeed, for them, longing is our essence. It is what humans are made of, an intrinsic engine fueling the fire of faith.
Such longing is born of bewilderment. From our first breath, we are found and also lost. Bewilderment remains at the core of being human, a perpetual recovery from the instant of separation enacted at birth, the engine of longing to reunite with the spirit that bore us into this life, this body. The essential experience of loss and the wish to recover from it motivates much of what we do and think.
There are many guises for intelligence.
One part of you is gliding in a high wind stream,
while your more ordinary notions
take little steps and peck at the ground.
Conventional knowledge is death to our souls,
and it is not really ours. It is laid on.
Yet we keep saying we find “rest” in these “beliefs.”
We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.
Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.
Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.
—Jalal-u-din Rumi, (translated by Coleman Barks)
One need only look around to see how lost we truly are and why apocalyptic visions abound. Both Rumi and the Buddhists would say it’s because we deny our essential nature and because we are ignorant of the nature of reality. Instead of burying our bewilderment and making myriad excuses for our alienation, building ever more complex, garish and violent castles of denial, Rumi says we must return to bewilderment. Go mad. Let the roof be blown away.
Give up everything, reunite with the loss and bewilderment driving self-destructive behavior. Get your dervish on. Dance to the ever-whirling edge of destruction and renewal with me, he says. There we will be liberated and transformed by the eternal process of living and dying we know as Allah, Buddha, Elohim, Christ, Brahma, Shiva, God.