Idries Shah. THE WISDOM OF
Sufism is a rich mystical
tradition that arose in the
In so doing, the Sufis
have played a unique part, for no other body of
things and reject others, Sufis try to provoke the experience in a person.
Why provoke or develop experience instead of teaching dogmatic principles or
processes? The Sufis assert that knowledge comes before ritual. Rituals may
become outworn, may not function as intended when practiced by communities for
which they were not designed. If rituals and practices are, as Sufis believe
them to be, specially developed psychological methods, only those who have the
knowledge that lies behind them can confirm whether historically notable ones
are still functional. Hence priority is given to knowledge and understanding
feeling or belief.
Sufis are often compared with the products of other mystical systems, but
there is little inward resemblance. For Sufis, there are many more dimensions,
more sides, to the attainment of higher consciousness than are found in other
systems. Where Sufis insist that ecstatic experience is a contaminated
by-product, a distortion of experience that never happens in an enlightened
person, other systems often strive for this ecstasy alone. Where Sufis insist
that there are all kinds of emotions and that a certain degree of emotion,
whether perceived as religious or not, is harmful to spiritual perceptions,
others include many who believe that extreme emotionality, when religiously
tinged, must be better than anything less intense. Where the Sufis state that
there are stages in mystical appreciation, and that one must not attempt the
developments that accompany one stage before completing the preparedness that
comes from attaining the one before it, numerous other systems make no such
ever to most Westerners, as relics of specific, scripted, and measured
designed in the past to help people in the past to attain knowledge
storm the gates of heaven is someone not prepared to prepare. Such an assault
essentially tries to abolish the problem of intricacy by denying that it
exists: It is like solving the problem of a missing button by sewing up the
odd clothes. For the Sufis, humanity is already full of misconceptions and
unsuitable, counterproductive habit patterns that must be attended to before
there is a fair chance of progress toward a more objective understanding.
"You must empty out the dirty water before you fill the pitcher with clean" is
of the ways they put it.
emotional-psychological-social life renamed, Sufis start with this aspect when
trying to clear up the confusion that is the usual condition of most people's
out something similar. In the past, Sufis lacked the support of such parallel
research and therefore often had to teach in secret. Hysteria was often
considered sacred; monomaniacs were sometimes regarded as saints. Only
have most societies accepted the idea that greed, say, is sure to be
situation, while those who do not understand the priorities clamor for
"spiritual" teachings. Such teachings are useless if floated on top of the
psychology of the ordinary individual, however useful that psychology is for
For this reason, a person's illusions of self-esteem may have to be deflated.
Many people cannot endure such an approach, and the result is that some leave
and set up synthetic Sufi systems, some turn against the Sufis, and some
become servile because they mistake humility for self-abasement. A few, on the
other hand, understand what is going on and profit from it. The Sufi has no
responsibility to work with people who reject his attitude. In fact, he is
incompetent to do so. This rejection is often unconscious, since many would-be
learners in reality are seeking social stabilization, comfort, or attention,
knowledge and understanding.
depend on small beginnings, and how the base is the foundation of the
at school. "Not so well," says the other, "because they are trying to teach
to spell 'cat' with a C instead of with a K."
things somewhat askew, as well as the need for context and grounding. In this
case, that need is reflected in the fact that it is essential to know the
before rendering a mature judgment.
only for certain purposes -- and do not help the person who suffers from them.
This miniature parable is
also linked with the effects of vanity.
before the interference that prevents higher understanding can be stilled.
People are always supposing that they can realize their full potential if they
can only discover the way, the key, the method, and apply it. But applying the
method may involve taking care of all the things within them that are not
helping them, such as the habit of applying fashionable though ineffective
to a problem. A key works only in a lock.
When they were walking on the grounds of the presidential place, a large and
fierce-looking dog tore the loincloth off a Hindu guru who was also present
and, barking loudly, cornered him by a wall. Now this guru had the reputation
of being able to tame tigers with a glance, but he obviously had no such way
dogs, and he called out to my friend to do something.
the three elements in a mind are aligned (the guru, the visitor, and the dog,
as they are called in this picture of it), the situation is, to put it mildly,
Until that potential is strong enough to be realized, it remains latent and so
inconsequential that if people were to have their potential removed, the
operation would be minor. To increase it would produce not a flourishing
but a giant, unviable weed.
insufficient information or does not know what questions or actions will yield
productive answers or reactions, the situation must be corrected as soon as
possible. One quite useful joke incarnates the circumstances that occur when
has been done.
- keep on firing!"
learner often has to experience higher perceptions so that he can recognize
their individual flavor. Once he can do that, he can stabilize his state when
these perceptions occur and can avoid imagining that useless, subjective
experiences are spiritual ones. He or she can now seek the flavor again and
stabilize it. This is the doctrine called "He who tastes, knows," but the
value of the taste depends in part on the irreplaceable presence and activity
the spiritual equivalent of taste buds.
disoriented and they usually have unrecognized problems. Their adherents do
not know the parameters or the places to test and perceive because they cannot
tell a spiritual from an emotional experience. Neither do they usually realize
in what order various experiences have to be stimulated, or even that there is
fishing illustrates this situation. The men caught some fine fish. When they
were going home, one said to the other, "How are we going to make our way back
that wonderful fishing place again?"
instinct, and part obsession or conditioning may answer well enough for many
purposes, but it must be possible to set aside that self in order to get to
the real thing. Sufi teaching often has to resort to indirect methods in order
to eliminate the destructive effect of those activities that give great
to the individual but actually inhibit his potential -- as well as
it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. Various
people who called themselves Sufis, and other well-wishers, were called in by
and asked to do something about the child.
so much noise, perforate his eardrums; this reasoning was too advanced for the
child, who was neither a scientist nor a scholar. The second told him that
drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special
occasions. The third offered the neighbors plugs for their ears; the fourth
gave the boy a book; the fifth gave the neighbors books that described a
of controlling anger through biofeedback; the sixth gave the boy
but none worked for very long.
hammer and chisel, and said, "I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?"
Incidentally, a lot of diversionary activity such as musical assemblies,
dressing up, and
incantations - well but erroneously know in the West and
all unknowing, they sometimes render avarice in the form of greed for "higher
things." There is an excellent Western story that freezes this situation on a
lower, illustrative level, allowing us to see the relative absurdity of
and also its comparative unproductivity.
suggested that his initials be put on the ball, so that anyone who found it
could return the ball to the clubhouse where he might later claim it. The
Aberdonian was interested. "Yes,' he said, "please scratch my initials,
A.M.T., for Angus McTavish, on the ball. Oh, and if there is room, add M.D.,
as I am a physician." The instructor did this. Then McTavish scratched his
head. "While you are about it," he said, "you might as well add, 'Hours,
be distinguished from practitioners who are interested only in gathering
tribes of followers. As an example, there is the one in which two mothers talk
rid of some of the old ones."
NOT to take on everyone who applies to him!"
laugh at these stories; if they cannot, then they should not be considered
spiritual teachers at all, because they are so insecure. Paranoid behavior,
too, is often seen in the manifestation of hostility towards such tales, when
the listener thinks that he or she is being challenged by what sounds like an
antiguru story. Would-be disciples who do not enjoy such jokes are often
by genuine Sufis.
There is another story
that infuriates some second - rate teachers:
undiscernible beings, and I have met them,' people will not dispute it. But if
you say, 'It is a nice day today,' some fool will always reply, 'But not as
nice as it was yesterday'. And if you put up a sign saying WET PAINT, who will
take you at your word? You can tell how few by the number of finger marks the
leave on it."
things maintain, at the expense of truth, their version of how things are,
produce situations in which these people have to be shown up as absurd. An old
tale told in
follower of a guru went to get his blessing. This was no vegetarian guru, but
a Tantric type with more than a dash of Kali, the goddess of destruction, in
thoughts. The blessing was given, but no ducks appeared at the shoot.
on: "I expect you shot many ducks?"
that Mother Kali had decided to be merciful to the birds."
mechanisms as rationalizations continue to be described as recent Western
discoveries, for this knowledge has been common in the East for centuries. If
do not admit this, we miss the meaning of many valuable Eastern teachings.
insisted that scientific and scholastic methods are often blind to their own
limitations. You may have to take the Sufis' word for this initially, but you
can, little by little, taste the disabling subjectivity of many people who are
regarded as objective or scholarly repositories of wisdom.
I do not say that they are all like this, or that you will find in life an
counterpart to the following joke, but it will enable you to identify
are totally vain, even if they oversimplify and don't talk much."
these assumptions exist only to please those who make them, and are not meant
to take anyone or any idea a stage further.
Sufis, like others in the field of education, use assumptions either as
pads or as something to be challenged, not as dogma.
laudable and altruistic acts and thoughts. One day a Westerner was watching
a Chinese gentleman burning bank notes before the tablets of his ancestors.
The Westerner said, "How can your ancestors benefit from the smoke of paper
departed relatives appreciate the flowers you put on their graves." Yet
assumptions drench our spiritual thinking.
you pleasure. But to think at the same time that the act is doing something
else is, at best, irrelevant to human progress. All human progress comes
through NOT thinking that one thing is, in fact, another; that is, through
in fact able to separate the two. But generally when they manifest this
ability in the form of behavior, people tend to think that they are either
great sages, humorists, or idiots. My three collections of Nasrudin jokes give
many such examples, partly to illustrate this characteristic and training, and
to help you make it, as it were, your own property.
statesman Daniel Webster. He was being sued by a butcher for a debt when he
ran into the butcher on the street. Webster immediately asked the butcher why
he had not come for any order lately. The butcher said he had thought that
Webster would not, under the circumstances, want to deal with him. But
Webster, showing this perfectly lucid attitude said, "Tut, tut. Sue all you
- but, for Heaven's sake, don't try to starve me to death."
lucidly, a proposition often advanced by confused thinkers, is an absurd
misunderstanding. A confused person will, and often does, choose a confused
and confusing series of inapplicable techniques to approach higher
The wisecrack aspect of jokes is, of course, a degeneration, perhaps due to
surfeit - which is one reason why Sufi masters have actually given and
permission to jest from their disciples, as Ghazali
reminds us in a
approach that I do not yet find clearly understood in
and can usually be disentangled. I was once standing at a corner of the huge
market street called the Bhindi Bazaar in
troop of determined Western seekers-after-truth descended and clustered around
an old man who was squatting on the side of the road. They photographed him
and chattered excitedly. One of the visitors tried to start a conversation
with him, but he only stared back, so she remarked to the guide, "What a sweet
man; he must be a real live saint. Is he a saint?"
tell a lie and a need to please his clients, said, "Madam, saint he may be,
to us he is the neighborhood rapist."
right alignment and respect (for materials, for students and
advisory editor of HUMAN NATURE. He was born in
family and many
of his ancestors have been among the Sufi masters of
20 years he has been relating the Sufi heritage to contemporary Western thought, and in
the process he has written more that 20 books. In 1966 Shah introduced the study of
Sufism into English universities when
he lectured at the
the United States his best known books are the volumes of Sufi teaching tales that
adventures of Mulla Nasrudin.
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