Zen, Tao, Sufism, Wittgenstein (and Lacan?)

by Modaser Shah

A big subject, indeed.  I have been thinking about writing a post on it for some time but have been shrinking from it, looking for some inspiration in books and our local small Sufi group discussions.  When I heard about a recent visit by one of our members, Kamran, to an impoverished church in rural Pakistan on Christmas, I felt truly moved.  Kamran is an exceptional Sufi; unlike me, and many other aspirants, he is more a man of action than of theorizing and generalizing. He shows rather than tells, and this brings us to one thing that the mystic traditions share with Wittgenstein, i.e., some things can not be captured in language, and yet they are vital and some way has to be found of passing them on.  And so it is that Lao Tzu, Zen masters like Dogen and Hakuin, Sufis like Rumi and Kabir, and Wittgenstein, relied on language to try to communicate or show what can’t be encompassed by language.  Readers may be be familiar with Wittgenstein’s statement in the Tractatus: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. Or Lao Tzu’s saying that the Way that can be named or talked about is not the Way.  Chuan-Tzu is quoted as saying: If the Way is made clear, it is no longer the Way (Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Izutsu,1983, University of California Press).  He talks  about it as “a shapeless Shape, an imageless Image…” and a Nothing (wu in Chinese or mu in Japanese, an important term in the discourse of Zen).

Many will be skeptical about the idea that Sufism—rooted in Islam—can have anything in common with Zen and Taoism.  However, first of all history does give us some clues about the interaction and mutual influencing between Islam and the brand of Buddhism which was prevalent in Gandhara (cf. modern day Kandahar, and the surrounding areas of northern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan) at the time of Islamic expansion into the region.  This was the school that later on developed into the Zen tradition as it spread to China, Korea and Japan.  Although the ruling and conquering classes were mainly interested in dominating the vanquished lands and marginalizing, if not wiping out, the local traditions and spirituality (and so the violent aspects of the interaction are well known) it may be hard to believe that there were elements in the Muslim polity who had curiosity about these “foreign” ways and were even ready to learn from them.  For example, see Hindu & Muslim Mysticism by R.C. Zaehner.  Bayazid Bistami is an example of this, discussed in detail in the book.  He apparently had a teacher from India who taught him about meditation and such, and Bastami in turn taught his teacher about the Muslim way of praying.  In those heady days of expansion and triumphs, it would have been difficult for the majority of the Muslims, armed as they thought they were with God’s final revelation and definitive answers to all life’s quandaries, to develop some curiosity and a willingness to learn from the subject and conquered peoples.  The exception here, as in so many other areas, were some of the Sufi masters.  Indeed, the humility and willingness to learn from others and from experience, and not to feel bound by preexisting notions, words, and concepts, can be said to be quintessential to the Sufi and Zen frame of mind.

Learning is not as simple a thing as it may seem on a  superficial level; it seems to require a learning to learn, in such a way that the essential is not lost sight of in favor  of beliefs and concepts, which have often to be unlearned to prepare the way for encountering emptiness in Zen and Reality in Sufism.  This learning is not based on learning a new system of concepts or beliefs to replace previous ones, rather on guided practice and direct experience.  The theoretical stuff—of which there is plenty, as one can imagine—is to be used as a means to show, as Wittgenstein indicates. The Buddha shows the way.  He is quoted as saying that the Dharma was like a life raft, once one got to the other shore, it is to be discarded.  Imagine that: teachings are dispensable.

Lacan, if I have understood the parts of his thinking as interpreted by Slavoj Zizek (in Less Than Nothing, for example), believed that human beings are constituted by absence or a lack, a void or emptiness. Consciousness without content is empty, or an emptiness always grasping on to something or the other, to be about or to be filled with something.  Emptiness or void is hard to achieve or tolerate.

Zen is a form of meditation (We will leave aside the Rinzai sect which works with koans of one sort or another.) “which can be practiced by people of any or no religion.”  In Zen for Christians by Kim Boykin, she says: Zen is a way of directly experiencing “no-self”—realizing that the distinction between “me” and “not-me” isn’t so clear and definite as we usually assume it is and experiencing the interconnection and interdependence of all things.”

One way to simplify an extremely complex situation is to say that both Zen or Sufism (or Taoism) is to surrender to what is: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

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3 Responses to Zen, Tao, Sufism, Wittgenstein (and Lacan?)

  1. Navid Zaidi says:

    This is an excellent analysis, Dr Shah. All of those traditions influencing each other shows the unity of human experience all over the world. All in One, One in All, type of thing. As human beings we are all the same from inside, we have the same aspirations, desires, goals, emotions no matter where we come from. Our experiences have a unity in diversity. We live in a mythologized world and have same stories to share. But as you have expressed this concept of UNLEARNING…….it seems vital to unlearn the old stories and transform them to our current circumstances. That’s the only way to keep the old tradition from dying.

  2. Pete Mayo says:

    “…some things can not be captured in language, and yet they are vital and some way has to be found of passing them on.”

    I am beginning to think that what must be passed on is the ineffable peace & love. The one passing it must be firmly rooted in it. Then it will attract others who are ready for it. But that rooting takes personal committment and I am thinking in terms of time spent in meditation.

    Then we can enjoy and appreciate the diversity of traditions rather than be threatened by others than our own.

    Speaking of Zen, “Zen and the Brain” by James Austin is pretty fascinating from a scientific point of view.

    Blessings & Peace

  3. Pingback: A Sufi Thought for the Week (Zhuangzi) | Sufi Ways

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