by Modaser Shah
“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer,” said Wittgenstein, and what a profound statement this is! It should NOT be read with a positivistic slant that there are no objective and worthwhile answers to be looked for. What it means is that the answers are within, already there, but our scientific preoccupations prevent us from looking in the right place. Recall the story where Mullah Nasruddin was looking for the lost key under a street light, even though he had lost it somewhere where it was dark. He said it was easier to look for things near a light. Scientifically verifiable facts and scientifically respectable postulates have become that light—a light that may be shining far from the crux of the matter—in the age we live in.
“Man has been truly termed a microcosm, or a little world in himself, and the structure of his body should be studied not only by those who wish to become doctors but by those who wish to attain a more intimate knowledge of God,” said Al-Ghazali, the Sufi philosopher. Mullah Nasruddin would seem to indicate that this study better not be done under the light of positivistic scientism, but in the “dark” of the soul where “the key” got lost to begin with. We then have the task of developing our capacities of looking for lost things in darkness.
“To let suffering speak is the condition of all truth,” said Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist. The story of Job and God’s “answer” to him are a startling illustration of this, if read carefully, with a completely open, and not superstitious and prejudicial, mind.
“The best thing to do is to do what needs to be done”. However one must try to distinguish between means and ends, the signifier and the signified, a gesture and the real thing. Another Zen saying points in this direction: “When the finger points to the moon, the foolish man looks at the finger,” and, it may be added, imitates this pointing repeatedly, long after the moon is gone.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it,” said Nietzsche. This seems to be a most striking and terse statement of acceptance of what is (Zen), and surrender (Islam, in its original meaning). It is a statement of acceptance and of surrender to His will (as in Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven). All Nasruddin has to do is to face reality and to start looking in the dark parts of his existence, or soul, for his lost article, in order to qualify for “greatness”; alternatively, he could accept, even love, the reality that he is condemned to, take the path of least resistance and keep looking where “light” is available, praying for grace.
A Japanese professor was visiting a Zen master for guidance regarding Zen. The master poured tea into the visitor’s cup and kept pouring after the cup was full. The professor watched until he couldn’t restrain himself from saying that the cup was overflowing. The master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Speculations and opinions, without a direct openness to experience…how these can interfere with learning and experiencing something new! And yet, openness must not be equated with gullibility, as there are so many psychopathic or superstitious schemes in the world, promising easy strategies, i.e., not requiring effort and patient investigation and observation. Openness must be accompanied by toughness of mind and a healthy skepticism. This is a characteristic Sufi state of mind.
So, unlike Nasruddin in the parable of the lost key, let us practice unlearning and looking for lost things in the dark, finding light in the dark.
Essay by Modaser Shah; photo by Ali Hammad