4/06/2020

THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT



Hokusai, The Blind Men and the Elephant (block print, Japan, ca. 1817).
The elephant sadly and patiently suffers the inspection.

The Eye of the Heart
 In that great tale for people of all ages, The Little Prince, the French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
St.-Exupéry is talking about what is known in Sufism as the “Eye of the Heart” (Ar. ayn al-qalb, Prs. chasm-e dil). The concept has strong analogies in other wisdom traditions: it’s even in the Bible (Grk. ofthalmous tis kardias, Lat. oculus cordis: Eph. 1:18). But as Prof. Huston Smith has pointed out, it is dealt with “most directly in Sufism”. For example, the Sufi martyr Mansur al-Hallaj wrote:
I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I asked: “Who are You?”
He answered: “You.”
A Saying of the Prophet goes: “Beware the discernment of the faithful, for s/he sees with the light of God.”
The Heart that the Sufis intend is not the physical lump of flesh that pumps blood, but a psychic center or “Subtlety” (latifa) belonging to the spiritual body, located within the body of an adult a couple of inches below the left nipple. God does not care about the external trappings of a human being, but looks at what is in one’s Heart. In fact, it is said that the Heart is the seat of God. According to a Holy Tradition, “The heavens and the earth could not contain Me, but the Heart of my believing servant did.”
In the modern world, the heart is taken to be the center of emotion. In other cultures, however, such as in ancient Egypt, ancient China and Sufism, knowledge—and especially, knowledge of the divine—was situated in the Heart. And the Eye of the Heart is the organ of spiritual vision. Moreover, this eye ultimately sees not duality/multiplicity, but the One. In the words of the Sufi poet Sham’i of Konya (sometimes confused with Shamsi of Sivas),
Nobody attains the Real till one is distant from all else
The treasure doesn't open in this Heart until it is full of light
Drive out everything else from the Heart until the Real manifests
The King does not enter the palace until the place is built up.
Our calling, as human beings on this planet, is to open this Eye of the Heart.

The Man Born Blind
Consider the following story by the Chinese poet Su Tung-po (a.k.a. Su Shi, Su Dongpo):
There was a man born blind. He had
never seen the sun and asked about it of people who could
see. Someone told him, "the sun's shape is like a brass tray."
The blind man struck the brass tray and heard its sound.
Later when he heard the sound of a bell, he thought it was
the sun. Again someone told him, "The sunlight is like that
of a candle," and the blind man felt the candle, and thought
that was the sun's shape. Later he felt a big key and thought
it was a sun.
The sun is quite different from a bell or a key, but the
blind man cannot tell their difference because he has never
seen the sun. The Truth is harder to see than the sun, and
when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind
man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and
examples, it still appears like the analogy of the brass tray
and the candle. From what is said of the brass tray, one
imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one
imagines a key. In this way, one gets ever further and further
away from the truth. Those who speak about Truth
sometimes give it a name according to what they happen to
see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it. These are
mistakes in the effort to understand Truth.
(Quoted in Henry Bayman, The Black Pearl (2005), p. xxix.)

The Elephant in the Dark
In his masterwork The Masnavi, the great Sufi poet Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi tells the story of an elephant brought from India to a land that knew nothing about elephants and placed in an unlighted barn at night. People were curious to discover this unfamiliar creature, so they went in and groped around, feeling various parts of the animal. (M 3:1259-1274.) Rumi did not invent this story; it has a much earlier provenance. Coleman Barks has done a modern translation of Rumi’s tale. A variant of the story has blind men feeling the elephant, instead of it being in a dark barn at night. I have given a rhyming poem by John Godfrey Saxe below because it is more fun.
Of course, the story is quite enjoyable, and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. But what did Rumi himself intend by it? For this, we need to look at the verses that succeed the story (I quote from the E.H. Whinfield translation):
The eye of outward sense is as the palm of a hand,
The whole of the object is not grasped in the palm.
The sea itself is one thing, the foam another;
Neglect the foam, and regard the sea with your eyes.
Waves of foam rise from the sea night and day,
You look at the foam ripples and not the mighty sea.
We, like boats, are tossed hither and thither,
We are blind though we are on the bright ocean.
Ah! you who are asleep in the boat of the body,
You see the water; behold the Water of waters!
Under the water you see there is another Water moving it,
Within the spirit is a Spirit that calls it.
 
Here we have the key. The sea/foam or ocean/wave metaphor is a frequent trope used by the Sufis. The sea or ocean stands for God, who is the Truth and the Real, while waves and foam represent the phenomenal world, with its incessant flow of evanescent events. We become so engrossed in this grand procession that we do not see the ocean for the waves. Yet just beneath the surface, beyond all the frenzied activity, there is the stillness, the calm, the immensity of the ocean. Within every spirit there lies the divine Spirit: what Ibn Arabi called “the Spirit of spirits, not the spirit of receptacles” (Futuhat 1, 9). Or, as the Sufi poet Yunus Emre sang: “There is an I inside me, inner than myself.”
God is close to us—closer, in fact, “than your jugular vein” (50:16). But are we close to God?
We see, then, that the blind men and the elephant stand, in Rumi’s understanding, for us versus God. We are blind to God’s existence, and even when we acknowledge Him, we each fancy God to be circumscribed by our own limited view of Him. But what is infinite, even beyond the infinite, cannot fit into any pigeonhole, however large (except perhaps the human Heart). As it is said in the Upanishads: “If you think you know the truth about God, know that you know little indeed.”
That said, let us conclude with the poem.

The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!











1/05/2020

ON ILLICIT LUST



The Curse of the Black Bubblegum
In a terrifying, eerie and wonderful short story, ambiguously titled The Affair at 7, Rue de M— (1955), John Steinbeck relates the case of a bubblegum that began to chew a boy. The narrator is the boys father:
My child manfully tried to disengage the gum from his jaws. “It won’t let me go,” he sputtered. 
“Open up,” I said and then inserting my fingers in his mouth I seized hold of the large lump of gum and after a struggle in which my fingers slipped again and again, managed to drag it forth and to deposit the ugly blob on my desk on top of a pile of white manuscript paper. 
For a moment it seemed to shudder there on the paper and then with an easy slowness it began to undulate, to swell and recede with the exact motion of being chewed while my son and I regarded it with popping eyes.
....
As I spoke a change came over the gum. It ceased to chew itself and seemed to rest for awhile, and then with a flowing movement like those monocellular animals of the order Paramecium, the gum slid across the desk straight in the direction of my son. For a moment I was stricken with astonishment and for an even longer time I failed to discern its intent. It dropped to his knee, climbed horribly up his shirt front. Only then did I understand. It was trying to get back into his mouth. He looked down on it paralyzed with fright.
Think the “extraterrestrial symbiote” in the Spiderman movie, Venom (2018):
Numerous attempts to get rid of the gum, each more drastic than the last, all meet with failure. Fire doesnt destroy the cancerous thing,” it simply melts it. Finally, by imprisoning it in a hermetically sealed bell jar, the father is able to keep the pest away from the boy, depriving it of the life it needs.
But what does the story signify?
Steinbeck gives a hint at one point: “the tumorous lump” is alive and intelligent, but with an “evil calculating wiliness.” For: “Intelligence without the soul to balance it must of necessity be evil.”
Steinbecks extraordinary insight is that he ascribes agency to evil. It is not passive, waiting inertly and lifelessly at every step of the way. Rather, at a certain stage it becomes Active Evil, taking on a life and will of its own. And it begins to suck you in like a magnet attracting iron filings, until it engulfs you completely. Like quicksand.
The result: you turn into that yourself.
     



From a Sufic point of view, Steinbeck’s “intelligence without the soul to balance it” is not sufficiently clear, and needs to be emended. Intelligence, or the intellect, is not by itself evil. Rather, it becomes so when it is commandeered by the Base Self (nafs al-ammara) for the latter’s own purposes. This is “the self that always commands to evil” (12:53). It is our inner animal, our inner demon.  Because there is something of it in everyone, it has led to the erroneous concept of original sin. But this self can be trained, it can be purified, and can lead to much more desirable outcomes.

Mind, Faith, Courtesy

A Sufi story related by Master Ahmet Kayhan explains how, in our human condition, intelligence alone is not enough, but must be supplemented by faith and courteous conduct:

God said to Gabriel, ‘Let’s give him something.’ He sent three presents: Mind, Faith, Courtesy. He said, ‘Whichever one he chooses, bring back the other two.’
Adam thought. He has no mind, no ideas, he’s a mudcake. Again this isn’t Adam’s work, it’s God’s. There’s a Giver. He said, ‘I’ll take Mind.’
Gabriel said, ‘You chose the best.’ He said to Faith and Courtesy: ‘Come on, let’s go.’ Faith said: ‘Without me, Mind can’t manage.’ He turned to Courtesy, ‘Let’s go.’ Courtesy said, ‘I’m the garment of these two. Without me, neither of them can manage by themselves. I stay, too.’ So they all remained with Adam.
Gabriel conferred with God. ‘What shall I do?’ God said, ‘Everything’s found its proper place, if he can use them. The trust has found its place. Come back.’ [...]
Now, don’t we possess these three? We do. It’s the very same hour, the same moment. As with Adam and Eve, so with us all. This word is valid every hour.
(Henry Bayman, The Teachings of A Perfect Master (2012), p. 269.)
So in Sufic terms, Steinbeck’s “soul” would need to be replaced by faith and courtesy. 

The Base Self and Sex Human beings are designed to have faith, and if “the God-shaped hole in the human soul,” as Sartre put it, is not filled with that which is proper to it, it will still be filled, but this time with other idols, other gods. In ancient times, these could be quite coarse things, such as rocks or statues. These have disappeared in our age. But now, they are replaced by more abstract entities: wealth, power, sexuality. Their abstractness makes it more difficult to discern their role as idols. This means that there is no true atheist, except for nihilists. Sociologist-anthropologist Bruno Latour has pointed out that our so-called “modern world” is itself beset with “idols: money, law, reason, nature, machines, organization, or linguistic structures... efficacy is attributed to things that neither move nor speak” (The Pasteurization of France, p. 209).
And of these idols, sex is among the most notorious. It is (as Freud has elaborated) one of the most powerful drives, and a prime target for the Base Self to latch onto. This can easily lead to placing a member of the opposite sex on a pedestal: to idolizing a woman, and, via that channel, worshiping one's own lust: sexolatry. (This also discloses the true meaning of nude (and other sexually suggestive) paintings.)

A Model of Human Sexuality
Consider a table that is exactly level. If you place a ball on it, it will remain stationary. If, however, the table is tilted, even a little bit, it will roll off. The horizontal position of the table provides the ball with an “island of stability.” Whichever way you tilt the table, the ball will roll off in that direction.
Human sexuality is like a ball on a table. Because the Prophet said: “Every child is born a Moslem,” that is, pure and undefiled, a childs instincts are initially geared toward Clean Sex: that is, within matrimony and with a mature member of the opposite sex. However, various circumstances encountered in life can drive one off this island of stability. It is then that the sexual urge becomes warped and seeks different outlets for its satisfaction.
Extramarital Sex is one of the two great scourges of humanity, the other being Illicit Wealth. God says: “Do not (even) approach fornication/adultery” (17:32). Once you begin to kiss their neck, its over. The slippery slope takes you all the way.
Extramarital Sex is one of the two great scourges of humanity, the other being Illicit Wealth.
Ones initial encounter with sex can be definitive for the rest of ones life. In psychology and ethology, this is known as “imprinting.” In the terms of quantum physics, one could say that out of an ensemble of probabilities, the state vector collapses to a single value.
Encyclopedia Brittanica defines imprinting as “a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object with which it has visual, auditory, or tactile experience and thereafter follows that object. In nature the object is almost invariably a parent”. When the ethologist Konrad Lorenz hatched baby goslings in an incubator, making sure he was the first thing they saw, they fixated upon him and followed him around as if he was their mother.
This, however, was not just imprinting, it was “mal-imprinting” (or mis-imprinting). For no matter how you cut the dice, Lorenz was not their mother. And similarly for human beings, there is imprinting and then there is malimprinting.
In his introduction to The Human Zoo (1969, 1996), zoologist Desmond Morris explained his choice for the title of the book as follows:
Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. ... Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from [the Base-Self-driven actions of] our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.
Morris discusses various ways in which malimprinting can come about in the cases of fetishism and homosexuality (esp. pp. 168-176), and interested readers are referred to that source for further details (for a short summary, see this). Furthermore, malimprinting (as Morris notes) can also explain other forms of sexual deviation. The ball can roll off the table in different directions, not just one or two.
Morris has also clarified that a male or female animal mounting another of its kind, whether male or female, is not necessarily a sexual act, but an assertion of dominance and supremacy. Most observations of animal same-sex relationships have been made in captivity: in zoos or laboratories. Whatever the final verdict on animal homosexuality, we are human beings, and thus not condemned to emulate animal (mis)behavior. Just because an animal does something does not mean that behavior can serve as a role model for humans. Quite the contrary, we need to tame and purify the animal tendencies of the Base Self in order to reach the true spiritual potentials of a human being.
religions were instituted by God for the happiness of human beings.
Love and Lust
In recent times, love has come to be equated with sex. This is a dangerous conflation and a confusion of categories.
There are many forms of love. God Himself created the universe out of love (a Saying of God, a.k.a. a Sacred Tradition: “I loved to be known.”) There is parental love, grandparental love, love between siblings, between friends, the love of pets, of an inanimate object (for instance, a car), and so on.
And then there is sexual love. Love and sex should be associated only in the case of Clean Sex. Otherwise, it pays to keep them separate.
Lust, on the other hand, need not be accompanied by love. Relations with a stranger seldom occur on the basis of love (“What has love got to do with it?”). Lust can become fixated on anything. And for these reasons, it can easily fall into the zone of Unclean Sex. If one cannot find fulfillment through normal channels, one will seek satisfaction in other ways. As psychiatrist Anthony Storr concluded: “The study of sexual deviation is the study of sex without love.” (Storr, Sexual Deviation, p.129.)
In our day, people are slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that extramarital sex is injurious to the spirit. They complain that frequent changes of partners result in the inability to love and to commit oneself. In the face of this lovelessness, sex becomes a mechanical act that does not satisfy, and one is driven to seek satisfaction in ways that push beyond the boundaries of the normal—but which, of course, are still no substitute for love.
Lust is a very powerful and dangerous drive. Like nitroglycerin, it is unstable and liable to explode if not handled with the utmost care. A few years back, the case was reported of a man in a European country who imprisoned his family for years in order to have sex with his own children. Think of the trauma, both personal and social, caused by this depravity. (Unchecked, the Base Self will make you do anything.)
And this is precisely the point: sex between two persons is not just the sole concern of consenting adults, it is an interaction between two members of society. Furthermore, its original purpose is to refresh and replenish society. And even two people already form the nucleus of a society. Like a stone thrown into a still pond, the sexual act cannot fail to have ripples and consequences that spread out, now that we live unawares in a global village, across the whole world.
Intelligence without faith and courtesy to balance it must of necessity fall into the clutches of evil. 
Gay Marriage
Since this is a sensitive subject, I want to make it perfectly clear at the outset that I write the following without any malice, ill-will, fear, loathing, or hatred. Further, what is important is not my own or anyone elses personal preferences, but Gods. Nor do I take pleasure in writing this: I do it because someone has to.
Not a week goes by without one or more TV shows promoting homosexual love and gay marriage. A new term, “diversity,” has been invented, a euphemism for perversity, to cover the alphabet soup of LGBTQ+. Bright rainbow colors are used to prettify the concept. Ostensibly aimed at a domestic (American) audience, those TV shows, in the age of the internet, have disruptive effects on minds and cultures on the other side of the globe.
Image
The Base Self in the act of revealing its true nature.
Ethics, morality, can only be relative as long as it is not based on an absolute. My ethical values may differ from yours, and there is no particular reason why anyone should prefer mine. That Absolute can only be God, the ground of all being and of all ethics, the Maker of you, me, all human beings, and the entire universe.
So what does God say?
Let us not forget that religions, however much they have been abused and their precepts violated, were instituted by God for the happiness of human beings, and that without them, humanity would have wiped itself out long ago.
Let us also recall that not everything which may seem good and pleasurable in this world is good for the next world, but everything that is good for the after-death state is also good for this world. (That’s right, once you die you’re immortal. You have to factor that into your calculations.)
Homosexuality is prohibited in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, as well as in some forms of Buddhism. (The Dalai Lama, based on Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, has considered it “sexual misconduct.” Apparently, there were no homosexuals in the Buddhas environment, so he didnt pronounce on the matter.) In all three monotheistic religions, homosexuality is “off the table.”
What is more, “gay marriage”  is an oxymoron, of the same order as “fried snowballs.” You can have either one or the other, but not both. Declaring it legitimate according to the laws of a certain society does not legitimize it in the sight of God. Otherwise, the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah would not have run into any problems.
Stretching the meaning of “marriage” to include same-sex relationships empties the word of its meaning. It becomes hollowed out. This also places us on a slippery slope with no end in sight. Once the meaning of marriage is nullified in this way, what comes next? Take your pick: marriages between sadists and masochists, marriages between pedophiles and children, between animals and humans, between robots and humans... In other words, we are on the threshold of legitimizing everything known as sexual misconduct, otherwise known as deeds abhorrent to God.
The solution: self-restraint. Against the assaults of Active Evil and the Base Self, you have to prevent yourself—even more actively—from falling off the table.