Consummate dilettantism!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sufism and Zen

This is a short paper I wrote for a history class. I think it is of general interest, so I post it here.
Schimmel very briefly discusses the possible influence of East Asian thought on Sufism. I think that the parallels between Sufism and Zen are so numerous as to warrant more than a short mention. The parallelism is more than superficial; while most religions have mystical elements, Islam has a mystical strain that is profoundly Zen-like. Whether this is indicative of Islam’s borrowing from Buddhism is another question; I am merely pointing out the similarities.

Sufism is that which cannot be named. “A Sufi does not ask who a Sufi is”; Sufism is an indefinable philosophy of contemplation of the timelessly infinite. The Kashf al-Mahjub describes Sufism as purity. And what is purity? Purity is the seeing of the sun and moon, the seeing of and absorption into the ethereal, the endless sky of God. Men are exhorted to escape the confines of “stations,” stations that bind us to the world and to the finite chain of causality. Causality figures very importantly in Sufism; it marks the line between this world and the next. The concept of a “next” world is misleading here; Sufism focuses on the escape from this world into a state of purity that finds bliss in brutal hunger. Hunger and asceticism cause joy because they remove the veil.

The essence of Zen is namelessness. Kōans about Zen are designed to “shock” the listener into contemplation with the sheer force of their discord; Sufi tales are likewise described as being not literal (yet importantly not figurative), as being designed to propel the reader beyond that which is known. The Chinese character 無 is used as a reply to riddles that are not riddles; it represents the state of ultimate negation, the “off” state. There is no question; the question is not designed to question, but to induce contemplation. The concept of Zazen, or the clearing of the mind to become oneness with everything, is startlingly similar, in both practice and metaphor, to Abu Amr Dimashqi’s instruction to “shut the eye to the phenomenal world” – as Daito says to sweep away thoughts that are like clouds, so do the Sufis say that the “eye cannot see the light of the sun and moon with complete demonstration”; the heart sees only the empyrean.

The goal of the Sufis is to have an existence that is without cause and without end, an existence unaffected by time or the thoughts and actions of man. I argue that the practitioners of Zen have precisely the same goal.


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