One day Rumi and Shams were sitting together in spiritual intimacy and conversation. A messenger entered with the news that a certain shaikh in a distant village had died. The community was asking that a shaikh be sent to succeed their late teacher. Mevlâna said, “Send so-and-so–let him be your new shaikh.” After the messenger had left, however, Shams turned to Mevlâna and said, “We’re lucky they only asked for a shaikh. If they had asked for a dervish, one of us would have to go!”
I was asked to recently give my thoughts on Sufi orders, teachers and books. I took this request to really be a question in disguise, namely how can one become a sufi, can one read alone, does one have to be in an order etc. The answer really is that one does not become a Sufi by own’s on volition, it is a gift, bestowed upon the aspirant as evidenced by sufis of the past specifically Hafiz saying thing such as: “Lord bestow upon me the blessing of Sufism“
But to get to the heart of the matter, for me Sufism is an experience, and from my own experience I feel that we can’t we get that experience by reading alone. Reading is like fertiliser put in the soil, it prepares the grounds , but it doesn’t make the seed germinate . If you have worked with plants I am sure you will nothing that each seeds opens in its own time. This awakening in the case of the spiritual aspirant happens on it own terms in the ‘heart’ of the aspirant. This awakening is referred to as ‘tauba’ in Sufism, the spiritual awakening.
The Living Examplar
Traditionally once the seed of devotion is awakened in the heart it is tended to by a spiritual guide. One of the cornerstone of the Sufi practice is the teaching and influence of a guide a living exemplar. Although known by many names the function of a Teacher, Master, Shaykh, Pir or spiritual guide is the living example we are to follow spiritually.
Many people have a problem with the idea of a spiritual master, there have been and are so many abuses of authority it is hard to know who to trust or on what basis we should trust them. It is in many ways like school, we have to know what specifically do we want to study and what mentor would be best suited to help us reach our destination.
Our mentor has a unique approach to the subject we wish to pursue. We follow his methods or ways for what we are doing as a means to eventually find our unique path. I believe some common sense is necessary for this whole process. If one isn’t sincere with themselves, i.e. wants one thing inwardly but something else externally they will not find an appropriate teacher. This doesn’t just apply to graduate studies. I feel that sincerity with ourselves and clear vision is what allows us to succeed whether it is in spirituality or any other capacity.
There are sufi teachers who are part of an order and some who are not. One of the things that often does not come to mind when we search for the Truth is that the Truth is searching for us as well. It is our sincerity that determines if we find a true master or not. If we want someone to make us feel secure and comfortable, entertain our egos with stories deep in our hearts although we say outwardly we want a true teacher or master we will get what we sincerely want deep down inside.
There are many people who claim to be Sufis, some claim that they are taught from realms unseen, other have become sufis by reading many books etc. Who can say what’s real and what isn’t? What I do know is that many of the greatest examples of what I feel in my heart to be sufis have never called themselves that. Their actions, humility and generosity speak for itself. Generally I find that one’s action should speak to what one is. Just as robes do not necessarily make one a monk or a priest, calling one a Sufi or being initiated in a Sufi school doesn’t automatically make one a Sufi. Look at the following words for Kabir Helminski:
In dervishood we pledge ourselves to a shaikh and a lineage. This reaches hand over hand all the way to Allah. Our pledge, our obedience, our commitment is to Allah, and the shaikh is a link. Why should there be any intermediary at all? This is a very good question. Actually there is no intermediary if the shaikh is a real shaikh and if one’s pledge is sincere. The shaikh actually is the evidence of God’s mercy and generosity, making grace more tangible, more immediate. The shaikh does not gather power or privilege for himself or herself, but is the servant of the yearning of the dervish’s heart. The shaikh may also be the challenger of the dervish’s egoism, calling us to surpass our timidity, our fears, our comfortable complacency. The shaikh may be the one to say, “Come into this fire, it will not burn you.”
No shaikh is perfect, and it is particularly in his function as shaikh that he may sometimes disappear and become a pure medium for divine grace or wisdom. It is the dervish who helps to create the shaikh, and both are in the process of learning from the relationship. It must be remembered that before becoming a shaikh one had to be a dervish, and one never stops being a dervish.