Love is a Fire: The Sufi's Mystical Journey Home
by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
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Table of Contents
2. The Elements of the Path
3. The One Thing
4. The Journey Home
5. Two Wings of Love
6. Love and Annihilation
7. Primordial Nature
8. Light Upon Light
9. The Timeless Moment
10. The Veils of God I
11. The Veils of God II
Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Path of Love
You are a Sufi when your heart is as soft and as warm as wool.
LOVERS OF GOD
Sufism is a path of love. The Sufi is a traveler on the path of love, a wayfarer journeying back to God through the mysteries of the heart. For the Sufi the relationship to God is that of lover and Beloved, and Sufis are also known as lovers of God. The journey to God takes place within the heart, and for centuries Sufis have been traveling deep within themselves, into the secret chamber of the heart where lover and Beloved share the ecstasy of union.
There are some people for whom spiritual life has to be a love affair, a passionate affair of the soul. This tremendous love affair takes place within the heart, and is one of the greatest mysteries of being human. To love God and to be loved by God, to experience the depth and intimacy of this relationship, is a secret long known to the Sufis. Within the heart we come closer and closer to our Beloved, so close that finally there is no separation as the lover merges into the Beloved, the lover becomes lost in love. Step by step we walk along the path of love until finally we are taken by love into love; we are taken by God to God, and then there is no going back, only a deepening and deepening of this love affair of the soul. This is the ancient journey from separation to union, the journey from our own self back to a state of oneness with God.
On this journey love is the power that will take us Home. Love is the most powerful force in the universe and it resides within the heart of each of us. But this love needs to be awakened. The heart needs to be activated so that it can come to know its primordial passion, this link of love that runs through the world and is our own essence.
Since the beginning of time there have been masters of love, spiritual teachers who understood the ways of love, how to activate and channel this latent power within the human being. They carry the knowledge of how to awaken the longing that the soul has for God and help the lover live this longing, of how to allow this longing to fulfill itself so that the lover comes to experience nearness, intimacy, and finally union with God. This is the ancient wisdom of love, how to activate the heart, how to work with the currents of love so that the human being is taken back to God. And this is the wisdom of the Sufis, the ancient path of love that has always been here, long, long before they were called Sufis.
There is a story about a group of mystics, a band of lovers of God, who were called the Kamal Posh. Kamal Posh means blanket wearers, for their only possession was one blanket which they wore as a covering during the day and used as a blanket at night. As the story goes they traveled throughout the ancient world from prophet to prophet but no one could satisfy them. Every prophet told them to do this or to do that, and this did not satisfy them. Then one day, at the time of Muhammad, the Prophet was seated together with his companions when he said that in a certain number of days the men of the Kamal Posh would be coming. So it happened that in that number of days this group of Kamal Posh came to the prophet Muhammad. And when they were with him, he said nothing, but the Kamal Posh were completely satisfied. Why were they satisfied? Because he created love in their hearts, and when love is created, what dissatisfaction can there be?
Sufism is the ancient wisdom of the heart. It is not limited by time or place or form. It always was and it always will be. There will always be lovers of God. And the Kamal Posh recognized that Muhammad knew the mysteries of the heart. They stayed with the Prophet and were assimilated into Islam. According to this story the Kamal Posh became the mystical element of Islam. And later these wayfarers became known as Sufis, perhaps in reference to the white woolen blanket, sûf, which they wore, or as an indication of their purity of heart, safâ, for they were also known as the pure of heart.
These lovers of God followed Islam, and observed the teachings of the Qur'an, but from a mystical point of view. For example, in the Qur'an there is a saying that God, Allâh, is nearer to us than our jugular vein (Sura 50:16). For the Sufis this saying speaks about the mystical experience of nearness with God. The Sufi relates to God not as a judge, nor as a father figure, nor as the creator, but as our own Beloved, who is so close, so near, so tender. In the states of nearness the lover experiences an intimacy with the Beloved which carries the softness and ecstasy of love.
We all long to be loved, we all long to be nurtured, to be held, and we look for it in another; we seek a man or woman who can fulfill us. But the mystic knows the deeper truth, that no other person can ever answer our real needs. Maybe for a while an outer lover can appear to give us the love and support we crave, but an external lover will always be limited. Only within the heart can our deepest desires, our most passionate needs, be met, totally and completely. In moments of mystical intimacy with God we are given everything we could want, and more than we believe possible. He is closer to us than ourself to ourself, and He loves us with the completeness that belongs only to God.
Another passage from the Qur'an that carries a mystical meaning is the "verse of light" from sura 24, which contains the phrase, "light upon light, Allâh guides to His light whom He will." The Sufis have interpreted the words "light upon light" as describing the mystery of how His light hidden within our own heart rises up to God, giving us the longing and light we need for the journey. He awakens the lamp of Divine light within the hearts of those who believe in the oneness of God. For the Sufi this light is a living reality that is felt as love, tenderness, and also the guidance that is necessary to help us on the way. His light takes us back to Him, from the pain of separation to the embrace of union. Not only the Qur'an, but also the hadîth, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, often carry an inner meaning for the Sufi. One of the best known is "He who knows himself knows his Lord." This hadîth refers to the whole mystery of self-knowledge, of going within yourself, discovering your real nature, not what you think you are but what you really are. Sufism is a path of love and also a journey to self-knowledge, of carrying the light of consciousness into the core of our being. The spiritual journey is always inward, a gradual process of self-discovery as you realize the real wonder of being human. The wayfarer makes the most difficult and courageous of journeys, turning away from the outer world of illusion, and turning back to God, not as an idea but as a living reality that exists within the heart. This is a journey of self-revelation, a painful process of leaving behind our illusory nature, the ego, and entering into the arena of our true Self. And as another hadîth explicitly states, on this journey you have to "die before you die": before you can experience the innermost state of union with God, the ego has to be sacrificed; you have to be burnt, consumed by the fire of divine love.
In the early days of Sufism very little was written down; there were just luminaries, saints, friends of God, wali, who lived their own spiritual passion, their deepest devotion. One such saint was Râbi'a, a woman who was born into slavery, but whose owner was so impressed by the intensity of her devotion that he gave her her freedom. She became known for stressing the love that exists between the mystic and God. Always looking towards God, she cared for nothing that might distract from or interfere with this relationship. She was once asked, "Do you love God?" "Yes," she replied. "Do you hate the devil?" "No, my love of God gives me no time to hate the devil."
Râbi'a's prayer emphasizes the mystical rejection of everything but God: "Oh Lord, whatever share of this world thou dost bestow, bestow it on thine enemies. And whatever share of the next world doth thou giveth me, give it to thy friends. Thou art enough for me." An outer love affair may give us a semblance of fulfillment, but the intense inner love that belongs to the mystical relationship with God gives us a fulfillment that is total and absolute. Until you have tasted the degree of this inner fulfillment, you hardly dare dream that it is possible. But as the wayfarer walks along the path, as the lover comes closer to her Beloved, this fulfillment gets deeper and deeper, more and more complete; and you know, with a certainty that is born of experience, that only the Beloved can give you what you need. In the words of Râbi'a, "Thou art enough for me."
For the Sufi everything is given through love, within the heart. And it is given because our Beloved wills: "Allâh guides to Allâh whom He wills." The work of the wayfarer is really a work of preparation, to empty the cup of oneself so that He can fill it with the wine of love, the intoxicating substance of His love for us. The mystic knows that the only obstacle between us and our Beloved is our own self, as the tenth-century Sufi al-Hallâj passionately expressed:
The lover longs to burn in the fire of love until he is empty, so that his Beloved can fill his heart with the wine of divine remembrance, with the taste of nearness, with the intimacies of love. He calls us to Him and we turn away from the world back to our Beloved, so that He can reveal the secret He has placed within our hearts, the wonder of oneness, the innermost union of lover and Beloved. Again to quote al-Hallâj, "I am He whom I love, He whom I love is me."
As mystics we burn with the fire of divine love that He has ignited within our heart. He calls us to Him and we respond, turning away from the world, turning away from our ego, to the deeper mystery hidden within the heart. And we make this journey, this sacrifice, because it is His will, because He has looked within our heart. Someone came to Râbi'a and asked, "I have committed many sins; if I turn in penitence towards God, will He turn in mercy towards me?" "No," she replied, "first He must look upon you, then you can turn towards Him."
We are so easily identified only with our own effort and our own will that we have forgotten the primal truth of His need for us, His love for us: that He guides us back to Him because He wills. This is why the Sufi attaches such importance to surrender, and Islam means "surrender." The mystic walks a path of surrender, giving up his will, his own self, to the mysteries of love, drawn on this journey by the power of His love for us that He has awakened within our heart. The great ninth-century Sufi, Bâyezîd Bistâmî, came to realize this truth:
His love towards us is the fundamental core of our existence, and of our spiritual quest. The whole of Sufism can be summed up in the saying in the Qur'an, "He loves them and they love Him" (Sura 5:59). Within the heart the lover knows that this is the essence of her relationship with God: His love for us awakens our love for Him, His love draws us back to Him. The whole path is this drama of love being enacted within our heart and within our whole life.
Central to love is the quality of oneness. Love belongs to oneness and draws us towards oneness. We experience this in a human love affair. When our love for another draws us closer to that person, we want to get nearer and nearer, until in the moment of sexual union we are taken out of ourself into the bliss of ecstasy. Love for God awakens the memory of oneness that is stamped into the heart, and the path takes us into this arena. Bâyezîd Bistâmî was one of those God-intoxicated mystics who realized this essential oneness, the unity of God and man. Drunk with the wine of love, he exclaimed, "Under my garments there is nothing but God."
In the outer world we are so caught in duality, in separation from God, that we don't even know how we hunger for oneness. We have forgotten that we belong to God and that He is our own essential nature, the core of our being. But there are those in whom this memory is awakened, and, like the moth attracted by the candle, they are drawn into the fire of love, the fire that will burn away their own separate self, until all that remains is love.
The Sufis have been known as the people of the secret because they carry this secret of love, the oneness of lover and Beloved. Inwardly the cost of realizing oneness is always oneself, though some Sufis have had to pay a more physical price. Al-Hallâj was martyred for proclaiming anâ'l-haqq ("I am the Absolute Truth"). When he was executed, one of his fellow Sufis, Shibli, said, "God gave you access to one of His secrets, but because you made it public He made you taste the blade." Through al-Hallâj the mysteries of love became known in the marketplace and the mosque. Love's martyr, he was prepared to pay the ultimate price, but he also knew that the physical world is only a veil of separation. Just before his death he exclaimed, "My God, here am I now in the dwelling place of my desires."
There is a Sufi saying that nothing is possible in love without death, and al-Hallâj knew and lived this. He said, "When Truth has taken hold of a heart, She empties it of all but Herself! When God attaches Himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself." The Sufis call this process of dying to oneself fanâ, annihilation. In the fire of love we are burnt, and through this burning the ego learns to surrender, to die to its own notion of supremacy. The lover learns to give herself totally to her Beloved, without thought or care for herself, until she can say, "The Beloved is living, the lover is dead." In this ultimate love affair we die to ourself, and this death is a painful process, because the ego, the "I," does not easily give up its notion of supremacy.
When I first came to the path I was given a taste of fanâ, of this annihilation of myself, although at the time I did not understand the experience. One evening I was invited to a talk on the spiritual dimension of mathematics. Sitting in front of me was a white-haired old lady, and after the talk I was introduced to her by a friend. This old lady, who was to be my teacher, gave me one look from her piercing blue eyes and I had the physical experience of becoming just a speck of dust on the floor. At the time I was an arrogant nineteen-year-old and I thought I knew a lot about spirituality. I had read many books and had been practicing meditation and hatha yoga. But at that instant it all fell away and I became nothing. Years later I understood that it was a foretaste of the path, that the disciple has to become "less than a speck of dust at the feet of the teacher." But at the time I was just left in a state of bewilderment so profound I did not even think about it.
Sufism is a living mystical system. The great Sufis from the past have left us glimpses, the footprints of their journey. But over the centuries this wisdom of love has been passed from heart to heart, from culture to culture. After meeting this white-haired Russian lady I went to the small, North-London studio apartment where she lived and held meditation meetings. I experienced the love that comes from those who have given themselves totally to love, who are immersed in the soul's love affair with God. The path took me and transformed me, softened and emptied me. And always there was the sense of this ancient tradition of the lovers of God, stretching back to the beginning of time, and yet eternally present.
Sufism is for those who need a path that lives the primacy of love, who need to make the journey from separation to union, from the isolation of their own self to the intoxicating intimacy of their heart's Beloved. The path of love is a fire within the heart that burns away the veils of separation, emptying us of ourself so that we can come to experience our innermost state of union. The Beloved ignites the spark that becomes this fire because He wants us to come Home, to make the greatest journey, the soul's journey back to God. He wants us to know our true nature and to share with us the secret of His love, His hidden face. The mystery of "He loves them and they love Him" is so simple, so pure, so much a part of us and yet so easily forgotten. Sadly, in our culture we look for complexity and forget this primal mystery hidden within our own heart. Yet this is the mystery that the Sufis have long understood, the secret they hold in trust for mankind.
Another great Sufi was Ibn 'Arabî, who was born in the twelfth century in Spain. Ibn 'Arabî was one of the few Sufis who didn't have a spiritual teacher. Instead, he said, he was initiated by Khidr. Khidr is a very important Sufi figure, who represents direct revelation. Mystics are not satisfied with hearing about God, with listening to other people's experiences; they are driven to realize God as a living reality within their own heart. And Khidr is the archetypal figure who gives the Sufi access to this direct revelation. Khidr is also known as the Green Man, and he usually appears in dreams as someone quite ordinary; you don't know that it is Khidr until he has gone.
Ibn 'Arabî had his first mystical experiences, his first immersion in the oneness of God, when he was quite young. He wrote over four hundred books, but at the core of his mystical teaching is the idea of the unity of being, that everything is one and everything is a part of God. Everything is God; He is the cause of everything, the essence of everything, and the substance of everything. There is no other existence than He. Ibn 'Arabî writes:
Ibn 'Arabî became known as the greatest sheikh (sheikh is the term for a Sufi teacher). And he also became known as the "pole of knowledge" for the tremendous mystical understanding and insights he left behind. For example, he wrote about the importance of the imagination as a way of transcending the physical world and gaining access to the inner world of archetypal images. In recent years this knowledge of his has been rediscovered and forms the basis of revaluing this faculty of the imagination, a faculty which has been sadly rejected by our belief in rationalism.
Four years after Ibn 'Arabî's death in 1240, a meeting took place that was to inspire some of the world's greatest writings on mystical love. A theology professor was walking home from school when he met a ragged dervish. The professor was Jalaluddin Rûmî and the dervish, Shams-i Tabrîz. According to one story Rûmî fell at Shams' feet and renounced his religious teaching when the dervish recited these verses:
Shams-i Tabrîz was the spark that ignited the fire of divine love within Rûmî, who summed up his life in the two lines:
Shams had awakened in him a fire that could only be satisfied with union, with the ecstatic loss of the self in the presence of the Beloved. And Rûmî knew how precious is this fire, this burning within the heart:
Shams was the divine sun that had lighted Rûmî's life. But one day Shams disappeared, possibly sensing the jealousy of Rûmî's students and family. Rûmî was distraught, but then he heard news that Shams was in Damascus, and he sent his son, Sultân Walad, to bring him back. When Shams returned Rûmî fell at his feet, and once more they became inseparable, such that "no one knew who was the lover and who was the beloved." But again the jealousy of Rûmî's students and his younger son destroyed their physical closeness. Again Shams disappeared, this time murdered. Rûmî was consumed with grief, lost alone in the ocean of love.
But from the terrible pain of outer separation and loss was born an inner union as he found his beloved within his own heart. Inwardly united with Shams, the theology professor was transformed into love's poet. Rûmî knew the pain of love and the deepest purpose of this fire within the heart, how it empties the human being and fills him with the wine of love:
Rûmî became the poet of lovers, expressing the crazy passion of the soul's desire for God. He knew that lovers are madmen, gamblers, fools prepared to suffer the deepest devastation for their invisible Beloved. He spoke of the mystery that draws us into this burning, blissful obliteration:
Rûmî's words, spoken centuries ago, ring in the soul of every lover, every wayfarer who seeks to follow this passion that is in the innermost of our being, the pathway in the soul that leads back to the Beloved. That Rûmî is the world's most popular poet today speaks of the need we have to hear these stories of divine love, to hear from a master of love how the heart can sing, cry, and burn with passion for God. Our culture may bombard us with material values but there is an inward hunger for what is real, for a love affair that belongs to the soul and not to the personality. Rûmî covers the spectrum of divine love: the haunting cry of the reed flute suffering separation from the reed bed, the laughter of lovers, the need to be naked, how "the mystic dances in the sun, hearing music others don't." With the language of love he tells us of the mystery of things, a mystery so lacking in our contemporary world. He reminds us of an unlived sorrow and an uncontainable joy, of the limitless horizon of the heart and the need for our heart's true Friend.
Rûmî was not only the greatest Sufi poet, but he also founded the Mevlevî order, often known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their beautiful whirling dance, in which the dancers rotate like the planets turning around the sun. The founding of the different Sufi orders was an important part in the development of Sufism. In the early days of Sufism, small groups would gather around particular teachers, and by the eleventh century these groups had formed into spiritual orders, tarîqas, each order bearing the name of its founder.
The first order to emerge was the Qâdiryyah, founded by al-Jîlânî in the twelfth century in Baghdad. Jîlânî was an ascetic, a missionary, and a teacher, and became one of the most popular saints in the Islamic world. Other orders followed: the Suhrawardiyya, named after Suhrawardî, which spread into India and Afghanistan; the Rifâ'iyya order founded by Ahmad ar-Rifâ'î, which spread through Egypt and Syria and until the fifteenth century was one of the most popular orders. They were also known as the Howling Dervishes because they practiced a loud dhikr (dhikr, like mantra, is the repetition of a sacred phrase or name of God). They also became notorious for strange practices like eating snakes, cutting themselves with swords, and dancing in fire without being hurt.
In total contrast is the sobriety associated with the Naqshbandiyya, named after Bahâ ad-dîn Naqshband (d. 1390), but started by 'Abd'l-Khâliq Ghujduwânî (d. 1220). The Naqshbandis are also known as the Silent Sufis because they practice a silent rather than vocal dhikr. Bahâ ad-dîn said "God is silent and is most easily reached in silence." The Naqshbandiyya do not engage in samâc, sacred music or dance, and do not dress differently from ordinary people. Another aspect of the Naqshbandi path is the suhbat, the close relationship of master and disciple. The order was very powerful in Central Asia from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, and also spread throughout India.
Each order has its particular practices; some use music and dance, while others stress silence. But central to each tarîqa is the spiritual chain of succession stretching from sheikh to sheikh back to the founder of the order. Through this spiritual chain is transmitted the energy of the path, the power that is needed to take the wayfarer Home. The white-haired old lady whom I met when I was nineteen, and who gave me that look with her piercing blue eyes, was a representative of the Naqshbandi order. After the death of her husband, when she was in her fifties, she had gone to India where she met a Sufi master, Bhai Sahib. Bhai Sahib means elder brother, because traditionally the Sufi sheikh is "without a face, without a name." Sufis do not believe in personality worship, or in idealizing the teacher. The teacher is just a guide, a stepping stone from the world of illusion to the world of reality. Bhai Sahib trained her according to his system, and she was the first Western woman to be given this ancient spiritual training of the Naqshbandis.
She stayed with him for a number of years, undergoing an intense spiritual training, which she recorded as a diary. When she met him he told her to keep a diary of her experiences, and to keep a record of her dreams. Later he said, "I am not going to teach you anything. If I teach you things you will forget them. Instead I will give you experiences." Sufism is a path of experiences, in which the very inner substance of the individual is totally changed. Later, her diaries became a book, Daughter of Fire (Chasm of Fire in its abridged version), the first written record of this spiritual training. It tells of how love is created within the heart, how this divine love is experienced as burning longing, and the slow and painful process of purification that grinds down the ego until the disciple surrenders totally to the Beloved, to the currents of love that take her Home.
After Bhai Sahib's death in 1966 she returned to England, and brought this spiritual system to the West. When I met Irina Tweedie, or Mrs. Tweedie as she liked to be known, she had a small meditation group, just a few friends meeting twice a week. Meeting her, being in her presence, I knew that she knew, that she lived the secret for which I longed. This knowledge had nothing to do with words, but was stamped into the very core of her being and radiated from every cell. In her presence this mysterious path was alive, an ancient transmission of love that is from soul to soul, from essence to essence. Sufism is this transmission of love, a process of awakening the heart as an organ of direct perception: "light upon light, in Thy light shall we see light."
Mrs. Tweedie's small North-London room became my home from home, a space of reality in a world of illusion, a place where the heart was given precedence. We meditated and drank tea, she spoke of her teacher, and we shared dreams. Sufis believe in dreams, in the wisdom and guidance that they hold. And always beneath the surface of this company of friends, the primal mystery of being human was present, the secret of secrets, the heart's knowledge of its Beloved. Sufis are lovers of God; they live the truth that in the whole of the universe there are only two, the lover and the Beloved: "He loves them and they love Him."
I grew up in this atmosphere of love and the invisible presence of the path. Years later I had a dream in which I was told that I had been "made soft by a very hard system"; something within me had been softened by the love that was given, and yet the hardness of the system was always there, a path that pushes you to test every fiber of your being. For just as love is warm and tender, so it has a cold, hard quality that empties the heart of everything that is not Him.
The path of love is a journey into the unknown, into the darkness and wonder that lie within us. We are drawn into the bottomless depths of our own being, into a state of vulnerability and nakedness that for most people is too terrifying to consider. The poet Hâfiz writes: "The dark night, the fear of waves, the terrifying whirlpool, how can they know of our state, those who go lightly along the shore?" But Sufis are love's fools, His own personal idiots who do not care for their own safety, only for the eternal embrace of their Beloved.
This book is an attempt to share something of this path, of its beauty and terror, intimacy and awe. When Mrs. Tweedie was with Bhai Sahib in India, in answer to her many questions he would often reply, "You will know, by and by." She found that for the Western mind it is very difficult to be left continually in a state of unknowing, and, when she returned to England, said that she would try to explain as much as possible. Many aspects of the path cannot be explained, because they belong to the inner recesses of the heart which cannot be grasped by the mind. Yet the mind can also play its part, helping us to understand the strange and often paradoxical ways of love. Spiritual life is so simple, because God is a simple essence. And there are waysto become attuned to this inner essence, to learn to listen and allow Him into our life. The ways of love flow according to their own rhythms, which are buried deep within us, often very different from the surface values of our life. Listening to the stories of the heart, we can become familiar with the deeper music of our own nature, and catch the thread of an inner unfolding that leads us beyond the limitations of our surface self, to something both wonderful and intoxicating. This ancient path of love is eternally alive, singing the mysteries of the heart, and since the beginning of time His lovers have been offering a taste of its wine that burns like fire.