Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 4. Nawab Pasnak. "Now You See It Now You Don't. The elusive nature of symbols"

Driving down a city street, my attention is momentarily diverted by something — perhaps the flight of a woodpecker, or the sight of friend on the sidewalk. When I return my attention to the road, where it belongs, I see that the traffic light in front of me has turned red, and without an instant's reflection, I hit the brakes.

The red light is a symbol, conveying something to me beyond the simple physical information of light of so many angstroms, at such and such intensity. It is also powerful; the information of the need to stop seems to travel from my eye to my foot without passing through my 'conscious' mind. (Of course, if my mind were truly conscious, there would be no need for sudden stops — would there? Or would there?)

On the spiritual path, symbols are a way of encoding wisdom, a way found by the wise of leaving maps and traffic signals for others who wish to follow the same path. In the words of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, "A symbol is an ocean in a drop." In this context, symbols have a particular beauty, in that the more we contemplate them, the more they disclose. They seem to be alive, and like living plants, respond to cultivation. They reward our attention with deeper and deeper insights into the truth which they both reveal and conceal. Moses taught the Hebrews how to sacrifice, for example, not because there was a need of the odour of burnt flesh in heaven, but as a lesson of humbleness and a way of re-uniting their spirits with Yahweh. It is no exaggeration to say that any progress towards real humanity has come about through the agency of such symbols, working in the inner and outer realms.

The transforming strength of a symbol, though, comes partly from its identification in the eyes of the worshipper with that for which it stands. A devoted Christian will offer as much respect to the cross as to the Christ for which it stands, and may learn thereby to sacrifice his own ego for the sake of an ideal. Muslims turn to the physical Ka'aba as a sign of the all pervading God, and are thereby united as one single brotherhood in prayer. We may say, therefore, that the faithful one who can actually see the vast ocean through the silver globule trembling upon a leaf is truly blessed. The humble one who bows before an idol, and knows in it the power of the One to whom all worship is addressed, has truly set foot upon the spiritual path. Such a devotee does not need to know the weight of the idol, nor when it was set there. In fact, such knowledge might even break his faith — not because his faith is of no value, but because it has not yet widened to the point where it can accept such knowledge. In the mind of such a worshipper, the idol and that for which it stands are inseparable; factual details would only disturb that impression.

In our present day, we have the advantage of much knowledge, and it poses some problems to our symbolical education. We live in a world of many cultures, many ways of seeing things, and it is nothing to us to hear in one day the music of Africa, of Russia and of South East Asia, or to study in one semester the sacred stories of Moses, Zoroaster and Buddha. Ours is not a monolithic culture; there is scarcely room on the planet for such a thing any more. We share each other's breath, we hear each others thoughts, we see each other's dreams whether we choose to or hot. Furthermore, so many of the dreams today are material ones, that the spiritual symbols are sometimes lost from view.

Taken rightly, such a multiplicity of forms and fashions can be an invitation to development. Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, for example, grew up in the rich culture of Baroda, where Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis and Muslims lived and worked side by side, where many languages were spoken and many faiths flourished, and his unique presentation of Sufism bears the sign of this cosmopolitan up-bringing. Taken another way, though, such a diversity can not only produce an air of bland indifference and superiority ("Oh, yes, that. We saw that last year in California."). It can confuse the vision and distract the heart. When we see so many sets of symbols streaming by, each one, according to its followers, offering 'Truth,' (true comfort, true fidelity, true cleaning power, true God) how can we believe in any of them? And if we should have some little belief, it might well be shattered by the sight of devotees doing violence to fellow humans in defence of their chosen symbol.

If we were only aware of it, the Truth behind these symbols has no need of defence. The Truth is so large and free and all pervading that for us to put ourselves forward as its protectors is like the ant defending the elephant. We would do better service to try to live the truth, to let go our ant-like scurrying, and enter the elephant's majestic calm.

But how is this possible? Let go — how? Enter — how? The ant scurries because it has the limitation of a small horizon, while the elephant sees much further without even moving. Our dilemma is that we have, on the one hand, the followers of various systems, whose horizon is limited to little but their own symbols — and therefore have perhaps not yet touched the innermost heart of those symbols — and on the other hand those who see many symbols, and therefore, thinking themselves to be elephants and not ants, remain unmoved by any symbol whatsoever. The world is very much in need of spiritual awakening, but can it be accomplished now through symbolic education? Or is this a tool which is no longer relevant? Should we put all the symbols aside and try to find truth in an empty room?

We could try. In fact, the notion of an empty room (although of course itself a symbol) is appealing. To sit quietly in a clean, bare room, empty of every representation, and wait for truth to appear. Just to sit and breathe. We need not speak, for speech is symbols. So are thoughts: words and pictures representing experience; put them away. Unform your feelings; no desires to obscure the ebb and flow. Just be still.

And in this silence is the source of all symbols. Touching this, we begin to understand what they truly might mean. Washed in this silence, we begin to see there is meaning hidden behind everything — not only religious symbols, but objects, people, clouds, events — all.

If we need the teaching of a particular symbol, it will be nourished by our visits to the empty room. If we need the illumination of a new symbol, it will only come from our sojourn there. It is a great paradox (as what is not on the spiritual path?) that the wealth contained in symbols becomes accessible to us to the extent that we enter the silence of meditation, where there are no symbols at all.


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