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Comparisons Between Buddhism and Sufism

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
Inspired by the vision of
Hazrat Inayat Khan


At a time when Buddhism has gained so much acquiescence in the public eye, and Sufism increasingly intrigues the serious amateurs in quest of the unknown, an inquiry into their differences and similarities seems called for. Hence the following study that is, even so, simply a cursory attempt.

Shall we contrive to consider that which at first seemed contradictory as complementary? Moreover dare we, in the all-encompassing trend of our day-and-age, extrapolate between these apparently antipodal views and shape an integrated picture?

It is heartening to recognize where the Buddhist and Sufi views corroborate each other, and, challenging our minds, to acknowledge where they are complementary rather than contradictory.

Sitting under the banyan tree opposite the Bodhi tree at night I tried to imagine Buddha sitting there. I tried to imagine how he felt - his thoughts, his emotions, his very special way of thinking and feeling. His thinking pushed beyond its limits into the imponderable, cosmic ecstasy beyond human emotion. His consciousness defied the gravity pull of the existential condition, scanning sublime spheres, matched by transcendent modes of awareness, awakening in deep sleep. Space seemed to be infinite but empty, and time, eternal. I imagined the shattering of Buddha's notion of himself faced with the cosmic tide of realization daunting him further and further into unknown reaches of awakening! The nobility of his attunement!

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To understand Buddhism, we must take into account that while in his childhood Buddha was enclosed in the luxurious environment of his palace. His father, the king, prevented him from seeing suffering in the real world. As a young adult he insisted on visiting the town. Although his father had ordered that any ill persons, old persons or funerals should be removed from his path, it could not be prevented: this is precisely what he now saw. The sudden discovery of suffering came upon him as a shock. He was devastated. He resolved to find a solution to this terrible scourge. This was the leitmotif of his whole life's quest. He saw that most people are trapped by their desires which he considered as intoxication. He remarked that in their ignorance they do not see that the fulfillment of their wishes can be a cause of suffering for themselves and others and by the same token a frustration of their desires. He saw that this situation was due to the fact that people are conditioned and do not realize it. They are thus caught in a vicious circle which he likened to a wheel aimlessly idling: the samsaric wheel. Consequently he considered that the solution was disintoxication by an attitude of indifference. He knew that this could be found amongst the ascetics and therefore left his palace to live as an ascetic. After several retreats (one which we know was in a cave in Sarnath) he sat under the banyan tree at Bodhgaya, by day and by night, undaunted, braving suffocating heat and shivering cold, the threat of wild animals, the attacks of hornets, scorpions, cobras and the ubiquitous, annoying, common mosquito. He was covered in vermin from festering wounds. At the termination of his 40 day retreat he had to crawl on all fours for quite a distance to get water to drink and wash.

He was determined to find a solution for suffering.

To this end he explored the steps that led to being involved in the existential state. He tried to ascertain the force that lures one into being inveigled in the vicious circle resulting in suffering, desire, craving and the ignorance of the fact that it is precisely this that traps one into the affliction of suffering.

Buddha warned that slipping into the notion of our personal identity (which he considered as illusory) lured one into the vicious circle of the samsaric wheel of repetitive existence and therefore sought the non-become (the eternal) rather than the process of becoming (the everlasting).

Can you see that one easily slips into identifying oneself as a discrete individual, oblivious that we are part of the whole (universe). Just as Hazrat Inayat Khan points out, a wave has no existence on its own, it is a condition of the sea, so likewise we are a condition of the Totality of the universe (God).


[Audio Meditation: We are a Condition of God)

Then he proceeded in the reverse direction, reversing the causal chain (paticca samuppada), hoisting his mind beyond its commonplace range, embracing the existential level of reality, exploring the no-man's land of the far reaches of the human mind. This led to regaining the realization that had been lost by slipping into the course of the descent into the existential perspective which bids ignorance, avijja.

The Sufis confirm indeed that it is desire that turns our conciousness toward perceiving and becoming involved in the existential state. What is the point of having been born in the realm of existence if one seeks to escape it? Our purpose is therefore to improve conditions on earth accepting to pay the price of suffering to build a beautiful world of beautiful people.

Hazrat Inayat:
Go through the phases of life without losing yourself.

This is, to the Sufi, the divine desire, ishk Allah, God wishing to know Himself by manifesting as us, so that we know ourselves through our knowledge of His knowledge of Himself as us. Besides this, beyond knowing, God descending from the state of Unity, knowing Himself in the principles, and predicating His Being out of love for the possibility of us (you).


Ibn Arabi:
What He created was for you. The One who enjoys this independence and has manifested the world did not manifest it by necessity, but He created beings so that they may enjoy existence in order to free them from the solitude of the void and to give them the possibility of acquiring the divine attributes and to make them His vice-regents. All of this was done by dint of altruism, because He chose not to remain the only holder of those things that He gave. Etudes Traditionelles: M. Valsan's La Station de la Futuwwah et ses secrets (p.27, 19)

Rather than place a blind between our consciousness and the existential world (thereby dismissing our perception of the physical world and representation of psychological situations as illusory, misleading) Buddhist meditation points out that the illusion is not in the object but in the subject. The illusion is in ascribing our identifying with our body-ness or meaningfulness to our notion of our personal identity. Buddha considers our personal "I" as a notion taxed with voidness.

The Transpersonal, Cosmic Dimension of Our Identity

In an all-encompassing outreach, faced with the bounty of one's real being, the notion of the personal dimension of one's multi-dimensional identity pales to the point of melting away.

Sabbe dhamma anatta 'ti. Sunnan idam attena va attaniyena va ti.
All things are without individuality or substance.

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This view is corroborated in Sufism:
Is it not then drunkenness on the part of man when he claims to be an individual standing separate from all others, thinking himself to be a single entity when he is already many within himself? Sangitha II

Dive deep within yourself that you may be able to touch the Unity of the whole Being. One finds a kind of universe within oneself. As God comprehends the whole universe within Himself, being one, so man contains within himself the whole universe as His miniature. Spiritual Liberty

Here we may indeed see some resonance between the thinking of Sufis and of Buddha.

Honor the Personal Dimension of Your Identity

On the other hand, while encompassing the cosmic dimension of our being, Hazrat Inayat Khan also draws our attention to our personal dimension. The Sufis do not discard our personality as illusory, it has a relative validity, but always relate the personal dimension of our being to its impersonal, cosmic ground.

(i) Identify with the cosmic, all-encompassing and transpersonal dimension of your identity which percolates through your sense of 'me,' the personal dimension of your identity in which the transpersonal dimension is actualized in a unique way.

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(ii) Now try to grasp the interaction between your personal self-image, the totality of the universe - with which the transpersonal dimension of your identity is co-extensive - and your personality as an albeit unique actuation. This is where each one of us customizes the whole (the being of God) in a unique way.

(iii) You will find that this can be done best by envisioning your qualities as inadequate, ephemeral exemplars of their eternal, perfect archetypes.

(iv) Now turn within: your potentialities, and impending thoughts and emotions are lying in wait in the subliminal underpinning of your psyche. Though they escape your scrutiny you can become progressively aware of them, arousing them by dint of your personal creativity.

The whole sea surfaces as a wave. However while each wave succeeds the previous one in the process of becoming (which is just one of the dimensions of time that one might plot as a horizontal vector) one needs to account for a transcendent dimension of time (which one might plot as a vertical vector). Buddha considers it (the wave, the personality) as ephemeral. Here Sufism differs from Buddhism because whatever has occurred at the existential level will continue to play its part at all levels by being transmuted and thus fed back into the cosmic code.

[Audio Meditation: Image of the Pendulum]

Now try to envision that while the transpersonal dimension of your being is eternal, immutable, your individuality is recurrently changing.


That which is conditioned by finitude will be everlasting.

For tonight the umpteem stars give birth to the life everlasting.

Hazrat Inayat Khan:
No knowledge or discovery that has ever been made is lost. `It all accumulates and collects in the divine mind - an eternal reservoir. There is a spirit that collects and accumulates all the knowledge that every human being has had. Healing and the Mind World

Eternal Versus Everlasting

[Audio Meditation: Everlastingness and Eternity]


Hazrat Inayat Khan points to the difference between eternal and everlasting. Everlasting is that which has a beginning but continues to live.

That which is eternal is not subject to the procession of time - of becoming. It therefore does not have a beginning or an end, and exists in a trans-existential state, beyond the state of becoming.

[Audio Meditation: This Become Does Not Lead to the Non-Become]

We find this distinction in Thomas of Aquinas:
God is both static [changeless] and dynamic [evolves].

Consider that, however ephemeral therefore perishable your personal self may seem to you, it will continue to exist. It overpasses its ephemeral status by transmuting it.

A flower outwits the disbanding of its substance by becoming perfume.
The Sufi practices that process whereby he is able to touch upon that part of life in himself that is not subject to death by rising above his earthly condition. The Alchemy of Happiness

Everything is perishing except his face.Qur'an, xxviii


Ibn 'Arabi:
Once a thing is created it is impossible to return to the previous state. He may however replace a face by another face. Etudes Traditionelles: M. Valsan's La Station de la Futuwwah et ses secrets

Once having occurred it will play its part by being fed back into the cosmic code.

But this requires that it undergoes a process of transmutation. For that which occurs at a moment in the procession of becoming, to be preserved everlastingly, needs to be transfigured.

Ibn 'Arabi:
The interpreter operates a transposition from the form perceived by the dreamer to the real "form" of the implied reality (1975, p.59). The wise transpose the form into the reality it configures…Thoughts shift from the perception of the senses to the creative imagination. The inside face cannot be effaced. However the external face can. Etudes Traditionelles: M. Valsan's La Station de la Futuwwah et ses secrets

How does one transmute one's personality?

One envisions one's personality as a composition of qualities which one possesses but which are not perfect in the least!

One envisions the transpersonal dimension of one's being as predicating the impersonal archetypes of those qualities.


This could be illustrated thus: a rose is the exemplification of rose-hood. There may be several roses. Imagine that a rose could see itself as the exemplification of rose-hood by grasping its connection with the archetype of which it is the exemplar. It would see in rose-hood a far greater bounty of qualities than it had hitherto actualized and therefore try to approximate more and more its archetype.

The one who tunes himself not only to the external but to the inner being and to the essence of all things gets an insight into the essence of the whole being; and therefore he can to the same extent find and enjoy even in the seed the fragrance and beauty that delights him in a rose. The Mysticism of Sound and Music

He so to speak touches the soul of the thought. It is just as by seeing the plant one may get an idea of the root. Githas III

Two Modes of Programming

Consequently the Sufis distinguish between (i) the level of the programming of the Universe that is permanent and (ii) the programming of the cosmos that is continually updated by the feedback from the existential actuality.


Man is aspiring eternally to know the Principle which eternally initiates him and yearning once more to be beyond His revealed being. Henri Corbin: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi (p.115)

There is that [aspect of God which establishes (installs)] which is beyond being, which is the Theos Agnostos the unknowable and unpredictable God. And there is the revealed God, dues revelatus [that aspect of God that originates in time) His Nous who thinks and acts, who maintains the divine attributes and is capable of relation. Henri Corbin: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi (p.112)

We find this distinction in Meister Eckhart:
Gott wird und entwirt (old German: becomes and un-becomes) while Gottheit remains unchanged.

It is in the individual arising out of the fragmentation of the One, the Universe as a whole, that the door to diversification opened and allowed that the bountiful virtual potentialities of its programming could be actuated as an experiential existential reality as us, each in our own way. This enrichment could be illustrated in music in variations on a theme. By bringing out latent potentials embedded in the theme, the theme is enriched.

It is these latent individualities who from all eternity have aspired to concrete being. Henri Corbin: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi


Hazrat Inayat Khan:
The soul of man is God but man has a mind of his own.

The Creator's mind is made of His own creation.

The Divine Mind becomes completed after manifestation.

The experience of every soul becomes the experience of the Divine Mind. The Unity of Religious Ideals

Ibn 'Arabi:
When God sent Himself down to the waystations of His servants, their properties exercised their influence over Him. Hence He only determines their properties through them. He does not determine our properties except through us; or rather we determine our own properties through ourselves though through Him. William C. Chittick: The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination (p.299)

Future Thinking


In the Satipathana practices, at least until the last step, one identifies oneself with the observer whereas the observed is considered as impersonal and therefore not oneself. Buddha downplays our individuality. He eschews ascribing 'I-ness' to the observed, which is considered as an ephemeral perishable underpinning elaborated by the whole universe irrespective of our person, of our participation. The consequence would be that our body, thinking, emotion and personality cannot be transformed by our will.

The importance of the role of the personal in contrast with the impersonal can be ascertained as follows:

For example our body is not just the matter of the planet - the galaxies programmed by the universe (called God). It can be modified by our personal will. Although many body functions are conditioned (to wit our autonomic nervous system, our digestion, our breathing, our immune system), we can move our body as we will. We can control our breath. We can decide what we eat. There is in us a mind/body connection. Our personal will can act upon our adrenal glands (for example by our frustration or enthusiasm.)

The consequence is that (imagine) the cosmic code is mutated by our personal incentive.

It is dynamic.


Thomas of Aquinas:
God is both static and dynamic.

(i) This way of looking at things has far reaching implications. The personal decision involves conscience. Whereas, for example, with regard to matter, the impersonal involves the awakening of consciousness in our body which is applied in Buddhism in highlighting 'mindfulness.'

Moreover it has its implications in the realm of the institutionalization of spirituality exemplified in the traditional guru-disciple relationship. As we progress we are more and more of the opinion that the disciple must not follow the teacher's instructions if they violate what he or she can in his/her conscience totally agree with. The notion of 'obedience' that governs in traditional religious groups, which makes for the spiritual dictatorship of many religious authorities, is at stake.

However, we need to acquiesce that the disciple may not be up to comprehending the teacher's realization. This is illustrated by the Sufis in the story of Khidr who explains to Moses why a certain man must die. This is the 'reason behind reason' to which Hazrat Inayat refers.

This was not the case where Saint John of the Cross was condemned and imprisoned for refusing to conform to the prescriptions of the authorities of the Order to which he belonged.

Islam does not formally impose an institutionalized authority whose decisions are to be considered as infallible failing with which one is excommunicated. It does not have a Council legislating dogma as the Vatican - although some people considered as authoritative in the teaching of Islam profess to legislate what one is supposed to believe.

This comes clearly in a Surat of the Qu'ran which might even be an injunction for the Prophet himself and certainly for an authoritative person or a group of authoritative persons doing just that

You are not assigned to intervene in human affairs.

The Fatwas represent simply the opinion of a person or group of persons considered an authority on Islam. That is why al Hallaj required of Junaid to change his Sufi robe to that of a judge in order to condemn him.

(ii) The self-same principle has its implications in politics. Dictatorship is founded upon unquestionable obedience of the military personnel to the autocratic arrogance of a despot with its trail of disastrous consequences of cruelty and misery. Obedience results in concentration camps. Anyone challenging obedience to the dictator is tortured.

(iii) It is digression from current patterns that enlists innovations in music, art, architecture, design and style. These deviations from past patterns foster new modes of thought and emotional attunement. Contemporary composers cannot compose in the gentle style of Mozart reflecting the posh salons of his time. We are living in a harder world. Contemporary music, architecture, theater reflect the increased challenge upon our emotions and sense of meaningfulness and is reflected in the compositions of Stravinsky, Arvo Part and Takamitzu.

One is conditioned by one's habituation to custom. Therefore to be creative one needs to be open to the unfamiliar.

The software of the cosmos is, of necessity, updated, actually upgraded, by this evolutionary mutation. If it were not for the innovative vision of the individual that sets the new trend, the world would be locked into the constraint of the past. The risk is that by prospecting new patterns, one may find that some of them are less excellent than past ones. (It is difficult to surpass Bach or Beethoven.) In fact portents of decadence and degeneration are afflicting our creativity in our day and age.

To be creative, one anticipates the future, which is not there, by exploring unknown patterns through trial and error. Likewise does the Universe proceed. One inevitable consequence is the experience of blind alleys. The advantage is that one is inventing the future by coming upon perspectives that open new dimensions of meaningfulness.