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The Mullah and the Moon

One of the more obvious crossovers between Gurdjieff and the Sufis was the master's fondness for Mullah Nasruddin. He quoted this Sufi teaching figure both in his talks as well as in his writings. Many Gurdjieff followers have since taken the cue and studied the Mullah's tightly compacted wisdom. Compilers of the tales have consistently warned readers that the Mullah is not what he seems, and that his stories can be absorbed on many levels. A dive into one such tale shows how it cannot be easily fathomed outside of the Sufi context.

Nasrudin walked into a teahouse and announced, "The moon is more useful than the sun." "Why?" he was asked. "Because at night we need the light more."

This is immediately amusing, and the non-Sufi can enjoy its humor apart from any other consideration. Clearly, at the simplest level the Mullah is posing as a fool, and demonstrates a fool's ignorance of the source of the moon's light, as we also manage to misinterpret most lines of causation, particularly those originating beyond our immediate line of vision. But more information is imparted, even as the story is openly stated, and some intimation of other depths stirs in the back of the mind. Nasrudin gives the explanation that the light is needed more at night, after asserting that this moonlight is more important than daylight. The suspicious interlocutor may well ask, what night and what light is he talking about?

And here lies a clue to this tale. One of the main symbols of Islam is the crescent moon and, in fact the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) is associated with the moon. This grates on the Gurdjieff pupil, of course, because of the position that the baleful moon occupies in the Ray of Creation and its role as the voracious unborn planet, pulling on all organic life on earth. Nevertheless, in the Sufi context, the moon is a positive symbol because it occupies an important position in the extended allegory of light, which is used extensively in their teachings.

Sufi Shaykhs the world over tell their followers to "Polish your hearts!" This exercise, to rid oneself of anger, greed, jealousy and pride, will smooth out the heart and give it a reflective surface, burnished like a mirror. A clean and polished mirror can reflect light. Similarly, Gurdjieff pupils are admonished to not express negative emotions, and are taught that the solar plexus was shattered in some primordial era.

References to the perception of different kinds of light crop up in many places in Sufi lore. No less a commentator than the great Fourteenth Century Andalusian mystic, Ibn Arabi, drew on the Quran to describe the Gardens of Paradise, and explained how various elements move between them. In the Chapter of the All Merciful, the Quran mentions four gardens. The following chart shows how Arabi* described and related these paradises.

Starting at the top, the Garden of the Essence represents the un-created world and is the home of the eternal archetypes. The three lower gardens constitute the created world. The Garden of the Spirit is the celestial paradise, and is itself divided into the Seven Heavens, which the Prophet (peace be upon him) traversed during his ascension. The lowest two gardens, of the Heart and the Soul, are the realms of the True Man's possible perfection. They relate to his inward paradises, and are signposts on his journey on the Path of Return, or Tariqa. Each garden has an external and an internal aspect and in the latter meaning reflects successively higher faculties of man. The Garden of the Soul is shown at night, just as our souls are shrouded in darkness now. The gardens are connected to one another through the circulation of water and light, and the following chart shows how the fountains and rivers of paradise flow between the various levels.

The Supreme Fountain in the Garden of the Essence is not directly connected with the flow of water in the garden immediately beneath it, and yet it is ultimately the source of the Fountain of the Spirit. The flow of water between the lower three gardens represents the various levels of intellect in their roles of the perception of spiritual truths. The Fountain of Immortality is pure reason and the Fountain of the Soul represents intuition and spiritual aspiration. The True Man uses some of the faculties in the Garden of the Soul to find the Return Path, just as a man with magnetic center is said to seek out a school of regeneration to begin the task of self-evolution. Ordinary, unregenerate man simply wastes the waters from the Fountain of the Soul on desires for outward things and gives no thought to their ultimate symbolic nature. In this perceptual trap, "A tree is just a tree."

The Arabic word ayn can refer to both a fountain and an eye, thus drawing an immediate parallel between the flow of water and light for speakers of that language. The closest counterpart to this in the western experience was the Renaissance notion of the eye as a fountain of light, which scanned its surroundings like a radar beacon. This theory lead to the development of perspective in painting. The circulation of light between the gardens is shown in the next chart.

According to the commentator, within the Garden of the Heart the Fountain of Immortality, the Eye of Certainty and the moon are roughly equivalent. The Eye of Certainty, also called the Eye of Universal Perceptions, can see the rays of light travelling from the sun down to the moon, which symbolize the Path of Return, the Sufi Path. Thus, a Sufi master or Shaykh possessed of the Eye of Certainty knows the way as a matter of direct perception and can safely lead others after him.

In the Garden of the Soul, the Eye of the Soul, or the Eye of Particular Perceptions, affords a less complete, but preliminary view of truth. The reflected moonlight in this garden highlights the meanings hidden within the physical objects of outward perception. It represents the faculty by which we may gain some glimmer of the symbolic nature of the world as it is perceived by the five senses. This anagogical, or "fourth sense" of things, echoes Gurdjieff's call to awaken. Mankind is enslaved by the incomplete picture of the world presented by our sense-driven machinery and its concomitant state of "waking sleep".

And so it would seem Nasrudin's contention that the moon is more useful than the sun is not so foolish after all. For the True Man, moving on the Path of Return, the direct sun would be blinding. Plato's Allegory of the Cave illustrates the same technical problem for the seeker of causes, where the cave dweller is dazzled by the direct sunlight when he is lead into the open air, accustomed as he is to the dim shadows of the underworld. As in the physical world, the flow of light in the Gardens of Paradise shows the moon racheting down the intensity of the solar rays. Certain things are made visible that would otherwise remain impossibly bright. The perceptual correspondence is the paradox that, if viewed directly, the local source of solar light will actually damage the organ designed to perceive its reflected rays. The great messengers are sent to the earth as mediators to make esoteric ideas accessible to large numbers of people. Thus, they speak in parables. They work the magic of bringing enlightenment, but in a form that we may apprehend without risk of immediate blindness.

Gurdjieff's categorization of "A," "B," and "C" esoteric ideas, explains how the Inner Circle of Humanity plants regenerative seeds in each civilization and these seeds grow out from the original point of germination. Additionally, Gurdjieff asserts that there are two higher centers in man, (higher emotional and higher intellectual), which are fully functional, but completely detached from our ordinary state of consciousness. They operate on energies so intense that the lower centers would be burned out using such volatile fuels. Clearly Plato, the Sufis and Gurdjieff dealt with the delicate problem of how to bring enlightenment to mankind without accidentally blinding or killing their followers in the process.

Any attentive Gurdjieff follower will immediately detect certain parallels with the gardens and may wonder at the resonance it finds with many of his hard won insights. At that, this essay gives only a brief summary of the lore of the gardens and their contents. Arabi's commentary contains many more elements, including the various trees, fruits and experiences associated with each garden.

In Mullah Nasrudin's terse comments on the moon, he has slyly indicated several major elements of the Sufi Path of Return. Lift the veil of light humor, and we see an elaborate allegory of light. Ibn Arabi's exposition on the Four Gardens of Paradise provides a vivid image of the state of man and his place in the universe. Additionally, it helps to explain the curiously insistent references to gardens and rivers in the Quran. Western scholars like to say that because the Arabs lived in deserts, they naturally likened gardens and fountains to paradise: the rare oasis must have seemed like heaven. This condescending view trivializes some of Islam's major symbols and creates yet another veil between East and West.

Every way the traveller turns on these paths, he encounters veils. Certainly the wily Nasrudin showed no compunction in throwing us off the track with humor and apparent nonsense. Strangely, his brevity and wit have acted as a kind of preservative, ensuring that his stories would be told and retold through the centuries. He could play the fool, the sage, the victim, the thief - in short, anything to spin the tale. Gurdjieff's earthy and unconventional approach to almost everything set him apart from his fellows, often to his cost. His opus magnum, "All and Everything," is arguably the most heavily veiled book in the history of literature. Truly, George Gurdjieff and the Mullah are kindred spirits.

* Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din summarizes Arabi's commentary in "The Book of Certainty" where he names Arabi's follower and commentator Qashani as the possible author.

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