A Zen Gloss on Baha'u'llah's Commentary on "He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord"
by Juan Cole1996
[He is God, the August, the Beautiful.]
In Zen terms, I would suggest that the Transcendent and Unknowable about which Bahá'u'lláh is here talking has a number of very rough analogues.
Among them are absolute essence (bhu:tatathata:) and Dharma-nature (dharmata:) [Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment, p. 109]; also "Ku" or "Emptiness" in Japanese, from the Sanskrit Sunyata. "Now, ku is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality or personality--the matrix of all phenomena." (Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 74). I do not mean the Theravadin or even the Indian Mahayana connotations of Emptiness, but that meaning with which the Chinese and Japanese traditions tended to invest the term. As Conze notes, "When in China Buddhism fused with Neo-Taoism, "emptiness" became the latent potentiality from which all things come forth, and it became usual to say, in a cosmological sense, that all things go out of emptiness and return to it." (Buddhist Thought in India, p. 61).
In Bahá'í philosophy, Emptiness or the Void (`ama') is a term signifying the Absolute Truth (al-Haqq) in the realm of unicity (ahadiyyat) or of quintessence (hahut). Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá basically accepted Ibn al-`Arabi's schema, of standpoint epistemologies, wherein there are metaphysical levels and propositions are only true on some levels but not others. On the ultimate plane of Ahadiyyat or Unicity, the Absolute Truth is completely beyond attributes, and is alone, with nothing beside It, all of which seems to me very close to what I can understand of some Zen ideas of Emptiness or Ku.
`Abdu'l-Bahá in his commentary on "I was a Hidden Treasure" says that the Unseen Essence (ghayb-i huviyyat) on the ultimate plane of Unicity (ahadiyyat) is such that Its attributes are identical to Its essence, and of this station the Imam `Ali said, "Perfect belief in divine unity requires a denial of all His attributes." This is, of course, the station in which God is the hidden treasure, and is Undiscoverable. [Moojan Momen, "`Abdu'l-Bahá's Commentary on the Islamic Tradition: `I was a Hidden Treasure.' Bahá'í Studies Bulletin vol. 3, no. 4 (December 1985):8-10; Vahid Rafati's valuable article on Ibn al-`Arabi and the Bahá'í Writings in Mahbub-i `Alam shows how the Master's stance here agrees with ash-Shaykh al-Akbar's].
As for `Ama', it is used throughout Bahá'u'lláh's Writings. In his study of Bahá'u'lláh's poem, "Rashh-i `Ama'", revealed in the Siyah-Chal, Stephen Lambden says of `ama', that it "is derived from the Arabic root `amiya--'to become blind', 'to be obscure.' It could thus be translated "blindness," "secrecy," or "obscurity" (or the like) though it also bears the sense of "cloud" or "heavy and thick clouds" (which hide and obscure). Since in various Sufi and Babi-Bahá'í texts `ama' is indicative of the depths of God's interiority, the hiddenness of His essence, the enwrapped and beclouded locus of Divinity, it has been translated "Cloud of Unknowing" . . . [note:] the title of an anonymous 14th century English mystical treatise. ["An Early Poem of Mirza Husayn `Ali Bahá'u'lláh: The Sprinkling of the Cloud of Unknowing," Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 2 (September 1984):10]
That the Absolute Truth is Inaccessible and pure Unknowability explains why the seeker must strive for the Seventh Valley, of self-extinction (fana'), for annihilation of the self replicates on the plane of creation (khalq) the extinction of all phenomena and attributes in the Absolute Truth on the plane of Unicity.
Literally, this says that from the exaltation of pure magnanimity and the sublimity of unadulterated generosity, He reposited a sign--of mystical insight into Himself (ayih-'i `irfan-i khud)--in all visible things, so that no thing should be deprived, each according to its plane, of mystical insight into God.
`Irfan in Sufi and Shi`ite mysticism is mystical insight. Bahá'u'lláh here says that every existent in the cosmos is endowed with the sign of mystical insight into the Absolute Truth. I find this diction very interesting and challenging. Insight is a type of knowledge; this knowledge is present in all things. And it is present not as a thing or essence or capacity but as a sign. A sign is that which points to something else. The Greek is semeia. The study of signs as systems of communication is called semiotics. Bahá'u'lláh is saying that the cosmos and everything in it is theo-semiotic. It sign-ifies mystical insight into the Absolute Truth.
It seems to me that this idea is analogous to Dogen's Zen notion that all things, not just sentient beings, but all things are Buddha-mind.
"In Dogen's understanding, the Buddha-nature is not a potentiality, like a seed, that exists within all sentient beings. Instead, all sentient beings, or more exactly, all beings, living and nonliving, are originally Buddha-nature. It is not a potentiality to be actualized sometime in the future, but the original, fundamental nature of all beings." - Masao Abe, A Study of Dogen, p. 42
But if whole-being is Buddha-mind, if each of us is a semiotic device pointing toward the Absolute Truth, then is not everything perfect?
A dialogue between a Zen master (Roshi) and a student may help clarify here:
Student: "Last night I said to myself, "Fortunately I don't have to strive for enlightenment, because I am already enlightened."
Roshi: "While it is true that innately you are a Buddha, until you have concretely perceived your Buddha-nature you are speaking in borrowed phrases when you speak of enlightenment. The purpose of your practice is to lead you to this experience." - Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen, p. 130.
Human beings must struggle against a sort of false consciousness, generated by their self and passion, that prevents them from seeing that they are Buddha- mind; or that, in Bahá'í terms, they are theo-semiotic.
(This last is a Rinzai Zen sentiment, linking striving to satori or enlightenment; it contrasts with Dogen's Soto teaching that practice and enlightenment are unrelated, that enlightenment strikes suddenly, unexpectedly, and is not to be "striven for." Both attitudes have their own truth, obviously.)
I would translate this literally as: [This reflection will take place] in a station (maqam) wherein every thing (kullu shay') will be seen (yushhadu) in His Station (fi maqamihi), and every thing will know its own limitations and capacity (ya`rafu kullu shay'in haddahu wa miqdarahu) , and will testify to the truth that "He, verily, is God; there is none other God besides Him [and that `Ali Muhammad (the Bab) is the Manifestation of all the Names, and is the Dawning-Point of all the Attributes, and that all were created by His will and all act according to His command.] And "Sign" = Buddha-mind
This passage begins by reiterating the metaphor of the soul as the sign or mirror of mystical insight [`irfan] into the Absolute Truth. I would suggest that `irfan can usefully be glossed as enlightenment or satori, though it is often translated "knowledge" by the beloved Guardian. It is mystical knowledge or understanding. This metaphor of the mirror recalls a passage from the great Zen master, Dogen:
"Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky.
The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky." [Dogen, Moon in a Dewdrop, trans. K. Tanahashi, p. 71].
In the same way that the dew-drop is a mirror reflecting the moon, so each thing, including human beings, reflects the `irfan or mystical insight into the Absolute Truth.
Now, what of the issue of polishing the mirror? A story about the sixth patriarch, Hui-Neng (d. 713), who went to study with the fifth patriarch after experiencing sudden enlightenment while meditating on a passage from the Diamond Sutra. One day the old master asked his disciples to compose a poem to indicate the degree of their enlightenment.
"At that time Shen-hsiu occupied the first seat among the many disciples, but in spite of his learned knowledge of the sutras, he had no deep experience. With a great deal of effort he finally produced a verse and that night wrote it on a wall in the temple hall:
The body is the Bodhi tree [enlightenment]
The next morning Master Hung-jen praised the verse in the presence of all the disciples, but told Shen-hsiu to compose another verse, for his poem showed no sign of enlightenment. Hui-neng, who could not read, had Shen-hsiu's attempt read to him, then composed one himself and told a temple boy to write it on the wall:
The Bodhi is not like a tree,
All the disciples marveled at the poem. But the master erased it, and stated that Hui-neng, too, was far from enlightenment." Hui-neng was nevertheless appointed sixth patriarch. [Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment, p. 45].
The first poem exemplified the Northern school of Chinese Zen, which emphasized a gradual approach to attaining enlightenment, while the second is an example of Hui-Neng's own Southern Zen of Suddenness. (This division continued in Japan, with Rinzai more like the Northern school and Soto more like the Southern). On the other hand, the southern School and Soto do ask disciples for self-discipline and meditation, and in actual Zen practice prayer, devotion and repentance play an important part in the spiritual path.
Both approaches have their virtues. On the Bahá'í side, the portion of the Book of Certitude called by Western Bahá'ís the Tablet of the Mystic Seeker emphasizes practice as a means to enlightenment and certitude. On the other hand, Bahá'u'lláh in the commentary on `He who knows his self hath known his Lord' does not say that the sign of mystical insight into the Absolute Truth is potentially reposited in every thing; rather, he says it is reposited. We are already signs of mystical insight into the Absolute Truth. We have but to see, to know our own reality.
The efforts we can make to clean our mirrors in Bahá'í `Irfan or mysticism are obvious. Meditating on Scripture, praying, reciting the Most Great Name, eschewing immoral behavior, serving humankind and working worshipfully are among the elements of this discipline. Shoghi Effendi encouraged the Bahá'ís to learn to meditate, though he was concerned that these practices not develop into a fixed ritual.
In the above passage Bahá'u'lláh says that the mirror can be polished by mujahadat-i nafsani or psychological effort, and by spiritual meditations or attentiveness [tavajjuhat-i ruhani], which will allow us to draw near to the holy gardens of the All-Merciful. I don't think we yet fully understand within the Faith what psychological effort and spiritual attentiveness might really mean. But these are Sufi technical terms, and I do not think Bahá'u'lláh meant by them a sort of "Protestant go-to-church-on-Sunday and occasionally say a short prayer" spirituality.
Bahá'u'lláh points out that during his lifetime, Bahá'ís could attain `irfan all on their own, without a teacher. The group of Sufis who found mystical insight and self-extinction independently of any pir (guru) were known as Uvaysis. It seems to me that Bahá'í `Irfan needs to continue to develop without the pir-murid, Master-disciple relationship. This "independent" approach to the path resembles the Zen Southern School and Soto more than the northern school and Rinzai, though Zen in general tended to involve a master-disciple route to learning.
Detachment is also a prime virtue in Zen Buddhism. Dogen writes: