Dilectus meus mihi et ego illi, II: Digression

            At the risk of an unpardonably remote digression from the texts of the Cloud-author, it is difficult not to indulge a digression on tasting

            In the first part of this post we encountered the line certes he may not taast of goostly felyng in God bot only by grace.  In the interest of full disclosure, it must be admitted that taast may not mean “taste”.  The University of Michigan Middle English Dictionary reports a complex semantic web around this word, which includes:

  • Taste as an inherent property of matter; the perceived flavor or taste of food, drink, etc.; the sense or faculty of taste, ability to taste; and so forth.
  • The sense of touch; the ability to feel or perceive; the act of touching or an instance of it, a touch; also, hostile contact, opposition.
  • The sense of smell; an odor, a scent, smell.
  • The discriminative faculty, perception; also, an artistic sensibility.
  • The fact or condition of liking or preferring something; an inclination, appreciation, a partiality; heed, attention.
  • An attempt, a trial, test.

            The range of this word will be useful later; for now I want to pretend, in the interest of drawing a most cool parallel, that taast means taste.

            In Islamic “mysticism” (tasawwuf), some of the earliest written works on otherwise secret esoteric doctrines were combinations of hagiography and glossary.  The earliest Persian manual of this sort, called Kashf al-mahjûb, was written by al-Hujwiri in the 11th century.  It remains not only in print, but in use, and its author an object of intense veneration.  (If you have Pakistani or Afghan friends, ask them to tell you about Daata Ganj Bakhsh.)  A contemporary of al-Hujwiri writing in Arabic was al-Qushayri, author of something called the Risâla, translated under many names.  Less extolled, I think it is the better book.  (I know of a circle of friends in my town who are currently reading it in Arabic alongside this, the one fair translation of it.)

            In Qushayri’s manual, there is a glossary entry on dhawq, a technical term typically translated as tasting.  Concerning this Qushayri writes (in Knysh’s translation):

            Among the words that they use are “tasting” and “drinking”.  They use these words to describe the fruits of God’s self-manifestation, the results of God’s self-unveiling and God’s unexpected visitations, which they experience.  The first of these is tasting, then comes drinking, and finally, the quenching of thirst.

            They attain the taste of [true] meanings through the purity of their pious deeds; they attain the drinking [of true meanings] through fulfilling the requirements of their spiritual stations; and they quench their thirst [for true meanings] through their constant search for God’s presence.

            To say that one may attain the taste of [true] meanings through the purity of pious deeds is to say a great deal.  As so often with translation from Islamic texts to the languages of secular Western readers whose commercial cultures are at war with all forms of truth-seeking, some things are missing here. 

            The Arabic reads:  mucâmalâtuhum yûjibu lahum dhawqa’l-macânâ.  The word mucâmalât is a technical term from Islamic law.  It refers to “pious deeds” in a very restrictive sense, namely, those that are expressly prescribed as religious obligations incumbent upon the believer.  This does not mean nice, but ultimately voluntary, things.  It absolutely does not mean that if you volunteer at a homeless shelter you will get to know God.  It means that any sort of esoteric insight is absolutely conditional upon the prerequisite of meticulous and conscientious orthopraxis, of fulfillment of commands (to pray, to give charity, to make pilgrimage, etc.) and avoidance of prohibitions.

            The other word of interest here, macânâ, translated as “[true] meanings”, makes sense only in the context of the typically Islamic doctrine of the world as divine semiosis, with its outward forms concealing inner realities [macânâ] of the life of God. 

            Thus, if one were to translate this at all — and keeping in mind the elegant terseness of the Arabic, which manages to convey all this in five words — it would need to be approximately as follows:  “The primary experience of divine self-disclosure, called tasting, is attained contingently upon the rigorous fulfillment of religious obligations.”  (And remember, there are still two steps of esoteric insight superceding this!)

            It is remarkable to me that words for such primary and irreducible sensations as taste recur in mystical traditions so far removed from each other in description of what must be essentially the same experience.  Doctrinally and dogmatically, Muslims and Christians have a great deal standing between them.  In esoteric experience, however, it seems this is far less so.  Two points need to be made:  As primary, subjective theophany, it is only one God who is made known to the seeker.  Otherwise, why such convergence in description.  And, at least as significant, this primary, subjective theophany is not the privileged domain of any single faith tradition.  In every generation, without exception, and presumably including our own, there have been fully realized Christians and Muslims and others who are God’s intimates, dwelling in divine proximity within the heart.  The confirmation of this is not in texts, though it is implied in them.  It is in practice.  And none of us has any right to say of another — or of ourselves — that she cannot be among the friends of God.

            BUT:  The Qushayri text also calls us to something very challenging:  We do not abandon a religious tradition and follow only the practices of mystics.  We do not fall for the lie that religion divides and is, therefore, the problem, to which an unchurched spirituality is the solution.  We become, instead, the most meticulous of practitioners of our faiths, as a prerequisite to divine pleasure and disclosure.

Posted in "Cloud" commentary, Philology, Praxis | Leave a comment

Dilectus meus mihi et ego illi, I: Introduction

            A highly esteemed conversation partner drew my attention to the essay ‘“Þis louely blinde werk”: Contemplation in The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises’ by René Tixier, in Pollard and Boening’s Mysticism and Spirituality in Medieval England, for which many thanks.  I plan to spend time here re-working this a bit, not because it needs it my help, but because I don’t personally have access to a research library (as many others may not) from which to borrow it; and because I want to complete some of the connections at which Tixier hints.

            The Cloud-author (elsewhere in his works) presents two verses of the Vulgate Canticum Canticorum, the Song of Songs, to ground his teaching.  Erotic as they are, their import is appeal to a necessary asceticism.  They are:

  • Dilectus meus mihi et ego illi, “My lover is mine and I am his”.  [Cant. 2:16; the original verse adds qui pascitur inter lilia, “he browses among the lilies”, consistent with the image of the lover as a gazelle]
  • Vulnerasti cor meum soror mea, amica mea, sponsa mea, vulnerasti cor meum in vno oculorum tuorum, “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes”.  [Cant. 4:9; the original verse adds et in uno crine colli tui, “with one jewel of your necklace” — which, unlike the bit about the lilies, seems potentially significant, does it not?]

            The connection to asceticism is simply in understanding oneself as engaging in a prolonged effort of self-purification leading to the soul in love with the divine receiving Christ her Bridegroom.

            Bernard of Clairvaux was among many who wrote mystical commentaries on the Song of Songs in the Middle Ages, and his insights are both beautiful and pertinent here.  Concerning the first of these verses, Dilectus meus mihi et ego illi, “My lover is mine and I am his”, Bernard first reminds the reader that these are the first words spoken by the bride, and that she begins with love.  This is meant to devastate certain pretenses and preoccupations:

The spirit is filled with dread even while it is stirred; the canker of pride swollen by learning is miraculously healed.  But if anyone who imagines that he has a smattering of knowledge indulges in too close an inquiry, he will find his intellectual powers overcome and his whole mind reduced to subjection.  How humbled he will be at her words, constrained to say:  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is mighty and I cannot attain to it.”

            (What amazes me personally is that Bernard’s critique of learning seamlessly recapitulates so much of sacred history [as I have tried to capture by embedding the links to the verses he implicitly invokes].  His is a massive erudition internalized and made one with his person, and simultaneously a demonstration of the vital alternative to the “canker of pride swollen by learning” that he critiques.  It is a marvel.)

            That the Cloud-author espouses the primacy of love over intellect is not in doubt.  In the final pages of his Book of Priue Counseling we see it expressed this way:

            Late hem fast awhile, I preie þee, from here kyndely delite in here kunnnyng; for, as it is wel seide, a man kyndely desireþ for to kunne; but certes he may not taast of goostly felyng in God bot only by grace, haue he neuer so moche kunnyng of clergie ne of kynde.

            Note that the word felyng has recurred here — a word much commented on in this site.  Its use here is significant: our concern in particular is to be with a goostly felyng in God, which is, furthermore, subject to taast.  The text continues:

& þerfore, I preie þee, seche more after felyng þen after kunning; for kunnyng oft-times discyuiþ wiþ pride, bot meek louely felyng may not begile.  Scientia inflat, karitas edificat.  In knowyng is trauaile, in feling is rest.

            How interesting that a caution against learning should dip without irony into a Latin phrase, Scientia inflat, karitas edificat.  This of course if from 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”, already invoked above by St. Bernard.  And with this, one circle closes.

            This verse appears to have been much beloved of the English wayfarers of the time of the Cloud-author, invoked equally by Walter Hilton in The Scale of Perfection, Book I, as follows:

            Of this knowynge seyde Seynt Poul thus: Sciencia inflat, caritas autem edificat.  Knowynge aloone bolneth up the hert into pride, but medle it with charité and thanne turneth it to edificacion.  This knowynge aloone is but water, unsavery and cold; and therfore yif thei wold mekeli offre it up to oure Lord and praye Hym of His grace, He schulde with His blissinge turne the water into wyn as He dide for the praier of His moder at the feest of Architriclyn.  That is for to seie, He schulde turne the unsavery knowynge into wisdoom and the colde naked resoun into goosteli light and brennynge bi the gift of the Holi Goost.

            I have elsewhere proposed on this site that the Cloud-author’s cautions about book-learning do not constitute an anti-intellectualism, and Hilton’s words here are a marvelous demonstration of how caution and learning can co-exist, transformed as water into wine.  And recall as well that the Cloud-author does not propose that learning be renounced, but rather that we fast from it awhile.


Posted in "Cloud" commentary, Philology | Leave a comment

Digression: What Might It Take to Read a Powerful Book?

            Without turning this site into a talking shop for Islamic issues, I want to offer a piece that shows how and why approaching texts with reverant caution has been the norm in Islamic societies.  Readers can decide for themselves how this applies to reading Christian mystical texts, or the Zohar, or whatever.  But we know, with great certainty, that placing the Qur’ân in the hands of those unqualified to deal with it is one of the irreducible sources of extremist violence in the Islamic world today.  And we won’t be far wrong in looking for analogous abuses of the Bible in the equally sick and extremist violence inflicted by the US on Iraq and Afghanistan.

            Regarding the proper qualifications of the exegete of the Qur’ân, the great Islamic scholar Imâm an-Nawawî [d. 676/1277] writes:

It is unlawful for someone to explicate the Qur’ân without knowledge and the qualification to speak about its meanings.  The hadîths concerning this are many, and there is consensus [ijmâc] on this.  It is permissible and fitting that only scholars explicate; there is consensus concerning this as well.  When someone qualified to explicate the Qur’ân — one who gathers all the tools through which its meanings are known and the intended meaning is particularly apparent to him — he may indeed explicate it, if it is something attained through independent intellectual reasoning [ijtihâd].  Such matters include the [Book’s] meanings and rulings — the hidden and apparent — what is universal and what is restricted, grammatical inflections, and more.[i]

            Clearly this describes qualifications of a very high order.  The scholar capable of “independent intellectual reasoning” will be very highly accomplished— and correspondingly rare.  It would appear that the passage refers specifically to three important and controversial matters:

  • Hidden and apparent meanings seems among other things to allude to a verse of the Qur’ân (al-cImrân, 3: 7) promising that some of its verses are muhkamât, others mutashâbihât.  Both the exact meaning of these words, and the assignment of any particular verse to one or the other category, remains in dispute among qualified scholars.  A safe and reasonable view might propose that the mutashâbihât are those verses whose meaning is open to conjecture, doubt, and disputation, whereas the muhkamât are not. Imâm an-Nawawî may also have meant to refer to controversies over allegorical interpretation [ta’wîl] of verses, or even the discerning of a verse’s meaning through esoteric allusion [cishâra] as some of the ahl at-tasawwuf propose.  Whatever Imâm an-Nawawî intended, it should be clear that many dimensions of both esoteric and exoteric meaning have been discerned for every passage of the Qur’ân, and any truly informed opinion on these matters will necessarily encompass vast scholarly background in the hermeneutical sciences.
  • What is universal and what is restricted alludes to categories of rulings [ahkâm] in jurisprudence — in other words, to those judgments that govern the life of the worshipful individual as well as the social relations of the larger community.  If, in other words, the Qur’ân promulgates a particular command, are we to understand it as enjoining the behavior of all of humanity, of historical groups now gone, of Muslims generally, of the early community in Medina, of the Prophets, or some other audience again?  The designation of verses of the Qur’ân as câmm or khass is just the surface of another vast and fraught hermeneutical effort, not to be entered without both extensive preparation and due reverence — if not outright terror — before the enormity of the task.
  • Grammatical inflections alludes to icrâb, meaning the full spectrum of ways in which the basic lexicon of the language is acted upon by the rules of grammar to express meaning through the structure and order of words.

            This list is daunting, but also perplexing.  The scope of the sciences of the Qur’ân is nearly endless.  For those few in every generation who are both capable and willing to engage in interpretive effort with due reverence and humility, the tremendous importance of properly categorizing verses as having meaning that is hidden or apparent, and extension that is universal or restricted, should be obvious enough.  But why would one expect that the grammar of the language in which the Qur’ân was revealed to have the same stature?  Is its mention in this context by Imâm an-Nawawî really meant to place the study of grammar on the same plane as these other sciences?  Is grammar genuinely as important as all that, or was the author simply trying to flesh out a list of prerequisites?

            Academic experts on the Qur’ân (by which I mean tenured administrators of academic credit, clerical workers with PhDs, a research program, and a teaching load) may find common cause with Islamic modernists in the claim that the Qur’ân either is, or purports to be, accessible to the non-specialist.  For instance, one sees the following claim from a highly esteemed member of the European professoriate [ii]:

The Koran claims for itself that it is mubeen, or clear.  But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense.  Many Muslims — and Orientalists — will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.  This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation.  If the Koran is not comprehensible — if it can’t even be understood in Arabic — then it’s not translatable.  People fear that.  And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not — as even speakers of Arabic will tell you — there is a contradiction.  Something else must be going on.  [italics original]

            It is difficult — faced with a claim like this in a mass-market publication whose sales likely do not wane in proportion to their anti-Islamic content — not to recall one of the categories of the ignorant proposed by Imâm al-Ghazâlî:

The second [type of those afflicted by ignorance] has foolishness as his sickness, and he too is incurable.  As Jesus said (upon him be peace), “Verily I was not incapable of bringing the dead to life, but I was incapable of curing the fool.”  This is someone who spent a small time in pursuit of learning, studying something [superficially] … so that out of his stupidity he interrogates and queries the great scholar who has passed his life in the intellectual and revealed sciences, and this idiot in his ignorance thinks that what is a problem for him is also problematic for the great scholar.  Since he does not know even this much, his questioning is due to his foolishness, and you should not engage in answering him.[iii]

            This passage was penned at the dawn of the twelfth century — so already 800 or so years ago the phenomenon of the self-inflated fundamentalist know-nothing know-it-all was well attested.  In any case, Imâm an-Nawawî fully anticipates and preemptively demolishes the prospect of this vague something else that must be going on by further clarifying the attributes of the qualified exegete of the Qur’ân.  It is, first of all, simply impermissible to offer interpretations of one’s own in the absence of proper preparation and qualification through the most rigorous scholarship.  One whose own opinion is not properly informed can only transmit the opinions of those who are qualified.

            The concept of transmission is important here.  As in other branches of the Islamic sciences, this calls for rigorous authentication of the chain of transmission [isnâd] through which the opinion has passed between the scholar who derived it and the speaker now invoking it.  “As for one who is not qualified to offer original explications because of not having attained the scholarly tools,” Imâm an-Nawawî writes, “it is forbidden for him to offer explication.”

            What then are these scholarly tools?  If the language of the Qur’ân were merely something inconvenient to master, and a transient impediment to the work of real exegesis rather than (as implied above) at the very heart of it, native fluency would logically suffice.  Those born in the Arab lands where the language is ambient would have a tremendous natural advantage; passing enough time among such people could, in time, compensate the setback of birth and upbringing elsewhere.  To the native speaker, the prescriptive rules, the verb tables, the noun endings — in short, the unpleasantness of the language classroom — would be as second nature, and one could pass directly to the hidden and apparent, the universal and restricted, the substance that is of our investigations.

            Not so fast. Imâm an-Nawawî, it would appear, has in mind some other meaning for this concept of grammar than the one we conventionally assume.  He writes:

It is not sufficient to simply know Arabic.  Rather, one must also know all that qualified scholars of explication have said about a given passage of the Qur’ân, for they may have consensus that the apparent meaning of a verse, for example, is something to be disregarded and that what is intended is a specific or implied meaning, or something else contrary to the obvious.  Likewise, if a phrase has different meanings and it is known that one of these meanings is intended, one then explicates each occurrence of the phrase separately.

            And all of this depends upon language.  Thus, the language of the Qur’ân and its grammar are not separable from the rest of what comprises exegetical effort.  Additionally, the model of interpretation taught in the universities of Europe and North America, according to which one stakes a claim to an opinion and then defends it, will not fly here.  One does not privilege the singular power of one’s opinion through a celebration of the absolute logical necessity of its narrowness.  The goal instead is the mastery and correct representation of comprehensiveness.  As Imâm an-Nawawî points out, familiarity with the meanings of the Qur’ân’s Arabic encompasses the following:

  • The meaning of a phrase and its grammatical inflections:  Arabic word order is much more highly variable than word order in English.  Whereas the subject and object of a verb are indicated in English by a position in the sentence that is only seldom flexible, Arabic has no such constraints.  Assumptions made on the basis of word order alone, for instance, will lead to many misinterpretations.  Meaning in Arabic (i.e., semantics) will be, relative to English, much more dependant on the form of a word (its morphology), and much less dependant on the word-order aspect of its syntax.
  • Ellipses, abridgement, and interpolations:  In the Qur’ân, it is common to see that something has been omitted, although the omission is obvious from the grammatical structure and its identity can be properly inferred by one trained to do so.  The language is often highly compressed, and proper comprehension may depend on the ability to telescope the expression of an idea adequately for our minds to grasp it.  Likewise, some passages or arguments appear to be interrupted by an interval in which an apparently unrelated passage or argument is introduced before returning to the original topic.  These are matters of the pragmatics of the text (in particular, the communicative intent of Allâh in its composition), as well as of rhetoric, stylistics, figures of speech, elevated usage, and other branches of the study of language barely intuitive to the native speaker.
  • Literal and metaphorical meanings:  One could proceed by designating passages as metaphorical on the basis of personal taste.  What if, for instance, Hellfire were a state of mind rather than a real place that imposes exactly the torments that the Qur’ân describes?  Among contemporary people who wish for a more accommodating reading, this prospect holds some appeal.  It might also be entirely unwarranted, and it is certainly not (to borrow a term from modern science, even if the concept to which it refers is not in the least bit unfamiliar to the rigorous scholars of Islâm), repeatable.  I will designate as non-literal those passages that leave me most ill at ease, and you will likely make a different choice, and in the end relativism and meaninglessness prevail.  The way out of this trap is to inquire whether the language itself, properly and deeply understood, provides regular and repeatable clues.  Native fluency does not address this in the slightest.  Sciences of the Arabic language without precise equivalents in other traditions are instead required, and have been fully developed for centuries.
  • Universal and restricted significance:  The urgent matter of câmm and khass, already mentioned above, can be resolved through the morphology, syntax, and other domains of the original Arabic expressions.  As with literal and metaphorical usage, it is vitally important to individual devotion and the regulation of social relations that these questions be resolved in the most regular and repeatable manner possible — through the language in which universal and restricted significance are originally expressed.
  • Ambiguous and detailed aspects:  This apparently refers to words or expressions that are considered mutlaq and others that instead are muqayyad.  The difference between this and the previous category (universal and restricted) should be immediately perplexing[iv], and this helps prove the basic point:  we need to be trained.  And even when some way of specifying these differences has been made both clear and consistent, applying such a classification to a text still requires background in the processes of reasoning.  Thus, among the Arabic linguistic sciences, mantiq (roughly, Aristotelian or propositional logic) is held to be a vital topic of study.
  • Matters of transposition:  This refers to muqaddamahu wa-mu’akhkharahu, that is, to aspects of the proper ordering of utterances.

            And as if all this is not enough, Imâm an-Nawawî concludes his list with the daunting phrase, “and other things that are not so obvious”.  Some of these are enumerated elsewhere[v].

            It is not an accident that the Qur’ân refers to itself as “a Qur’ân in Arabic” — inimitable and untranslatable.  It must be approached through its original expression, and using the tools of a complex and extensive apparatus of linguistics.  The alternative — an overly democratized text, subject to the bizarre doctrine of sola scriptura — is, in fact, at the heart of much of today’s religious violence.  The extremism of al-Qaeda and their ilk is the extremism of rejection of traditional scholarship — an Islamic fundamentalism that is, in effect, a fully modernist Islamic Reformation.  Liberating texts has its risks.

[i] This and subsequent passages of Imâm an-Nawawî’s discussion are taken, with slight modification, from Musa Furber’s translation of al-Tibyân fî âdâb hamalat al-Qur’ân (Etiquette with the Qur’ân, Starlatch Press, 2003, pp. 99-100).

 [ii] Namely, one Gerd-R. Puin, “a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany”, quoted by Toby Lester in “What is the Koran?” (Atlantic Monthly, vol. 283, no. 1, 1999).  Please note in the subsequent discussion and enumeration of the traditional sciences of the Arabic language that neither Arabic calligraphy nor “Koranic paleography” finds mention, the former because its domain is not hermeneutical, and the latter for its self-evident irrelevance both to our topic and, frankly, to Dr. Puin’s.

 [iii] Imâm al-Ghazâlî, Letter to a Disciple [Ayyuhâ’l-Walad] (Islamic Texts Society, 2005, p. 46).

[iv] A very compressed explanation of one way (among others) in which such terms can be thought to differ is given by Mohammad Hashim Kamali (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 3d edition, Islamic Texts Society, 2003, p. 155) as follows:

Mutlaq denotes a word which is neither qualified nor limited in its application.  When we say, for example, a “book”, a “bird”, or a “man”, each one is a generic noun which applies to any book, bird, or man, without any restriction.  In its original state, the mutlaq is unspecified and unqualified.  The mutlaq differs from the camm, however, in that the latter includes all to which it applies, whereas the former can apply to any one of a multitude, but not to all.

[v] For instance, see an entire book published in English on aspects of the classification of utterances:  Sukrija Husejn Ramic, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Islamic Texts Society, 2003).

Posted in Philology, Praxis | Leave a comment

Þe moste goodly knowyng of God is þat, þe whiche is knowyn bi vnknowyng

            In the Mumonkan, or The Gateless Gate, a collection of koans published in 1228 (a good century and a half before the Cloud) by the Chinese Zen master Wumen, we see the following as Case 34:  “Mind is not the Buddha, knowing is not the Way”. 

            Is this not, in effect, what the Cloud-author has in mind in quoting the Pseudo-Dionysis:  “Þe moste goodly knowyng of God is þat, þe whiche is knowyn bi vnknowyng”?

            At the beginning of Book III of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

            We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive.  For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating.  And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit.

            Aurelius almost certainly did not intend this for the use I would like it to serve, namely, to point out that it is the wrinkles in our traditions that allow them to serve their purpose best.  By this I mean that there is no point trying to reduce all religious or spiritual paths (whatever “spiritual” means, if anything) to a single common essence and to follow that, leaving the differences aside.  It is tempting to do so; but the wrinkles may prove, contrary to our desires, to be the real essences.

            It also sometimes happens that people try to attach themselves to a path that is attractive principally in its strangeness.  I have my suspicions about whether, for instance, North Americans like me have any business messing around with stuff like Zen.  (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are very few.)  Zen has many attractive features, just as Christianity has some unseemly ones.  But it may be that we are meant to come to terms with the unseemly, and may never really come to those if we were to jump ship to Zen, and that the attractions of Zen suit the passions more than the spirit.  Attraction may be a trap for us.

            A chapter of the book Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays by David Loy draws some tentative parallels between Zen and the practice of The Cloud that are worth pondering.  This is mainly helpful in reminding us that the attractions to jumping ship may be here at home with us, largely unnoticed, in our own traditions. 

            Loy quotes, for instance, the following passage from the “Discourses of Master Po Shan” in Chang’s The Practice of Zen as suggestive of a similarity (superficial, it turns out) between Zen and the concepts of unknowing/forgetting in The Cloud:

            When working on Zen, one does not see the sky when he lifts his head, nor the earth when he lowers it.  To him a mountain is not a mountain, and water is not water.  While walking or sitting he is not aware of doing so.  Though among a hundred thousand people, he sees no one.  Without and within his body and mind nothing exists but the burden of his doubt-sensation.  This feeling can be described as “turning the whole world into a muddy vortex”.

            Loy is quick to add, however, that we can’t make too much of this — it’s hard to say, finally, whether the muddy vortex is a cloud of unknowing, a cloud of forgetting, or both, Zen not really drawing such a fine distinction.

            In any case, those drawn to Zen can ponder this for a moment.  Could we not find some of the attractions of no-mind in a practice situated closer to home?

            Loy also points to a tantalizing similarity between the practice of the prayer-word in the Cloud and koan study.  The Cloud-author instructs:

Take þee bot a litil worde of o silable … & soche a worde is þis worde GOD or þis worde LOUE….

            With this might well be paired the approach commended to the famous first koan of the Mumonkan:

A monk asked Jõshû, “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?”  Jõshû answered, “Mu.”

            Is mu a prayer-word?  This is, of course, going way too far, and Loy (greatly to his credit) says so.  But for the sake of a thought experiment, he also presents the following commentary on the koan:

            You must melt down your delusions with the red-hot iron ball of Mu stuck in your throat.  The opinions you hold and your worldly knowledge are your delusions.  Included also are philosophical and moral concepts, no matter how lofty, as well as religious beliefs and dogmas, not to mention innocent, commonplace thoughts.  In short, all conceivable ideas are embraced within the term “delusions” and as such are a hindrance to the realization of your Essential-nature.  So dissolve them with the fireball of Mu!

            It is also interesting to read the commentary that Mumon offered on this koan:

            In order to master Zen, you must pass the barrier of the patriarchs.  To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking.  If you do not pass the barrier, and do not cut off the way of thinking, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds.  Now, I want to ask you, what is the barrier of the patriarchs?  Why, it is this single word “Mu.”  That is the front gate to Zen.

            Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word “Mu.”  Carry it continuously day and night.  Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of “has” or “has not.”  It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try.

            All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united.  You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream.

            It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant general Kan’u and hold it in your hand.  When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them.

            Now, I want to ask you again, “How will you carry it out?”

            Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this “Mu.”  If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!

            Is this the method of the Cloud?  Certainly not.  Is it nevertheless an illuminating point of comparison?  Absolutely.  It is not going too far to suggest that Mumon is calling on the practitioner to suspend the operation of the “knowing power” in a manner the Cloud-author would have appreciated.

            We will finish with the koan with which we began, in the complete version, with commentary, from The Gateless Gate:

            Nansen said, “Mind is not the Buddha, reason is not the Way.”

            Mumon’s Comment:  Nansen, growing old, had no shame.  Just opening his stinking mouth, he let slip the family secrets.  Yet there are very few who are grateful for his kindness.

Posted in "Cloud" commentary, Praxis | Leave a comment

On Translation

[The following is an adapted and shortened version of a rather lengthy analytical piece published elsewhere on this site as "The Poverty of Translation".]

            Previously I wrote:

I would also contend that translation, of the Cloud or any similar texts concerning esoteric religious experience, must necessarily presuppose a theory of mind.  Translation of these things is not a matter of striking upon the proper word-for-word correspondences that will bring out the “real” meanings.

            Here’s some of what I mean.

            If I were to translate the Cloud, I would need to make some choices about the locus of knowing and unknowing.  Is it the brain?  The mind?  The heart?  If I say the heart, do I mean this metaphorically?  Analogically?  Is there a subtle, immaterial heart corresponding to the coarse, material pump in the chest?

            I don’t believe this could be avoided, because all of these are loaded words — loaded, that is, with concepts.

            This is not a simple matter of saying, “The words hert, hart, heorte, etc., mean the same thing as heart.”  The problem is in this little phrase, mean the same thing.  What is that same thing that they mean?  What if it is not at all a thing?  What if, in our day and age, we simply do not recognize the existence of such a thing?

            Thus, translation of texts like these is not to mistake word-to-word correspondences for word-to-concept correspondences. 

            Some things have to be read in translation.  It can’t be helped.  But I have some very strong feelings about the implications of this when it comes to approaching texts that can lead people astray.  The translator needs to assume responsibility for potentially placing readers in a kind of mortal peril.

            The following is a bit of a case study on what has happened to other books in translation, in particular the highly commercialized franchise known as Rumi.  I hope there will be readers who consider it worth their time to consider how and why reading the works of Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî in English might be a seriously fraught endeavor, and to apply these lessons to other translated texts.

            It is well known that Rumi means money in America, and that words taken to be based upon his own can be a source of gratification, entertainment, and self-help.  As a newspaper published in Mevlânâ’s homeland remarked recently:

            A phenomenon sweeping both Turkey and the world, the “Rumi frenzy” is a juggernaut that has transformed a Sufi saint into a commodity bought and sold across the globe.  Books of poetry, calendars, ballets, performances accompanied by “live music,” CDs and hundreds of websites have already rendered Rumi an indispensable component of popular culture.  Some, like Franklin Lewis, however, are making a serious effort to halt the head-long rush toward the superficial popularization of Jamal ad-Din Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic who died in the Central Anatolian province of Konya in 1273.  

            Lewis decries the popular appropriation of Rumi in his new biography of the Sufi, “Rumi: Past and Present, East and West.”

            “I watch, feeling devastated by how popular culture dilutes and corrupts his teachings, with the foresight that the unrelenting advertising and consumerist tools of contemporary profane culture will inevitably homogenize the divine,” he said.  Already the United States’ best-selling “poet,” Rumi’s works are read and sung as “live music” as an increasingly mainstream part of American popular culture; many others, meanwhile, listen to the great man’s poetry to relax while in traffic jams.

            As you might expect under these circumstances, it also comes an no surprise that that much of what passes for the work of Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn (not at all the same person as “Rumi”) has been distorted beyond any fair similarity to the original.  For one thing, the guy was a Muslim.  Islamic identity does not exactly move product in America these days.  So there are commercial advantages to playing this matter down. 

            This problem is not new, but was already at play when the only good (or, at least, the least bad) translation of the Masnevi was published early in the 20th century.  Of the many highly remunerative translations that drive the Rumi Industry, Reynold Nicholson’s stands apart as (we are told) especially accurate.  Is this a fair appraisal?  One way to appraise Nicholson’s work is to search for nuance that is, as the phrase goes, lost in translation.  What follows is a close reading of two pages of his Book V with particular attention to Qur’anic and technical religious vocabulary.  Is the potentially offensive Islamic substrate preserved?

            We begin with the following verse:

Abandon, then, the dry (verbal) prayer, O fortunate one.   [Masnevi V: 1188]

            Taken alone, this can be subject to many interpretations — and the taking of verses alone is, to be sure, a common conceit of the Rumi Industry.  Among the ways this version of Mevlânâ’s actual words could be read are the following:

·      Abandon religious obligations, and count yourself fortunate to have done so.

·      Being exceptional in your spiritual gifts, consider yourself exempt from religious obligations.

·      Leave aside religious practices that are exoteric (a “dry husk”) and replace them with esoteric spirituality.

·      Pray, but not with verbal formulae.

            Other verses in proximity to this one seem to suggest that the problem of prayer is not necessarily inherent, but resides somehow in its verbal expression:

These words, (whilst they stay) in the breast, are an income consisting of (spiritual) kernels: in silence the spiritual kernel grows a hundredfold.  When it (the word) comes onto the tongue, the kernel is expended: refrain from expending, in order that the goodly kernel may remain (with you). 

[Masnevi V: 1275-1276]

            But this “keep it to yourself” notion is also a problematic way to interpret this section of the Masnevi, for at least two reasons.  First, the section immediately following the one from which these verses have been taken carries the heading “Prayer” and begins as follows:

O Giver of (spiritual) nutriment and steadfastness and stability, give Thy creatures deliverance from this instability.

[Masnevi V: 1197]

            This would seem to be a “verbal prayer”, if only because it begins with a vocative particle and continues in an imploring manner that one could readily imagine saying aloud.  Perhaps what redeems this is that it is verbal, but not dry; or else, that it is neither dry nor verbal, expressing an inner voice having no vocal counterpart.  But this is undeniably a section of a well crafted poem, structured for recitation aloud, and by no means what one expects of a spontaneous outpouring “within the soul” or such like.

            A second problem arises in the heading of the previous section (i.e., preceding line V: 1171), which reads as follows in Nicholson’s rendering:

Explaining that when the evil-doer becomes settled in evil-doing, and sees the effect of the (spiritual) fortune of the doers of righteousness, he from envy becomes a devil and preventer of good, like Satan; for he whose stack is burnt desires that all (others) should have their stacks burnt: “hast thou seen him who forbids a servant (of God) when he performs the (ritual) prayer?” 

            Taken as given here, one faces a third conflict.  Dry prayer is to be abandoned. and this tends to have a verbal character to it; but a verbal prayer is then offered, seeming to contradict the first injunction; and finally, a verse from the Qur’ân is presented stating that to bar the worshipper from ritual prayer is plainly demonic.  Given these apparently conflicting statements, what is one to conclude about the necessity, permissibility, desirability, and nature of prayer?

            In actual fact, this problem is a creation of the translator of the Masnevi, and not of the poem’s author.  What Nicholson translates as prayer is a different word in each case, and what is lost in the translation is simply the shades of meaning inherent in each word in the original language.  Thus the “dry (verbal) prayer” refers, in Mevlânâ’s own words, to ducâ, or supplication.  This is not the ritual prayer prescribed for Muslims at five particular times of each day — the word for that is salât, and it is preventing the worshipper from the fulfillment of the obligation of salât that is considered Satanic and explicitly forbidden by the Qur’ân. 

            In no way, therefore, is Mevlânâ to be understood as urging the abandonment of religious obligations, and in this distinction is the resolution of the first apparent contradiction in the section quoted here.  The obligation of salât is in no way contingent upon whether its performance is dry or not.  On the other hand, the supplication [ducâ] ought to have some personal significance to the one who utters it.  It is not obligatory, even if it is strongly urged that the believer offer ducâ.  Admittedly, the ducâ can be formulaic, consisting of the repetition of some words from traditional texts whose meaning does not really reach the heart of the one uttering it.  What the reader might consider is Mevlânâ’s position regarding the purpose of ducâ.  As some have written, the gift of ducâ is not in the response to it, but in the upwelling of the need for Allâh within the seeker to which the ducâ gives voice.  One who, like Satan, is in the thrall of envy and other vices is not susceptible to this gift, while remaining capable of dry recitation of a ducâ received at second hand.

            As for the “prayer” that begins O Giver, the word in the original language of the poem is munâjât, which is to say, yet a third category of interaction with the divine.  Having urged us to abandon the dry supplication, what is offered next is a more authentic one.  We cannot simply repeat this as a formula, but must seek within ourselves a corresponding sincerity.  The Arabic word munâjât means something like “intimate discourse or conversation” and originates from the radical √n-j-w, a variant of which is seen in the following verse of the Qur’ân:

And we called him from the right side of the mountain, and brought him near, in confidence [najiyyan].

[Maryam 19: 52]

            This refers to the prophet Mûsâ, or Moses (peace be upon him), given the privilege of approaching his Lord Most High on Mount Sinai, as the Torah also reports.  It is this communion with the divine, exemplified in a prophetic model [sunna], which may be inaccessible to us as ordinary seekers, but which is nevertheless to be sought in the sincerity of munâjât.  It is also to be considered whether every truth is expressible in words, or whether the kernel is expended through expression because the referent of the experience of munâjât is neither known through language, nor reducible to it.

            If Rumi really called the believer to abandon prayer, there would be at least two consequences:  He would have left Islam (which may suit the publishing industry in America just fine); and he would have dragged an uncountable number of his readers away with him. 

            As with Rumi specifically, “mysticism” generally has the power to move product.  There are no doubt strong motives to commodify mysticism as something to which a religious orthodoxy is extraneous, the better to reach a wider readership (— well, buyership).  Thus Rumi is held to be who he is in spite of his Islam, not because of it — never mind that the original language supports no such claim. 

            Quacks like Coleman Barks and Deepak Chopra have made a mint on this desacralized Rumi.  Despite being “widely regarded as the world’s premier translator of Rumi’s writings,” it is an open secret that Barks does not actually read Persian.  (See here for a discussion of this and other issues in Rumi translation.)

            How much of the literature of the Christian mystics translated into English has already suffered this twisted fate?  How long will it be until someone tries the same thing with the Cloud?  Has Carmen Butcher done so already?

            These are issues to take seriously, if you really believe that words matter.

Posted in Philology | 8 Comments

In my boistous beholdyng

            In Hodgson’s ME edition of the Cloud, the text proper is introduced (see p. 13) as presenting a boistous beholdyng and in this it is counterposed to a besi beholding.  My preferred rendering in Modern English, that of Fr. James Walsh, gives “I pray and beseech you to pay very close attention” as the phrase carrying besi beholding; and “according to our rather crude reckoning” for in my boistous beholdyng.  This word boistous merits some attention.

            Note first of all that, in the Middle English of the Cloud, the word boistous does not yet have the –er that it will pick up later in its history to become boisterous.  This has no effect on the meaning but it does confuse the etymology most creatively, pointing to a nearly exact match in French that means “lame” (says the OED, but also “gimpy” in modern French, including I believe the effect, unnamed in English, of a four-legged table with one leg that it too short for the table to remain steady).

            So, while there appear to be contemporaneous usages meaning rough and loud (as in boisterous weather or trumpet blasts), the OED also notes some uses closer to rude or crude, such as Wyclif’s translation of 2 Chron. 8:7 (in the Vulgate, but 2 Chron. 13:7 in our  contemporary numbering: Roboam was buystuouse (Vulg. Roboam erat rudis et corde pavido nec potuit resistere eis; cf. NIV “Some worthless scoundrels gathered around him and opposed Rehoboam son of Solomon when he was young and indecisive and not strong enough to resist them”). 

            For that matter see Wyclif’s rendering of Matthew 9:16, No man putteth a clout of buystous clothe in to an elde clothing (Vulg. nemo autem inmittit commissuram panni rudis in vestimentum vetus; cf. NIV” No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment”).

            So now I can see why the Walsh translation has “rather crude” for boistous, with reservations.  Naïve or immature, sure, but absolutely, positively not boisterous as though this were about a frat party or trivia night at a sports bar.  There appear here to be senses of novelty and inexperience, as well as the roughness of a rough draft, or the tentativeness of an idea we want to float to see how things go. 

            But I definitely don’t buy “reckoning” here.  So much so that this post deals with the word separately.

            Fortunately we don’t need to spend as much effort on besi, and can exploit it as the counterpoint to boistous.  The word has nothing to do with the purposeless bustling to which we subject ourselves in order to avoid prayer and everything else — busyness, business.   The OED gives besi and various forms thereof as having a now obsolete sense of “Occupied to the full or to the limit of one’s powers: in phrase to be busy to do (a thing): to be fully occupied with it alone [...]  In the earlier examples … this sense is often not to be distinguished from that of ‘careful, eager, anxious’.”

Posted in "Cloud" commentary, Philology | Leave a comment

On feyle and felyng

            I have been blessed with an interlocutor who has led me to some very fertile thinking about the terms feyle and felyng (and related terms) in the Cloud.  In particular, it seems worthwhile to ask whether words like “feeling” and “experience” would have meant anything to the Cloud-author discernibly similar to what they mean to us.  “Mystical experience” is an insidious concept if, as a materialist or mechanistic scientism might have it, we are to reduce ourselves as humans to experience machines.

            For the better part of ten years I taught at an independent school that occasionally saw fit to impose, through the policing of language, perspectives too absurd to be discoverable in rational thought or any mode of common sense.  One of these was the coerced replacement of “believe” by “feel”.  My students, God help them, were forced to take a course on something the school called Ethics that amounted, to the best I can discern, to bullying them into some sort of practice of reflective listening.  Soon after, they began to rant at me for using the term “I believe” when expressing an opinion — the correct expression, they insisted, was “I feel”.  Thus, “I believe we invaded Iraq under false pretenses” was to become “I feel we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.”  I used to mock this by saying “I feel in God.”

            We need to begin to look at feyle and felyng by a critical interrogation of what we believe we mean (—feel we mean?) when we use the word feel.  It is such a common word in our contemporary vernacular that we seldom think about it.  We may also assume that it means pretty much the same thing as experience.

            This is superficial.  If I say, “I feel sick”, I (a) am not saying something that can readily use the word experience as a substitute (i.e., I do not “experience sick”), and (b) am also not designating a faculty of sensation or perception.  There is no locus of “sick” as a feeling except all of me, and all that I encounter when I feel that way. 

            (One might also remark that “I feel bad about this” and “I have a bad feeling about this” are reducible neither to each other, nor to any other expression using experience without seriously compromising their respective senses.  Thus, linguistically speaking, feeling is not simple, nor is its correspondence to the verb to feel that of a simple verbal noun without a valence of its own; nor is either pretty much reducible to experience.)

            But back to sick.  When I feel sick, sick conditions the world of my experience.  It’s not that the world is sick.  It’s that the world is temporarily unavailable to me apart from sick.  This shows a subtle but decisively important fact about our consciousness and conscious states.  We do not just sit back and experience anything, receptively and passively.  Our experience is active.  The formula for this is “I experience X as Y” — that is, experience is processing.  Experiencing is doing something.  Likewise, “mystical experience” (if there is such a thing) is a doing, and needs to be understood that way.

            Who, in that case, is the doer?  Consider for a moment that the “I” in a statement such as “I feel happy” is a rather different entity “I” than the one that reports “I am experiencing happiness”.  Experience in this instance appears to posit some sort of object outside the self.  The experience of happiness-of, or even “experiencing this moment as happiness of this moment.”  Language does not capture well the sense of a difference between the “I” that feels — immediate and subjective — and the “I” that experiences — a step removed, engaged in an object of experience other than the experiencer.

            This is not at all what I understand by feeling.  The historical data available in the OED, taken by themselves, would lead one to believe that feel and feeling were not originally about sense perception per se, but were instead co-opted to this usage secondarily.  In my view, the propositions “I feel sick” and “I feel happy” seem to retain the oldest valences of the word feel, and also situate the event in a different sort of (forgive me for the hokeyness of this) space than that of experience. 

            Or consider this:  What does it mean to say, “I feel funny”?  I have no doubt about what I mean by this, but I also can’t really say anything more, or anything different, about this.  I can’t say, “I experience funniness” nor can I say much about funny in this sense except that it is a sort of existential possibility that is entirely my own, entirely subjective, and absolutely not localized.  You might know more or less what I mean when I say this, but not what I feel when I say it.  You know something about the experience of feeling funny; you do not know at all what I feel when I feel that way at any particular moment.  And the only thing that feels funny is I tout entier.

            What is interesting is that I seem to be able to say “I feel sick” and “I am sick” more or less indifferently, but without being able to substitute “I experience sick” in any cogent way whatsoever.  (Better would be:  “I am experiencing myself-as-sick.”)  And this allows me to open up through language a horizon of being that we know intimately and with real certainty.  To experience what it is like to be sick seems to posit the possibility of substituting one conscious subject for another.  I can fairly say, “I have experienced what you are experiencing” but never “I am feeling what you are feeling” because your feeling in this sense is wholly and irreducibly yours.  And the “I” in these statements is therefore not, by extension, really the same “I”.

            All of this has been a crude phenomenological analysis, and it seems to me that a phenomenology (sensu Husserl) of mysticism, whatever “mysticism” is, would be very fruitful.  (See this if the term phenomenology is unfamiliar.)  At minimum, it is an effective way of undermining naïve confidence in terms and expressions that we believe we understand without knowing why.  I would also contend that translation, of the Cloud or any similar texts concerning esoteric religious experience, must necessarily presuppose a theory of mind.  Translation of these things is not a matter of striking upon the proper word-for-word correspondences that will bring out the “real” meanings.  (Look for a separate post if you care about this.)

            When I talk about feel and feeling in the way I have thus far, I am talking about modes of intentionality.  It is a rare and marvelous thing that, in this case, the language has preserved an authentic possibility of allowing us to express primary subjectivities.

            Experience is Aristotelian: the experiencer is trapped someplace that the world of experience approaches.  Feeling is phenomenological and Husserlian: what I feel intends the world as a modality of that feeling.  When I feel hung-over, I intend a hung-over world, and do not find a place in it that is free of hangover even if I peek under the couches and peer through telescopes.  I may then experience the world as one hung-over.  These are altogether different modalities of consciousness.

            Here are some of the textual attestations of felyng and related words in the Cloud, a partial inventory that seems to lend some credence to my otherwise terrifically post-facto construction of feeling as a mode of intending of the world, and experience as something else again:

 (1)  And this is the eendles merveilous miracle of love, the whiche schal never take eende; for ever schal he do it, and never schal he seese for to do it.  See, who bi grace see may, for the felyng of this is eendles blisse; and the contrary is eendles pyne.

  • Love is certainly an existential possibility, a mode of being, not of experience.

(2)  Bot seker be thou that cleer sight schal never man have here in this liif, bot the felyng mowe men have thorow grace whan God vouchethsaaf.  And therfore lift up thi love to that cloude.  Bot yif I schal sey the sothe, lat God drawe thi love up to that cloude; and prove thou thorou help of His grace to forgete alle other thing.

  • Here we see the intending of the world as divine self-disclosure in the mode of love, as loving theophany.

(3)  Meeknes in itself is not ellis bot a trewe knowyng and felyng of a mans self as he


  • The feeling of myself as I am is juxtaposed to knowing.  Propositional knowledge does not compel action, not the assent of the understanding.  The feeling is different, a radical subjectivity that is a mode of certainty.  We read in a number of places about the felyng of his beyng as though it were an ownmost possibility like the taste of one’s own mouth.

(4)  For thof al I clepe it inparfite meeknes, yit I had lever have a trewe knowyng and a felyng of myself as I am, and sonner I trowe that it schuld gete me the parfite cause and vertewe of meeknes bi itself, then it scholde and alle the seintes and aungelles in heven, and alle the men and wommen of Holy Chirche levyng in erthe, religious or seculers in alle degrees, weren set at ones alle togeders to do not elles bot to prey to God for me to gete me parfite meekness.

  • What can it possibly mean to have a trewe knowyng and a felyng of myself as I am?  How can this relate to a feeling of my being?  The authentic feeling of this is divine in incitement, as seen here:

(5)  And therfore swink and swete in al that thou canst and mayst, for to gete thee a trewe knowyng and a feling of thiself as thou arte.  And than I trowe that sone after that thou schalt have a trewe knowyng and a felyng of God as He is; not as He is in Hymself, for that may no man do bot Himself, ne yit as thou schalt do in blisse bothe body and soule togeders; bot as He is possible, and as He vouchethsaaf to be knowen and felid of a meek soule levyng in this deedly body.  [...]  For oftymes it befalleth that lackyng of knowyng is cause of moche pride, as me thinketh.  For paraventure, and thou knewest not whiche were parfite meeknes, thou schuldest wene, when thou haddest a lityl knowyng and a felyng of this that I clepe inparfite meeknes, that thou haddest nighhond getyn parfite meeknes.

Posted in "Cloud" commentary, Epistemology, I-referent, Philology | Leave a comment