Nothing Remains, Everything Passes

Two stories we have all heard at some point or another in our lives provide useful pointers to the human relationship with death. Both are ancient and Indian, yet the attitudes they describe are universally and recognisably human.

One is from the Mahabharata, in which a wise prince goes to quench his thirst and is questioned by the keeper of the lake, ‘What is the strangest thing in the world?’ The prince answers, ‘That we know we are going to die but pretend we will live forever.’

The other is from the Buddha’s life. A grieving mother brings her dead child to the Buddha and asks him to return it to life. The Buddha asks her to bring a mustard seed from a home that death has never visited. She tries but is unsuccessful, embracing in the process the inevitability of death.

When we are alive and well, the thought of our own death rarely enters our mind. Even if we are faced with it, it never feels immediate. When a loved one dies, we grieve and mourn, and try to grasp at their memory. Life does go on after a while, but if we haven’t used the opportunity to make our peace with the constant dance of change that is life, we continue to be thrown off balance every time we are faced with change, with death.

If we only look around us, at nature of which we are also a part, we can witness a perpetual dance of change. Not only our bodies change, so do our ideas, our behaviour, and the ways in which we deal with people and respond to situations. Though everything is real in the moment it happens, it quickly passes away, dies if you please, and in the next moment, something rises anew.

Because of constant change, nothing remains, everything passes. Just as there is never the same drop of water at one spot in two different moments in a flowing river, so it is in our lives. Death is not just a one-time event, it is happening right here, right now, in the space between two moments, in the gap between each in-breath and out-breath. Kaal, which in Sanskrit means both time and death, constantly churns, devouring everything in its path.

At the same time, navinam navinam, kshane kshane (‘newness, newness, in every moment’). The Sufi, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, says, ‘I died a mineral and became a plant. / I died a plant and rose an animal. / I died an animal and I was man. / Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?’ This indicates a profound understanding of death, arrived at by a mind unclouded by fears, insecurities and desires. The understanding of impermanence and unceasing change is a crucial aspect of understanding the mystery of death. Our worlds are consumed all the time and created anew, and in every moment, we die in some way and are renewed in another.

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‘The Teacher Will Find Us’

Sheikha Cemalnur Sargut

Sheikha Cemalnur Sargut is a rare woman Sufi master who speaks candidly about her experiences on the path. I met her in Istanbul, at the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association office of which Sheikha is president.

What, according to you, is the path of the Sufi?

For me, to be a Sufi can be explained with an example given by my teacher. ‘I have two types of eyeglasses. The first for seeing things that are near, the second for those that are far. Being a Sufi means wearing both magnifications simultaneously.’ When you are dealing with worldly matters, you simultaneously know that you are in front of Allah. Whoever you are dealing with, you know you are dealing with Allah.

In this state, you don’t see suffering as suffering, but as honey. In Turkish, bela is suffering and bal is honey. The words sound the same.

The word ishq, which is deep love for Allah, is compared with the love between Majnu and Laila. Majnu worked for Laila’s father. Once, Laila was serving food. When it was Majnu’s turn, she pushed his plate away. Majnu was ecstatic. Others asked him, ‘You say Laila loves you. Why did she not serve you?’ Majnu said, ‘Would she treat me like everybody else?’

You are saying, transform the way we look at suffering?

Anything that comes from Allah is like a letter. In Medina recently, in front of the Prophet, I was praying for everybody. In the end, I remembered my son and prayed for a baby for him. Just then, I was pushed hard. I felt as if the Prophet was telling me, ‘You are in front of me. Why are you thinking of your son?’ I can’t tell you how happy I felt, like Majnu. I know He does not want to give me to anybody else. If you realise that suffering comes from love, then it is like a letter, to say ‘hello’ to you.

I cannot love Allah; He can love me. I can understand that He loves me, and I can feel love.

Our love can only be a reflection of His love?

Yes. At the time of Qayamat (apocalypse), each of us will be asked, ‘Who owns everything in this world?’ If you know that everything belongs to Allah, then you have died before you have died. The Quran says that the owner of jannat or paradise is Ridwan, ‘contentment’. So, if you accept whatever Allah gives you, you are in paradise. And when you say anything belongs to me, you are in hell. You have nothing.

Grasping is a psychological state comparable to hell. Is this also in terms of people and relationships?

In the Dars-e Masnavi by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, there is a beautiful story. Prophet Nuh (Noah) was building his ark, but his son did not support him. Nuh turned to Allah, ‘Why doesn’t my son believe me? Isn’t he my son?’
Allah responded, ‘Why is he your son? I only gave him to you for one lifetime, in which your job was to teach him to love me. Love him, but he is not your son.’ If you understand this, it is a beautiful life!

How can we turn on that switch of awakening?

We need a murshid or teacher. Without our murshid, we are nothing. We must surrender before our murshid, be without nefs, ego.

Do we find the teacher, or does the teacher find us?

The teacher will find us. In a story from the Masnavi, one fish says to another, ‘There must be a sea somewhere. Everybody is talking about it.’ The other fish says, ‘Let’s ask the murshid.’ When they go to the murshid, they are told, ‘Everywhere is the sea! There is nothing but the sea.’

The first quality of a murshid is that they must practise in their daily lives the moral values given by Prophet Mohammad. What the teacher speaks is not important. It is how she lives that is important.

The murshid has to live in the world and the after-world in this world. If you are living in this world, then you should not leave it and go and think about Allah. You should live this life and the hereafter separately. Also, the teacher must take you to Allah, not to himself.

When did you decide to dedicate yourself to the spiritual path?

I fell in love with my teacher when I was four, in a dream. Later, I became interested in philosophy. It was the worst time of my life. I asked my mother, ‘Why do they never live what they say?’ I saw what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer wrote, but they were not happy. My mother gave me the Masnavi, and I came to Mevlana (Rumi). My life changed. I was 19.

Before you reach Allah, you must annihilate yourself before your sheikh or teacher. We have a word for this, which means ‘melting in your sheikh’. You don’t exist. Then, the sheikh supports your journey to the Prophet.

At first, you might think you know the Prophet, but you don’t. You realise that the Prophet is there always, but because of your ego, you cannot really see him. When I understood this, I fell in love with the Prophet. I began to learn about him. Then, I realised there is no Prophet, only Allah. Then, you go to Allah. You begin to see Him everywhere. Even when you are alone, you are aware of this.

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This interview appeared in The Speaking Tree paper on October 30, 2011.