Thursday, January 31, 2013


As one sits down before the proverbial blank sheet of paper, what does one do? How does one begin? What emotions does one bring to this confrontation - the beginning? What feelings does one have for and before this work? Are these relevant? The matter is never entertained today, but it was seen as an important matter in the past. Architectural debate in our time, and discussions on art generally, ignore matters personal and intimate as being irelevant unless they are promotional - 'my intention,' etc.

 Experience of architecture is discussed in an impersonal manner. All the substance is seen to be held in the object or thing, and it is this that is seen to stimulate the individual. Consider the statements: the door is astonishing; the arch is slender; the space moving; etc., never, "I am moved by the door," when in fact you are and have been, as with the arch and space. So it is that the debate analyses the experienced qualities as being a part of these things rather than those of the person who is perceived merely as being an ephemeral part of the equation, a catalyst - the passerby. These aspects of the thing are never seen to have anything to do with origins in the personal, other than for the individual to be hyped up as a genius for an idiosyncratic interpretation or the quirky or unusual making of an object. 'My vision' becomes the core reference to ego. There is no interest in the more subtle and fragile flavours of intimate feelings and emotions. The modern mind sees these as too subjective to be discussed unless by psychologists and psychanalysists, in order to repair and redirect. As in the question of how one should live one's life, how one should act as an artist/architect is something left for the individual to boast about rather than take any direction or advice on. There is no sense attributed to anything that tries to say something about living and acting appropriately. It is seen as an utter irrelevance, a rude intrusion into 'my' world that is the source of 'my' art/architecture.

Yet it has not always been this way. Traditional art knew of and discussed such issues that were seen to be critical for the outcome. Our Christian heritage knows of this circumstance, but our era treats it with such disdain, or in such a bland cliché manner, that it is more useful to turn to the East to see what it has to say on this matter. The proposition is that both East and West are saying the same thing, and that our understanding of such matters may be better guided by a review of the Eastern concepts that will be more likely to open up a new point of view and steer us around our stereotypical expectations. It may, indeed, surprise us.

 So it is that Indries Shah's book - I refer to Thinkers of the East - Studies in Experientialism, by Indries Shah, published by The Octagon Press, London, 1971, (1977, 1982, 1986) - is both interesting and relevant. It presents us with what he calls 'parables in action' - entertaining anecdotes - that illustrate the eminently practical and lucid approach of Eastern dervish teachers. These simple stories communicate a subtle and permeating understanding.

 p. 137
Someone said to Bahaudin Naqshband:
'You relate stories, but you do not tell us how to understand them.'
He said:
'How would you like it if the man from whom you bought fruit consumed it before your eyes, leaving you only the skin?'

There is an enigmatic quality to these parables that engages one in an extremely subtle manner. The stories are able to be explicit about sensitive things without turning them into factual statements for rational analysis. In this manner they have the quality of Zen koans.

p. 170
Learning by Signs
El Hashma had the reputation of teaching by signs. A man who was greatly attracted by this idea travelled for years until he arrived at the sage's school.
As soon as he saw him, Hashma said:
'You must be prepared to learn, at least the first steps to wisdom, by words alone.'
The man protested:
'I can get words anywhere. I came here to learn by signs.'
Hashma said:
'Everyone wants to learn by signs, gestures and exercises, since they have heard that it is possible. The result has been that they are too excited by the prospect to be able to do so. Such is their excitement that they cannot perceive it, and shout, "We are not excited!"
Therefore we must resort to an alternative until they are ready - words and readings.'

These parables hold a relevance to teaching too, as well as learning.
How it Feels to be a Teacher
The Nurbakshi writing on teachership has it:
"The teacher is like a master-craftsman in a country where people want craft work but yet imagine that it is performed, shall we say, in the dark. He is like an eagle in a cage, deprived of his main capacity of flight and sight, but employed by idlers for visual amusement. He is like a lion in a pit, baited by the ignorant and admired by those who like a tawny coat. He is like an ant, who invented a house, and hopes that he can attain his object of inducing man to copy him. He is like a crow, showing man how to bury his dead, while man watches, perplexed, knowing that he can learn but not imagining what it is that he has to learn from what he crow is doing.
'All of the Wise have to learn how to pass on the knowledge. But they can do this only if the student will allow himself to learn what it is and how it is that he is to learn. Technique of learning is what the teacher has first of all to teach. Unless you are prepared to study the technique of learning, you are not a student. And if your teacher advises you to learn by words, or deeds, or by baking bread - that is your way.'

The parables are challenging and poignant:
p. 164
It was reported that Avicenna the philosopher said to a Sufi:
'What would there be to be seen if there were nobody present to see?'
The Sufi answered:
'What could not be seen, if there were a seer present to see it?'

p. 162
The Question
A rich braggart once took a Sufi on a tour of his home.
He showed him room after room filed with valuable works of art, priceless carpets and heirlooms of every kind.
At the end he asked:
'What impressed you most of all?'
The Sufi answered:
'The fact that the earth is strong enough to support the weight of such a massive building.'

All stories carry a clear message:
p. 159
'I visited a Sufi,' says Ibn Halim, and he gave a long discourse.
'There were many people there, for he attracted hearers from everywhere.
'I said:
'"How do you have time to read so many books?"
'He said:
' "I have time for what I do read."
'Then I realized that he had no books. I said to him:
' "How do you obtain all this information?"
'He said, admitting it, "By telepathy."
'I said:
' "Why do you conceal this from your disciples?"
He said:
' "To make them concentrate on what is said, not on who is saying it, or how he acquired it."
'I said:
' "It seems that such disclosures spoil one's chances of knowledge. Then why do you tell me this?"
'He said:
' "Your chances were already spoilt before you came to me."
'I said:
' "Is there no hope for me?"
'He said:
' "Not while you try to induce Sufis to speak your jargon. If you use your jargon, you will become more and more dissatisfied, for you use the tongue of the dissatisfied."
' "I said:
' "Does dissatisfaction not lead to a desire for change?"
'He said:
' "Too little dissatisfaction means no desire to change. Too much means no ability to change." '

 There are many more tales in this publication. It is a style and form of communication that the West has forgotten other than as children's fairytales. Is it seen as too simplistic - not intellectual enough? The irony is that these ordinary stories both conceal and reveal at the same time. They conceal their wisdom in the ordinary and chatty, fairytale format, and reveal it in an intimate understanding; an experience unknown to today's rationalists who want to be able to measure everything before it is given any relevance or standing. We need to do more to overcome this perception. Reading Thinkers of the East will be a good start. Understanding these writings and acting out their messages as a guide to living and acting would be better. We have much to relearn from these sages. We reject subtle things too easily, with too much bold self asurance. There is even a parable about this too:

'What is your view about inner knowledge?' asked the mild-mannered feverish Aduh of the traditionalistic theologian Abdurrashid of Adana.
'I have no patience with it.'
'And what else?'
'It makes me sick!'
'And what else?'
'The idea is revolting!'
'How interesting,' said Abduh, 'that a logical and trained mind like yours, when asked for a view on a matter, can only describe, instead, three personal moods.'

But what is the subject and its importance?
Sufian said:
'The wisdom which is invisible but which sustains is a hundred times better than the appearance of wisdom, for that has itself to be sustained.'

In summary, or it could be seen as a starting point - the beginning
- the quote from p. 177, Ghazali, Practical Processes in Sufism should be noted:
When there is arrogance, knowledge cannot operate.

Yes, we have much to reconsider.

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