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Sarmad's Renunciations

by Peter Holleran

   Herein we intend to outline but a brief picture or metaphor, from which if one can get just a feeling or intuition it will be all that we can hope for. No practice or way is proposed, but only some random contemplations in the midst of a total life. This article is relatively short; however, the footnotes are long. Therefore it may be better to read it once through, and then once more with the references.

   First, Meister Eckhart cryptically said:

   "A man should be so disinterested that he does not know what God is doing in him."
   "Man's highest and last parting occurs when for God's sake he takes leave of God."

   Of these two enigmatic remarks, the second reminds one of a final two 'renunciations' proclaimed by “Sarmad, the Jewish Saint of India”:

   "First renounce this world;
   then renounce the other world;
   then renounce God;
   then renounce renunciation."

     These sentences in an nutshell may be considered a summary of basic archtypal stages in many authentic paths - and even as examples of archtypal paths themselves. As for Sarmad (1590-1662), he met the fate of many such saints, being accused of blasphemy and beheaded by the Mughul authorities of his time. (This was not because he was Jewish; in fact, his first name was Muhammad).

   It is perhaps better to keep in mind that ‘renunciation’ as implied here need not be, and usually is not, an egoic effort on the part of the seeker, but rather a stage he grows into. Renunciation per se implies detachment, willfulness, and even worse, cleverness, none of which do justice to the saint's remarks. Despite the desire on the part of many students and teachers to jump to the final stage, and despite the fact that one may and usually will have many glimpses and intuitions of this stage long before he has grown into full identification, union, or integration with it (identification, union, and integration which are sometimes dismissed as 'unreal' by such teachers), such a jump, it is suggested, is not really likely or perhaps even possible if the realization is to come to all the parts of a person. One may ask, as an example, can one really bypass communion with the Holy Spirit, for instance, which as a reality within relativity is surely as significant as a physical door one cannot ordinarily walk through? Can one really 'transcend' unbounded love, or does he first become it, and then 'outgrow' it in the end by merger in its own Source? Moreover, how could one ‘renounce’ or transcend 'communion with God' if he had never experienced it? ”Oh! to take away God from a heart that desires only God - what a secret of love!”, said deCaussade, in reference to this actual stage on some paths. (3)

   Still, it is good to have a basic understanding of such transitions, or phases of ripening, even from the beginning, so that one will be open to welcome and allow them as they present themselves to the understanding. Otherwise one may hold onto a preconceived sense of realization.

   While somewhat brief and abstract, for which we apologize, an example of this is that of entry ‘into’, or experience of, the so-called void, or state of emptiness, in contemplation or in daily life. If one believes that emptying the mind is required (or is in effect 'the goal of the mind'), i.e., that emptiness means not thinking, that very notion or preconception - present but hidden - will color ones actual understanding, and consequently one will not really have or recognize the true experience of emptiness or the so-called void when he may in fact be in it. (4) - important note) Actually, one IS already in it, but doesn't know it! And thinking or not thinking as such really has nothing to do with it. This apparent inconsistency in the Buddha's teaching regarding nirodha or 'cessation' being the goal was corrected by Nagarjuna with his doctrine of the 'unborn' - an 'unborn' which also implies 'un-ceasing'. So if one feels the need to detach, separate, or avoid anything in order to 'reach' emptiness, the void, or the 'absolute', he is not teaching true emptiness. Somewhat similarly, if one believes that God or Truth is only within, any experience one has 'within' will effect a very strong grip on his or her consciousness and possibly prevent one moving on to an even deeper if less apparently dramatic stage of realization, spoken of in many traditions as being beyond not only the attachment to bliss and ecstasy but also beyond the peace of kavailya or mystic isolation.

   To explain the stanza of Sarmad further, then, in devotional/mystical paths such as the guru-yoga in Sufism, Sant Mat, and some schools of Hinduism, there is taught ‘annihilation’, ‘absorption’, or ‘dissolution’ in one's Master, followed by annihilation, absorption, or dissolution in God. In Sufism, they say that first one achieves fana ‘fil Shiekh, followed by fana ‘fil Allah. (5) The aspiring mystic achieves one-pointed devotion to and absorption in his Guide, which leads him to absorption or annihilation in God. Sant Mat speaks of guru-bhakti and Naam-bhakti, with final absorption of the soul by the ‘Sat Purush’ leading to merger or dissolution in absolute God. On many such paths the goal is held to be ‘within’, in the farthest reaches of inversion by meditation, known variously as the void, emptiness, nirvikalpa samadhi, or God-union. Thus, the devotee is first led to renounce, or transcend attachment to, the gross world, and then as he matures to transcend attachment to even the heavens of the subtle worlds, in order to be’ all alone with God’. But he is not usually taught that he is eventually to transcend even this union with God or detachment of the void-experience.

   Although it is hinted at; Sant Kirpal Singh said:

   “There is a saying of the Masters that God has promised to give everything what a man wants, what his soul really desires..Those who care for the love of God don’t banker after the worldly things, nor the wealth of the other worlds. They don’t even want emancipation. They would like to have only one thing. No heaven, no earthly things, not emancipation, only to be with God, that’s all. If we have really got that hankering in our heart, then naturally we must meet God. God will come to us. If we take one step that way, He will proceed one hundred steps to receive us. We have to decide what we really want I our heart of hearts. Are we here only for the worldly things? Are we here only for the name and fame of the world? Are we here only to have things of the other world, or heaven? Are we really after emancipation from birth and death? A real lover wants none of these things. He wants God and God alone.” 5a)

   A further stage is taught in the highest schools, however, sometimes forthrightly but often hidden within the traditions themselves and reserved for seasoned disciples. And what is this stage?

   It is stipulated in Sarmad’s last two renunciations. First, the aspirant is said to ‘renounce God’. This could imply the renunciation or transcendance of either merely a theistic or mystical concept, or of an actual unitive experience of God, or peace of emptiness. In fact, according to one story, this was the position Sarmad was in when he was imprisoned. He was asked why he dared only speak the first half of the Koranic pronouncement, "There is no God, but God." His answer was, "I am still absorbed with the negative part. Why should I tell a lie?" Sarmad didn’t stop there, however, but clarified a fourth stage, namely, ‘renunciation of renunciation’ ! This brings one full circle to non-duality. Spirit and matter, heaven and earth, are one. Realization is not identified with any state within or without. It is now simultaneously ordinary, serene, calm, balanced, yet at the same time wonder, amazement and mystery. The real person has come forth. There is not mere cessation. (6)

   For paths of mystical emanationism such as Sant Mat, this would be to fully integrate the experience of the various stages up to and including Sat Lok with the physical world of waking consciousness, yielding sahaj. One familiar with this path can clearly observe that such is rarely achieved. Most practitioners and even some gurus, due to prior training, are conditioned and inclined never to give up the enjoyment of the inner planes or inner state for the inconceivable peace of the ‘open-eyed’ realization of ordinary Mind. (7)

   In higher schools of Sufism, however, to fana ‘fil Sheikh and fana ‘fil Allah, they also add fana ‘fil fana, or ‘annihilation of the annihilation’. As stated, this loosely correspond to Sarmad’s last two renunciations: ‘renunciation of God’ and ‘renunciation of renunciation’. Again we are led to non-duality. The result is neither self nor no-self, personal or impersonal, worldly or spiritual, within nor without. What it is can only be known by direct experience. It is the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, the infinite depths of the Mystery. (8)

   Thus this formula is as follows:

   “fana ‘fil Sheikh:
   fana ‘fil Allah;
   fana ‘fil fana.”

   This last ‘fana’ is Baqa’, or subsistence in the Truth.

   Obviously all ‘four renuniciations'  and 'three fanas' speak VOLUMES, and are capsule summaries referring to, according to some, profound stages which one does not simply choose, as by those who would prefer to skip to the end before the fruit is truly ripe and ready to fall from the tree. In fact this might be considered the question of the day, whether one can practically proceed directly to the ultimate without the understanding and actual-ization gained in prior stages. The point has certainly been argued. And it is an understatement to say this is a huge topic. (9) (10)

   Shri Atmananda on renunciation:

   “Renunciation is of two kinds. The yogin’s and the jnyanin’s. 1. The yogin’s renunciation consists of taking the mind away from body and senses. This takes one only to a blank state and not further. 2. The jnyanin’s renunciation is understanding that he is the light or Consciousness on which the body, senses and mind appear, and that even that appearance does not exist when that light is withdrawn. Knowing this Truth, the jnyanin permits the innocent appearances to exist, and he literally stands under, in all his glory, as its background.” (Notes on Spiritual Discourses, #1188)

   PB suggests another formulation worth pondering:

   "A Hindu sage advised the Brahmin to let go of his scholarship first, then of his meditativeness, and finally of his non-meditativeness; then only would enlightenment come.” (11)

1. from the sermon "Blessed Are The Poor"
2. E.K. Ezekial, Sarmad, the Jewish Saint of India (Radhasoami Satsang Beas, 1978)
3. Paul Brunton referred to these stages:

"He should note fall into the error of believing that the transition to philosophical study has exempted him from the duty of mystical practice or that the transition to the latter has exempted him from the need of religious devotion. We do not drop what belongs to a lower stage but keep and preserve it in the higher one. Aspiration is a vital need. He should become as a child at the feet of his divine Soul, humbly begging for its grace, guidance, and enlightenment. If his ego is strong, prayer will weaken it. Let him do this every day, not mechanically but sincerely and feelingly until the tears come to his eyes. The quest is an integral one and includes prayer alongside of all the other elements."

"The positive gains from each stage of the Quest are never lost. Those of religion are preserved in the mystical stage, and must not be rejected; those of mysticism are retained in the third and higher degree of philosophy."

"The mystic has to pass through the earlier stage of regarding the Overself as an "other" before he can arrive at the later stage of regarding it as his own essential self. Hence the need of prayer for the first stage."

(The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 12, Part 2, 2.11, 2.26, 2.29)

4. "When the emptying of the mind is made the goal of the mind, then it is not really emptied even if this seems to occur. The unexpressed goal is also present, even though unsought during the time of the void. In short it is not a genuine, authentic emptiness. Yet this is the sort of thing that happens in most yogic circles. Only a philosophically informed mind can reach the real Void." (Ibid, Vol. 15, Part 1, 7.150)

Or, as Seng Ts'an said in his famous poem on Trust in the Heart: "Allegiance to the Void implies denial of its voidness."

5. see Annihilation and Permanence

5a. Kirpal Singh, Morning Talks (Bowling Green, VA: Sawan Kirpal Publications, 1981), p. 38

6. Vedantic teacher, James Schwartz, in How To Attain Enlightenment, adds a fifth renunciation to this, i.e, "then renounce the absence of renunciation." I must confess to not understanding this one!
7. Regarding the previous statement about entering the void or experiencing emptiness in contemplation, as well as recognizing it as the true nature in everyday life, Po Yu chein said, "The essence of the Tao consists in a void, clear and cool. But what is this void except being the whole day like a fool?". In fact, there is 'no-thing' to enter a void, and no 'void' as a thing in which to enter! This might also be seen as the difference between a conceptual void-like emptiness, the basis of Buddhist sutra, and emptiness-clarity-energy as expressed in Dzogchen. There is not just 'nothing', but the nothing expressing itself spontaneously and eternally. Saying Reality or God is nothing, or even 'no-thing', would be equivalent to Sarmad's 'renunciation of God' - after which comes the 'renunciation' of this 'emptiness' in the recognition of what IS, of which it is not permissable to say anything more: whether it is 'One' or 'many', 'self' or 'no-self', 'deep', or 'infinite' - all being limiting concepts. And in this realization it is also said that nothing is actually renounced and nothing is changed. But, of course, this is all easy to say. Traditionally there has been a two-staged process or negation and affirmation:

"Although the Infinite Spirit exists everywhere and anywhere, the paradox is that It cannot be found in that way before It has been found in one's own heart. Yet it is also true that to find It in its fullness in the self inside, we have to understand the nature of the world outside." ( Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 2, 5.63)

Still, eventually it is realized that there is no longer a strategic renunciation, but, in the words of the sage of Bengal, Swami Narayana Tirtha Dev:

"It is not by giving up all, but by realizing the Self in all, that one has to realize the object of world-evolution and be free. The path is not through negation of the Universe to the affirmation of the Supreme Self, but through affirmation of the Supreme Self to the mergence of the Universe in the Supreme Self." (Ibid, 3.234)

And, concisely stated in non-dual terms,

"That which appears as the spiritual seeker engaged on a Quest is itself the spiritual self that is being sought." (Ibid, 5.16)

8. Speaking of these stages of progressive understanding, in reverse order from the point of view of a metaphysical schema of emanation, Brunton makes the following interesting observations:

"Mind is the essence of all manifested things as World-Mind and the Mystery behind unmanifest Nothing."

"Mind's first expression is the Void. The second and succeeding is the Light, that is, the World-Mind
(and its emanated Overselves/Souls). This is followed by the third, the World-Idea. Finally comes the fourth, manifestation of the world itself."

It might be noted that PB is making essentially logical distinctions here. That is to say, all emanation as such is instantaneous and atemporal, as concepts of time, space, and causality through which one would presume to understand it are built-in constructs of our mental apparatus - which does not exist prior to the emanation. Experientially, however, even the Void (or Sarmad's "renunciation of God" stage), as profound as it may be, is yet a partial expression of the Truth. In itself it is not absolute Reality or Mind alone. As this ultimate position, moreover, is non-dual and non-conceptual, it can only be pointed to in at best an oblique way:

"Only after he has worked his way through different degrees of comprehension of the world whose passing his own development requires, and even after he has penetrated the mystery beyond it, does he come to the unexpected insight and attitude which frees him from both. In other words he is neither in the Void, the One, or the Many yet nor is he not in them. Truth thus becomes a triple paradox!" (Brunton, op.cit., Vol. 16, Part 4, 1.52)

A singularity forever rapt in Mystery emerges, and:

"The days when he could speak glibly and assuredly on the most recondite phases of spirituality gradually go. A new humility comes to him." (Ibid, Vol. 12, Part 2, 3.58)

9. This type of formula more or less works even for apparently less theological or devotional, more 'direct' paths such as Advaita or Dzogchen. In the latter one is traditionally led to the ultimate stage wherein it is realized that there is 'nothing to renounce', through first, preliminary purificatory practices such as ngondro, cultivation of bodhicitta (compassion), meditation on impermanence, and guru yoga; followed by or along with a necessary modicum of concentration (zhine) and vipassana (mindfulness), said to be for 'inferior' and 'average' practitioners, however; with the 'superior' practitioner proceeding directly to the primary practice of contemplative integration of body, speech, and mind with the state of nondual presence, or the recognition of the inseparability of emptiness and clarity of the primordial or natural state, first pointed out in the 'introduction to the view' by the adept. And this primary practice itself has three grades of application, depending on how skillful one is in 'closing the gap' between his ideal and reality. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche gives a general illustration of the form of progression in this practice as follows:

   "Through integration we initially overcame the dualism between practice and nonpractice; then we also went beyond the subtle dualistic concept of integration, of contemplation and noncontemplation in which to integrate it, to arrive at the spontaneous continuation of the state that is the meditation on space, on nothingness or emptiness, wherein there is no subject or object, no inner or outer. In the final stage, the stage of realization, we must also overcome the concept of presence or meditation itself...This is total self-liberation, where there is no longer even the possibility of concepts...Even the subtle dualistic concept of presence and lack of presence must be abandoned. We must be without conflict or effort to practice; we must go beyond the concept of practice and practitioner...We finally understand there is neither illusion or liberation and have the real and final comprehension of the original source whence everything comes and where everything returns. All subtle dualistic concepts, including that of meditation and non-meditation, end, and there is emptiness and nothingness, only wisdom. Some might object that if there is wisdom, there is something; but wisdom is not a concept, it is direct knowledge unmediated by thought, so there is not even any longer the category of something and nothing. We no longer have any expectations or anything to accept or renounce." (Wonders of the Natural Mind (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), p. 173-174)

10. The distinction between prajna ('death') and jnana ('resurrection') - or what might be considered as the last two of Sarmad's 'renunciations' - is summarized in our brief article, The Heart of the Lankavatara Sutra, as well as the following two entries:

   Death and Resurrection, an internet post by Jackson Peterson

   "In all major spiritual as well as shamanic teachings, a common theme occurs: there exists a death of a false, illusory self and then an awakening or resurrection as a True Self. Or some say the death of the lower self and the realization of the higher self or power. This theme exists from the earliest times including the Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Christian, Jewish, Gnostic and Islamic esoteric teachings. This same theme of a psychic death and spiritual rebirth can also be found amongst the Norse, Druid, Celtic and shamanic religions of most native people across all continents."

   "In Buddhism, especially Zen, they talk of the Great Death. This is where the mind's mental projection of a limited and finite identity is seen to be "empty" of any inherent and independent existence. The "death" occurs when a wisdom called prajna arises revealing the empty nature of all subjects and objects. Prajna is the wisdom of emptiness. However, after this "death" another wisdom arises called "jnana". This jnana or gnosis reveals our true nature to be a Buddha with understanding of both emptiness and appearances. The moment of jnana-wisdom occurred for the Buddha after his long night of meditation and the deep realization of emptiness, when at dawn he noticed the morning star in the clear sky. This is like our practice of shamatha meditation blossoming into vipassana insight. From realizing form to be emptiness (death) we realize that emptiness is actually also form (life as appearance). Without this spiritual resurrection we would just remain in an empty void state without capacity to function for the benefit of others. We have "died" to the false identity of being a body of flesh and bones to realizing our ever-present spiritual Body of Light that functions for the benefit of others. This is the functional body of a Buddha not limited by the confines of time, space and materiality. Many traditions refer to this body as the "resurrection body". Ordinary dualistic consciousness is replaced by the permanent wisdoms of prajna and jnana."

   "So no religion or tradition has the right to claim an exclusive understanding for this universal spiritual realization and actualization. Because it is a theme that has survived for possibly tens of thousands of years, since the dawn of the spiritual quest in Man, this must be a revelation of a deeper and more profound universal Truth."

   "It is also interesting that almost in every case this realization is accompanied by a choice-less expression of unconditional love and compassion. It is by this same expression of unconditional love being present or not, that one may judge an accomplished teacher or master of any true tradition. And likewise one can judge one's own "progress" according to the same standard. The greater the growing sense of unconditional love for others, is directly proportional to the degree of progress along any spiritual path, not merely one's increase of spiritual insight. Wisdom and Love function together for the benefit of all..."

   Beyond Ascent and Descent, from The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, by Cynthia Bourgeault (Shambhala, 2013):

   "God does not lose energy as God moves outward and downward through the realms along the great chain of being...the quality and quantity of divine beingness remains always the same and always fully participatory. It does not get "more" as one travels up the chain or "less" as one travels down it. Each of these realms which come into existence [are] simply a field for the revelation of the whole of God in that particular dimension.

   "Ascent and descent are no longer opposite spiritual directions but simply the stroke and counterstroke of a single motion, always headed in the same direction: toward an ever-fresh and inexhaustibly vibrant revelation of the divine heart. Rather than drawing all things back "up" the chain of being to a reunion with their spiritual origin, it corkscrews its way "forward" towards successively more intricate and concentrated articulations of the "wonders"..veiled within the Endless Unity.

   "There is a secret in the heart of life that is not only the unmoving white light. It is not only the still point of the turning world, not only the light-filled empty center. It is also the lion of fire, the unceasing explosion of expansive being, of proliferating life, from the center. It is the frontal energy that demands to express itself everywhere and through every form."
( p. 120-121)

11. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, Part 2.3.203)