Friday, May 6, 2011

Idries Shah: The Way of the Sufi Gardener

Agriculture, a practice that underlies and accounts for all of civilization, is a relatively recent acquirement in mankind's evolutionary journey, having only been acquired less than 10,000 years ago. Yet, how central it is to the stories we tell about ourselves. A person of high accomplishment is said to be 'cultivated,' while the raucous rebel who does what he or she pleases is said to be 'wild.' And where else but the 'Garden of Eden' are we famously said to be from?

In Sufi teachings - Sufism being the esoteric or mystical branch of Islam - the garden is often used as a symbol of the state of our collective and individual spiritual being, just as wine (the product of the most highly cultivated and intoxicating first fruit of the garden) is used as a symbol for true religious, spiritual and ecstatic experience.

Thus, in his masterful book of insight into the life and thoughts of the Sufi masters and the different Sufic schools or orders, "The Way of the Sufi," the late Idries Shah (himself a Sufi master) tells the following cryptic, multi-layered and not-so-fanciful story - as all Sufi stories are - of a master-gardener and his efforts to sow many gardens and teach others would-be gardeners the secret of his craft.
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"Once upon a time when the science and art of gardening was not yet well established among men, there was a master-gardener. In addition to knowing all the qualities of plants, their nutritious, medicinal and aesthetic values, he had been granted a knowledge of the Herb of Longevity, and he lived for many hundreds of years.

In successive generations, he visited gardens and cultivated places throughout the world. In one place he planted a wonderful garden and instructed the people in its upkeep and even in the theory of gardening. But becoming accustomed to seeing some of the plants come up and flower every year, they soon forgot that others had to have their seeds collected, that some were propagated from cuttings, that some needed extra watering, and so on. The result was that the garden eventually became wild, and people started to regard that as the best garden there could be.

After giving these people many chances to learn, the gardener expelled them and recruited another whole band of workers. He warned them if they did not keep the garden in order, and study his methods, they would suffer for it. They, in turn, forgot - and since they were lazy tended only those fruits and flowers which were easily reared, and allowed the others to die. Some of the first trainees came back to them from time to time, saying: 'You should do this and do that,' but they drove them away, shouting: 'You are the ones who are departing from truth in this matter.'

But the master-gardener persisted. He made other gardens, wherever he could, and yet none was ever perfect except the one he tended with his chief assistants. As it became known that there were many gardens and even many methods of gardening, people from one garden would visit those of another, to approve, to criticize or to argue. Books were written, assemblies of gardeners were held, gardeners arranged themselves in grades according to what they thought to be the right order of precedence.

As is the way of men, the difficulty of the gardeners remains that they are too easily attracted by the superficial. They say: 'I like this flower,' and they want everyone else to like it as well. It may, in spite of its attraction or abundance, be a weed which is choking other plants which could provide medicines or food which the people and the garden need for their sustenance and permanency.

Among these gardeners are those who prefer plants of one single colour. These they may describe as 'good'. There are others who will only tend the plants, while refusing to care about the paths or the gates or even the fences.

When, at length, the ancient gardener died, he left as his endowment the whole knowledge of gardening, distributing it among the people who would understand in accordance with their capacities. So the science as well as the art of gardening remained as a scattered heritage in many gardens and also in some records of them.

People who are brought up in one garden or another generally have been so powerfully instructed as to the merits or demerits of how the inhabitants see things that they are almost incapable - though they make the effort - of realizing that they have to return to the concept of 'garden'. At the best, they generally only accept, reject, suspend judgment or look for what they imagine are the common factors.

From time to time true gardeners do arise. Such is the abundance of semi-gardens that when they hear of real ones people say: 'Oh, yes. You are talking about a garden such as we already have, or we imagine.' What they have and what they imagine are both defective.

The real experts, who cannot reason with the quasi-gardeners, associate for the most part among themselves, putting into this or that garden something from the total stock which will enable it to maintain its vitality to some extent.

They are often forced to masquerade, because the people who want to learn from them seldom know about the fact of gardening as an art or science underlying everything that they have heard before. So they ask questions like: 'How can I get a more beautiful flower on these onions?'

The real gardeners may work with them because true gardens can sometimes be brought into being, for the benefit of all mankind. They do not last long, but it is only through them that the knowledge can be truly learnt and people can come to see what a real garden is.

["The Way of the Sufi," pages 117-119.]
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Shah's story of the master-gardener leaves many questions hanging, as it is supposed to do. Who was the master-gardener? Who was the first group he trained, and who was the second? What is the "Herb of Longevity"? Who were the master-gardener's "chief assistants," where are the "real experts" and where do they associate? Etc., Etc., Etc.

Some of these questions can be answered, but not all of them, perhaps. While, for other questions, there are multiple answers, and those answers will vary by degree according to the reader. And even those answers will be temporary, changing with conditions as a real garden does.

"Sufism," like gardening, perhaps, Shah notes, "must be studied with a certain attitude, under certain conditions, in a certain manner." Or, as the great Sufi teacher, Ibn Arabi said: "The Sufi must act and speak in a manner which takes into consideration the understanding, limitations and dominant concealed prejudices of his audience."
["The Way of the Sufi," page 33.]

I leave to the reader, then, how to interpret Shah's story; but I leave it with the observation that the story must be understood, perhaps, within Shah's larger works, of which "The Way of the Sufi" is but an integral part.

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