The Sufi Attar relates that a certain religious man used to perfume and comb his beard for some time every day before his devotions, in order that he might appear before the Lord at his best.
A saint of God had a revelation which he was to convey to that devotee: “The Lord says, he thinks more of his beard than of Me”.
When that man received the message he gave a great cry of remorse. Thereafter every evening before prayer, he tore out one handful of the beard, leaving his face bleeding, that it might bear witness to his repentance.
Another revelation came to the saint: “He is still thinking more about his beard than of Me”.
In his Mathnavi, the Sufi poet Rumi declares that if mystical truths are investigated too methodically, so that the dialectic of question and answer becomes lengthy, then the savour of Love’s mystery disappears and the form of mystical practice becomes deformed. “Sell intelligence and buy mystical bewilderment; intelligence is opinion, while bewilderment is immediate vision. Sacrifice your understanding in the presence of the Prophet; say, God sufficeth me”.
Then he gives a parallel illustrating the fact that mystical bewilderment prevents investigation and consideration.
A certain man, whose beard had some white hairs in it, came in haste to a highly esteemed mirror-holder (barber).
He said, “Remove the hoariness from my beard, for I have chosen a new bride, O young man”.
But the barber with one sweep cut off the whole of the beard and laid it in front of him, and said, “Do you pick out the white hairs, for as it happens I am busy”.
That “picking out” is the dialectic of question and answer, religious feeling has no care for these things.
As the hair and nails grow from the living man, so this universe proceeds from the immortal. (Upanishad).
Ideas of me and mine insensibly grow in the mind, even of a renunciate.
Criticism by others, says Swami Rama Tirtha, is a razor which gives him a good shave. It cuts away the beginnings of the beard of egoity, but never harms the true face of Atman.
Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from China to India, is traditionally represented with a beard-unusual in a Buddhist monk. He is called the “bearded Indian”.
There is a famous Koan riddle:
“How has the bearded Indian no beard?”
The pupil has to express his understanding in interviews with his teacher. He has an interview each night and morning. Perhaps he produces one new answer at each meeting.
- “The beard is only an adventitious attribute; in himself the man is the same with or without a beard”.
“Too obvious. Deeper. Go to the universal”.
- “As the beard and nails grow forth from the living man, so this Universe proceeds from the Immortal . . .”
“Don’t be intoxicated with words”.
3. “The beard stands for all attributes. The real truth is attributeless”.
- Truth is infinite . . .”
- “It is inexpressible”.
The teacher picks up his heavy stick;
“No, clearly expressible, clearly expressed”.
- “I cannot leave logic…”
“Then apply your logic. Even by logic you can find the clue to understanding, though it is not our tradition. Now-has the bearded Indian no beard? Go deeply into it. Wrestle with it”.
- “The beard stands for all attributes. Disregard the attributes and he has no beard”.
“Who?” “Why, the Indian teacher”.
“But you said, “Disregard all attributes”, and you have just brought forward two-Indian and teacher. You do not press your own logic. If you pressed your logic, you might approach understanding. You cannot tackle a Koan unless you are prepared to go right through with things”.
- “I cannot see how to proceed”. The Teacher strokes his chin. “Go into it. Make this alone your whole concern in life. Become it. How has the bearded Indian no beard? Nothing but that in the whole world”.
- “Can’t you give me some help? I have no more answers”. “I do help you, but you do not understand. From the beginning again; only this in all the universe: `How has the bearded Indian no beard ?’ “
© Trevor Leggett