Qualities of the wayfarer
It has been mentioned before that Bahá’u’lláh gives three qualities as the sole requisites for fathoming the depths of divine reality: “… purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit.”1
In addition, as a soul progresses, he acquires – or discovers – new qualities within himself as he ascends through the veils that oppress our discovery of Truth.
I find evidence that a soul must embody four spiritual qualities before he can make his way through the Valley of Unity. All of these are to be found in the Short Obligatory Prayer; they are: knowledge, devotion, powerlessness and poverty. The obligatory prayer reads:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth.
There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.
These qualities are certainly meant, not in a materialistic sense, but a spiritual one. By knowledge is meant spiritual knowledge, or insight into divine mysteries; by devotion is meant a whole-hearted praise not comprehended by words, but only signified by them; by poverty is meant spiritual poverty, independent of the possession or lack of material means; and by powerlessness, something other than the absence of mortal sovereignty is meant.
Three out of these four qualities we have already encountered by the time we reach the shores of the Valley of Unity. That is, in the Valley of Search we learn about the nature of poverty, of divesting ourselves of all things: love, hate, knowledge, “whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood”: that we might prepare ourselves to recognize the glory of God’s Manifestation when we encounter Him.
The state of mind resulting from such poverty is one of complete receptiveness, of extreme sensitivity to one’s surroundings and to the evidences of truth or falsehood inherent in any statement. Modern parlance calls this “a learning mode”.
In the Valley of Love, we are taught the secrets of devotion, and the ways of a lover’s hope and despair. And in the Valley of Knowledge, our most recent field of discovery, we are educated in the varied forms and mysteries of divine wisdom. This leaves but one quality unachieved, as found in the daily prayer: powerlessness.
If there really is a relationship here, between our daily acknowledgement and the course of the Valleys leading to Contentment and Wonderment, and from thence to the supernal station of faná, it follows that powerlessness is a spiritual quality we will find indicated in the Valley of Unity.
Already, I have found a few intimations of this theme:
He seeth in himself neither name nor fame nor rank, but findeth his own praise in praising God.
He beholdeth in his own name the name of God; to him, “all songs are from the King,” and every melody from Him.
He sitteth on the throne of “Say, all is from God,” and taketh his rest on the carpet of “There is no power or might but in God.”
For thus the Master of the house hath appeared within His home, and all the pillars of the dwelling are ashine with His light. And the action and effect of the light are from the Light-Giver; so it is that all move through Him and arise by His will.
How can utter nothingness gallop its steed in the field of preexistence, or a fleeting shadow reach to the everlasting sun? The Friend hath said, “But for Thee, we had not known Thee,” and the Beloved hath said, “nor attained Thy presence.”
O thou dear one! Impoverish thyself, that thou mayest enter the high court of riches; and humble thy body, that thou mayest drink from the river of glory, and attain to the full meaning of the poems whereof thou hadst asked.
What sort of powerlessness is this? To address that question, we must inquire into the nature of power, and why people seek it.
Power, in its most basic form, is that which allows us to assert our existence. Being shorn of all power – and I mean all power – is something we ought to be too frightened to contemplate for those accustomed to it. Imagine having no food and being unable to find any, with death the immediate result. Worse is the frustration of knowing that if only we had the means, we could prevail! I think people are even more afraid of powerlessness than they are of death, since to fail from lack of power is one the most deeply humiliating experiences of life.
As “humiliation” is close to humility in its verbal origins, which in turn reflects on our desire to become spiritually humble, perhaps this degradation resulting from insufficient power – or rather the deep awareness of our powerlessness – is not something to be feared, but an aspect of spiritual growth. In one of His prayers, Bahá’u’lláh writes:
Behold me, then, O my God, fallen prostrate upon the dust before Thee, confessing my powerlessness and Thine omnipotence, my poverty and Thy wealth, mine evanescence and Thine eternity, mine utter abasement and Thine infinite glory.2
Even deeper in this vein His states:
He, indeed, is endued with understanding who acknowledgeth his powerlessness and confesseth his sinfulness, for should any created thing lay claim to any existence, when confronted with the infinite wonders of Thy Revelation, so blasphemous a pretension would be more heinous than any other crime in all the domains of Thine invention and creation. Who is there, O my Lord, that, when Thou revealest the first glimmerings of the signs of Thy transcendent sovereignty and might, hath the power to claim for himself any existence whatever? Existence itself is as nothing when brought face to face with the mighty and manifold wonders of Thine incomparable Self.3
We are presented here with our sheer powerlessness to assert our own existence. How can we reconcile our horror at such a fact with its inherent truth? I feel the resolution of this dilemma lies in the Valley of Unity.
Unity in its essence implies an abolishment of “here” and “there”, “then” and “now”, “I” and “He”. To accomplish this, even the veils of love must be burnt and cast away. At the end of the Valley of Knowledge He quotes:
Love is a veil betwixt the lover and the loved one; More than this I am not permitted to tell.
Unity requires that we forgo insisting on any distinct, any separate awareness from God. So also this directly indicates a state of utter powerlessness, since all power thus resides in God. As long we bear any claim to power, or any wish to acquire it, we create the very separation that bars us from realizing this essential spiritual union.
I encourage all to meditate upon your own relation to power, whether manifested as a desire for control, or to achieve, or for the goodwill of others, or by any other means. Then, meditate on what life would feel like without this power, and without any future hope of it. If this results in a deep, despairing loneliness, a sense of shocking futility at the prospect of continuing, please delve into the nature of this emptiness, and why it might exist. If you have a different reaction, I would be interested to hear it, and what you understand from it.
In closing, consider the following prayers for meditation, which relate poignantly to the theme of powerlessness:
Inspire them, O my Lord, with a sense of their own powerlessness before Him Who is the Manifestation of Thy Self, and teach them to recognize the poverty of their own nature in the face of the manifold tokens of Thy self-sufficiency and riches, that they may gather together round Thy Cause, and cling to the hem of Thy mercy, and cleave to the cord of the good-pleasure of Thy will.4
Glorified, immeasurably glorified art Thou, my Best-Beloved! Inasmuch as Thou hast ordained that the utmost limit to which they who lift their hearts to Thee can rise is the confession of their powerlessness to enter the realms of Thy holy and transcendent unity, and that the highest station which they who aspire to know Thee can reach is the acknowledgment of their impotence to attain the retreats of Thy sublime knowledge I, therefore, beseech Thee, by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee, and which Thou hast decreed as the goal of them that have reached and attained Thy court, and by the splendors of Thy countenance that have encompassed all things, and by the energies of Thy Will whereby the entire creation hath been generated, not to deprive them that have set their hopes in Thee of the wonders of Thy mercy, nor to withhold from such as have sought Thee the treasures of Thy grace. Ignite, then, within their hearts the torch of Thy love, that its flame may consume all else except their wondrous remembrance of Thee, and that no trace may be left in those hearts except the gem-like evidences of Thy most holy sovereignty, so that from the land wherein they dwell no voice may be heard except the voice that extolleth Thy mercifulness and might, that on the earth on which they walk no light may shine except the light of Thy beauty, and that within every soul naught may be discovered except the revelation of Thy countenance and the tokens of Thy glory, that haply Thy servants may show forth only that which shall please Thee and shall conform wholly unto Thy most potent will.5
The elusive meaning of poverty
Bahá’u’lláh says in the seventh Valley:
Wherefore, if those who have come to the sea of His presence are found to possess none of the limited things of this perishable world, whether it be outer wealth or personal opinions, it mattereth not. For whatever the creatures have is limited by their own limits, and whatever the True One hath is sanctified therefrom; this utterance must be deeply pondered that its purport may be clear. “Verily the righteous shall drink of a winecup tempered at the camphor fountain.” If the interpretation of “camphor” become known, the true intention will be evident. This state is that poverty of which it is said, “Poverty is My glory.” And of inward and outward poverty there is many a stage and many a meaning which I have not thought pertinent to mention here; hence I have reserved these for another time, dependent on what God may desire and fate may seal.
As He states, poverty is a concept with many stages, and many shades of meaning. If we stop prematurely anywhere along our road, and give in to our conclusions, I believe we will miss out on yet deeper meanings that could inspire us.
In fact, I see one element of poverty as exactly this shunning of conclusions, this divesting ourselves of the belief that “we have found our answer”. Such possessions never serve us, since God forever remains in the realm of the Unknown with respect to our limited vision. And the Unknown is approached through poverty, not acquisition (i.e., emptying one’s cup to receive, not by filling it). Krishnamurti, a modern Indian philosopher, wrote:
Most of us are rich with the things of society. What society has created in us and what we have created in ourselves, are greed, envy, anger, hate, jealousy, anxiety – and with all these we are very rich. The various religions throughout the world have preached poverty. The monk assumes a robe, changes his name, shaves his head, enters a cell and takes a vow of poverty and chastity; in the East he has one loin cloth, one robe, one meal a day – and we all respect such poverty. But those men who have assumed the robe of poverty are still inwardly, psychologically, rich with the things of society because they are still seeking position and prestige; they belong to this order or that order, this religion or that religion; they still live in the divisions of a culture, a tradition. That is not poverty. Poverty is to be completely free of society, though one may have a few more clothes, a few more meals – good God, who cares? But unfortunately in most people there is this urge for exhibitionism.
Poverty becomes a marvellously beautiful thing when the mind is free of society. One must become poor inwardly, for then there is no seeking, no asking, no desire, no – nothing! It is only this inward poverty that can see the truth of a life in which there is no conflict at all. Such a life is a benediction not to be found in any church or any temple.
In the commentary to the “Book of Five Rings” (a Japanese text by a master swordsman in the 1500s), something similar was said most poetically:
To posit “beauty” or “book” or “unicorn” or “chiliagon”6 is to have your mind stop. To think of death when you are faced with your enemy is to have your mind stop. This is why the swordsman must remain detached from “worldly” thoughts… If you can rid yourself of the “stopping mind,” you will achieve Satori7, and experience the moment as if it were your own.
The mind that wants ownership is the “stopping mind”, whereas poverty implies a mind who is reintroduced to the entirety of life at every moment, reborn in every second. The present contains all realities – was it not created by God? – and even in the seed or the leaf there are written all the mysteries of the tree. Poverty is a preparedness to receive whatever inspirations God may wish to send, and to be carried by the flow of each moment into the novelty of the next. The opposite of poverty is wishing to stand against this flow, to own it: even if only conceptually!: to look around and see things from the standpoint of one who is other than they, and thus capable of ownership (and power).
Even in the comments that have been made saying “we already have everything”, I wonder about the existence of “we”. There is neither having nor not having, being nor non-being; the Japanese call this state of dependent reality “ku”. Unfortunately, such simple words are too trite to mean much, so we must continue in our delightful, verbal dance.
So even as I write these words, I erase them from my heart. Like the monks from Laos who create sand-paintings to their best ability, only to throw them into the river afterwards, our wish is to be filled in the moment with a deep love of God’s reality, to let all these understandings course through us in an ever-intensifying expression of praise and gratitude.
It is like the lover bestowing a gift on his beloved: she sees nothing of the gift, only the fact of the giving; and thus they carry each other away in their ship of arms to a sea that refuses any name…
O my friend, look upon thyself: Hadst thou not become a father nor begotten a son, neither wouldst thou have heard these sayings. Now forget them all, that thou mayest learn from the Master of Love in the schoolhouse of oneness, and return unto God, and forsake the inner land of unreality for thy true station, and dwell within the shadow of the tree of knowledge.8