The Wisdom of Sufic Humor

by Idries Shah

[From "Human Nature" April 1978. ]

Prayers, rituals, and religious exercises may not be the best paths to spiritual development. Sufis have found that jokes can assist the traveler.

Sufism is a rich mystical tradition that arose in the Middle East, a tradition that promotes an experience of life through dealing with life and human relations. Historically, as much research has shown, the Sufis have profoundly influenced Jewish, Christian, and Hindu literature and attitudes. In so doing, the Sufis have played a unique part, for no other body of thinkers has had an analogous effect on this group of major belief systems.

Instead of presenting a body of thought in which one must believe certain things and reject others, Sufis try to provoke the experience in a person. Why provoke or develop experience instead of teaching dogmatic principles or processes? The Sufis assert that knowledge comes before ritual. Rituals may become outworn, may not function as intended when practiced by communities for which they were not designed. If rituals and practices are, as Sufis believe them to be, specially developed psychological methods, only those who have the knowledge that lies behind them can confirm whether historically notable ones are still functional. Hence priority is given to knowledge and understanding over feeling or belief.

Sufis are often compared with the products of other mystical systems, but there is little inward resemblance. For Sufis, there are many more dimensions, more sides, to the attainment of higher consciousness than are found in other systems. Where Sufis insist that ecstatic experience is a contaminated by-product, a distortion of experience that never happens in an enlightened person, other systems often strive for this ecstasy alone. Where Sufis insist that there are all kinds of emotions and that a certain degree of emotion, whether perceived as religious or not, is harmful to spiritual perceptions, others include many who believe that extreme emotionality, when religiously tinged, must be better than anything less intense. Where the Sufis state that there are stages in mystical appreciation, and that one must not attempt the developments that accompany one stage before completing the preparedness that comes from attaining the one before it, numerous other systems make no such provisos.

Sufis see many traditional prayers and processes, today more familiar than ever to most Westerners, as relics of specific, scripted, and measured formulas designed in the past to help people in the past to attain knowledge of the absolute and of their real selves. The existence of repetitious and automatistic chants, phrases, and dances was often pointed out by the Sufis in the past as being the ignorant perpetuation of formerly effective instruments. Technical knowledge, instead of being applied, tends to become sacroscant and used for a low level of autohypnosis and even ideological and community indoctrination: the very reverse of the original Sufic intention.

Sufis maintain that anyone who says that by prayer and exercise he or she will storm the gates of heaven is someone not prepared to prepare. Such an assault essentially tries to abolish the problem of intricacy by denying that it exists: It is like solving the problem of a missing button by sewing up the buttonhole.

Sufis do not stress the primacy of teaching, exercises, or dressing people in odd clothes. For the Sufis, humanity is already full of misconceptions and unsuitable, counterproductive habit patterns that must be attended to before there is a fair chance of progress toward a more objective understanding. "You must empty out the dirty water before you fill the pitcher with clean" is one of the ways they put it.

Since most people's spiritual life is really their emotional-psychological-social life renamed, Sufis start with this aspect when trying to clear up the confusion that is the usual condition of most people's minds.

Their natural allies are modern psychology and sociology, which have pointed out something similar. In the past, Sufis lacked the support of such parallel research and therefore often had to teach in secret. Hysteria was often considered sacred; monomaniacs were sometimes regarded as saints. Only recently have most societies accepted the idea that greed, say, is sure to be greed, even if it is greed for enlightenment; or that emotion, no matter what kind it is, may be harmful.

Sufis traditionally address themselves to the actual social-psychological situation, while those who do not understand the priorities clamor for "spiritual" teachings. Such teachings are useless if floated on top of the psychology of the ordinary individual, however useful that psychology is for limited purposes.

Sanctimoniousness, vanity, and self-will must be set aside in Sufi studies. For this reason, a person's illusions of self-esteem may have to be deflated. Many people cannot endure such an approach, and the result is that some leave and set up synthetic Sufi systems, some turn against the Sufis, and some become servile because they mistake humility for self-abasement. A few, on the other hand, understand what is going on and profit from it. The Sufi has no responsibility to work with people who reject his attitude. In fact, he is incompetent to do so. This rejection is often unconscious, since many would-be learners in reality are seeking social stabilization, comfort, or attention, not knowledge and understanding.

A few examples, taken from contemporary situations, illustrate how great things depend on small beginnings, and how the base is the foundation of the apex. From such entertaining and cynical stories we can also learn something about the illustrative value of ordinary tales and jokes in spiritual studies.

Two hillbillies are talking. One asks the other how little Jake is getting on at school. "Not so well," says the other, "because they are trying to teach him to spell 'cat' with a C instead of with a K."

This story reflects the inaccurate expectations of people who have learned things somewhat askew, as well as the need for context and grounding. In this case, that need is reflected in the fact that it is essential to know the alphabet before rendering a mature judgment.

Another tale shows how beliefs and ideas rooted in the mind often function only for certain purposes -- and do not help the person who suffers from them. This miniature parable is also linked with the effects of vanity.

One woman says to another, "Poor Maisie really has suffered for what she believes in."
"And what DOES she believe in?" asks the other.
"She believes that you can wear a size six shoe on a size nine foot."

For the purposes of Sufism, several elements in the human mind must be aligned before the interference that prevents higher understanding can be stilled. People are always supposing that they can realize their full potential if they can only discover the way, the key, the method, and apply it. But applying the method may involve taking care of all the things within them that are not helping them, such as the habit of applying fashionable though ineffective techniques to a problem. A key works only in a lock.

A friend of mine once went to see the chief of state of a certain country. When they were walking on the grounds of the presidential place, a large and fierce-looking dog tore the loincloth off a Hindu guru who was also present and, barking loudly, cornered him by a wall. Now this guru had the reputation of being able to tame tigers with a glance, but he obviously had no such way with dogs, and he called out to my friend to do something.
The visitor said, "A barking dog does not bite."
"I know that and you know that," the guru shouted back, "but does the dog know that?"

This replay of an old joke presents the structure of a mental state; unless the three elements in a mind are aligned (the guru, the visitor, and the dog, as they are called in this picture of it), the situation is, to put it mildly, unpromising.

This "dog" in the mind is what stands in the way of developing the tiny potential that people are always trying to realize.

The painstaking approach of the sufi may seem tedious, but enlightenment that is too easy is suspect.

Until that potential is strong enough to be realized, it remains latent and so inconsequential that if people were to have their potential removed, the operation would be minor. To increase it would produce not a flourishing plant, but a giant, unviable weed.

In the Sufi system, as in any field of learning, when a person has insufficient information or does not know what questions or actions will yield productive answers or reactions, the situation must be corrected as soon as possible. One quite useful joke incarnates the circumstances that occur when this has been done.

A recruit was asked by a training instructor, "Give me an example of how to fool the enemy."
The recruit answered, "When you are out of ammunition, don't let the enemy know -- keep on firing!"

One of the most important aspects of the initial stages of Sufism is that the learner often has to experience higher perceptions so that he can recognize their individual flavor. Once he can do that, he can stabilize his state when these perceptions occur and can avoid imagining that useless, subjective experiences are spiritual ones. He or she can now seek the flavor again and stabilize it. This is the doctrine called "He who tastes, knows," but the value of the taste depends in part on the irreplaceable presence and activity of the spiritual equivalent of taste buds.

From the Sufis' perspective, derivative or inauthentic spiritual systems are disoriented and they usually have unrecognized problems. Their adherents do not know the parameters or the places to test and perceive because they cannot tell a spiritual from an emotional experience. Neither do they usually realize in what order various experiences have to be stimulated, or even that there is such an order.

The tale about two less-than-brilliant countrymen who hired a boat and went fishing illustrates this situation. The men caught some fine fish. When they were going home, one said to the other, "How are we going to make our way back to that wonderful fishing place again?" The second said, "I thought of that -- I marked the boat with chalk!" "You fool!" said the first. "That's no good. Supposing next time they give us a different boat?"

When they hear it spelled out, of course, many people regard the Sufis' seemingly painstaking approach as tedious. But anything that needs careful attention seems tedious if you look at it impatiently. People who offer enlightenment by easier methods have neither the responsibility nor the problems of people who have made enlightenment a science. Remember that if a bald man gets a free comb with a bottle of hair restorer, it does not necessarily follow that he will ever be able to use the comb for its intended purpose.

The subjective self, which is made up of part ordinary human training, part instinct, and part obsession or conditioning may answer well enough for many purposes, but it must be possible to set aside that self in order to get to the real thing. Sufi teaching often has to resort to indirect methods in order to eliminate the destructive effect of those activities that give great pleasure to the individual but actually inhibit his potential -- as well as annoy everyone else around.

Such a situation is described in a contemporary joke: There was once a small boy who banged a drum all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. Various people who called themselves Sufis, and other well-wishers, were called in by neighbors and asked to do something about the child.
The first so-called Sufi told the boy that he would, if he continued to make so much noise, perforate his eardrums; this reasoning was too advanced for the child, who was neither a scientist nor a scholar. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. The third offered the neighbors plugs for their ears; the fourth gave the boy a book; the fifth gave the neighbors books that described a method of controlling anger through biofeedback; the sixth gave the boy meditation exercises to make him placid and explained that all reality was imagination. Like all placebos, each of these remedies worked for a short while, but none worked for very long.

Eventually, a real Sufi came along. He looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and said, "I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?"

Incidentally, a lot of diversionary activity such as musical assemblies, dressing up, and incantations -- well but erroneously know in the West and among ignorant people in the East as "spiritual" or "esoteric" -- originates in attempts to satisfy the demand for "real mysticism" by unsuitable people (or by suitable people who are thinking wrongly). Sometimes the only shortcoming is that they lack the right information.

One of the subjective attitudes that effectively keeps one from the possibility of mystic learning is a mind filled with thwarted acquisitive aspirations. People are greedy, but they are told that they should not be. So, all unknowing, they sometimes render avarice in the form of greed for "higher things." There is an excellent Western story that freezes this situation on a lower, illustrative level, allowing us to see the relative absurdity of meanness and also its comparative unproductivity.

There was once a miserly man from Aberdeen who was learning golf. His teacher suggested that his initials be put on the ball, so that anyone who found it could return the ball to the clubhouse where he might later claim it. The Aberdonian was interested. "Yes,' he said, "please scratch my initials, A.M.T., for Angus McTavish, on the ball. Oh, and if there is room, add M.D., as I am a physician." The instructor did this. Then McTavish scratched his head. "While you are about it," he said, "you might as well add, 'Hours,11:30 to 4' "

A lot of the stories that seem to be aimed against gurus are not really antiguru. They are only meant to remind us of ways in which real teachers can be distinguished from practitioners who are interested only in gathering tribes of followers.

As an example, there is the one in which two mothers talk about their sons.
One says, "And how is your boy getting on as a guru?"
"Just fine," replies the second. "He has so many pupils that he can afford to get rid of some of the old ones."
"That's great," says the first. "My son is getting on so well that he can afford NOT to take on everyone who applies to him!"

One of the values of such narratives is seeing whether gurus themselves can laugh at these stories; if they cannot, then they should not be considered spiritual teachers at all, because they are so insecure. Paranoid behavior, too, is often seen in the manifestation of hostility towards such tales, when the listener thinks that he or she is being challenged by what sounds like an antiguru story. Would-be disciples who do not enjoy such jokes are often rejected by genuine Sufis.

Greed for higher things is as great an obstacle to mystic learning as is greed for money or material possessions.

There is another story that infuriates some second - rate teachers: One guru tells another, "Always say things that cannot be checked." "Why?" asks the second guru. "Because," replies the first guru, "if you say 'Mars is peopled by millions of undiscernible beings, and I have met them,' people will not dispute it. But if you say, 'It is a nice day today,' some fool will always reply, 'But not as nice as it was yesterday'. And if you put up a sign saying WET PAINT, who will take you at your word? You can tell how few by the number of finger marks the doubters leave on it."

Rationalizations whereby people interested in psychological and spiritual things maintain, at the expense of truth, their version of how things are, produce situations in which these people have to be shown up as absurd.

An old tale told in India has it that, on the evening of a wild-duck shoot, the follower of a guru went to get his blessing. This was no vegetarian guru, but a Tantric type with more than a dash of Kali, the goddess of destruction, in his thoughts. The blessing was given, but no ducks appeared at the shoot.
The disciple went back to the guru the next day. The guru asked him how he had got on: "I expect you shot many ducks?" "No," the disciple answered, "but it was not the shortcoming of my aim, but rather that Mother Kali had decided to be merciful to the birds."

Western psychology will not advance very far in the East while such mental mechanisms as rationalizations continue to be described as recent Western discoveries, for this knowledge has been common in the East for centuries. If we do not admit this, we miss the meaning of many valuable Eastern teachings.

People often express surprise that Sufis have for at least a thousand years insisted that scientific and scholastic methods are often blind to their own limitations. You may have to take the Sufis' word for this initially, but you can, little by little, taste the disabling subjectivity of many people who are often regarded as objective or scholarly repositories of wisdom.

One absurdity, advanced by confused thinkers, is that spirituality or mystically minded people cannot think lucidly.

I do not say that they are all like this, or that you will find in life an exact counterpart to the following joke, but it will enable you to identify the tendency when it crops up.

The scientist says to the logician, "I have determined statistically that all geniuses are totally vain, even if they oversimplify and don't talk much."
The logician answers, "Nonsense. Geniuses vain and terse? What about me?"

The absurdity of many assumptions of society often obscures the fact that these assumptions exist only to please those who make them, and are not meant to take anyone or any idea a stage further.

Mental mechanisms that are recent discoveries of Western scientists have been known for centuries in the East.

Sufis, like others in the field of education, use assumptions either as launching pads or as something to be challenged, not as dogma.

Look from a different perspective, for a moment, at what people regard as laudable and altruistic acts and thoughts.

One day a Westerner was watching a Chinese gentleman burning bank notes before the tablets of his ancestors. The Westerner said, "How can your ancestors benefit from the smoke of paper money?"
The Chinese bowed courteously and said, "In the same way in which your dear departed relatives appreciate the flowers you put on their graves."

Yet similar assumptions drench our spiritual thinking.
So, the Sufis say, there is nothing wrong or bad in doing something that gives you pleasure. But to think at the same time that the act is doing something else is, at best, irrelevant to human progress. All human progress comes through NOT thinking that one thing is, in fact, another; that is, through right judgment.

You can find lucid people who really can tell one thing from another, and are in fact able to separate the two. But generally when they manifest this ability in the form of behavior, people tend to think that they are either great sages, humorists, or idiots. My three collections of Nasrudin jokes give many such examples, partly to illustrate this characteristic and training, and partly to help you make it, as it were, your own property.

Americans have an excellent home-grown example of lucidity in a tale about the statesman Daniel Webster. He was being sued by a butcher for a debt when he ran into the butcher on the street. Webster immediately asked the butcher why he had not come for any order lately. The butcher said he had thought that Webster would not, under the circumstances, want to deal with him. But Webster, showing this perfectly lucid attitude said, "Tut, tut. Sue all you wish -- but, for Heaven's sake, don't try to starve me to death."

The argument that spiritually or mystically minded people should not think lucidly, a proposition often advanced by confused thinkers, is an absurd misunderstanding. A confused person will, and often does, choose a confused and confusing series of inapplicable techniques to approach higher understanding.

The wisecrack aspect of jokes is, of course, a degeneration, perhaps due to surfeit -- which is one reason why Sufi masters have actually given and withheld permission to jest from their disciples, as Ghazali reminds us in a major book written almost a thousand years ago.

There are affinities among the wisecrack, ignorance, and the stream-of-consciousness approach that I do not yet find clearly understood in the West, though I came across a combination of all three when I last went to Jerusalem.

A man with a curio shop was trying to sell to a female tourist what he described as "a very important embossed-metal picture of the Last Supper." I stood riveted to the spot when I heard her say, "What's so wonderful about the Last Supper, anyway? Now if you had a picture of the First Supper, that might be something. Besides, when is the Next Supper?"

Rationalizations, association of ideas, and lack of humor often go together and can usually be disentangled.

I was once standing at a corner of the huge market street called the Bhindi Bazaar in Bombay, when a bus stopped and a troop of determined Western seekers-after-truth descended and clustered around an old man who was squatting on the side of the road. They photographed him and chattered excitedly. One of the visitors tried to start a conversation with him, but he only stared back, so she remarked to the guide, "What a sweet old man; he must be a real live saint. Is he a saint?"
The Indian, who had a sense of humor as well as an interest in not wanting to tell a lie and a need to please his clients, said, "Madam, saint he may be, but to us he is the neighborhood rapist."
She immediately replied, "Oh, yes, I've heard of that; it involves their religion. I guess he must be a Tantrist!"

In Sufi study and understanding, ignorance is crippling, paranoia is ridiculous, right alignment and respect (for materials, for students and teachers) are essential; servility and vanity are harmful. The proper focus is almost everything. A comprehensive understanding is essential. Offering premature "enlightenment" is irresponsible. Paradoxically but inalienably, the fact is that only by wanting to serve each other can the two elements -- the teaching and the learning -- be harmoniously, and therefore correctly, brought together.