He could have been someone’s grandfather from Sicily, dressed in a three-piece suit, walking with a cane, the bearer of the mischievous yet innocent smile. But, somehow, contained within this merely earthly form was a powerful generator of heart-melting love — a love free of any sentimentality, sanctimony, or possessiveness.
My first encounter with a Sufi Murshid forever changed my idea of what a spiritual master could be. Until that time I had met a number of highly developed human beings from Western and Eastern traditions. I imagined that enlightenment was a state of super awareness, desirelessness, a continual “high.” Not that anyone I met actually embodied that state; but there was the assumption that with enough spiritual practice, which meant sitting still and quiet for long periods of time, supplemented, perhaps, by the continual repetition of some mantra, one would either gradually or suddenly attain such a state.
I was about 17 years old when I left behind religious concepts of doing penance for sins, earning merits through rituals and sacraments, and being rewarded for having dogmatically correct beliefs. By the age of 20, a new universe had opened for me after I had seen through the veil of conventional consciousness, and had a number of experiences of literally ecstatic bliss and white light. But when, at the age of 32, I met a master of love, everything changed for me.
I had been used to teachers who cultivated a respectful distance with their students, preserving that fine edge of awareness that one should bring to the teacher-student relationship. Yes, there was an air of entitlement, of privilege, as if the teacher lived on a different plane of reality, both in public and in private. But with this Ottoman gentleman from Anatolia there was no hint of anything artificial separating us. Suleyman Dede was always ready to go one step further in generosity, service, patience, and affection. When we visited him in Konya, he and his wife, then in their 80s, offered to do our laundry (of course we didn’t let them). If I kissed his hand, he held my head to his chest. If we brought grapes to the home, we left with a watermelon.
During the five years we had with our Murshid (literal meaning “one who guides”), what we learned had less to do with spiritual techniques than with acquiring a worldview. The first impact was somehow so powerful because it was conveyed both with the metaphors and imagery of Rumi and with a tangible vibration of ego melting love. After each trip to Turkey, we would return to Vermont, subtly and deeply changed, until some time would pass, and we would want to go back to Turkey to experience that love once again, to be reassured of its reality, to understand it better, to be able to live it.
Knowing him did not inspire me to become a scholar of religion, or to exercise any sense of ambition in the field of Sufism. He simply inspired us with a sense of inner truth, something which could never be attained without humility and genuine love. He would say things like, “Mevlana sent me from Turkey to spread his message. I am not doing anything. Allah carried me high above the clouds like Gabriel, across oceans. I am not doing anything.” As I am dictating these sentences, and the remote north shore of Maui, with a direct view of the ocean, I have seen four whales leap out of water, starting at the moment that I said the word “Allah”. And I am not doing anything either. Incidentally, it is Valentine’s Day.
Dede was never too serious. In fact he would joke about the huffing and puffing of Sufi zikrs, about people dressing to look pious, and about Westerners and their nearly total lack of manners. But he was never sarcastic or mean; it was just an innocent playfulness. On the rare occasions when he did get angry, it was never for personal reasons, but rather from his sense of how people could corrupt religion for their own self-serving purposes.
People sometimes ask me what is a Sufi? Non-Muslims may want to know if you can have Sufism without Islam. Muslims may want to know whether it is something other than Islam, or whether ordinary Islam is lacking. These are questions that deserve more than easy answers. We’ve learned there’s more than one Islam. Islam, to some, is a collection of divine commands which must be obeyed, rituals that must be carefully observed in order to earn a high place in heaven. It has a certain look—one can dress more or less Islamically—and there are Muslim names. Some may even distinguish Sunni from Shia names. On the other hand there may be an Islam that is virtually invisible, free of identifying outer appearances.
But one day I realized that Sufism is essentially a way of seeing reality. Everybody has a worldview. Most people merely inherit their worldview from the society in which they live, including their parents and educators, and nowadays from the media. I am forever grateful for how Dede effected a shift in my perception of reality. I am convinced now, and more and more every day, that all of existence derives from Love. The most important thing I learned from my Murshid is that everything is in the service of Love. This loving Mercy, Rahmah, imbues every particle of existence. Even the events of our lives are purposefully arranged to reveal this Love to us. in the words of Rumi, “For the lover, nothing is a misfortune,” and “The mistakes of the lover are more beautiful than the pious actions of the mere believer.” Or the great Turkish Sufi bard, Yunus Emre: “Ever since the glance of the saints fell upon me, nothing has been a misfortune.”
Others may experience reality as random, arbitrary, absurd, and even cruel. We acknowledge these bitter truths, too—the devastating griefs, and the immeasurable sense of injustice in the world that cannot be denied. But for us this is not the whole truth, or the highest truth. And nothing that we truly experience is apart from the vast context of Love’s Universe in which an individual soul that begins to trust this Love will be enriched by every experience of Life.
This was the education that began with our Murshid, Suleyman Dede in Konya, Turkey. If I touch my forehead to the ground, if the names of God are on my lips, if I strive to bring the words of Rumi (or, as we call him, Mevlana, “our master”) into contemporary poetry in English, it is only in the service of that Love. This is the universe we have come to live in.