Fresh Rain: An Introduction to the Sufi Way gives a complete overview of the lineage, structure, and style of the Sufi Way. It also includes a clear description of the function and meaning of initiation in the Sufi Way today. The complete text is reproduced on this page. You may also order a printed copy of Fresh Rain, without cost, by going to the Contact Us page to make your request. Remember to include your mailing address in the “Message” field. A Dutch translation in hard copy is also available — you may order one in the same way. (Please note: we can only mail booklets to postal addresses in the US, UK, and Europe.)
P R E F A C E
I think of sufism as the self-cleaning capacity of the human heart, and indeed, of human civilizations. This self-cleaning capacity springs to life whenever the human search for truth and happiness becomes heavy with fixed concepts and beliefs. Sufism, in this view, is like the coyote in Native American lore: humorous, mischievous, overturning the potted plants in the yard, freeing the beauty of spirit that has been held captive by our attempts to tame the unspeakable. It is like rain coming at last on a humid summer afternoon, fresh and fragrant.
But this rejuvenating function does not occur because sufism is some special religious system come to point out how we’ve gotten the search for truth and happiness wrong. After all, the humid summer afternoon and the rain are not separate. The coyote plays with us when we need him, even if we don’t realize we do. Sufism is the natural release of being. Sufism is openness. By itself, sufism is not anything at all. It is simply the current of renewal that breaks free what has become stuck.
Of course, many people would disagree with me. In some places “Sufism” has taken on the robes of a religion, in others it has become a system of moral and spiritual rectitude, in others a complex path of attainment. I have no quarrel with any of these, but for me they miss the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter, as I see it, is openness, clear fresh open wakefulness in this moment, and this one, and this one.
My life has surprised me all along with the many turns it has taken. I didn’t anticipate that I would be appointed the Pir (which literally means “the old one”) of this mystical lineage, the Sufi Way. Great souls have been in this seat before me, and sometimes I feel like a little child who has climbed up on a throne when no one was around, just to feel what it’s like. But, strange to say, as soon as I climbed up, the throne disappeared! No throne! No hall! No kingdom! It’s all make-believe!
This surprise is the self-cleansing, revitalizing response of sufism. It is a beautiful surprise, although at first one can feel bereft of the comforting make-believe. Yes there is this lineage, this mystical order of the Sufi Way, and it shows up in the world with a degree of organization and purpose. I keep quite busy with these things day to day. The paradox is that the whole purpose of this mystical order is to help free us from all identification and attachments, all make-believes, even the idea of belonging to a special sufi order.
You may wonder: what about God, devotion to the Beloved, descriptions of different planes of being and levels of attainment, and all the great mystical ecstasies for which sufis are famous? Are these make-believe?
Yes, they are. To the extent that they are thoughts, they are make-believe. Everything we think is make-believe. The truth — what isn’t make-believe — is unthinkable. That may sound like something very esoteric, but it’s as simple and direct as the freshness of the summer rain, or this moment now. This is the ecstasy of the sufi. It is the unadorned clarity of pure awareness, fresh in itself. There is no way to think about it. The sufi’s devotion to the Beloved is this naturally occurring bliss of awake being that has no opposite. Nothing to think about!
With terms like “make-believe” and “nothing to think about,” one might conclude that the Sufi Way’s style of sufism lacks the discipline of ancient mystic traditions. This is not the case. Releasing make-believe can be hard work. Unlearning patterns of self-concept and conditioned behavior can be hard work. Perhaps the hardest work of all is coming to the recognition that there is no work to do, that the path ahead is open, with no need for signposts. In fact, there is no “path.” Then where are we going?
The two essays in this booklet are intended for those who are interested in learning more about the Sufi Way. As I hope these essays make clear, the open path of the Sufi Way is not about a special system of practices or set of beliefs, or belonging to a kind of spiritual club. Our purpose for being is simply to point out and celebrate with whomever comes to this tent the unspeakable freshness of the rain.
Nada Hermitage, Colorado 2010
C H A P T E R O N E
The Sufi Way: Essence, Structure, Style and Activities
What is the Sufi Way?
The Sufi Way is a mystical order and a community of service. As a mystical order, or inner school, its function is to provide guidance for those who wish to realize the unitary presence of divine reality — the oneness of being — and to support those who are graced with this realization as they learn to deepen and sustain it in their lives. While acknowledging the limitation of language and concepts in this description, the work of the inner school of the Sufi Way finds its reality beyond language in the initiatory transmission of this realization.
As a community of service the Sufi Way’s function is to be available to serve the needs of the community of the Sufi Way, the human community, and the community of life on Earth in whatever ways are most appropriate and possible in the moment. This service is accomplished not by following a moral or religious script but in spontaneous, compassionate responsiveness to each individual and situation that occurs.
We understand our lineage as a chain of initiatory transmission (traditionally called the sil sileh) that has occurred through time and that may continue into the future. The lineage is most often designated by the succession of Pirs or leaders who have guided our order; however, it also implies the trans-historical community of mureeds or students of our order, and more generally the stream of spiritual blessing that unites them.
We recognize the specific roots of our lineage in the teachings of Sufi Inayat Khan (1882-1927), and through him to the Chishti Sufi lineage and the wider influence of Sufi teachings and practice through time. The Sufi Way is a direct continuation of the Sufi Order, the inner school originally established by Sufi Inayat Khan. We also acknowledge the crucial influence of Pir-o-Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan in establishing the Sufi Way as a specific branch (tariqah) of the Inayati Sufi Order, and his unique gifts of mystical and psychological insight and creative modes of teaching that have contributed to the particular style of the Sufi Way.
At the same time that we acknowledge this specific aspect of our lineage (that is, the succession of leadership beginning with Sufi Inayat Khan, followed by Shaikh-ul-Mashaik Maheboob Khan, Pir-o-Murshid Ali Khan, Pir-o-Murshid Musharaff Khan, Pir-o-Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan, Pir-o-Murshida Sitara Brutnell, and onwards), we also recognize that as a lineage of guidance and transmission it is without bounds. In actuality our lineage embraces and receives guidance from countless teachers, saints, prophets, and mystical traditions, and this inclusive embrace is a central and explicit quality of its essence.
Initiation in the Sufi Way most often refers to a short ceremony of welcome and blessing that is performed to mark when a person becomes an initiate or mureed of the order. The candidate must request initiation and be considered ready to receive it. Initiation is a sign of a person’s commitment to the Sufi Way’s path of awakening and service (mureed means “a committed one.”) By receiving initiation in the Sufi Way a person makes himself or herself available, in the words of the ceremony, “to the guidance it offers, to the inclusive lineage of teachings it represents, and to the timeless stream of blessing that is its essence.”
Initiates of the Sufi Way can assume a lifelong connection with a spiritual guide (Murshid or Murshida) or succession of guides. The nature of this connection is best described as a spiritual friendship, and makes possible individual guidance and counseling on the initiate’s path of awakening and service. No monetary relationship is required.
Since the Sufi Way is primarily a mystical training ground and community of service, it seeks to avoid becoming an in-group or spiritual club, remaining open to all who share its purposes and ideals. There is no obligation on the side of the initiate except for sincerity in his or her relation to the two purposes of the Sufi Way — awakening and service. Initiates are free to leave the order, or re-join it, as they wish. In addition, the Sufi Way is committed to inclusivity in view and practice, to direct experience rather than acceptance of traditional doctrines, and avoids whenever possible the use of in-language or jargon. In these ways the order is protected from becoming a cult, and the initiate from becoming a victim of one.
On a deeper level, however, initiation refers to the awakening experience itself. As such it cannot be ceremonialized. The brief initiation ceremony is a symbol of “initiatory transmission” or the “initiatory moment,” which may first occur through the guidance or pointing out of the guide in relation to the student. The teachings and practices of our order support this happening, but do not guarantee it. Typically the initiatory moment in this sense is first experienced as a moment of illumination — surprising, familiar, and indescribable. Once glimpsed like this it tends to be revealed with greater ease throughout the range of life experiences and formal training.
This initiatory transmission is the primary purpose of the Sufi Way. All of its other activities — mystical teachings, unlearning habits of mind, personal counseling and guidance, forms of devotion and communal celebration, musical meditations, healing circles, facilitation of rites of passage, and care for others — find their authenticity and inspiration in the initiatory experience of illumination.
Beyond faithfulness to this experiential purpose, the Sufi Way does not promote any particular doctrine, cosmology, belief system, or moral code, although it may explore and take inspiration from many of these expressions as they appear in the world.
The Structure of the Sufi Way
The Pir of the Sufi Way is appointed (initiated) to this position by the previous Pir, or if this has not been indicated by the time of the Pir’s passing, by the council (Jamiat) of advisors that is in place at that time. The Pir is the only one charged to represent the Sufi Way life-long (unless serious disability requires the Pir to pass this position to another before the end of his life). All others are co-workers who could be asked by the Pir to represent the Sufi Way in whatever function and length of time the Pir finds appropriate.
The Sufi Way as an esoteric inner school also has an exoteric structure, which is the legal body named Sufi Way Ltd., a registered English charity. As a limited company it has its own structure, by-laws, etc., which exist to serve the esoteric functions of the inner school.
There are three levels or roles of initiation within the Sufi Way: students (mureeds), guides or teachers (Murshids and Murshidas), and the Pir. Everyone, including the Pir, is a mureed. Guides are appointed by the Pir. They have the right to initiate, unless the Pir indicates otherwise. Guides typically take on the guidance of individual students, or teaching or training roles, or other creative leadership positions. Ideally, all students and guides have an active relationship with the Pir, or when it is more suitable, with one of the other guides.
The ideal of relations among the Pir, guides, and students is one of friendship and mutuality in furthering the purposes of the Sufi Way: awakening and service. All initiates should be willing to follow the guidance of their guide when they can do so with a clear heart, and be willing to accept the veto of the Pir on matters specifically related to the structure and activities of the Sufi Way.
The Open Path
The Open Path is the name presently given to the inner school of the Sufi Way. Unlike in previous times, the central teachings of our inner school are now open to all who are ready to sincerely engage in this work, regardless of being an initiate. The following description, taken from the 2011 Open Path training brochure, describes the scope of the Open Path work:
It is a path dedicated to the direct experience of our natural state - a state known as Pure Awareness, Selflessness, Nonduality, Oneness, Original Spirit, and by many other names. It is a process of natural enlightenment that belongs to everyone.
To travel the open path does not require following a belief system or a specific set of esoteric practices or ritual forms. What is required is that we relax into the awake openness of our original nature, free from assumptions about who we are or conclusions about what is real. What is required is that we relax from compulsive doing and mental commenting and recognize the immanence of the here-and-now for what it naturally is.
With this unadorned recognition we experience release from our insecurities, self-doubt, and judgments of others. As a result we are able to respond spontaneously to whatever comes up for us with equanimity, creativity, and with a kind heart.
The Open Path Training
The intention of the Open Path training is to introduce you to the direct experience of pure awareness, free from religious interpretations and obligations. Usually this experience begins with short glimpses of its lucid clarity. As these glimpses are pointed out, you learn to open to them again and again. The natural ease they reveal becomes increasingly familiar. This familiarity gradually allows you to sustain and integrate the realization of the natural state in your daily life.
A central aspect of the Open Path training involves noticing the stream of assumptions that accompany our moment-to-moment experience of life, and that obscure recognition of the natural state. These assumptions range from ideas about the nature of reality to the requirements for happiness. Most of these assumptions involve the sense of our being an identifiable entity — a self — who is the agent of choice and action, and whose well-being is dependent on getting the phenomenal world to line up in a certain way.
In the training we directly inquire into the truth of these assumptions, looking for the evidence upon which they are based. This deconstructive inquiry, or “unlearning” as the sufis call it, becomes a natural part of our everyday experience as we proceed on this path of opening. In the process we may experience moments of bewilderment or disorientation as our assumptions about what is real and true are seen through.
There is nothing aggressive about this process, and everyone is encouraged to follow his or her own pace of inquiry. Gradually the mental and emotional constructions that we have taken for granted lose their substantiality. They become transparent. In that transparence we are able to welcome and rest in the stillness and openness that is our original nature.
In the Open Path training we are committed to direct experience rather than studying about the recognition of the natural state. We acknowledge that the mind’s tendency is to make up stories and interpretations about what is real, and that these interpretations give us a measure of security. We try to be gentle with ourselves here, neither blaming ourselves for objectifying our experience with concepts nor exerting tremendous effort in attempts to stop our habits of thinking and conceptualizing.
The key to our “work” in the Open Path is to allow ourselves to relax from the need to figure out what is true. This relaxation - often called unknowing - is not laziness or dreaminess. It is a vivid openness to direct experience of the present moment in all its spontaneity and mystery. While we do explore many exercises and practices, and share many “pointing out” conversations and written material, the heart of this path is not didactic. Our explorations are primarily devoted to evoking each person’s direct experience of the natural state — timeless awareness — without relying upon belief or cognitive understanding to convince ourselves of its presence.
There are a variety of Open Path programs: introductory talks and weekend workshops, retreats (often held in places of great natural beauty), nine-month trainings, and an advanced Open Path course. Students of the Open Path pay tuition fees for Open Path programs and retreats, and when the programs are over there is no ongoing relationship cultivated from the side of the Sufi Way/Open Path, except through web-based contact. However, graduates of Open Path programs often keep in contact and continue their practice. If Open Path students would like to engage in continued contact with the Sufi Way/Open Path, they either attend future programs or ask for initiation.
The Training Ground
The “Training Ground” is the name we use at the present time for continuing open path work with initiates. This is not a codified system of practices and study, but is gauged for each individual according to their request and readiness. For this purpose we use both in-person interviews and telephone contact with the Pir or other guides, the giving of individual practices, meditations, and counseling, and the giving of what are called chillas.
Chillas are “sacred tasks” — and they may take from a few minutes to years to accomplish. There is a great range of chilla types, and they are given according to the initiate’s situation at the time. For example, you may be given the chilla to speak with three homeless people on the street, and in those encounters ask them about the dreams they had for their lives when they were young. Or you may be given the chilla to travel alone to a sacred spot somewhere in the world, and wait there until something significant happens for you. Or you may be given the chilla to arrange a solitary retreat for yourself for a month, and be given a series of practices and study to do while there. Or you may be given the chilla to visit a certain person and ask for or offer them something.
Initiates can request a chilla from the Pir or another guide, or they may have one suggested to them. While no given chilla is obligatory, the initiate is asked to consider it seriously and if they reject it, to be clear about why.
There are no fees for initiates connected with any of the work of the Training Ground, and there is no obligation or expectation that initiates engage with any of these Training Ground activities — they are simply available for students if they wish.
While the Open Path trainings and individual guidance of initiates represents the work of the inner school of the Sufi Way, in its function as a “community of service” the Sufi Way sponsors an expanding range of activities that include the following areas. Attendance in any of these activities is open to everyone.
Rituals and Celebrations. These activities involve the conducting of rites-of-passage (weddings, funerals, memorial services, house blessings, etc.), worships, and other communal celebrations. Leaders of these gatherings receive specific training and are called celebrants.
Musical Meditations. This is a well-developed form of communal musical meditation (sama) led by a trained “sama leader,” and is a central and much-treasured tradition of our lineage. Initiates interested in learning how to lead these musical meditations may take part in classes or individual instruction.
Qawwali. Qawwali is an “occasion” for celebrating mystical, embodied life through music and lyrics. Our approach to Qawwali is participatory and includes creating English lyrics as well as enjoying traditional Qawwali songs.
Healing Circles. These are distance-healing circles, developed in harmony with the nondual trainings of the inner school and are conducted by a trained leader.
The Imaginal. These are programs and avenues for expression in the creative arts: music, poetry, and the visual arts, with an emphasis on the creative process itself.
Caregiving Network. These activities involve personal counseling, end-of-life care, providing support in times of need for both initiates and non-initiates, as well as counseling and care for caregivers.
Crossing Borders. These activities engage the Sufi Way in the more global context of, in Sufi Inayat Khan’s words, “raising us above the distinctions and differences that divide people,” and often involve exposure trips, pilgrimages, and other forms of bearing witness journeys and the promotion of interfaith understanding.
The Inayati Community. These are activities related to maintaining friendly relations with other Inayati orders, and with helping to maintain Sufi Inayat Khan’s shrine in Delhi.
In addition to these activities, students and teachers of the Sufi Way maintain a number of local centers and circles where workshops and talks may be sponsored or musical meditations, healing circles, and practices are shared. These circles are open to everyone.
The Style of the Sufi Way
The Sufi Way has not inherited a specific spiritual culture like, for example, the Zen culture, the Tibetan Buddhist culture, or most Islamic sufi orders. Our lineage is marked by extraordinary diversity of teachings and methodology, and this flexibility is another important aspect of its essence. As Pir-o-Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan remarked, “Sufism always changes and that is how it always remains the same.”
So what does it mean to say that the lineage of the Sufi Way is of the nature of change? How can we relate to or identify with something that is constantly subject to change? Our hope for certainty in our identity, for a sense of belonging to something definable, is constantly challenged by the refusal of our style of sufism to be cast into the mold of an “ism.” Any identity we settle into will sooner or later become a fossil — we recognize this is unavoidable both for institutions and individuals.
Acknowledging the changeableness or non-fixity of our lineage, nevertheless there are ways in which we might describe our style. At this time the following qualities are most evident:
The style of the Sufi Way can be described as poetic in that the language we use, the pointing-out instructions given, and the practices suggested tend to be non-definitive, precisely because the actual event of mystical recognition is inexpressible. Our style is not an art of conclusion-making, but continually tries to sabotage the reifying tendencies of the mind and language while revealing that in the crucible of the here and now nothing actually comes into being.
Neither Western nor Eastern, nor aligned exclusively with any one tradition or cultural context, the style of the Sufi Way’s teachings and practices is appreciative of all traditions while not claiming priority for any of them. This inclusivity makes available to us a richness of resources, teachings, and methods of practice, resulting in a non-sectarian atmosphere and a style of working together that is both flexible and rigorous. In addition, the universality of our style allows us to “speak the language” of whatever culture or context we find ourselves in.
The Sufi Way continually re-invents its styles of presentation and outreach in accord with the context of the historical moment — the available technology, cultural sensitivities, and aesthetic of the times.
To say that our style is “relaxed” means that it tends toward the informal rather than the formal in the atmosphere of our gatherings, although this does not necessarily imply casualness or lack of discipline. Rather there is a predilection for ease, humor, and warm-heartedness.
While the Sufi Way recognizes the function of hierarchy in the traditional authority of the Pir in matters related to the direction and continuity of the order, and also in the role of the Murshid and Murshida in matters related to teaching and guidance, the general tone of our meetings and activities is egalitarian. Our ideal is that all voices are welcome and listened to.
The Sufi Way realizes that the vast majority of mystical and religious traditions and teachings have arisen in a patriarchal context, and that being inclusive in scope the Sufi Way could have the tendency to absorb this pervasive context of patriarchy into our style. Mindful of this, we actively seek to open our lineage beyond the duality of masculine and feminine positions by welcoming, becoming aware of, and enjoying all aspects of being in our work together.
The style of the Sufi Way privileges direct experience over received knowledge. While teachings may at times be descriptive or philosophical, these are offered for their capacity to open up possibilities of mystical recognition and not to substitute for it. Cultivating direct mystical experience is at the essence of Sufi Way style and is our reason for being.
While the Sufi Way understands itself as a “mystical training ground” its style is not other-worldly nor does it value transcendent experience over the experience of embodied human life. Its style is grounded in our humanity and in the exquisite gifts of sensation, emotion, thought, and communion.
Regarding rules of conduct, ethical precepts and moral injunctions, the Sufi Way is humble rather than assertive, and values the kindness that naturally arises from the initiatory experience — the experience of indivisibility — over any attempt to legislate right and wrong behavior. This “style of kindness” is a moral sensitivity, free from the judgmentalism that alienates us one from another in these matters.
Finally, the style of the Sufi Way is informed by beauty and the appreciation of beauty. As the sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi stated, “Beauty is the welcoming openness of the Truth toward us.” It is our guide. We learn to follow beauty in all our actions and offerings, recognizing that the ineffable experience of the beautiful is our resonance with, and our identity with, the Only Being.
C H A P T E R T W O
Initiation: Its Meaning in the Sufi Way Today
The most common definition of the word “initiation” derives from its Latin root: initiare, “to begin.” In the context of spirituality, however, the word “initiation” extends this sense of beginning into two overlapping fields of meaning: one is initiation as a commitment to a relationship, and the other is initiation as an opening into spiritual realization.
The first — commitment — is the sense of the word initiation that includes the profound moment of committing oneself to a life of the spirit, and perhaps even further to a committed relationship with a spiritual guide or body of teachings. The second — opening — is the more experiential sense of the word
initiation that points to the initiatory moment as a living, sacred occurrence that may happen at any time, and though timeless in itself, may be continuous through time.
When we look at the many traditions of religious and mystical training throughout the world we can see there is most often a ceremony marking an individual’s entry into that particular community of spirit. Christians observe baptism and confirmation; Jews the bar mitzvah; Muslims the shahadah; Buddhists taking refuge; Tibetan Buddhists initiations and empowerments, etc. These ceremonies may serve as an individual’s entry into a tradition of teachings, the recognition of a bond between initiate and teacher, or as a means of transmission to the initiate of the lineage’s wisdom and blessing.
Initiation has always served an intimate function within sufism. A person wishing to receive teachings and guidance in one of the many sufi orders or paths is admitted to an order through a brief ceremony known as “taking hand.” Taking hand refers to the moment during the initiation ceremony when the student takes the hand of his or her initiator and symbolically receives the blessing of the lineage and a welcome into its stream.
The Sufi Way is a particular order of western sufism — sometimes referred to as “universal sufism” — that was established in the West 100 years ago by the Indian mystic Sufi Inayat Khan. While sufism is largely known as the mystical school of the religion of Islam, Inayat Khan explicitly founded his universal sufism as not exclusively Islamic. Adherents of all religions, as well as those with no religious affiliation, may find themselves at home in the several non-sectarian branches of universal sufism that have emerged since Inayat Khan’s time. Indeed, as Inayat Khan and many others have pointed out, the inclusive stream of teaching and guidance represented by the name “sufism” can be found existing prior to, as well as parallel to, the religion of Islam.
Sufi Inayat Khan’s View of Initiation
Inayat Khan described initiation as the taking of a step forward with “hope and courage” in a direction one does not know. He understood it as a willingness to let go of habits of self-identification — to be able to live freshly, without preconceptions, open to the moment.
In many ways Inayat Khan equated the path of initiation with being alive: “It is life itself,” he said, “it is the living. Those who live the life of initiation live and make others who come in contact with them alive.”
It is instructive to consider the unity of these two recognitions: that life itself is initiation, and it is embraced by stepping into the unknown. Here we may be able to appreciate how our basic experience of livingness is the essence of initiation. Initiation is the freshness of this moment lived without drawing conclusions about it. We can sense how the whole universe — all of existence — initiates itself in this living, eternal moment. God begins now, always.
This is the reason Inayat Khan, when considering the “aim” of initiation, simply said, “The aim is to find God within yourself. To dive deep within yourself that you may be able to touch the unity of the Whole Being.”
“Diving deep within yourself” is essentially a process of what Inayat Khan called “self-effacement.” “The result brought about by initiation is self-effacement,” he said, “and it is self-effacement which is needed in order to arrive at true wisdom.” What does he mean here? Self-effacement is both the incremental and sudden process of seeing through and letting go of the self-concept, the sense that “I” exist as a separate subject in a world of separate objects. Self-effacement is a recognition that there never was an “I,” simply the projection of one. Much of the training in all mystical traditions is focused on facilitating this central recognition of non-self — not intellectually but in the core of our experience.
There are two additional threads in the rich tapestry Inayat Khan has woven on the subject of initiation. One is the primacy of friendship in the sufi view of initiation, and the other is the role of sincerity. Both of these threads weave together the two aspects of initiation mentioned earlier — a spiritual commitment and a continuous spiritual opening.
Friendship, in this context, refers first of all to the relationship between the initiate and the teacher. Here friendship is not necessarily the typical friendship of two companions in everyday life, but has a deeper sense of a trust and an intimacy that is beyond the personal. As Inayat Khan described it:
People make a great many mysteries out of the name initiation, but the simple explanation is trust on the part of the pupil and confidence on the part of the initiator. I heard from my murshid, my initiator, something I will never forget: “This friendship, this relationship which is brought about by initiation between two persons is something which cannot be broken, it is something which cannot be separated, it is something which cannot be compared with anything else in the world; it belongs to eternity.”
It was in this same spirit that my own teacher, Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan, Sufi Inayat Khan’s grandson, said:
...there is one thing that has always been sacred, and that is initiation. Why? Because initiation is a sort of union, a sort of bond, a sort of transmittal of love between two people which is real. At least to me, having analyzed the realities as much as I can from my limited point of view, I have found that it is real.
I believe the friendship and love they both are referring to is experienced so profoundly because it is fundamentally a recognition — a seeing — of the other as one’s self. That is, the initiatory recognition is a recognition that there is only One Being, not two or many, but One. Even to call it “One” is not completely accurate, since the idea of counting, of number, is irrelevant to the recognition of the spontaneous presence of This that we are.
When the “One” is seen, there is no one and no “One,” just the seeing. This seeing is the essence of the friendship between initiate and guide. It is like a tuning of vibration between them, a tuning that continues to be refined over the years of encounter and training they share.
There is also another way in which the ideal of spiritual friendship is present in sufic initiation. This is the sense in which being initiated “as a sufi” signifies the opening of the initiate’s heart not only to the teacher and to the essence of the teachings, but to all initiates in the order, and beyond to the initiates in all sufi orders everywhere in the world, and beyond that to all of humanity. It is a beautiful ideal, this poetry of sufi friendship. I have experienced it in sufi gatherings in many countries and situations in which I was a complete stranger. The simple fact of my presence in a sufi gathering, even if I did not know the language or the customs, has always been received with expressions of welcome and friendship.
The deeper ideal of being a friend to humanity beyond the boundaries of one’s social, ethnic, religious, or national identity, is at the heart of sufi realization as it seeks to express itself in the world, although it is not always achieved. Throughout his life Sufi Inayat Khan emphasized this ideal above all others. In its relation to initiation he said, “On the path of initiation two things are necessary: contemplation and living the life the sufi ought to live.” Contemplation in this context means the realization of Truth — touching “the unity of the Whole Being” in such a way that “everything one does in life becomes a contemplation.” As for the life a sufi ought to live:
The life the sufi ought to live may be explained in a few words. There are many things in the life of a sufi, but the greatest is to have a tendency to friendship which is expressed in the form of tolerance and forgiveness, and in the form of service and trust. In whatever form one may express that central theme, the constant desire is to prove one’s love to humanity and to be the friend of all.
The final point I would like to mention here that is at the heart of Inayat Khan’s view of initiation is sincerity. We may not think much about this particularly virtue — it may seem old fashioned to our ears, or if we speak of someone being sincere we might even think they are a little self-preoccupied or wooden. But the word can be refreshed when we think of its opposite: insincerity. If we were to engage in an initiation ceremony insincerely, or were insincere in our involvement with someone — a friend or teacher — or with the essence of a teaching, we can easily sense how our insincerity would drain away any possible benefit or blessing from this connection. As Inayat Khan pointed out:
There is one law which applies to everything in life: sincerity, which is the only thing that is asked by a teacher of a pupil, for truth is not the portion of the insincere.
To summarize — and this is only a partial accounting — in Inayat Khan’s view initiation holds within it many living functions:
• it expresses the taking of a step forward into the unknown;
• it signifies opening into the freshness of life in this moment;
• its aim is finding God within oneself;
• its method is self-effacement;
• it empowers spiritual friendship between teacher and student, among all
Sufis everywhere, and with all of humanity;
• its essence is sincerity.
Limitations of the Idea of Initiation
In spite of the refreshing realities represented by the idea of initiation, it can also crystallize into something dense and unhelpful. Perhaps this is a tendency of all spiritual realities as they are necessarily expressed as concepts and translated into the structure of social organizations — from whole religions to mystical inner schools. In the case of initiation we can see this distortion happening in several ways:
• The establishment of in-groups. Initiation into a group is one way of ensuring that the group maintains its identity through time. This of course has benefit for the group’s cohesiveness — the Catholic Church, for example, would lose much of its coherency if there were no catechism and ceremony marking an individual’s entrance into its fold. And yet just this desire for coherency can create polarization and separation — a “them” and an “us” — when in fact the original meaning of the word catholic is “all-embracing.”
The same could be said for sufi orders — a sufi, after all, is simply a human being, not a “Sufi.” There is actually no such thing as a “Sufi,” and the essence of sufism recognizes this. In fact, there is also no such thing as “Sufism.” Despite what you may read in some accounts, there are no dogmas, doctrines, or essential beliefs involved in sufism. There is no “ism” at all. Sufism is simply an openness of heart. If there is too much emphasis on an initiation ceremony as an entrance into a special membership, this can have the effect of enclosing the openness of heart within an in-group identity. This can lead to the dream of a group ego, an identification of us versus them even though at its heart the point of the initiation is to free us from that distinction.
• A related danger of initiation is transference. Of course, there is a temporary utility in an individual transferring his or her ideal of spiritual authority and nurturing presence onto the figure of a teacher and the sense of a venerable lineage. Through this kind of spiritual transference we may open to perceiving a reality vastly greater than thoughts can conceive.
But transference in this realm also carries a potential for limiting spiritual realization rather than opening it. We see countless examples of this in the guru-worship and adulation of spiritual figures throughout history. The individual may become weak, passive, dependent, and subservient in the presence of the teacher. He or she can be caught up in the dynamics of wanting to please and be accepted, both by the teacher and the spiritual community. The initiate may begin to “lean into” the imagined safety and identity of the teacher and the community’s self-assurance, creating the conditions for spiritual inauthenticity and sentimentality, as well as cultism.
• Finally, there is the risk in initiatic organizations of what has been called spiritual materialism.
In many traditions — sufi, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, etc.—there have developed recognized hierarchies of spiritual maturity and authority, often signified by “levels of initiation” or the bestowal of various honorific titles. On the positive side, acknowledging these naturally occurring levels of maturity can facilitate people helping each other along the path. On the downside, people can become attached to attaining “higher” initiations, and jealous of those with more authority or status. The whole sense of initiation as self-effacement and spiritual friendship can become distorted by the illusion of power.
Initiation in the Sufi Way Today
In light of these limitations of the outer forms of initiation — as well as initiation’s profound and continuous function as a spiritual reality — I would like to clarify its expression within the Sufi Way at the present time.
The Sufi Way emphasizes one initiatic condition and that is the mureed — the committed one. One never stops being a mureed, and in actuality one never “advances” beyond this natural commitment. In some sufi orders there is a detailed description of a student’s path of advancement through a system of spiritual levels. My experience is that this kind of description runs the risk of setting up in our minds a sense of distance between the initiate and the “destination” of realization. There is no distance.
On this point I often hear the question: what about the gradations of spiritual maturity and realization that occur during the course of spiritual growth? Why are these gradations not recognized in the Sufi Way? The answer is not complex: different levels of spiritual maturity obviously occur. However, in almost all cases I feel it is not helpful to label them. As mentioned earlier, labeling people’s degree of spiritual realization within a group can easily lead to inflation or jealousy, or to other dynamics of spiritual materialism. Spiritual maturity is its own proof. In any case, it is best to leave these things unspoken. The point is not to emphasize the hierarchy of difference, even though on a functional level it is evident. The point is to continuously invite individuals to open to their natural birthright, and to create a group context in which this is kindly and clearly available.
Within the Sufi Way as it is presently structured there are two exceptions to this non-labeling policy. These two exceptions are the roles of Murshid or Murshida (guide or teacher), and Pir (the head of the order). While these two roles were traditionally known as the two “highest” initiations, I think it is more accurate to simply see them as positions of responsibility. They signify a kind of servanthood rather than an elevated state. The teachers and the head of the order exist to serve initiates and non-initiates in their awakening, and if appropriate, to help them serve others.
Indeed, this is the whole purpose of the Sufi Way. The Sufi Way does not aspire to create a spiritual club with a large membership. As I have said many times, we are simply a training ground. We set up our tents in a place and share with those who gather there the beauty of the moment. Then we pack up our tents and move on. Many people join the caravan for a time and then go their own ways. Others may stay longer, even for their whole lives, finding ways in which they can serve these intimate encampments. All are welcome, and those who feel called to serve in this way share exquisite times of friendship, realization, and adventure.
The ideal of leadership in the Sufi Way is that it can arise spontaneously from anyone as it is needed, in complement to the established leadership of the Pir, the teachers, and others who have taken on roles of service with the Way.
In terms of initiation, all Murshids and Murshidas in the order have the power to initiate. The Pir appoints the Murshids and Murshidas, as well as his or her successor as Pir.
It used to be the case that engagement with the advanced work of the inner school of the Sufi Way was limited to initiates. However, in recent years, with the advent of the Open Path trainings and retreats, and the Open Path style of individual guidance, this has changed. The Open Path work is the inner school of the Sufi Way, and as such it has opened our tent to everyone who comes in a spirit of sincerity. No formal initiation is required to participate in Open Path programs. When a person wishes to receive initiation, he or she simply asks for it.
To ask for initiation is not a casual thing. By asking for initiation, one acknowledges to oneself — and to others, but most importantly to oneself — the centrality of spiritual realization in one’s life. Asking for initiation means you intend to stand before the whole universe to say in all sincerity I commit my life to awakening. This commitment is central to the short ceremony of initiation, which is usually attended only by the initiate and the Murshid.
The ceremony of initiation also symbolizes the initiate’s entrance into a bond of trust, openness, and readiness in relation to the order, the teachings, and the teacher. This bond transcends the personal dimension of the initiate’s life. Through the sincerity of the initiate and the trust established between initiate and guide, the blessing of realization may occur.
It is not that the teacher “transmits” realization to the student — it is not that mechanical. It is more that there develops a field of confidence between them, and in that field the student trusts the teacher’s guidance, and the teacher’s assurance that it is all right to let go — to open the door of the cage of self-identification. While the resultant upwelling of recognition and relief may be experienced as a “transmission” from the teacher, it is actually the initiate’s simple awakening to the natural state of all being, a state that cannot be transmitted because it is already here.
Ultimately, the transmission of realization, the initiatory moment, is grace. It comes, whenever it comes, by grace, unplanned and free. In a way we can understand grace as the fruitfulness of initiation — the blessing of its openness and commitment.
Initiates in the Sufi Way are also welcome to engage in the activities and practices of the Training Ground. These include contact with the Pir and other guides through in-person interviews and telephone work, and the giving of individual practices and chillas.
To conclude it may be best to recall Inayat Khan’s words: initiation is the process of “taking a step forward with hope and courage in a direction one does not know.” Initiation means living freshly, spontaneously, with an open heart and mind. Initiation is always in the moment. It signifies the bright unfolding of life, free of self-preoccupation and self-pity.
We who find this particular caravan, who help to put up its tents, and who share in the training and beauty that happen here, consider ourselves most fortunate. Together we enter the initiatory condition of welcoming and blessing. This is another way initiation is described in the Sufi Way — as a welcome and a blessing. On the one hand initiation welcomes us to enter a stream of spiritual blessing that flows through history. On the other hand it gives us the opportunity to bless by welcoming each moment.