A short while ago I wrote a post about the relevance of god to spiritual development and the understanding of truth. I wanted to write a post exploring one aspect of using god or a divine figure to further one’s own development.
Divine grace is a term used in religious circles to describe the interjection from divinity in the lives of humans to sanctify and assist in their development. A lot of the world’s major religions expound on the importance of divine grace and hold it to be an important step in entering paradise. In Islam, for example, according to Abu Huraira, prophet Muhammad once said,
"None amongst you can get into paradise by virtue of his deeds alone... not even I, but that Allah should wrap me in his grace and mercy.”
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other world faiths have similar teachings.
So, what is so important about the concept of divine grace that it pops up in a lot of these major faiths? At first glance it can seem a rather contradictory and negative concept that enables religious institutions to control and manipulate their followers, because in essence the follower is being told that they can not gain salvation through their own deeds and efforts, that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you must receive grace from god. It is not unheard of for institutions or cult leaders to use this concept to control people, because followers are told that the only way to salvation is through them. They say, if you want to attain the heights that we are teaching, you must do exactly as we say. When this concept is misunderstood, like it so often is, followers can be left open to abuse.
The concept of divine grace is actually a very important one, as it gets to the heart of the problem that seekers face when trying to work on removing that self or ego that we were looking at earlier. During meditation and contemplative prayer the seeker attempts to quiet the mind to observe the thoughts and processes that go on inside. As layer upon layer is removed, the “I” becomes sneakier and sneakier, disguising itself in many different forms. During introspection we face our thoughts, our feelings, our attachments. As these quiet down we face the observer, the listener, the centre. The deeper we introspect, the more levels of “I” we come across. The problem thus arises, how can one attempt to remove the ego when the act of removing is done by the ego? Furthermore, the ego itself being an illusion, how can an illusion get anything done? So we are left with one simple problem: we are attempting to remove the ego by action of the ego. As the philosopher Alan Watts describes, that is like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It is an attempt at futility.
In Pure Land Buddhism, which is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism widely practised in East Asia, the concept of divine grace is used to achieve liberation. The Japanese term used by practitioners is Tariki, which means “other power”. Pure Land practitioners recite the name Amitābha Buddha over and over again as a mantra and meditate on him. The belief is that Amitābha Buddha will gift them with liberation. The practitioner’s own ego does not get involved and through Tariki it is acknowledged that the practitioner cannot achieve anything him or herself.
The Muslim mystics, more commonly referred to as Sufis, follow a very similar idea. The Sufi mystic Sheikh Abu Saeed Abil Kheir writes,
“Until you become an unbeliever in your own self, you cannot become a believer in God.”
Sufis call their faith the way of love. They aim to slowly remove the illusion of self that they hold by falling in love with the divine or god. The more they lose themselves in their beloved, the more insignificant they become, to the point of what they call “Fana”, which loosely translates to annihilation. The self is annihilated in the divine and only the divine remains. Thus the illusion of self is overcome. History is riddled with stories of Sufi mystics who have been killed or executed for openly stating that they are god. The most famous being Mansur Al-Hallaj, a Persian Sufi mystic who was executed for his claims that he was god. In one of his poems he writes,
“I saw the lord with the eye of my heart,
I asked ‘who are you?’
He replied ‘you’”
Most orthodox Muslims took this as heresy, as they saw it as Hallaj claiming divinity and elevating himself to the level of god. The opposite is actually the truth: Mansur Al-Hallaj had awoken to the illusion of self. Hallaj stating that he was god was actually the humblest thing he could say, as he had removed all trace of himself. Mansur Al-Hallaj no longer existed; he was not worth acknowledging, as there was only god. Mansur Al-Hallaj had become a true unbeliever in himself, thus understanding the true nature of god.
Sufis believe that this is not something one can do through their own actions, as this would serve to further solidify the illusion of self. One needs to simply fall in love with the divine to the point where that love penetrates all things including the lover. When that happens, the lover and the beloved realise that they are the same thing.
I will leave you with this small quartet on the Sufi tradition from my poem “The Story of Mine”:
The aeons stand witness to my many beloveds
As I have lost myself in every single one
So beloved wine bearer let me bathe in wine
So that other and I are finally one.
 Sahih Muslim, Book 39, University of Southern California centre for Jewish-Muslim engagement
 Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir - 'Nobody, Son of Nobody' - Vraje Abramian
 Rumi’s metaphysics of the heart - Muhammed Rustom
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!