I want to use this post to explore the following quote by the 9th century Persian mystic Bayazid Bastami:
“This thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.”
As humans, we are all seekers. We seek to acquire money and goods, we seek out friends and lovers, we even seek out God. But the key question most of us don’t ask ourselves is: what exactly is it that we are seeking? The answer is that we are actually just seeking happiness and comfort. Humans will always naturally go towards happiness and well-being. We want a brand new car because we believe it will make us happy. We want a new job with a pay rise because we believe it will make us happy. This happiness is firmly rooted in our image of who we believe we are and what we want to project out to the world.
When we begin to look inwards and start to be mindful, we see that our attachment to material things does not satisfy our need for happiness and comfort, and this can lead us to seek for spiritual gratification. Many seekers get stuck in this stage for a very long time. However, those who investigate this seeking further will see clearly that the reason for seeking has not changed; all that’s changed is the thing being sought. On one end of the scale, our desire for a new car is rooted in further securing and glorifying our own self-image. On the other end of the scale, our desire to achieve enlightenment is rooted in the same thing. Nothing has changed.
The above quote by Bastami is a good example of the paradoxical statements found in spiritual traditions that work as riddles and wordplays to direct a seeker to personal development and truth. It may seem that the statement is contradicting itself, but that is only true when examined on the surface. I’ll help explain this by breaking the statement down.
“This thing we tell of can never be found by seeking”
The “thing” that Bistami is referring to is “Fana”, the Sufi term for the annihilation of self in the beloved, God. This can be likened to what Buddhists call “Enlightenment.” Simply put, Bistami is saying that we cannot get rid of the self by wanting or seeking to get rid of the self, because this wanting or seeking is actually rooted in the self’s need to further solidify itself. It is simply a statement of truth.
The second part of the statement seems to contradict the first:
“Yet only seekers find it”
The understanding and the clarity that one needs to arrive at to be able to see the first part of the statement as an evident truth only comes after years of struggles down dead ends and years of frustrated seeking. One needs to seek to be able to arrive at the point where they understand that seeking is the problem. But one cannot arrive at this point without time spent seeking.
A clearer way to phrase Bistami’s statement could be the following:
“The ultimate truth cannot be understood by seeking, but we need to seek to understand this smaller truth.”
The true message here is: don’t try to be something you are not. Keep seeking for enlightenment. When the day comes that you can clearly see why seeking is futile, that is when you are already enlightened.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!