Death - Die before death
by Hazrat Inayat Khan
Hazrat Inayat Khan was a Sufi master of the Chishti order who helped demystify the mystical way of the Sufis. He brought the teachings to the West in early 20th century, where he initiated many into the Sufi path. His teachings are characterised by their simplicity of language and depth of wisdom. An accomplished musician and veena player, Hazrat was founder of the ‘Sufi Order of the West’ (now Sufi Order International). The following extract is from ‘The Purpose of Life’ that appears in The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan and is reproduced with permission.
The desire to live is not only seen among human beings but it is also seen continually working through the most insignificant little creatures creeping on earth and living in the ground. When one sees how even the smallest insect wishes to avoid any pursuit after it and how it seeks shelter against any attempt made to touch it, fearing that its life may be taken away from it, that shows that even the smallest creature in the world, in whom man cannot find a trace of mind, has a desire to live. It is this desire that, developing in the lower creation in many and varied aspects, shows in fear, in the tendency to seek shelter, in the intelligent way of looking around as the hare does in the fields, as the deer that is continually careful to protect itself from other animals. This desire developed in man, who shows still greater phenomena of intelligence.
War and peace are brought about with the desire of living; the cause behind war is the desire to live; the cause of peace is also the desire to live. There is not one soul living on earth who has not the desire to live. Yes, a person most distressed, in a mood of unhappiness, will say at the moment, ‘I would rather not live; I seek death’. But it is not the normal condition. One may say, ‘why is death not a desirable thing, since it is only a getting rid of the dense body?’ But can we not turn the dense body into a light body? Even matter can turn into spirit. If the divine blood begins to circulate through the veins of a person, this body is no longer a heavy body; it becomes as light as vapour. It is heavy when the weight of the earth has fallen upon it, but when the weight of the earth is taken away from it, it is lighter than the air.
‘But,’ one may say, ‘is not death an increase of life?’ It is another phase of life. The body is a complete instrument; why should we not make the best of it? Why must one hasten death, if one can be here and do something worthwhile? Sometimes one longs for death because one does not know what one is to do here; one is not yet acquainted with the purpose of life; it is that which makes one long for death.
Every moment in life has its mission; every moment in life is an opportunity. Why should this opportunity be lost? Why not use every moment of one’s life towards the accomplishment of that purpose for which we are here? Bestirring ourselves to make the best use of every moment of life will give such happiness to a person that he will not wish to go. Even if the angels of death came, he will say, ‘let me stay here a while longer; let me finish something which I would like to finish’.
That must be the attitude. When a person is in his normal condition of mind, his innermost desire is to live. This shows that man has acquired all other desires after coming on earth, but this desire to live he has brought with him on earth. Only that, by not understanding the meaning of this desire, its nature and character, its secret, he submits to it being broken by what is called death.
If the desire to live is his innermost desire, if it is a divine substance in him, then there is a possibility of the fulfilment of this desire. But when one does not dive deep into the secrets of life, without the knowledge of life and death, one becomes subject to disappointment, and that disappointment is death.
One may say, ‘if the desire to live is natural, would it not be better to live and prolong the youthfulness of body; and how can that be done?’ There are three aspects the Hindus have personified as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—the Creator-God, the Sustainer-God, and the Destroyer God respectively. In retaining youth there arises conflict between the Creator-God and the Destroyer-God, because the Destroyer-God is destroying, the Creator-God is creating. If the Creator-God in you is stronger, then he will win a victory over the Destroyer-God. Nevertheless, there is nothing which is void of beauty in this world. If the soul has received the divine blessing, it will enjoy every aspect of life.
Infancy is interesting, childhood has a beauty, youth has its spirit, age has its knowledge, dignity, wisdom and beauty. There is no note on the piano which has not its particular action, which has not its particular part in the symphony of nature. Whether it is the seventh octave lower or the seventh octave higher, whether it is sharp or flat or natural, whatever key it is, as soon as the harmonious hand has touched it, it creates harmony, it makes of it a symphony. And so we are all as notes before that divine Musician, and when His blessing hand touches, whatever be one’s life’s condition, whether child or youthful or old or young, the beauty will manifest and add to life’s symphony.
The mistake is that man wishes to live through the mortal part of his being; that is what brings disappointment. For he knows only that part of his being which is mortal, and he identifies himself with his mortal being. Hardly one among thousands realises that life lives and death dies. That which lives cannot die; what dies will not live; it is only a phenomenon of life that makes even that which is not living, for the moment, a kind of illusion of life.
When we study the dead body—the greatest study we can make—we see that no sooner has life left it than the whole charm of the body has gone. Why is there not that attraction which has always been there? Why is the body void of all beauty, magnetism and attraction? Why do those who loved that person retire from his dead body, wish to remove it? What has gone from it, what is dead in it? The part which is subject to death, is dead; the life which lived in it, is still alive. This body was only covering a life, now that life has left. But the living being is not dead; it is that mortal cover which was covering that life that is dead. Is it not, then, the absence of this knowledge which gives a person fear of death?
What is death after all? There is the saying of the Prophet (Mohammed) that the illuminated souls never fear death. Death is the last thing they fear. And yet one does not fear for anything more than for one’s life. One could sacrifice anything in the world, wealth, rank, power or possession, if one could live. If living is an innate desire, then it is most necessary to find the process, the way how to get in touch with that real part of ourselves which may be called our being, our self, and thus to become free from what is called mortality.
It is the ignorant one who knows only the ground floor of his house; by going to the first floor of his house, he thinks that he is dead; he does not know that he has only left the ground floor and is going to the first floor. Why does this ignorance exist? Because he never tried to go to the first floor. The ground floor is quite enough for him; the first floor does not exist for him, though it is a floor in his own house.
Is immortality to be gained, to be acquired? No, it is to be discovered. One has only to make one’s vision keener, in other words, to explore one’s self; but that is the last thing one does. People are pleased to explore the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt, in order to find mysteries, regardless of the mystery hidden in their own heart. Tell them about mystery existing outside themselves, they are delighted to explore it.
But when you tell them to see in themselves, they think it is too simple; they think, ‘I know myself. I am a mortal being. I don’t want to die, but death awaits me’. Difficulties they make; complexities they raise by their own complex intelligence. Even if there is a door before them, they say, ‘No, I do not look for it’. If a door opens before them, they do not wish to go out by that door; they prefer to be in the puzzle. One who is thus enjoying the puzzle is horrified when he sees the way out.
The saying of the Prophet is, ‘die before death’. What does it mean? It does not mean, ‘commit suicide’. It only means, ‘study the condition of death’. One need not die; play it; one should play death and find out what it is. The whole mystical cult is that play, playing death. That play becomes the means by which to understand the mystery hidden behind life.
Man constitutes in himself spirit and matter. What is matter? Crystallised spirit. What is spirit? The original substance. Spirit may be likened to running water; matter to ice. But if there is water and ice, the water will run, the ice will stay where it is. It does not mean that ice will not return to its original condition; it will; but its time has not yet come. Therefore the water will proceed first, and the ice will stay where it is; the substance stays where it is, but the life, the spirit, passes away. What is necessary, before, for a person, is to make the spirit independent of the mortal covering, even if for a moment. By that the fear of death naturally vanishes, because then one begins to see the condition after death here on earth. It is this physical cover which has imprisoned, so to speak, the soul in it; and the soul finds itself in prison and it cannot see itself. What it can see is the cover.
Rumi explains this beautifully in a poem which he has written on sleep, because it is in sleep that the soul naturally becomes independent of this mortal garb. He says:
‘Every night Thou freest our spirits from the body/ And its snare, making them pure as rased tablets./ Every night spirits are released from this cage,/ And set free, neither lording it nor lorded over./ At night prisoners are unaware of their prison;/ At night kings are unaware of their majesty./ Then there is no thought or care for loss or gain;/ No regard to such a one or such a one.’
The continual longing of the soul is for freedom from this imprisonment. Rumi begins his book, the Masnavi, with this lamentation of the soul, to free itself. But is it to free the soul by actual death, by suicide? No! It is by playing death that one arrives at the knowledge of life and death, and it is the secret of life which will make the soul free.
The different planes of existence, which are hidden behind the cover of this physical body, then begin to manifest to the person who plays death. All different ways of concentration, of meditation, which are prescribed by the teacher to the pupil, are the process of playing. In themselves they are nothing; they are a play.
What is important is what one finds out as an outcome of that play, what one discovers in the end. Of course, the play begins with self-negation. And a person who likes to say 20 times in the day, ‘I’, does not like to say, ‘I am not, Thou art’. But he does not know that this claim of ‘I’ is the root of all his trouble.
It is this claim that makes him feel hurt at every little insult, by every little disturbance. The amount of pain that this illusion gives him is so great that it is just as well he got rid of it. But he would give up his last penny but not the thought of ‘I’. He would hold it; it is the dearest thing. That is the whole difficulty and the only hindrance on the spiritual path.
Often people ask: “How long has one to go on the spiritual path?” There is no limit to the length of this path, and yet if one is ready, it does not need a long time. It is a moment and one is there. How true it is, what the wise of past ages said to their followers: “Do not go directly into the temple; first walk 50 times around it!”
The meaning was—first get a little tired, then enter. Then you value it. One values something for which one makes an effort. If a government should tax the air one breathes, people would protest against it. Yet they do not know that there is no comparison between the air and the money they possess. The value of the one is incomparably greater than of the other. And yet the most valuable things are attained with least effort. But one does not realise their importance. One would rather have something which is attained with a great effort and in the end may prove to be nothing.
It is simple to think, ‘why should every being have that innate desire to live, if continual life is impossible?’ For there is no desire in the world which has not its answer. The answer to every desire is somewhere; the fulfilment of every desire must come one day. Therefore, without doubt this desire of living must be fulfilled. And the fulfilment of this desire is in getting above the illusion which is caused by ignorance of the secret of life.
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