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Sufi Zen Koan from Alice in Wonderland

what you
would seem to be --

if you'd like it put more simply --

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise
than what it might appear to others,
that what you were or might have been
was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared
to them to be otherwise.

- Dialogue of the Duchess, Alice in Wonderland

This statement from Alice in Wonderland written by Charles Dodgson under the pen name Lewis Carroll is such a zen-like koan that's pregnant with inner message on the mystical path, specially about the sufi adab (spiritual etiquette) or manner of living in the world, among common folk.

The sufi way doesn't recommend going away from people or living an ascetic life away from society, but to be exactly in the society, being useful to others yet living a life of complete turning towards One. To be among people, yet to be not caught with the people. To be in the world yet to be above it and this quote points exactly how to be in the world, with no pretension or egoic imagination to be different than those among whom one is situated to live in the first place.

Great Shadhdhuli saint and brilliant writer Ibn Atallah, may God be pleased with him, wrote in his Hikam, "Bury your existence in earth of obscurity, for whatever sprouts forth without having first been buried, flowers imperfectly."

On a more deeper level, the quote in Alice in Wonderland above speaks to what the sufis call living in sobriety that clothes or hides the inner state of ecstasy. Once a certain threshold is reached in the journey, its always better to "Be what you would seem to be."

Regarding this sufi adab and being in the world, Radha Mohan Lal, the sufi master of Naqshbandiyya Mujaddidiyya said beautifully:

"We sufis are lovers of beauty. Because we have renounced the world, it does not mean that we should look miserable. But neither do we want to stand out and attract undue attention. We do not wear special robes, because that might create a barrier between other people and us. We behave like others and dress like others.

We are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. We are smart with smart people, simple with simple ones, but we never give bad example. We will always lead a life of the highest morality. We will always obey the laws of the land in which we live; but in reality we are beyond the laws of men, for we obey only the Law of God. We surrendered somewhere; we are completely free!"

- Bhai Sahib, Radha Mohan Lal. the sufi master of Naqshbandiyya Mujaddidiyya lineage from India, may God sanctify his station.

The unsolved mystery

Caterpillar: Who are YOU?

Alice: This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. I -- I hardly know, sir, just at present -- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

paradox at the heart of it all

Zen master John Daido Loori of the Zen Mountain Monastery uses this in his teaching:
The caterpillar said, "One side will make you grow bigger and the other side will make you grow smaller"

"One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself.

"Of the mushroom," said the caterpillar.

Alice looked at the mushroom, trying to make out which were the two sides of it, as it was perfectly round.

Qul: Huwa Allahu Ahad
Say: The Essence is One

The White Queen: Can you do addition? What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?

Alice: I don't know. I lost count.

One day a dervish was reading these two lines from Alice in Wonderland and burst into laughter and in ecstasy slowly tears rolled down his cheek. The question from White Queen spoke to his heart the primordial mystery and the response of Alice saying, 'I lost count' reminded the mystic state of being lost in bewildered state in the dazzling effulgence of One. What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one ... ?

What can you answer then but to say, I don't know! I am lost!

Wheresoever you turn, is the Face of One!


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Technology of the Heart: Sufi Zen Koan from Alice in Wonderland
Sufi Zen Koan from Alice in Wonderland
Technology of the Heart
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