A Zen Gloss on Baha'u'llah's Commentary on "He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord"
Juan R.I. Cole
Department of History
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003
[He is God, the August, the Beautiful.]
"How wondrous is the unity of the Living, the Ever-Abiding . . . [Hadrat-i
la yazal]--a unity which is exalted above all limitations, that transcendeth the
comprehension of all created things!1 He hath, from everlasting, dwelt in His
inaccessible habitation of holiness and glory, and will unto everlasting continue to
be enthroned upon the heights of His independent sovereignty and grandeur. How
lofty hath been His incorruptible Essence [dhat-i munazzahash], how completely
independent of the knowledge of all created things, and how immensely exalted
will it remain above the praise of all the inhabitants of the heavens and the earth!"
In Zen terms, I would suggest that the Transcendent and Unknowable about which
Baha'u'llah is here talking has a number of very rough analogues.
Among them are absolute essence (bhu:tatathata:) and Dharma-nature (dharmata:)
[Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment, p. 109]; also "Ku" or "Emptiness" in Japanese,
from the Sanskrit S'unyata. "Now, ku is not mere emptiness. It is that which is
living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality or personality--the
matrix of all phenomena." (Kapleau, *The Three Pillars of Zen*, p. 74). I do not
mean the Theravadin or even the Indian Mahayana connotations of Emptiness, but
that meaning with which the Chinese and Japanese traditions tended to invest the
term. As Conze notes, "When in China Buddhism fused with Neo-Taoism,
"emptiness" became the latent potentiality from which all things come forth, and it
became usual to say, in a cosmological sense, that all things go out of emptiness
and return to it." ( Buddhist Thought in India, p. 61).
In Baha'i philosophy, Emptiness or the Void (`ama') is a term signifying the
Absolute Truth (al-Haqq) in the realm of unicity (ahadiyyat) or of quintessence
(hahut). Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha basically accepted Ibn al-`Arabi's schema, of
standpoint epistemologies, wherein there are metaphysical levels and propositions
are only true on some levels but not others. On the ultimate plane of *Ahadiyyat*
or Unicity, the Absolute Truth is completely beyond attributes, and is alone, with
nothing beside It, all of which seems to me very close to what I can understand of
some Zen ideas of Emptiness or Ku.
`Abdu'l-Baha in his commentary on "I was a Hidden Treasure" says that the
Unseen Essence (ghayb-i huviyyat) on the ultimate plane of Unicity (ahadiyyat) is
such that Its attributes are identical to Its essence, and of this station the Imam `Ali
said, "Perfect belief in divine unity requires a denial of all His attributes." This is,
of course, the station in which God is the *hidden* treasure, and is
Undiscoverable. [Moojan Momen, "`Abdu'l-Baha's Commentary on the Islamic
Tradition: `I was a Hidden Treasure.' *Baha'i Studies Bulletin* vol. 3, no. 4
(December 1985):8-10; Vahid Rafati's valuable article on Ibn al-`Arabi and the
Baha'i Writings in *Mahbub-i `Alam* shows how the Master's stance here agrees
with ash-Shaykh al-Akbar's].
As for `Ama', it is used throughout Baha'u'llah's Writings. In his study of
Baha'u'llah's poem, "Rashh-i `Ama'", revealed in the Siyah-Chal, Stephen Lambden
says of `ama', that it "is derived from the Arabic root `amiya--'to become blind', 'to
be obscure.' It could thus be translated "blindness," "secrecy," or "obscurity" (or
the like) though it also bears the sense of "cloud" or "heavy and thick clouds"
(which hide and obscure). Since in various Sufi and Babi-Baha'i texts `ama' is
indicative of the depths of God's interiority, the hiddenness of His essence, the
enwrapped and beclouded locus of Divinity, it has been translated "Cloud of
Unknowing" . . . [note:] the title of an anonymous 14th century English mystical
treatise. ["An Early Poem of Mirza Husayn `Ali Baha'u'llah: The Sprinkling of the
Cloud of Unknowing," *Baha'i Studies Bulletin*, vol. 3, no. 2 (September
That the Absolute Truth is Inaccessible and pure Unknowability explains why the
seeker must strive for the Seventh Valley, of self-extinction (fana'), for annihilation
of the self replicates on the plane of creation (khalq) the extinction of all
phenomena and attributes in the Absolute Truth on the plane of Unicity.
"From the exalted source, and out of the essence of His favor and bounty He hath
entrusted every created thing with a sign of His knowledge, so that none of His
creatures may be deprived of its share in expressing, each according to its capacity
and rank, this knowledge."
Literally, this says that from the exaltation of pure magnanimity and the sublimity
of unadulterated generosity, He reposited a sign--of mystical insight into Himself
(ayih-'i `irfan-i khud)--in all visible things, so that no thing should be deprived,
each according to its plane, of mystical insight into God.
`Irfan in Sufi and Shi`ite mysticism is mystical insight. Baha'u'llah here says that
every existent in the cosmos is endowed with the sign of mystical insight into the
Absolute Truth. I find this diction very interesting and challenging. Insight is a
type of knowledge; this knowledge *is present* in all things. And it is present not
as a thing or essence or capacity but as a *sign*. A sign is that which points to
something else. The Greek is semeia. The study of signs as systems of
communication is called semiotics. Baha'u'llah is saying that the cosmos and
everything in it is theo-semiotic. It sign-ifies mystical insight into the Absolute
It seems to me that this idea is analogous to
Dogen's Zen notion that all things, not just sentient beings, but all things are
"In Dogen's understanding, the Buddha-nature is not a potentiality, like a seed, that
exists within all sentient beings. Instead, all sentient beings, or more exactly, all
beings, living and nonliving, *are* originally Buddha-nature. It is not a potentiality
to be actualized sometime in the future, but the original, fundamental nature of all
beings." - Masao Abe, *A Study of Dogen*, p. 42
But if whole-being is Buddha-mind, if each of us is a semiotic device pointing
toward the Absolute Truth, then is not everything perfect?
A dialogue between a Zen master (Roshi) and a student may help clarify here:
Student: "Last night I said to myself, "Fortunately I don't have to strive for
enlightenment, because I am already enlightened."
Roshi: "While it is true that innately you are a Buddha, until you have concretely
perceived your Buddha-nature you are speaking in borrowed phrases when you
speak of enlightenment. The purpose of your practice is to lead you to this
experience." - Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen, p. 130.
Human beings must struggle against a sort of false consciousness, generated by
their self and passion, that prevents them from *seeing* that they are Buddha-
mind; or that, in Baha'i terms, they are theo-semiotic.
(This last is a Rinzai Zen sentiment, linking striving to satori or enlightenment; it
contrasts with Dogen's Soto teaching that practice and enlightenment are
unrelated, that enlightenment strikes suddenly, unexpectedly, and is not to be
"striven for." Both attitudes have their own truth, obviously.)
This sign is the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation. The greater the
effort exerted for the refinement of this sublime and noble mirror, the more
faithfully will it be made to reflect the glory of the names and attributes of God,
and reveal the wonders of His signs and knowledge.
Every created thing will be enabled (so great is this reflecting power) to
reveal the potentialities of its pre-ordained station, will recognize its capacity and
limitations, and will testify to the truth that "He, verily, is God; there is none other
God besides Him [and that `Ali Muhammad (the Bab) is the Manifestation of all
the Names, and is the Dawning-Point of all the Attributes, and that all were
created by His will and all act according to His command.]
I would translate this literally as: [This reflection will take place] in a station
(maqam) wherein every thing (kullu shay') will be seen (yushhadu) in His Station
(fi maqamihi), and every thing will know its own limitations and capacity (ya`rafu
kullu shay'in haddahu wa miqdarahu) , and will testify to the truth that "He, verily,
is God; there is none other God besides Him [and that `Ali Muhammad (the Bab)
is the Manifestation of all the Names, and is the Dawning-Point of all the
Attributes, and that all were created by His will and all act according to His
Sign = Buddha-mind
"There can be no doubt whatever that, in consequence of the efforts which
every man may consciously exert and as a result of the exertion of his own spiritual
faculties, this mirror can be so cleansed from the dross of earthly defilement and
purged from satanic fancies as to be able to draw nigh unto the meads of eternal
holiness and attain the courts of everlasting fellowship. In pursuance, however, of
the principle that for every thing a time hath been fixed, and for every fruit a
season hath been ordained, the latent energies of such a bounty can best be
released, and the vernal glory of such a gift can only be manifested, in the Days of
God. Invested though each day may be with its pre-ordained share of God's
wondrous grace, the Days immediately associated with the Manifestation of God
possess a unique distinction and occupy a station which no mind can ever
comprehend. Such is the virtue infused into them that if the hearts of all that dwell
in the heavens and the earth were, in those days of everlasting delight, to be
brought face to face with that Day Star of unfading glory and attuned to His Will,
each would find itself exalted above all earthly things, radiant with His light, and
sanctified through His grace. All hail to this grace which no blessing, however
great, can excel, and all honor to such a loving-kindness the like of which the eye
of creation hath not seen! Exalted is He above that which they attribute unto Him
or recount about Him!
It is for this reason that, in those days, no man shall ever stand in need of
his neighbor.2 It hath already been abundantly demonstrated that in that divinely-
appointed Day the majority of them that have sought and attained His holy court
have revealed such knowledge and wisdom, a drop of which none else besides
these holy and sanctified souls, however long he may have taught or studied, hath
grasped or will ever comprehend. It is by virtue of this power that the beloved of
God have, in the days of the Manifestation of the Day Star of Truth, been exalted
above, and made independent of, all human learning. Nay, from their hearts and
the springs of their innate powers hath gushed out unceasingly the inmost essence
of human learning and wisdom."
This passage begins by reiterating the metaphor of the soul as the sign or mirror of
mystical insight [`irfan] into the Absolute Truth. I would suggest that `irfan can
usefully be glossed as enlightenment or satori, though it is often translated
"knowledge" by the beloved Guardian. It is mystical knowledge or understanding.
This metaphor of the mirror recalls a passage from the great Zen master, Dogen:
"Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get
wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is
reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are
reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the
water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder
the moon in the sky.
The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however
long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the
limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky." [Dogen, *Moon in a Dewdrop*, trans.
K. Tanahashi, p. 71].
In the same way that the dew-drop is a mirror reflecting the moon, so each thing,
including human beings, reflects the `irfan or mystical insight into the Absolute
Now, what of the issue of polishing the mirror? A story about the sixth patriarch,
Hui-Neng (d. 713), who went to study with the fifth patriarch after experiencing
sudden enlightenment while meditating on a passage from the Diamond Sutra.
One day the old master asked his disciples to compose a poem to indicate the
degree of their enlightenment.
"At that time Shen-hsiu occupied the first seat among the many disciples,
but in spite of his learned knowledge of the sutras, he had no deep experience.
With a great deal of effort he finally produced a verse and that night wrote it on a
wall in the temple hall:
The body is the Bodhi tree [enlightenment]
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.
The next morning Master Hung-jen praised the verse in the presence of all
the disciples, but told Shen-hsiu to compose another verse, for his poem showed
no sign of enlightenment. Hui-neng, who could not read, had Shen-hsiu's attempt
read to him, then composed one himself and told a temple boy to write it on the
The Bodhi is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists;
Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling?
All the disciples marveled at the poem. But the master erased it, and stated that
Hui-neng, too, was far from enlightenment." Hui-neng was nevertheless
appointed sixth patriarch. [Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment, p. 45].
The first poem exemplified the Northern school of Chinese Zen, which emphasized
a gradual approach to attaining enlightenment, while the second is an example of
Hui-Neng's own Southern Zen of Suddenness. (This division continued in Japan,
with Rinzai more like the Northern school and Soto more like the Southern). On
the other hand, the southern School and Soto do ask disciples for self-discipline
and meditation, and in actual Zen practice prayer, devotion and repentance play an
important part in the spiritual path.
Both approaches have their virtues. On the Baha'i side, the portion of the Book of
Certitude called by Western Baha'is the Tablet of the Mystic Seeker emphasizes
practice as a means to enlightenment and certitude. On the other hand, Baha'u'llah
in the commentary on `He who knows his self hath known his Lord' does not say
that the sign of mystical insight into the Absolute Truth is *potentially* reposited
in every thing; rather, he says it *is* reposited. We are already signs of mystical
insight into the Absolute Truth. We have but to *see*, to *know* our own reality.
The efforts we can make to clean our mirrors in Baha'i `Irfan or mysticism
are obvious. Meditating on Scripture, praying, reciting the Most Great Name,
eschewing immoral behavior, serving humankind and working worshipfully are
among the elements of this discipline. Shoghi Effendi encouraged the Baha'is to
learn to meditate, though he was concerned that these practices not develop into a
In the above passage Baha'u'llah says that the mirror can be polished by
*mujahadat-i nafsani* or psychological effort, and by spiritual meditations or
attentiveness [tavajjuhat-i ruhani], which will allow us to draw near to the holy
gardens of the All-Merciful. I don't think we yet fully understand within the Faith
what psychological effort and spiritual attentiveness might really mean. But these
are Sufi technical terms, and I do not think Baha'u'llah meant by them a sort of
"Protestant go-to-church-on-Sunday and occasionally say a short prayer"
Baha'u'llah points out that during his lifetime, Baha'is could attain `irfan all
on their own, without a teacher. The group of Sufis who found mystical insight
and self-extinction independently of any pir (guru) were known as Uvaysis. It
seems to me that Baha'i `Irfan needs to continue to develop without the pir-murid,
Master-disciple relationship. This "independent" approach to the path resembles
the Zen Southern School and Soto more than the northern school and Rinzai,
though Zen in general tended to involve a master-disciple route to learning.
[O Hadi! God willing, thou hast been guided to the lights of the dawn of
eternity and the manifestation of the everlasting morn. For in such wise doth the
heart become sanctified from the ephemeral, wicked selves, and thus wilt thou
witness that all branches of knowledge and their secrets are inscribed upon it. For
He possesseth the comprehensive Book and the complete Word, and the mirrors
that reflect the verse, "Everything we have numbered in a clear register,"3 did you
Thou hast inquired about detachment. It is well known to thee that by
detachment is intended the detachment of the soul from all else but God. That is,
it consisteth in soaring up to an eternal station, wherein nothing that can be seen
between heaven and earth deterreth the seeker from the Absolute Truth. In other
words, he is not veiled from divine love or from busying himself with the mention
of God by the love of any other thing or by his immersion therein. For it can
clearly be seen that today most of the people have seized upon fleeting baubles and
clung to defective goods, and have remained deprived of perpetual bounty and of
the fruits of the blessed Tree.
Although a wayfarer upon the path of the Absolute Truth might reach a
particular station, without detachment he would not be able to perceive that station
or any other plane. This topic, however, shall never be mentioned by any
translator, nor shall any pen set it down or any author discourse upon it. This is
from the grace of God; He bestoweth it upon whoso He willeth. By detachment
is not meant giving away and depleting all one's wealth. Rather, it denotes turning
unto God and supplicating Him. This plane can be attained in every precinct and is
manifest and visible from every thing. He is detachment, and is the alpha and the
omega thereof. Therefore, we beseech God to make us detached from anyone
save Him and to grace us with the attainment of His presence. Verily, there is no
God but He. Command and creation belong to Him. He maketh beloved
whatever he wisheth to whomever He desireth, and verily He is Powerful over all
Detachment is also a prime virtue in Zen Buddhism:
"All buddha tathagatas, who directly transmit inconceivable dharma and
actualize supreme, perfect enlightenment, have a wondrous way, unsurpassed and
unconditioned. Only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off; self-
fulfilling sama:dhi [concentration, serenity] is its standard. Sitting upright,
practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to the unconfined realm of this sama:dhi.
Although this inconceivable dharma [Ultimate Law, Reality, Truth] is
abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not
experienced without realization. When you release it, it fills your hand--how could
it be limited to one or many. When you speak it, it fills your mouth--it is not
bounded by length or width.
All buddhas continuously abide in it [Absolute Truth/Law], but do not
leave traces of consciousness in their illumination. Sentient beings continuously
move about in it, but illumination is not manifest in their consciousness.
The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of allows all things to
come forth in enlightenment and practice, all-inclusiveness with detachment.
Passing through the barrier and dropping off limitations, how could you be
hindered by nodes in bamboo or knots in wood?" Dogen, *Moon in a Dew-
Drop,* ed. K. Tanahashi, p. 143.