Sufi Spiritual Stories - Etymology

Interrogative Imperative Institute

Sufi Spiritual Stories: Although developed through a Sufi, mystical perspective,

the short stories related here are applicable to almost any spiritual tradition because the underlying principles of spirituality and mysticism tend to remain largely the same across time, geography, and people ... although the language used to describe the mystical path may vary somewhat from tradition to tradition.


A group of people had gathered at the home of their spiritual guide. Following prayers, songs, chanting, and a eulogy in remembrance of mystics of earlier days, the meeting was opened up for discussion.

"So," the teacher inquired, "what would you like to reflect upon this evening? What food for thought can we offer you?"

As various members of the group were wondering what issues or concerns should be put forward for consideration, one of the individuals present, a newcomer, said: "I've heard different descriptions concerning the essential nature of human beings, and, sometimes, I find myself confused because although there are similarities and commonalities among such descriptions, there also seem to be differences. Anything you have to say about this topic would be very helpful to me."

The teacher raised his eyebrows in a display of interest. "This is a very good question."

He lowered his head and was silent for a few seconds, and, then, he raised his head and said: "Why don't we see what people here have to say about your question?"

Someone quipped: "Isn't that like asking the blind to lead the blind?"

The teacher and the rest of the group laughed. When the laughter had died down, the teacher replied: "Not necessarily. You know, according to some native spiritual traditions, when you sit in a circle as we are doing, then, the spiritual and creative energy of the gathering often becomes focused at the center, and, sometimes, as a result, a very elegant and educational process transpires. Therefore, as is the case with native spiritual traditions, why don't we allow ourselves to be open to some of the possibilities of the moment?"

The teacher paused briefly, and, then asked of the group in general: "How would you describe the essential nature of a human being?"

Silence descended upon the group as everyone became preoccupied with the question which had been placed before them. After a minute had passed, a woman asked: "Is it all right to tell a joke that might be related to this issue?"

"Why not?" the teacher said rhetorically and encouraged the woman to go ahead.

"Maybe, you've heard this before, or, maybe, in a different version, but, anyway, there was this mystic who used to travel about the town proclaiming: 'I am greater than God, I am greater than God.' Naturally, the mystic's words were very, very upsetting to the religious orthodoxy, and they decided to drag the offending wretch before a tribunal and demand that the miscreant recant.

"When the mystic stood before the stern-looking judges, one of the jurists thundered down at the poor fool before them: "Yes or no, have you been going all about town claiming you are greater than God?"

"Yes," the man said in a manner which suggested the judge was belaboring the obvious.

"That is blasphemous," all three judges said in unison.

"Not really," the man retorted.

"Young man," one of the judges said, "Are you so hopeless that you fail to understand nothing is greater than God."

"You've got it, your worship," replied the man.

A quizzical look appeared on the judge's face, and, then, he gave the smile of a debater who believes he is about to score points: "What, that you are hopeless, or that you fail to understand that nothing is greater than God, or both?" the judge said triumphantly as he leaned back against his plush chair with a high backrest, looking left and right at his colleagues.

"Actually, none of those." The man replied. I was mistaken, I thought you understood what I was getting at when you asked your question. Indeed, nothing is greater than God, and, no one knows better than me that I am nothing, so, therefore, I must be greater than God."

The man thought a bit more and added: "This really is just classical logic, gentlemen ... quite elementary, really, although some people may wish to quibble that the idea of 'nothing' has undergone a change of reference as one goes from premise to premise and, then, to the conclusion. However, as we mystics often like to say -- well, me anyway -- its all a matter of perspective."

Everybody, including the teacher, enjoyed the story. The teacher commented on the story by saying: "There is a great deal of truth in that story. Thank you for sharing it with us," and, then, he looked around and said: "Who's next?"

A man sitting next to the woman who had told the joke spoke up next. "Your earlier reference to 'food for thought' and the story we just heard reminded me of a description that I once heard concerning the essential nature of human beings – namely, we are like onions.

"In other words, when we begin to take a look at our nature and what, if anything, actually belongs to us, the reality of the human condition is that after we get done peeling away the physical body, the mind, our talents, abilities, and social relationships and come to realize these all are made possible by, and through, God, then, really, when we get to the heart of the matter, like an onion, there is nothing left to us."

The teacher gave a warm smile to the answer. "Yes, yes, this is true in so many ways."

At this point, a younger man said: "I actually read something once which, to me at least, sounds very different than the onion analogy, but to keep the theme of food going, the object which was used to give expression to human nature was a peach. This approach emphasized that a peach has two aspects, an outer fruit that is manifest, and an inner core around which the fruit grows and from which the outer portion receives certain benefits and protections.

"Moreover, the peach pit is what makes a peach a peach rather than something else. The core represents the capacity of the peach ... its potential.

"If one accepts this peach analogy, then, the essence doesn't really seem like it is nothing. After all, seemingly, different people exhibit different spiritual capacities, just like they exhibit an array of physical characteristics, intellectual abilities, artistic talents, and so on.

"Unless one wants to say that we are identical to God, which to my understanding, no real mystic says, then, presumably, there is something more than nothingness at the heart of human nature. Well, this is what I read anyway," he concluded with a sudden bout of self-awareness when he realized that the teacher had been listening attentively to what he was saying.

The teacher shook his head in admiration. "Wherever you read this, son, the author is on the right track. This is very true ... very true."

The newcomer who had first raised the question about human nature said: "I've liked everything that has been said so far, but would you say something on this topic?"

The teacher tilted his head at a slight angle and raised his hand pointing in the direction, first, of the woman who told the joke, and, then, toward the onion-man next to her, and, then, to the peach of a young man: "These three people have spoken very elegantly. I don't know what I could add."

The newcomer implored the teacher: "Please?

The teacher thought for a moment and, finally, said: "There is one thing which does come to mind on this matter. There was this fellow in Mexico who was a gardener, and he had spent his whole life experimenting with various grafting techniques, and I seem to recall he made a big splash down there when he was able to successfully cross a peach with an onion, and they referred to him as the pe-on man. This is where the origin of the word 'peon' comes from, and you people here may, or may not know, that peon is Spanish for 'servant'.

As people were mulling over the teachers comments, one of the people in the group, who was a linguist and a history buff said: "Sir, I don't mean to contradict what you are saying, but, really, that is not the correct etymology of the term 'peon' and, unfortunately, I think your history is, shall we say, a little shaky too."

The teacher laughed and had a twinkle in his eye when he said: "Etymologically and historically you may be correct, but what I have just said is, nonetheless, spiritually true. Human essence is really a something which is nothing, or a nothing which is something -- depending on your point of view, and in either case, human essence exists to serve Divinity."

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