Toshihiko Izutsu: From ‘Sufism & Taoism’ – The Inner Transformation of Man

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Professor Izutsu in his study at Kita-Kamakura,

where he spent his last years, photographed in 1980.

Picture from the book: “Toshihiko Izutsu Zammai,”

Keio University Press -October 2019.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is an excerpt from professor Toshihiko Izutsu’s trail-blazing and essential study, ‘Sufism and Daoism. A comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts’, University of California Press, 1984. From part III, Chapter II.


A little presentation

‘Toshihiko Izutsu, the genius that bridged East & West, best known as the translator of the Quran—arguably the most famous translation of the sacred text from Arabic into Japanese—studied at Keio University, where he went on to become a member of the academic faculty. A linguistic prodigy and master of more than 30 languages, Izutsu made a lasting impact on scholarship through research that spanned Islamic studies, Eastern thought, and mysticism. Here, we follow the footsteps of this intellectual giant, who wielded an enormous wealth of knowledge on language and issues across many academic disciplines.’ (Keio Times)


Part III- chapter II. The Inner Transformation of Man

‘The philosophical world-view of the ‘Unity of Multiplicity’, whether in the form of the ‘Unity of Existence’ or in the form of ‘Heavenly Equalization’, is an unusual — to say the least — worldview. It is an extraordinary world view because it is a product of an extraordinary vision of Existence as experienced by an extraordinary man. The most characteristic point about this type of philosophy is that philosophizing act starts from an immediate intuitive grasp of Existence at its metaphysical depth, at the level of its being the ‘absolute’ Absolute.

Existence — which has always and everywhere been the central theme for innumerable philosophers — can be approached and grasped at a number of different levels. The Aristotelian attitude represents in this respect the exact opposite of the position taken by the philosophers of Taoism and Sufism. For an Aristotle, Existence means primarily the existence of individual ‘things’ on the concrete level of phenomenal ‘reality’. And his philosophizing starts from the ordinary experience of Existence shared by all men on the level of common sense.

For an Ibn ‘Arabi or Chuang-tzu, however, these ‘things’ as experienced by an ordinary mind on the physical level are nothing but a dream, or of a dreamlike nature. From their point of view, the ‘things’ grasped on that level — although ultimately they are but so many phenomenal forms of the Absolute, and are, as such, no other than Existence — do not reveal the real metaphysical depth of Existence. And an ontology based on such an experience touches only shallowly the surface of the ‘things’; it is not in a position to account for the structure of the ‘things’ in terms of the very ground of their Existence. A philosopher of this type is a man standing on the level of the ‘worldly mode of being’ (nash‘ah dunyawiyah), in the terminology of Ibn Arabi. Such a man lacks the ‘spiritual eyesight’ (‘ayn al-basirah) — or ‘illuminating light’ (ming) as Chuang-tzu calls it — which is absolutely necessary for a deeper penetration into the mystery of Existence. In order to obtain such an eyesight, man must experience a spiritual rebirth and be transferred from the ‘worldly mode of being’ to the ‘otherworldly mode of being’ (nash‘ah ukhrawiyah).

Since the former is the way the majority of men naturally are, men of the ‘other-wordly mode of being’ must necessarily appear as ‘abnormal’ men. The world-view of Taoism and Sufism represents in this sense a vision of Existence peculiar to ‘abnormal’ men. It is significant that the process by which this spiritual transformation occurs in man is described by Ibn ‘Arabi and Chuang-tzu, in such a way that it discloses in both cases exactly the same basic structure. Ibn ‘Arabi describes it in terms of ‘self-annihilation’ (fana’), and Chuang-tzu in terms of ‘sitting in oblivion’ (tso wang).

The very words used: ‘annihilation’ and ‘forgetting’, clearly point to one and the same conception. And the same underlying conception is the ‘purification of the Mind’, or as Chuang-tzu calls it, the spiritual ‘fasting’. As to what actually occurs in the process of ‘purification’, details have been given in the first and second parts of this book. And it would be pointless to repeat the description here. The ‘purification’ in both Taoism and Sufism consists, in brief, the man’s purifying himself of all desires as well as of the activity of Reason. It consists, in other words, in a complete nullification of the ‘ego’ as the empirical subject of all activities of Reason and desires. The nullification of the empirical ego results in the actualization of a new Ego, the Cosmic Ego, which, in the case of Taoism, is considered to be completely at one with the Absolute in its creative activity, and, in the case of Ibn ‘Arabi, is said to be unified with the Absolute to the utmost limit of possibility.

Perhaps the most interesting point concerning this topic from the viewpoint of comparison is the problem of the ‘stages’ of the ‘purification.’ A comparative consideration is here the more interesting because both Ibn ‘Arabi and Chuang-tzu distinguish the process three basic stages. The two systems differ from each other in details, but agree with each other in the main.

Let us begin by recapitulating the thesis put forward by Chuang-tzu. The first stage, according to him, consists in ‘putting the world outside the Mind’, that is to say, forgetting the existence of the objective world. The world as something ‘objective’ being by nature relatively far from the Mind from the very beginning, it is relatively easy for man to erase it from his consciousness through contemplation.

The second stage consists in ‘putting the things outside the Mind’, that is, erasing from consciousness the familiar things that surround man in his daily life. At this stage, the external world completely disappears from his consciousness.

The third stage is said to consist in man’s forgetting Life, that is, his own life or his personal existence. The ‘ego’ is thereby completely destroyed, and the world, both external and internal, disappears from the consciousness. And as the ‘ego’ is nullified, the inner eye of the man is opened and the light of ‘illumination’ suddenly breaks through the darkness of spiritual night. This marks the birth of a new Ego in man. He now finds himself in the Eternal Now, beyond all limitation of time and space. He is also ‘beyond Life and Death’, that is, he is ‘one’ with all things, and all things are unified into ‘one’ in his ‘no-consciousness’. In this spiritual state, an unusual Tranquility or Calmness reigns over everything. And in this cosmic Tranquility, away from the turmoil and agitation of the sensible world, man enjoys being unified and identified with the very process of the universal Transmutation of the ten thousand things.

Ibn ‘Arabi who, as I have just said, also divides the process into three stages, provides a markedly Islamic version of spiritual ‘purification’.

The first stage is the ‘annihilation of the attributes’. At this stage man has all his ‘human’ attributes nullified, and in their place he assumes as his own the Divine Attributes.

The second stage consists in that man has his own personal ‘essence’ nullified and realizes in himself his being one with the Divine Essence. This is the completion of the phenomenon of ‘self-annihilation’ in the proper sense of the word. This stage corresponds to the first half of the third stage of Chuang-tzu, in which the man is said to abandon his old ‘ego’.

The third stage, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, is the stage at which man regains his ‘self’ which he has ‘annihilated’ at the previous stage. Only he does not regain his ‘self’ under the same conditions as before, but rather in the very midst of the Divine Essence. This is evidently but another way of saying that having abandoned his old ‘ego’ he has obtained a new Ego. Having lost his life, he has found a new Life in being unified with the Divine Reality. In the technical terminology of the Sufism, this is known as ‘self-subsistence’ (baqa’).

This third Stage corresponds to the latter half of the third stage according to Chuang-tzu’s division of the process. Now man witnesses all phenomenal things mingling with each other and merging into the boundless ocean of Divine Life. His consciousness — or, to be more exact, supra-consciousness — is in the utmost propinquity to the Divine Consciousness in an ontological stage previous to its actual splitting into an infinity of determinations and particular forms. Naturally he falls into profound Silence, and an extraordinary Tranquility reigns over his concentrated Mind.

There is another important point to be mentioned in connection with the problem of the ‘purification’ of the Mind. It concerns the centripetal direction of the ‘purification’. The process of ‘self-annihilation’ or ‘self-purification, if it is to succeed, must definitely be turned and directed toward the innermost core of human existence. This direction clearly goes against the ordinary movements of the Mind. The activity of the mind is usually characterized by its centrifugal tendency. The Mind has a very marked natural tendency to ‘go out’ toward the external world, attracted by, and in pursuit of, external objects. For the sake of ‘purification’, this natural tendency must be curbed and turned to the opposite direction. The ‘purification’ is realizable only by man’s ‘turning into himself. This is expressed by Ibn ‘Arabi through the famous Tradition: ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord.’ To this corresponds on the side of Taoism the dictum of Lao-tzu: ‘He who knows others (i.e., external objects) is a “clever” man, but he who knows himself is an “illumined” man.’ In reference to the same situation, Lao-tzu also speaks of ‘closing up all the openings and doors’. ‘Closing up all the openings and doors’ means obstructing all the possible outlets for the centrifugal activity of the mind. What is aimed at thereby is man’s going down deep into his own mind until he comes into direct touch with the existential core of himself.

The reason why this point must be mentioned as being of special importance is that such a thesis would appear at first sight to contradict the more fundamental thesis of the Unity of Existence. For in the world-view of both Ibn ‘Arabi and the Taoist sages, not only ourselves but all things in the world, without a single exception, are phenomenal forms of the Absolute. And as such, there can be no basic difference between them. All existents equally manifest, each in its particular way and particular form, the Absolute. Why, then, are the external things to be considered detrimental to the subjective actualization of the Unity of Existence?

The answer is not far to seek. Although external things are so many forms of the Absolute, and although we know this intellectually, we cannot penetrate into them and experience from the inside the palpitating Life of the Absolute as it is actively working within them. All we are able to do is look at them from the outside. Only in the case of our own selves, can each of us go into his ‘inside’ and in-tuit the Absolute as something constantly at work within himself. Only in this way can we subjectively participate in the Mystery of Existence.

Besides, the centrifugal tendency of the mind is directly connected with the discriminating activity of Reason. And Reason cannot subsist without taking an ‘essentialist’ position. For where there are no conceptual boundaries neatly established Reason is utterly powerless. In the view of Reason, ‘reality’ consists of various ‘things’ and ‘qualities’, each having what is called ‘essence’ by which it is distinguished from the rest. These ‘things’ and ‘qualities’ are in truth nothing but so many forms in which the Absolute manifests itself. But in so far as they are self-subsistent entities, they conceal the Absolute behind their solid ‘essential’ veils. They intervene between our sight and the Absolute, and make our direct view of Reality impossible. The majority of men are those whose eyesight is obstructed in this way by the thick curtain of ‘things’. They have their counterpart in Taoism in those people who, unable to ‘chaotify’ the ‘things’, cannot interpret reality except in terms of ‘this’-or-‘ that’, ‘good’-or-‘bad’, ‘right’ -or-‘wrong’, etc.

When the ‘purification’ of the Mind is completed, and when man has turned into a metaphysical Void, forgetting both the inside and the outside of himself, he is allowed to experience what the Taoist sages call ‘illumination’ (ming) and what Ibn ‘Arabi calls ‘unveiling’ (kashf) or ‘immediate tasting’ (dhawq). It is characteristic of both ‘illumination’ and ‘unveiling’ (or ‘tasting’) that this ultimate stage once fully actualized, the ‘things’ that have been eliminated in the process of ‘purification’ from the consciousness all come back once again, totally transformed, to his Mind which is now a well-polished spotless mirror — the Mysterious Mirror,’ (xuán lan, 玄 覽) as Lao-tzu calls it. Thus it comes about that the highest stage of metaphysical intuition is not that of those who witness only the Absolute, wholly oblivious of its phenomenal aspect. The highest ‘unveiling’, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, is of those who witness both the creatures and the Absolute as two aspects of one Reality, or rather, who witness the whole as one Reality diversifying itself constantly and incessantly according to various aspects and relations, being ‘one’ in Essence, and ‘all’ with regard to the Names.

Likewise, the Perfect Man of Taoism does perceive infinitely variegated things on the phenomenal level of Existence, and the spotless surface of his Mysterious Mirror reflects all of them as they appear and disappear. But this kaleidoscope of ever shifting forms does not perturb the cosmic Tranquillity of the Mind, because behind these variegated veils of the phenomenal world, he intuits the metaphysical ‘One’. He himself is one with the constant flux of Transmutation, and being one therewith, he is one with the ‘One’.

The philosophical world-view of an Ibn ‘Arabi, a Lao-tzu and a Chuang-tzu is a product of such an ‘abnormal’ spiritual state. It is an ontology, because it is a philosophized vision of Existence. But it is an extraordinary ontology, because the underlying vision of Existence is far from being an ordinary one.’




Picture from the book: “Toshihiko Izutsu Zammai,” Keio University Press -October 2019.


More about professor Toshihiko Izutsu: 🌿 The Keio Times article: 🌿 More on the book and it’s publisher:
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