Have You Been to Venice?

Our conversation was started by a phrase from the Bowl of Saki, for the 19th of September : The teacher, however great, can never give his knowledge to the pupil; the pupil must create his own knowledge.

Like many of the sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, it appears to offer a firm certainty when we first read or hear it, a feeling of agreement deep within ourselves, a solid ‘yes’ – and then we begin to think about what is implied by the thought. For example, if the teacher cannot give knowledge to the student, then why would it be necessary to have one? For what purpose did Pir-o-Murshid Inayat give so many lectures on Sufi teachings? We have abundant volumes of his guidance – should we throw all our Sufi books in the stream and try to find our way through the forest on our own?

In spite of these questions, the voices in the circle spoke in support of the role of a teacher. One person suggested that the teacher is there to inspire us, to show us what is possible, and to lift us up from the condition we think is normal, and this led another member of the conversation to quote some lines of the prayer Pir: Inspirer of my mind, consoler of my heart, healer of my spirit, thy presence lifteth me from earth to heaven.

Several in the circle also appreciated the way this thought supports the absence of dogma in the Sufi path. In the Sufi point of view there is nothing that one ‘must’ believe, since each person has his or her own belief that evolves as we grow through life. Once, after giving a lecture, Hazrat Inayat Khan was approached by a member of the audience who declared, “You said some things I disagree with!” The Master replied, “And did I say anything with which you agreed?” “Well, yes,” was the reply. “Then,” said Pir-o-Murshid, “please keep the things you agree with, and throw the other things away.”

During our conversation, the theme of love also emerged; the love that a student may feel for the teacher can be life-changing. Since the usual condition of the world is a frozen heart, when love begins to melt us, we see things differently – and it is here that we start to create our own knowledge.

A Sufi teacher usually says very little about the knowledge he or she has gathered along the path; for one thing, most of what is discovered is far beyond the scope of language. Nevertheless, the teacher shares what is possible simply to help the student travel the way. We might think of the days long ago when the custom of the Grand Tour took many young Britons on a journey through Europe, with one of the destinations being the city of Venice. Naturally, books were written about the journey, giving insight and advice about what the traveller would meet on the way, and one could study engravings of the canals and lagoons to be seen. But reading such a book, though helpful, is no substitute for living experience. There is a deep difference between the one who has only read a travel guide and one who has sat in a bobbing gondola and listened to the splash of water around them.

In the same way, the wise counsel of the teacher guides us and helps us, and when a new experience dawns, it may confirm that we are travelling well, and perhaps suggest what we should prepare for in the future, but it does not remove the need for we ourselves to tread the inner path. In other words, the help of the teacher is indispensable, but the knowledge we gather will always be our own.

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