Ibn 'Arabi, Dharma Art & the Paris Metro

by Bill Scheffel
Posted 10-Jan: 2013

Interior lamp, Emir Sultan Mosque. Bursa, Turkey.


Breathing in, I know that I am alive;
Breathing out, I smile at myself. - Thich Nhat Hanh

I often recite this Thich Nhat Hanh practice during periods of sleeplessness. It seems a perfect union of meditation (the breath) and contemplation (the words), or of heart and mind; universally accessible and experientially potent. Breath, Language, God, Awareness: these four words seem so related, so able to inform each other, so what the universe is (especially in light of discoveries of quantum physics and other exploratory sciences), so what makes up the experience of beauty. Some stories have converged in my recent experience that may illustrate these observations.

I've traveled for the last two years with Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual for Retreat, a book written by Ibn 'Arabi in the early 13th Century. The book is potent in spiritual instruction, poetry and strange metaphoric power; it echoes, mirrors or speaks to me of the drala principle as well as the Buddhist Vajrayana teaching that have been part of my entire adult life. In Ibn 'Arabi, as I've written before, I encountered a language similar to Buddhist tantra, but instead of the language of awareness, Buddha nature or rigpa (as the Dzogchen tradition puts it), Ibn 'Arabi's language is that of God.

Just as Thich Nhat Hahn has explored and brought forth language that connects and mutually informs Buddhism and Christianity, I've felt called to explore the relationship between Ibn 'Arabi and the life of Chogyam Trungpa and the Shambhala, Kagyu and Nyigma lineages he represents PrinceShotokuand that I've studied under. In the Shambhala context, Chogyam Trungpa gave us the notion of "ancestral sovereigns," secular rulers such as King Ashoka of 3rd Century B.C.E India and Prince Shotoku of Japan who could be seen as exemplars of the difficult task of ruling compassionately and from a basis of wisdom. In addition to the Muslim world, contemporary scholars and people of many diverse persuasions strongly perceive Ibn 'Arabi as a kind of spiritual "ancestral sovereign" with a compelling and almost incomprehensibly vast compendium of teachings apropos to modernity, the very challenges we are experiencing, including nihilistic despair and the equally suffocating oppression religious dogma imposes.

Without attempting more of an introduction than to point out its similarities with Buddhist teaching of emptiness, I site this passage (a later commentary from the back of the book) as an example of the tradition Ibn 'Arabi emerges from, and a stunning explication on perception, time and the spiritual instructions necessary to make a genuine and whole-hearted relationship to the life each of us has to live. This passage is equally penetrating poetically, and in the depth of its thought, which points to the limits of thought, what is beyond conceptual mind:

The seeker must undertake what is most important: he must respect each Realm by giving it its proper due. For when a seeker is transported from a Realm, if what he was required to attain there has escaped him, he will never accomplish it. This leads to eternal failure. [And as it is said:] “The Sufi is the son of his moment” and “The present does not return.”

And know that the world vanishes into nonexistence in every moment by the overwhelming victory of the Unity (ahadiyya) over the multiplicity. And its like is produced [at every moment] by the authority of essential love. For the world’s existence is the instance of its nonexistence. Thus the Manifest imposes manifestation upon the first hiddenness, and the world is produced. Next the Hidden imposes hiddenness upon the first manifestation, and the world vanishes. Then the authority returns to the Manifest – and so forth, ad infinitum. This is what is called “renewed creation” (khalq jaded). The imaginary prolongation which seems to result from this flowing of similitudes is Time and motion is its measure.

Everything that is other than God is temporal. And if it is impossible that the [real] duration of an event exceed an instant, then every happening is "the son of its moment,” and not other than it. The event is necessary to its moment, and the moment is necessary to its event. Rather, the moment essentially determines its event, which cannot be separated out of it. Thus the moment is the event’s locus, or realm (watan). The moments are infinite; therefore the realms are also infinite.

And know that the renewal of similitudes [which is imagined as Time] proceeds so that a thing vanishes and its like follows it. The Realms (mawain) is a term for the substrata of the moments in which things come to exist and experience actually occurs. It is necessary that you know what the Truth wants from you in any Realm, so that you hasten to it without hesitation and without resistance. (Journey to the Lord of Power, pg. 70)

To leave these quotes for further contemplation and to return to my story, in October of 2011, I was fortunate to have my friend Dominique Rousselle visit me for four days when I was living in Istanbul. I'd met Dominique in Paris through a mutual friend the year before. At that time, I stayed with Dominique for a few weeks as his guest. For much of my life I wondered if I'd be fortunate enough ever to visit Paris, much less have a friend who lived there and would host me in his apartment. Dominique and I love to practice meditation together - sitting meditation, the body practices of Reggie Ray, the vertical time yoga practices I've been developing (as I experienced with my friend Michael Rogers, there is so much undiscovered potential in sharing practice with another; one-to-one where each is equally student and teacher). Dominique and I are also fond of wine, cheese and long aimless walks.

When Dominique visited me in Istanbul we practiced together all through the morning and took unforgettable walks in the afternoon. To be able to viscerally share what I've learned about Istanbul with a friend was such a pleasure. In a sense, all I know of Istanbul is visceral; it is its atmospheres, it's streets, the interior courtyards of its mosques, the Galata Bridge and the furious seagulls. I've learned a lot of its history to be sure, but most of my time spent there has been in silence; practicing, writing, walking. I carried on a love affair with the place itself. When Dominique came to visit he had the same kind of falling in love. Without fully realizing it or talking about it, Ibn 'Arabi came into Dominique's life, and through him, onto the pages of this journal.


Dominique inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

In this case, it is the poetic side of Ibn 'Arabi that enters my story with Dominique, for Ibn 'Arabi was very much a poet who wrote poetry of aloneness, of the passionate heart that longs for union with the beloved, poetry akin to Jalal Au-Din Rumi. In fact, the lives Ibn 'Arabi and Rumi nearly overlapped; some of Ibn 'Arabi's disciples also knew Rumi. In the passage below, Ibn 'Arabi described how poetry "came" to him in the form of a dream, a dream - to use Jungian terms - of the highest archetypal character imaginable!

The reason that has led me to utter poetry is that I saw in a dream an angel coming towards me with a fragment of white light, as if it were a fragment of the light of the sun. “What is that?” I asked. The reply came: “It is Sura al Shu’ara [The Poets]. I swallowed it and felt a hair rising from my chest up to my throat, and then to my mouth. It was an animal with a head, tongue, eyes and lips. Then it expanded until it reached the two horizons – both East and West. When I came back to myself, I uttered verses that came forth from no reflection and no intellectual process whatsoever. Since that time this inspiration has never ceased.

This is the point where Dharma Art and the Paris Metro - as the title of this journal promised - enter my story. Dharma art refers to a body of teachings Chogyam Trunpa gave beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until the end of his life. After transmitting Buddhism and the Shambhala teachings, Chogyam Trungpa began to create environmental installations and teach seminars on art. I spent much time with Chogyam Trungpa during two of these installations in the 1980s. One of them, shown over a week period in 1992 in the Fort Mason complex in San Francisco, was an elaborate display of flower arrangements and monumental pieces of sculpture and furniture, from statues of Quan Yin to the massive barrels sake is brewed in.

We had spent months beforehand convincing art dealers and furniture stores to lend their work for the show. When the show finally occurred, Chogyam Trungpa seemed little concerned in proselytizing Buddhist meditation to the many hundreds who attended, he simply wanted people to see the show. Not that he had recognizable ambitions anyway, but he seemed to have no ambition for the show other than that it take place. He seemed to have complete confidence that the show itself - that art itself - would adequately convey the principles of awake, non-aggression and enlightened society. Sadly or curiously, there was very little to no documentation of the event; no video footage as in earlier shows, not even many photographs, at least that I've been able to find. It is as if it simply vanished - as it is impossible that the [real] duration of an event exceed an instant, then every happening is ‘the son of its moment,” and not other than it.

Such a event points to the gratuitous nature of art, of reality, of life that it is just given; though transient, constantly re-configuring; though intense, fundamentally beautiful in every moment. In this spirit, I discovered on the internet last week a similarly gratuitous event, an event of "dharma art" of the highest magnitude (fitting many of Chogyam Trungpa's interests or requirements: the transformation of a public space, the enactment of beauty, the conveyance of non-aggression, the expression of devotional skill). The event, which occurred last October, was one in which the actress Juliette Binoche read a poem by Ibn 'Arabi in the Auber Station of the Paris Metro. Binoche was accompanied by the cellist Matthiew Saglio. A passerby captured the reading - which turned the metro station temporarily into poetic cathedral - with a shaky, hand-held video device and the footage eventual made its way to the internet.

I sent an e-mail to Dominique with a link to the video. I told him of my astonishing discoveries, the parallels to our time in Istanbul, and begged JulietteBinochepoem1him to translate into English what Juliette Binoche had read, since she of course read in French. Dominique wrote back to tell me he had become compelled by the footage to "immediately drop his 'regular' practice" and set about to translating the reading (and also that he had begun to understand why I so love Juliette Binoche). Dominique apologized for his "rough" translation, "translating poetry is an art where I have no experience." Translation is indeed an art, but I was so moved by what he had accomplished that I made it the basis of this journal.



Listen, oh beloved

I am the reality of the world

The centre and the circumference

I am its parts and its wholeness

I am its will, installed between heaven and earth.

I only have created perception into you

To become the subject of my perception.

If thus you perceive me,

You are perceiving yourself.

But you couldn’t perceive me thru yourself

Since it is thru my gaze that you can see me

And you can see yourself.

It is not thru your gaze that you can descry me


So many times did I call you

And you did not hear me;

So many times did I evince to you

And you did not see me;

So many times I was a sweet fragrance

And you did not smell me;

Tasty food, and you did not relish me.

Why can’t you reach me thru the objects you feel ?

Or breathe me thru the scents ?

Why don’t you see me ?

Why don’t you hear me ?

Why ? Why ? Why ?


For you, my delights are surpassing all other delights,

And the pleasure I procure

Surpasses any other pleasure.

For you I am preferable to any possession,

I am beauty, I am grace.

Love me, love me alone;

Get lost in me, in me alone;

Bind yourself to me;

No one is more intimate than me.

Others love you for themselves,

But I love you for yourself.

And you, you flee away from me,


You can’t treat me with equity,

Since if you get closer to me

Means that I have drawn nearer to you.

I am closer to you than yourself,

Than your soul, than your breath.

Who else among the creatures

Would act with you the way I do ?

I am jealous of yourself against you.

I don’t want you for anybody else,

Not even for yourself.

Be mine, be for me,

As you are in me

Without being aware of it.



Let’s go toward union.

And if we would find the road leading to separation,

We would destroy separation.

Let’s go hand in hand.

Let’s enter the presence of truth.

Let it be our judge,

And imprint its seal on our union,



Listen, oh beloved

I am the reality of the world

The centre and the circumference

I am its parts and its wholeness

I am its will, settled between heaven and earth.

I only have created perception into you

To become the subject of my perception.


Translated from the French by Dominique Rouselle.

. . .

Click on the this image to hear more of Matthiew Saglio,
the celloist accompanying Juliette Binoche






A photograph taken by Dominique during one of our walks. November, 2011.


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For more on IBN 'ARABI


From Anqa Publishing

Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (1165 to 1240 C.E.) is unquestionably one of the most profound and remarkable figures in the history of world spirituality. Known as "the Greatest Master" (al-Shaykh al-Akbar), he led an extraordinary inner and outer life. He travelled huge distances, from his native Spain to Syria and Turkey, writing over 350 books on the mystical path. Ibn 'Arabi's writings are founded on a totally harmonious vision of Reality, integrating all apparent differences without destroying their truths. They are singularly appropriate and needed in the world of today. He lived at a time of great cultural and spiritual flowering in the West, in the Jewish and Christian traditions as much as in the Muslim world. Discover more from Anqa Publishing ...


Ibn Arabi and Cinema, Poetry
and Performance Art



At the third Ibn 'Arabi Film Festival (IBAFF), the career of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was recognized by the presentation of the IBAFF Honorary Award. Kiarostami spent a week in March 2012 giving workshops at IBAFF.

. . .



The artist Bill Viola and Ibn 'Arabi

The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next. - Ibn al 'Arabi (1165-1240)

This small line gave Bill Viola the perfect name for his 2007 video installation made specifically for the Church of San Gallo in Venice, in honour of the 52nd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. [1]

The video and sound installation consists of two 65" plasma screens, one 103" vertical plasma screen and six loudspeakers. Due to modern video technology, Viola was able to shoot the sequence in both colour and black and white. The installations shows several people (one per screen) standing behind a thin, almost mirror like sheen of water, shown in gritty black and white. Slowly, they move forwards, to the sheen of water, the almost invisible barrier separating the figures from the audience. Once they break through this barrier, they appear in brilliant colour, soaked to the bone, yet not at all happy at having gotten through to the audience. Slowly, they turn around and return to "where they came from", passing through the water shield and retracting from view.

Bill Viola himself states his reasoning eloquently, be saying that:

The video sequence describes the human form as it gradually coalesces from within a dark field and slowly comes into view, moving from obscurity into the light. As the figure approaches, it becomes more solid and tangible until it breaks through an invisible threshold and passes into the physical world. The crossing of the threshold is an intense moment of infinite feeling and acute physical awareness. Poised at that juncture, for a brief instant all beings can touch their true nature, equal parts material and essence. However, once incarnate, these beings must eventually turn away from mortal existence and return to the emptiness from where they came.

See video and rest of article.

MatthiewSaglio BillViola