Al-Faqr or `Spiritual Poverty'
by René Guénon
The contingent being may be defined as one that is not self-sufficient, not containing in himself the point of his existence; it follows that such a being is nothing by himself and he owns nothing of what goes to make him up. Such is the case of the human being in so far as he is individual, just as it is the case of all manifested beings, in whatever state they may be for, however great the difference may be between the degrees of Universal Existence, it is always as nothing in relation to the Principle. These beings, human or others, are therefore, in all that they are, in a state of complete dependence with regard to the Principle "apart from which there is nothing, absolutely nothing that exists"; it is the consciousness of this dependence which makes what several traditions call "spiritual poverty".
At the same time, for the being who has acquired this consciousness, it has, as its immediate consequence, detachment with regard to all manifested things, for the being knows from than on that these things, like himself, are nothing, and that they have no importance whatsoever compared with the absolute Reality. This detachment implies essentially and above all, in the case of the human being, indifference with regard to the fruits of action as is taught particularly in the Bhagavad-Gita, and which enables the being to escape from the unending chain of consequence which follows this action; it is "action without desire" (nishkāma karma), which "action with desire" (sakāma karma), is action carried out in view of its fruits. "The true cause of things is invisible and cannot be grasped defined or determined. It can be attained in deep contemplation by him who is re-established in the state of perfect simplicity, and by no one else". (Lie-Tseu. ch.IV.)
"Simplicity" meaning the unification of all the being's powers, is a feature of the return to the "primordial state"; and here is seen the whole difference that separates the transcendent knowledge of the sage from ordinary and "profane" knowledge. This "simplicity" is also what is called elsewhere the state of "childhood" (in Sanskrit bālya), to be understood of course in the spiritual sense, and this "childhood" is considered in the Hindu doctrine as an indispensable condition for attaining to true knowledge.
This recalls the corresponding words in the Gospels; "Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein" (St. Luke, XVIII 17.), "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes. (St. Matthew, XI. 25; St. Luke, X. 21.) "Simplicity" and "smallness" are here equivalents, in reality, of the "poverty" which is so often mentioned also in the Gospels, and which is generally very much misunderstood: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (St. Matthew, V. 2.)
This "poverty" (in Arabic al-faqr) leads, according to Islamic esotericism, to al-fanā, that is, to the extinction of the "ego"; (footnote: This "extinction" is not without analogy, even as to the literal meaning of the term which is used for it, with the Nirvana of the Hindu doctrine; beyond al-fanā there is fanā' al-fanā' the extinction of the extinction, which corresponds similarly to Parinirvana.) and, by this "extinction" the "divine station" is reached (al-māqam al-ilāhii), which is the central point where all the distinctions inherent in the more outward points of view are surpassed and where all the oppositions have disappeared and are resolved in a perfect equilibrium. "In the primordial state, these oppositions did not exist. They all spring from the diversification of the beings (inherent in manifestation and, like it, contingent), and from their contacts caused by the Universal gyration (that is by the rotation of the "cosmic wheel" around its axis). They cease then and there to affect the being that has reduced its distinct ego and its particular movement to almost nothing. (Choang-Tseu, ch. XIX.)
This reduction of the "distinct ego", which finally disappears by being reabsorbed into a single point, is the same thing as al-Fanā, and also as the "emptiness" mentioned above; moreover, it is clear, according to the symbolism of the wheel, that the "movement" of a being becomes more reduced the nearer this being is to the centre.
The "simplicity" referred to above corresponds to the unity "without dimensions" of the primordial point;, which marks the end of the movement back to the origin. "The man who is absolutely simple sways by his simplicity all beings, so effectively that nothing sets itself against him in the six regions of space, nothing is hostile to him, and fire and water do not injure him". (Lie-Tseu, ch. II.) In fact, he remains at the centre, which the six directions have issued from by radiation, and where, in the movement that takes them back, they come to be neutralized two by two, so that, in this single point their threefold opposition ceases entirely, and nothing that results from them or that is situated in them can reach the being who dwells in immutable unity.
Through his not setting himself against anything, nothing can set itself against him, for opposition is necessarily a reciprocal relation, which calls for the presence of two terms, and which is there fore incompatible with principal unity ; and hostility which is only a result or an outward manifestation of opposition, cannot exist in connection with a being that is outside and beyond all opposition. Fire and water, which are the type of opposites in the "elemental world", cannot injure him, for, in actual truth, they no longer even exist for him as opposites, having returned, by balancing and neutralizing each other through reunion of their qualities, which, though apparently opposed to each other, are really complementary, into the indifferentiation of primordial ether.
This central point, through which there is, for the human being, communication with the higher or "celestial" states, is also the "narrow gate" of the Gospel symbolism and from what has gone before it will be easily understood who are the "rich" who cannot pass beyond it ; they are the beings who are attached to multiplicity, and who are therefore incapable of rising from distinctive knowledge; to unified knowledge. This attachment, in fact, is the exact opposite of the detachment mentioned above, just as wealth is the opposite of poverty, and it involves the being in the indefinite series of the cycles of manifestation.
The attachment to multiplicity is also, in a certain sense, the Biblical "temptation", which, by making the being taste the fruit of the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", moves him away from the original central unity and stops him from reaching the "Tree of Life"; and it is just by that, in fact, that the being is subjected to birth and death. the seemingly endless path of multiplicity is depicted exactly by the coils of the serpent winding round the tree that symbolizes the "Axis of the World"; it is the path of "those who are led astray (ad-dālliin), of those who are in "error" in the etymological sense of the word, as opposed to the "straight path" (as-sirāt al-mustaqiim), in vertical ascension along the axis itself, the path that is spoken of in the first Surat of the Quran. (footnote: This "straight path" is identical with the Te or "Rectitude" of Lao-Tse, which is the direction to be followed by a being in order that his existence may be in accordance with the "way" (Tao), or , in other words, in conformity with the Principle.)
"Poverty", "simplicity" and "childhood", are no more than one same thing, and the process of being stripped which all these words express (footnote: It is the "being stripped of metals" in the Masonic symbolism.) culminates in an extinction" which is, in reality, the fullness of the being, just as "inaction" (wu-wei) is the fullness of activity, because it is from it that all the particular activities are derived; "The Principle is always inactive, and yet everything is done by it". (Tao-Te-Ching, XXXVII.)
The being who has reached in this way the central point has realized, by this very means, the human state in its entirety; he is the "true man" (chenn-jen) of Taoism, and when, starting from this point to rise to the higher states, he has achieved the perfect fulfillment o his possibilities, he will have become the "Divine Man" (sheun-jen) who is the "Universal Man" (al-insān al-kāmil) of Islamic esotericism. So it can be said that it is those without are the "rich" from the standpoint of manifestation who are really the "poor" with regard to the Principle, and inversely; that is what the following Gospel sentence expresses very clearly, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last" (St. Matthew, XX, 16.); and we are compelled to see in this respect, once again, the perfect agreement of all the traditional doctrines, which are no more than the diverse expressions of the one Truth.
Article by René Guénon from Studies in Comparative Religion Winter 1973, pp. 16-20