On the Field or in the Grandstand

A view of Baha’u’llah’s teachings on idle fancies and vain imagination.

Thinking of one of the analogies that centre-pieced the Landmark Forum I attended earlier this year, ‘ being in the grandstand or on the field’, I am struck by the idea that ‘being in the grandstand’ ie being able to sit comfortably, without effort, and give free rein to one’s criticism and emotional tirade of player, play, and referees, is an equally apt analogy for the idea of idle fancies and vain imaginations that is frequently referred in the writings of Baha’u’llah.

Exploring the idea of being on the field or in the grandstands, the key distinction to make here is about how the game occurs to the person, depending on which of these places they find themselves. Anyone who has both played a team sport and watched a team sport will understand this. The player on the field is concerned with performing their specific role the best they can; how their role fits within the team; making momentary choices about what to do next in relation to what the team needs to have done, and choosing a best option among several possibilities. If criticism comes the player’s way, there is no time to halt this process. The player can only wear the criticism and go on. In the grandstands, however, every player can make the ideal move, every referee can see everything clearly and make ideal decisions, there is no pain, no effort, no fatigue, no capacity limit. The grandstand is a place for judging against an ideal expectation that exists nowhere except in the imagination of the spectator.

The Mission of Baha’u’llah is the great game being played across this planet. In a letter to one of the His most inveterate enemies, Baha’u’llah elaborates His core teachings and what it is to be a Baha’i. In this letter, Baha’u’llah calls His ‘players’ to Be  “generous in prosperity; thankful in adversity; worthy of the trust of the neighbour, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face; a treasure to the poor; an admonisher to the rich; an answerer to the cry of the needy; a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge; fair in thy judgment; guarded in thy speech; unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men; a lamp unto them that walk in darkness; a joy to the sorrowful; a sea for the thirsty; a haven for the distressed; an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression; (of) integrity and uprightness in all thine acts; a home for the stranger; a balm to the suffering; a tower of strength for the fugitive; eyes to the blind; a guiding light unto the feet of the erring; an ornament to the countenance of truth; a crown to the brow of fidelity; a pillar of the temple of righteousness; a breath of life to the body of mankind; an ensign of the hosts of justice;, a luminary above the horizon of virtue; a dew to the soil of the human heart; an ark on the ocean of knowledge; a sun in the heaven of bounty; a gem on the diadem of wisdom; a shining light in the firmament of thy  generation; a fruit upon the tree of humility.” Baha’u’llah goes on to offer prayers, “to protect thee from the heat of jealousy and the cold of hatred” and reassures the, “He verily is nigh, ready to answer.” Baha’u’llah notes that these characteristics, these virtues, “We have mentioned it unto such of Our loved ones as have cast away their idle fancies, and clung unto that which hath been prescribed unto them in the day whereon the Daystar of Certitude hath shone forth above the horizon of the will of God, the Lord of the worlds. This is the day on which the Bird of Utterance hath warbled its melody upon the branches, in the name of its Lord, the God of Mercy. Blessed is the man that hath, on the wings of longing, soared towards God, the Lord of the Judgment Day.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

To be on the Baha’i field is not to be some ideal and perfect exponent of these things. No, rather that, at every moment, the player, the believer, is only concerned with how to play their role in expressing these characteristics, as best they might. The goal of that game, exhorts Baha’u’llah, is to behold the effulgence of the Adored One and assist that mission. Here personal dominion becomes contemptible to one’s self.

“Wert thou to incline thine ears unto the shrill voice of the Pen of Glory and the cooing of the Dove of Eternity, which on the branches of the Lote-Tree beyond which there is no passing, uttereth praises to God, the Maker of all Names and the Creator of earth and heaven, thou wouldst attain unto a station from which thou wouldst behold in the world of being naught save the effulgence of the Adored One, and wouldst regard thy sovereignty as the most contemptible of thy possessions, abandoning it to whosoever might desire it, and setting thy face toward the Horizon aglow with the light of His countenance.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 40)

Baha’u’llah’s primary message in this letter and many others, seems to be to offer His teachings for investigation for all people, claiming that “My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. This is the first step onto the Baha’i field. Not to take that step, Baha’u’llah points out, cannot “be said to have robbed this ocean of its power or to have lessened, to any degree, its treasures”, and the failure of people to step out onto that field or to criticise the lack of players on that field, is solely due to the vain imaginings that people with hate, devise. For our benefit, for our distinction, He notes that vain imaginings can be most readily seen in people who “endeavor, openly or in secret, to sow the seeds of dissension amongst men.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 202)

He goes on to repeat the claim of the wonderfulness of His teachings, “This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 325)

Any idea, except taking a “firm hold on the Most Great Name, and to establish the unity of all mankind”, is giving up to vain imaginings, the uttering of  “words as will turn away the people from the shores of God’s limitless ocean, and cause them to fix their hearts on anything except this glorious and manifest Being.” These vain imaginings He cautions offer, “no place to flee to”.  “Witness”, He notes, “how they have entangled themselves with their idle fancies and vain imaginations. By My life! They are themselves the victims of what their own hearts have devised, and yet they perceive it not. Vain and profitless is the talk of their lips, and yet they understand not. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 202)

So then, He exhorts, “Observe equity in your judgment. He that is unjust in his judgment is destitute of the characteristics that distinguish man’s station. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 202) Further He shows, “Whoso hath known Him shall soar in the immensity of His love, and shall be detached from the world and all that is therein. Nothing on earth shall deflect him from his course, how much less they who, prompted by their vain imaginations, speak those things which God hath forbidden. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 203)

Nonetheless it is a team game, a game in which all who enter are involved in helping all others, even the spectators, onto the field. Baha’u’llah exhorts, “O friends! Be not careless of the virtues with which ye have been endowed, neither be neglectful of your high destiny. Suffer not your labors to be wasted through the vain imaginations which certain hearts have devised. Ye are the stars of the heaven of understanding, the breeze that stirreth at the break of day, the soft-flowing waters upon which must depend the very life of all men, the letters inscribed upon His sacred scroll. With the utmost unity, and in a spirit of perfect fellowship, exert yourselves, that ye may be enabled to achieve that which beseemeth this Day of God. Verily I say, strife and dissension, and whatsoever the mind of man abhorreth are entirely unworthy of his station. Center your energies in the propagation of the Faith of God. …. Be ye guided by wisdom in all your doings, and cleave ye tenaciously unto it.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 196)

Ultimately, the players aim is to have “utterly abolished the idol of self and of vain imagination, and for having rent asunder the veil of idle fancy” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 291) “And should the servant ascend to even loftier heights, … he will then pass .. into the City of Absolute Nothingness, that is, of dying to self and living in God. In this station, this most exalted habitation, this journey of utter self-effacement, the wayfarer forgetteth his soul, spirit, body, and very being, immerseth himself in the sea of nothingness, and liveth on earth as one unworthy of mention. Nor will one find any sign of his existence, for he hath vanished from the realm of the visible and attained unto the heights of self-abnegation. How can a true lover continue to exist when once the effulgent glories of the Beloved are revealed? How can the shadow endure when once the sun hath shone forth? How can  a devoted heart have any being before the existence of the Object of its devotion? Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul! In this station, the seeker’s complete surrender and utter effacement before his Creator will be such that, were he to search the East and the West, and traverse land, sea, mountain and plain, he would find no trace of his own self or of any other soul.” (Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 69)

This forgetfulness might be understood in the context of the forgoing, not as forgetfulness of the game or the team or humanity or one’s role, but that there is only a response of the player who has no sign of spectatorship, no protection of self, just a pure response writ by the teachings of Baha’u’llah that is one’s role in assisting all humanity to the greater expression of its nobility.

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