The following exploration of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary teaching figure dating from at least the thirteenth century, is extracted from The Sufis, by Idries Shah:
Mulla (Master) Nasrudin is the classical figure devised by the dervishes partly for the purpose of halting for a moment situations in which certain states of mind are made clear…Superficially, most of the Nasrudin stories may be used as jokes…But it is inherent in the Nasrudin story that it may be understood at any one of many depths …it bridges the gap between mundane life and a transmutation of consciousness in a manner which no other literary form yet produced has been able to attain…
Humor cannot be prevented from spreading; it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by habit and design. As a complete system of thought, Nasrudin exists at so many depths that he cannot be killed…
Nobody really knows who Nasrudin was, where he lived, or when. This is truly in character, for the whole intention is to provide a figure who cannot really be characterized, and who is timeless.
If we look at some of the classical Nasrudin stories in as detached a way as possible, we soon find that the wholly scholastic approach is the last one that the Sufi will allow:
Nasrudin, ferrying a pedant across a piece of rough water, said something ungrammatical to him. “Have you never studied grammar?” asked the scholar.
“Then half of your life has been wasted.”
A few minutes later Nasrudin turned to the passenger. “Have you ever learned how to swim?”
“Then all your life is wasted—we are sinking!”
Because the average person thinks in patterns and cannot accommodate himself to a really different point of view, he loses a great deal of the meaning of life. He may live, even progress, but he cannot understand all that is going on. The story of the smuggler makes this very clear:
Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, with the panniers loaded with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, the frontier guards searched him again and again. They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous.
Then he retired and went to live in another country. Here one of the customs offices met him, years later.
“You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said. “Whatever was it that you were smuggling, when we could never catch you out?”
“Donkeys,” said Nasrudin.
…In another story, himself adopting the role of fool … Nasrudin illustrates, in extreme form, ordinary human thinking:
Someone asked Nasrudin to guess what he had in his hand.
“Give me a clue,” said the Mulla.
“I'll give you several,” said the wag. “It is shaped like an egg, egg-sized, looks, tastes and smells like an egg. Inside it is yellow and white. It is liquid within before you cook it, coalesces with heat. It was, moreover, laid by a hen…”
“I know!” interrupted the Mulla. “It is some sort of cake.”
…the trigger habit, depending on associations, cannot be used in the same way in perceptive activities. The mistake is in carrying over one form of thinking — however admirable in its proper place—into another context, and trying to use it there.
…we tend to look at events one-sidedly. We also assume, without any justification, that an event happens as it were in a vacuum. In actual fact, all events are associated with all other events. … If you look at any action which you do, or which anyone else does, you will find that it was prompted by one of many possible stimuli; and also that it is never an isolated action—it has consequences, many of them ones which you would never expect, certainly which you could not have planned.
Another Nasrudin “joke” underlies this essential circularity of reality, and generally invisible interactions which occur:
One day Nasrudin was walking along a deserted road Night was falling as he spied a troop of horsemen coming toward him. His imagination began to work, and he feared that they might rob him, or impress him into the army. So strong did this fear become that he leaped over a wall and found himself in a graveyard. The other travelers, innocent of any such motive as had been assumed by Nasrudin, became curious and pursued him.
When they came upon him lying motionless, one said, “Can we help you — why are you here in this position?”
Nasrudin, realizing his mistake, said, “It is more complicated than you assume. You see, I am here because of you; and you, you are here because of me.”
To someone whose perception is sharpened, more than one dimension of this and other stories becomes apparent. The net effect of experiencing a tale at several different levels at once is to awaken the innate capacity for understanding on a comprehensive, more objective manner than is possible to the ordinary, painstaking and inefficient way of thinking…
Sometimes Nasrudin stories are arranged in the form of aphorisms, of which the following are examples:
It is not in fact so.
Truth is something which I never speak.
I do not answer all the questions; only those which the know-alls secretly ask themselves.
If your donkey allows someone to steal your coat — steal his saddle.
A sample is a sample. Yet nobody would buy my house when I showed them a brick from it.
People clamor to taste my vintage vinegar. But it would not be forty years old if I let them, would it?
To save money, I made my donkey go without food. Unfortunately the experiment was interrupted by its death. It died before it got used to having no food at all.
People sell talking parrots for huge sums. They never pause to compare the possible value of a thinking parrot...
Further reading on Mulla Nasrudin:
Books by Idries Shah:
The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin
The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (two volumes in one paperback)
The World of Nasrudin