There was once a dervish who embarked upon a sea journey. As the other passengers in the ship came aboard one by one, they saw him and — as is the custom — asked him for a piece of advice. All the dervish would do was to say the same thing to each one of them: he seemed merely to be repeating one of those formulae which each dervish makes the object of his attention from time to time.
The formula was: ‘Try to be aware of death, until you know what death is.’ Few of the travellers felt particularly attracted to this admonition.
Presently a terrible storm blew up. The crew and the passengers alike fell upon their knees, imploring God to save the ship. They alternately screamed in terror, gave themselves up for lost, hoped wildly for succour. All this time the dervish sat quietly, reflective, reacting not at all to the movement and the scenes which surrounded him.
Eventually the buffeting stopped, the sea and sky were calm, and the passengers became aware how serene the dervish had been throughout the episode.
One of them asked him:
‘Did you not realize that during this frightful tempest there was nothing more solid than a plank between us all and death?’
‘Oh, yes, indeed,’
answered the dervish.
‘I knew that at sea it is always thus. I also realized, however, that I had often reflected when I was on land that, in the normal course of events, there is even less between us and death.’
This story is by Bayazid of Bistam, a place to the south of the Caspian Sea. He was one of the greatest of the ancient Sufis, and died in the latter part of the ninth century.