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Burning with Rumi


Burning with Rumi

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died.  Source:

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died. 

The Reed Flute Song

Listen to the story told by the reed,                                          
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.

~ Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
(Translation: Coleman Barks)

Ney, the Persian reed flute

The lines above open the Mathnawi (or Masnavi), a massive work of mystical poetry, consisting of 50,000 lines of rhyming couplets composed by Rumi. Many Sufis treasure the Mathnawi as much as the Qur'an itself! 

In this section titled "The Reed Flute's Song" by translator Coleman Barks, the reed flute ("ney" in Persian) speaks, in plaintive language, of the pain of separation of the Lover from the Beloved - that of the aspirant from his/her divine source. What I find so attractive about Rumi is that he speaks so eloquently about this human longing for the divine, without making it dense with the language of theology and creed. 

The original poem, "Beshno az ney " in Persian (Farsi), has been translated by many translators, and each translation brings out a different nuance. Persian is a lyrical language, and Rumi's poetry are meant to be spoken out loud - and sung. Thus, no translation can do full justice to the poem. At the end of this piece, I have provided a link to a video of the this poem sung in Farsi, and also a transliteration of the original poem.

The experience of being a reed flute

The words that, for me, are the soul of this poem, and the ones that set Rumi aside as the "king of mystics," are the following:

"...The reed flute
is fire, not wind


"Be that empty."

What does it mean - that a reed flute is fire, not wind?

And what is this emphatic invitation to be empty?

I received a beautiful explanation to this question from a fellow student at an elective course on Rumi at my seminary. She told us a story from her Sheikh (her teacher). According to this story, when a reed stem is cut from the reed bed with the intention of making a flute, it is still green and wet. To serve as a container for the vibrating column of air which will make the magical song, it first needs to be dried out completely, then hollowed, and finally have holes drilled into it.

The part about the reed flute being fire, not wind, comes from an ancient process of hollowing out the reed. A reed stem, in its natural state, has segments, separated by fleshy pith. According to my friend's teacher, in the olden days, after the reed was adequately dried, it was filled with molten metal, in order to melt away all the pith. Once the metal could flow through the reed without interruption, it was considered empty enough to become a flute. A reed stem is born to make music, but it cannot do so until the loving hands of the flute-maker fills it with scalding molten metal! My friend's Sheikh told her that this was exactly the job of a spiritual teacher - to pour molten metal into his/her students, until they became empty enough to make the music they were born to create!

Rumi uses this metaphor of passing through fire, of melting - again and again - as an essential part of the mystic path. This fire, this melting - is understood as the pain of separation from the divine Beloved - and of this desperate longing for reunification. He speaks of the young chickpea drinking water in the gardens, only so that it can later be cooked by the teacher, to make food "for the Friend." He speaks of the wine-maker trampling the grapes - even though the grapes cry out and bleed - in order to make wine. Again and again, the imagery reminds the student that this path is not just wine and savory delectables - not just ecstasy, but that one does not arrive at these culminations without going through extreme mortification and pain. 

Indeed, the Mevlavi Sufi order that Rumi founded, is one of the most ascetic and rigorous of all Sufi orders! Thus, Rumi's Sufiism is by no means "Islam Lite." On the contrary, through his poetic language, he is able to enter the heart of devotion, and illuminate the essence of both suffering and ecstasy for all of mankind.

In the utter emptiness of the reed flute lies its music. It is this stripping away - that feels ruthless at the time - which births a reed flute - a "friend to all who want the fabric torn and drawn away!" 

Thus, Rumi's invitation to us is to not shy away from darkness - from deep process - from what Christian mystics have called via negativa - in order to one day be able to make music like the reed flute.

Transliteration of the Reed Flute's Song in Persian (Farsi)

Aatasheh ishq ast kandar ney fetaad
Jooshesheh ishq ast kandar mey fetaad

Ney, harifeh har keh az yaari borid
Pardeh hayash pardeh hayeh ma darid

Hamcho ney zahri o taryaqi keh did?
Hamchon ney damsaaz o moshtaqi ke did?

Ney hadiseh raheh por khoon mikonad
Qesseh hayeh eshq e majnoon mikonad

Mahrameh in hoosh joz bihoosh nist
Mar zaban ra moshtari joz goosh nist

Dar ghameh ma rooz ha bigaah shod
Rouz ha ba souz ha hamraah shod

Rouz ha gar raft gu ro baak nist
To bemaan , ey aankeh chin to paak nist

Har keh joz maahi zeh aabash dir shod
Har keh bi roozist, roozash dir shod

Dar nayaabad haaleh pokhteh hich khaam
Pas sokhan kootaah baayad, vassalaam

Beshno az ney chon hekaayat mikonad
Az jodaayee ha shekaayat mi-konad

Kaz neyestaan ta maraa bebrideh and
Dar nafiram mardo zan naalideh and

Sineh khaaham sharheh sharheh az faraagh
Ta begooyam sharheh dardeh eshtiyaagh

Har kasi ku door maand az asleh khish
Az jooyad roozegareh vasleh khish

Man be har jamiyati naalaan shodam
Jofteh bad haalaano khosh haalaan shodam

Har kasi az zanneh khod shod yaareh man
Az darooneh man najost asraareh man

Serreh man az naaleyeh man door nist
Lik chashmo goosh ra aan noor nist

Tan zeh jaano jaan zeh tan mastour nist
Lik kas ra dideh jaan dastour nist

Aatash ast in baangeh naayo nist baad
Har keh in aatash nadaarad nist baad

Beshno as Ney in Persian by Ayeda Husain Naqvi

The Reed Flute's Song recited by the translator, Coleman Barks


Dancing with Cancer


Dancing with Cancer

On July 1, 2008, the renowned Indian classical dancer, Ananda Shankar Jayant, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ananda dances two major classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Both originated in Southern India, and equally emphasize the technical aspects of dance, as well as emotions and storytelling. They draw on popular myths and symbols to create elaborate and highly ornate dance routines. 

On that fateful day, Ananda decided that while she was going to follow all the recommendations of modern medicine, psychologically, she was going to give a higher priority to her dancer self, than to her cancer-patient identity. Over the next two years, while she went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted (Herceptin) therapy, she also pursued a therapy of her own. She danced. She performed, she taught - she engaged with the cancer raging in her body with the metaphoric energy of the Indian Goddess Durga. Durga, the myth says, was created by the combined energies of all the different Gods. In her ten or eighteen arms, depending on the particular version of the myth, are weapons that were given to her to vanquish the demon, Mahishasura - the buffalo-headed demon. As she engaged with her cancer, Ananda Shankar Jayant embodied this energy of the Goddess. In 2009, she presented a TED talk which features her dance as Durga (please see the video below) and an interview that describes her journey with cancer in her own words.

So, what exactly happened? Would she have responded to the medical treatment in any case, and this entire engagement with the Goddess energy was just a coincidence? A wishful thinking? Or was there more to it? Of course, as we like to say in the scientific circles, we will never know the answer, "because the control experiment cannot be done." Ananda herself credits much of the healing to her relationship with the ritual of dancing in general (she sees it as a form of deep, embodied prayer), and to her engagement with the Durga energy in particular. I leave you to make the final decision for yourself.


Kintsugi: The Japanese Art of Celebrating Brokenness


Kintsugi: The Japanese Art of Celebrating Brokenness

“The wound is the place where the light enters you” ~ Rumi

Can you imagine a life where we do not hasten to hide our wounds, or paste a smile on our faces when we are hurting inside? At the same time, we do not mope and blame and feel eternally sorry for ourselves or murderous toward someone else? Instead, what if we are able to turn our wounds, our brokenness, into works of art?

That is exactly what the Japanese art form of Kintsugi does. When a precious porcelain object is broken, instead of repairing it and hoping that no one will see the cracks, the seams and cracks are deliberately highlighted by filling them with varnish or resin mixed with powdered gold (sometimes silver or platinum).

The lightning cracks highlighted with gold now tell the history of the object. It dignifies the brokenness, even celebrates it. Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) reflects a more general philosophy one finds in Japanese aesthetics, that of wabi-sabi – an embracing of the flawed or the imperfect. The Japanese have a word – mono no aware – which is impossible to fully translate. It is a word that can form the core of a lifelong meditation, may be the only one we need to live our amazingly beautiful flawed lives! Mono no aware has been translated as “the pathos of things.” It is a word whose contemplation can bring us in touch with the poignancy of impermanence, of the transience of things, even with our own imminent death and dissolution.

In our Western culture, the way we deal with brokenness is primarily clinical. It is a sterile, tense type of attention that we offer to a wound – external or internal. The attention has a quality of intellectual aggression. Why was this object (or this part of me) broken? Who was/is responsible? Could it have been avoided? Can it be avoided in the future? And most importantly, how can I fix it so no one can see that it/I is/am broken? This is what the Irish poet, John O’Donohue, referred to as the “neon glare” of our usual mode of attention. What if, instead, we sat with our brokenness, illuminating the space with candlelight, which in O’Donohue’s words, has a certain “hospitality for the shadow?” How would our brokenness feel then – to be held gently in this welcoming light, just as it is?

Maybe modern technology offers us a way today. We can find a piece of Kintsugi that speaks to us, and just sit with it. We can just look at the pattern of brokenness and let it wash over us. Welcome all the feelings that arise. Ride them like waves, without judging whatever arises. Trusting our inner wisdom.

We do not have to understand our brokenness. We have to learn to see the hidden gifts it bears.

Image courtesy: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License


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