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)
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