Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sufi Poems: One

One of the greatest Sufi poets is Hafez. He is revered above all others, I think it's safe to say. The measure of his importance to Persian culture and Sufis in particular is illustrated by the commonly repeated statement that if there is only one book in a Persian household, it will be the Divan of Hafez.

Having the ability to read Hafez only in translation is a particular problem. According to native speakers, the poetry of Hafez is intensely difficult to capture, making use of complex imagery and allusion to which English cannot do justice. I appreciate this, of course, but as I said previously on translation, if it's what I can get I'll take it. The fact that Hafez frequently moves me to sit in raptured silence in the corner for hours in meditative prayer tells me that some aspect of his meaning is getting through to me. I do have a Robert Bly translation that was in the works for decades which I love. Bly is a member of my order, too, so I guess his approach resonates with me.

The verse that I have been contemplating for several days is this, translated in The Path by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh:
The beggar at Your door
does not need the eight gardens of Paradise.
The prisoner of Your love
is freed from this world and the next.

The theme of this verse is a common one for the Sufi: The purpose of the practice is to abolish the ego and understand the unity of all things. There is no concern of an ego reward, whether it's the desire for reward here or the quest to win a ticket to heaven. These are all ego desires, and not worthy of a Sufi. The image of the beggar appears throughout Sufi poems, but Hafez especially seems to like this image. It is reinforced by Hafez that it isn't about you, spiritual understanding is about God. In order to achieve, you cast aside yourself in favor of Reality.

Understandably, Hafez was persecuted by the mainstream religious figures of his time. Boldly teaching to set aside ego and not be concerned for material gains does not play well with people who both depend on your taxes and expect you to be lulled into complacency by fears of hell and expectations of heaven. A poet who doesn't need the gardens of Paradise doesn't fear the demons of hell, either.

I thought of this verse once when I was accosted at the Seattle Center by some evangelical. I was with my kids, and he asked me if I was a good person, ever broke any commandments. I told him I was a reasonably good man, but sure, I had probably broken a few. He pulled out his trump card: Well, then aren't you worried about going to hell? Your kids? Do you want my get out of jail free card? And I told him I wasn't worried about going to hell, but not because I didn't believe in it. I mean what do I know? Maybe there is a hell. But I wasn't worried because I wanted to accept God's will, good or bad. I didn't like the idea of going to hell, but it didn't motivate me one way or the other.

He was flabbergasted. He was speechless. I wasn't trying to be clever, or give him a hard time, but I replied with the teachings that I have learned from my order, and my Sufi poems. I wasn't going to be a hypocrite. I'm a long way from being enlightened, but I don't imagine turning aside from my path because I'm afraid or greedy will get me any further.

1 comment:

jeff said...

"Poems are rough notations for the music we are." --rumi