Reverend Amy Zucker
April 17, 2005
Palo Alto, CA
One of the oldest questions of the spiritual quester is: should we be trying to be happy with the way things are right now, finding joy in moment to moment awareness of the reality our senses reveal to us? Or should we be striving to reach another world - not a world we go to after we die, necessarily, but perhaps a world that is hidden within this world, "here" but somehow beyond the limits of our perception?
In one of his poems, Jalaluddin Rumi, tells a story that suggests that we are fools to think there is nothing beyond this world. He urges,
Little by little, wean yourself.
That is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes int he blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, "The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding."
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no "other world."
I only know what I've experienced.
You must be hallucinating.
On the other hand, Rumi describes this world as one where all the bliss we seek is already at our fingertips.
Don't worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn't matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world's harp should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark. (34-35)
It's confusing. Which are we to do? Neither a longing for another world nor a placid contentment with the way things are now leads us to our goal. Rumi sums it up like this:
If you want what visible reality
can give, you're an employee.
If you want the unseen world,
you're not living your truth.
Both wishes are foolish,
but you'll be forgiven for forgetting
that what you really want is
love's confusing joy. (193)
Rumi was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, which was then within the Persian empire. While still a child he fled to Turkey, along with his whole family, when the Mongols invaded their land. He became a scholar and a mystic in the community of dervishes, like his father, and a poet whose words fill our service today. He died in 1273, and the anniversary of his death is celebrated in his country as "Rumi's Wedding Day," the day he melted into union with everything. That communion--with beloved friends, with God, with the world - is expressed throughout his poetry.
And like mystics of every tradition, he resolved the searcher's question, "should we look outside our experience, or deep within it? should we be seeking another world or delving into this one?" by saying: neither, and both. Yes, we are on a journey, we are headed elsewherebut when we truly get there we will understand that we were there all along. We already live where everything is music. We search outside ourselves for truth and happiness. We are right that we need to search, because we haven't found that truth or happiness yet. But the search begins and ends where we are right now.
I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside! (281)
And so he counsels us:
Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.
The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that's blazing inside your presence.
. . . all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what's hidden.
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not. (172)
Rumi's writing is not all about bliss; he also sings of the pain that precedes ecstasy, or is even a part of it. Sometimes the things we treasure, our very selves, have to be dismantled in order for new life to have room to emerge. We may have to endure destruction before our new selves can be created.
Many demolitions are renovations,
says Rumi (68).
He writes often about the relationship between a teacher and a student, which is a story of renovations that feel like demolitions. They are demolitions, tearing down what the student used to be. The student longs to be changed, but the change is not easy. A good teacher who truly loves the student presses on, doing things that may hurt very much. And so Rumi says,
Many actions which seem cruel
are from a deep friendship. (68)
Spiritual transformation is a death as well as a birth. The teachers who help us to grow know that it can't happen without this pain. They don't save us from it - in fact what they do usually intensifies it.
I had a teacher like that once - probably the best teacher I ever had. He was my English and philosophy teacher in high school, but he was also a spiritual teacher. I was a bright little abstract thinker, a natural philosopher; I loved the play of ideas and intellectual games. And one day Greg really challenged me, right there in front of everyone: could I connect these bright sparkling ideas to my own life? What he was really asking me, I realized years later - I don't think he used these words at the time - was, could I connect my mind and my heart? Or was it all just a game?
Also years later, he and I talked about my time "on the hot seat," as Greg put it, and he confessed that he hadn't been sure if I would come back. Maybe he had pushed too hard. But I was a stubborn kid as well as a bright one, and I did come back. And I was grateful, years later but also even then right there on the hot seat, for his pushing me. I've returned to that teaching many times. I even hung a little sign up over my bed, "What about you?" to remind myself to consider how the thoughts and ideas were connected to what was most important in my life.
Rumi tells about the spiritual teacher and student like this:
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
" Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being" . . . .
Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
" oil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can't do this by myself." (132-33)
The spiritual teacher demands so much, not out of cruelty, but out of love and necessity, because the spiritual life is demanding. The transformations we seek aren't trivial.
In The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader," one of the Chronicles of Narnia, the author, C. S. Lewis, suggests a different metaphor for spiritual transformation. The character Eustace, who is a complete brat up to this point, runs into the kind of misfortune that might happen to anyone on a magical island: he turns into a dragon. He is selfish and destructive and so he takes on the form that suits him. When he realizes what's happened, he tries to take off his skin and become a boy again, and as one might imagine a dragon can do, he molts quite easily, like a snake. But underneath he is still a dragon. All he's done is peel off his outer layer. It hasn't hurt, and it hasn't made any real difference to his nature. He does this three times, but each time the change is superficial - skin deep. Only when the lion Aslan tears deep into his skin does he really shed his dragon nature and transform into a human being again, and a much better and happier human than he's ever been before. It takes the worst pain he's ever experienced to get there. "The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart" - and of course that's exactly what it had done.
Something, something holy, is buried deep under our lives. Will we do the demolition necessary to dig it out? Allah says, "I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known." As a commentary on that passage, Rumi writes this poem called "The Pickaxe."
this house. A hundred thousand new houses
can be built from the transparent yellow carnelian
buried beneath it, and the only way to get to that
is to do the work of demolishing and then
digging under the foundations. With that value
in hand all the new construction will be done
without effort. And anyway, sooner or later this house
will fall on its own. The jewel treasure will be
uncovered, but it won't be yours then. The buried
wealth is your pay for doing the demolition,
the pick and shovel work. If you wait and just
let it happen, you'd bite your hand and say,
"I didn't do as I knew I should have." This
is a rented house. You don't own the deed.
You have a lease, and you've set up a little shop,
where you barely make a living sewing patches
on torn clothing. Yet only a few feet underneath
are two veins, pure red and bright gold carnelian.
Quick! Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You've got to quit this seamstress work.
What does the patch-sewing mean, you ask. Eating
and drinking. The heavy cloak of the body
is always getting torn. You patch it with food,
and other restless ego-satisfactions. Rip up
one board from the shop floor and look into
the basement. You'll see two glints in the dirt. (113-14)
Part 3: "Dancing into the Heart of God"
Rumi's poetry is grounded in an experience of the abandon of deep love. When you love someone deeply, that love makes you forget everything else: you rush to be with a friend when she needs you, never mind that you have so much work you can't spare any time. . . you stay up most of the night with your sick child . . . you buy flowers constantly and bring them to your sweetheart because every time you pass by a display of bouquets, in the supermarket checkout or in the farmers' market or walking down the street, you think of him. You unhesitatingly buy that perfect, ridiculously expensive plaything for your grandchild, without so much as a mental glance toward your bank balance, because the thought of the delight on that beloved face exerts a pull that's irresistible.
One of the central facts of Rumi's life was his deep, mystical friendship with Shams of Tabriz. As Coleman Barks, the translator of these poems, writes, "they spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation." One night, while they were in this state of mystical communion, a knock came at the back door, and Shams went to the door and disappeared. Rumi never saw him again. No one knows what happened; some think Shams was killed by disciples of Rumi who were jealous of the time the two men spent together. If it was a case of murder by jealous disciples who wanted Rumi's attention for themselves, it didn't work. He kept focusing on Shams, and wrote his entire masterpiece to Shams, the Friendor more precisely, he said it was written by Shams, and that he was just the channel.
Rumi has that orientation not just towards Shams but seemingly toward everything, the attitude of someone in the grip of an unshakeable love. Love for the world, for God, for his own innermost hearthe writes of them all with utter adoration.
The sun is love. The lover,
a speck circling the sun.
A Spring wind moves to dance
any branch that isn't dead. (280)
Any branch that isn't dead, any heart ready to move with the ecstasy of love, will dance without being able to help it, even in its most painful moments.
Dance, [Rumi says,] when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you're perfectly free. (281)
Since we live where everything is music, everything is dancing.
Watch the dust grains moving
in the light near the window.
Their dance is our dance.
We rarely hear the inward music,
but we're all dancing to it nevertheless,
directed by the one who teaches us,
the pure joy of the sun,
our music master. (106)
Who or what is the music master? Maybe Rumi meant the Friend, or the lover, or God. Or perhaps the music master is whatever teaches us. It can be anything at all: whatever it is that awakens our love and commands us the way the planets are commanded by the sun to whirl unceasingly. "The sun, our music master."
Coleman Barks writes about the dervishes' dance:
The "turn," the moving meditation done by Mevlevi dervishes, originated with Rumi. The story goes that he was walking in the gold-smithing section of Konya when he heard a beautiful music in their hammering. He began turning in harmony with it, an ecstatic dance of surrender and yet with great centered discipline. He arrived at a place where ego dissolves and a resonance with universal soul comes in. (277)
Rumi's words read like advice to the dancer, advice to the lover of the universe who longs for communion the way we long to be heart-close to those we love the most:
Keep walking, though there's no place to get to.
Don't try to see through the distances.
That's not for human beings. Move within,
but don't move the way fear makes you move. (278)
Walk to the well.
Turn as the earth and the moon turn,
circling what they love.
Whatever circles comes from the center. (279)
The earth circles around itself, solid around that axis. It circles around the sun, held irresistibly in that orbit. That is how we revolve around whatever, whomever, we love with unreserved passion. Rumi's words, Rumi's dance, invite us each to surrender to that love. They tell us that the same love we feel for a child, a wife, a husband, a friend,--in our peak moments, we can feel that for anyone. And when we do we will want nothing more than to keep the strength of that connection, just as the mother who holds her child, the lover who holds his beloved, wants only to circle around that soul forever.
The word "dervish" means "doorway," and we have heard from Kay how just being in the presence of the dancers can open up a door to joy and peace. We don't have to go to faraway lands or see or even hear the words of the sublime poet to experience that love. The world is all around us, longing to be loved, filled with beings who long to be known and loved by us. By being centered upon our own hearts as on an axis, by allowing our lives to revolve around each thing that cries out to be known and loved, we can follow that call to love every little scrap of the world, and everyone in it. We can dance through the doorway.
. Jalaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi. trans. Coleman Barks with John Moyne (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1997), 70-71. All subsequent Rumi quotations refer to this edition.
. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1970), 90.