09 July 2016

Take rock and shatter the mirror we are both resident in

It is said that the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi mirrors back to us an ocean of woven speech too intricate and dynamic for any grammarian to untangle.  Reading this observation by Coleman Barks in a collection titled ‘The Essential Rumi’ it occurred to me that perhaps I am privileged in that I am happily oblivious to grammar rule out of sheer ignorance and interrogative sloth. 

This does not of course translate automatically to enhanced ability to extract value from Rumi or, to put another way, to swim in more exhilarating ways among the poet’s word-ways and silences.   Rumi reads to us, but we listen, talk back, get entangled and slip life-knots in accordance with our readiness  and ability to hear the music between syllables and inhabit the miniscule spaces between intertwining thought strings.  We come to our own conclusions.   We get lost and found to the extent we subject ourselves to abandonment and suffering.  Our end point is a journey, if we really want to see things that way.  Bliss involves a willingness to unfetter from known comforts and securities, and the insane sanity of seeking residence in a conversation-wave that is the word and is not, affirms as it disavows and transcends all categories and definitions.

Rumi has always intoxicated me with the logic-less but utterly lucid sobriety of his intoxication.  Each read gives insight.  A random page of a good translation (how I wish I had the language or perhaps the ignorance to judge translation-fidelity!) makes me want to stop writing even as it urges me never to stop. 

Coleman Barks recounts an encounter, that of Rumi, born in the year 1207 in Balkh (in what is now known as Afghanistan) and then Shiek in the dervish learning community in Konya, Turkey, and a dervish he met in 1244 by the name of Shams of Tabriz who had travelled what is now called the Middle East looking for someone who could endure his company.  Shams asks Rumi who was greater, Muhammad or Bestami, the latter having said ‘how great is my glory’ while the former had mused in prayer  (to God), ‘we do not know You as we should.’  The question had literally floored Rumi, Barks tells us, but he finally asserted that Muhammad was the greater because ‘Bestami had taken one gulp of the divine and stopped there whereas for Muhammad the way was always unfolding’.  Thereafter the two, Rumi and Shams became inseparable even when circumstances forced the latter to ‘disappear’ creating a void that was filled with Rumi’s transformation into a poet who began to listen to music and sang hour after hour, whirling around.

Shams returns and the reuniting kindles old jealousies in the community which eventually leads to a second disappearance, this time final, for Shams was (reportedly) murdered.  Rumi went looking for his beloved friend all the way to Damascus where he stopped in an interminable moment of eternity: ‘Why should I seek? I am the same as he. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself!’

 I remembered an unforgettable conversation that drove home the point. A man knocks on a friend’s door. The friend within asks, ‘Who is it?’  He hears the response, ‘It is I’ and is dismissive, ‘Go away!’  He does and comes back a year later and is asked the same question. This time he responds, ‘you’.  The door opens: ‘Since we are one, there is room for two of us’. 

I have read many versions of this anecdote but the one in this particular collection came with an elaboration: ‘The double end of the thread is not what goes through the eye of the needle; it’s the single-pointed, fined-down, thread end (and) not a big ego-beast with baggage’.

Let Rumi elaborate further, for he is both master and slave of of both explication and confusion:

We are the mirror as well as the face in it

we are tasting the taste this minute

of eternity. We are pain

and what cures pain, both. We are

the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.

Would you rather throw stones at the mirror, Rumi asks and answers with mirror-shattering sublimity: ‘I am your mirror, and here are the stones.’

The fascination with the false dichotomy of ‘you and I’ and of course with ‘mirrors’ and the seeming contradiction of the constant disavowal with word of their own utility (incessantly calling for silence) are recurrent themes in Rumi’s poetry.  The beloved is Shams and it is also Rumi.  God, as referred, is not an entity that is external but is one that is resident within patiently awaiting acknowledgment.  It is the ultimate humanizing of the divine and the elevation to divinity of the human, a concept that makes sense to theists and atheists both. 

Perhaps I am both empowered and rendered incapacitated by my grammar-lack, but I like to think that the beloved, even as he/she is I, even as it is Shams or the particular name that torments and gives bliss to heart at a given moment, is also that other impossible and infuriating creature we raise arms against: the enemy (so-called) that raises arm against us. It is someone else, and it is I. Self.  We make our own paradise and our personal hells.  All because we believe ‘I’ is tenable.  True exhilaration, if I’ve understood Rumi correctly, arrives through submission to truth (or god, if you like that idea).  He spoke to me this morning thus:

‘I saw you and became empty.

This emptiness, more beautiful than existence,

It obliterates existence, and yet when it comes,

Existence thrives and creates more existence!’

‘And also nothing, a beautiful nothing,’ I would add this morning when I realized that I am a Sufi and that Rumi was a Buddhist. 

This article was first published on July 6, 2011 in the 'Daily News'

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Twitter: malindasene.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.