Dear PIMC friends,
I am responding to the interesting New Yorker article about Rumi and his poetry in the West.
The article speaks about removing the Islam from Rumi’s poetry to make it more palatable for a Western audience. I suppose this can, has and does happen and should be avoided. I believe, however, that to approach Rumi at that scholarly, cultural and historical level is to miss the meaning and practice of his timeless mystical teachings.
Rumi was a pretty normal fellow deeply embedded in the ways of Koranic Islam when Shams of Tabriz blew into his life. Shams had a worldview-shattering effect upon Rumi. He was reported to have become free in a most radical way, beyond all conventions. Shams disappeared and it is believed that he was murdered by Rumi’s sons and followers who were upset by the way he transformed and moved beyond convention. (Like the Buddha, Nisargadatta, Sri Ramakrishna, and so many others)
From Rumi’s illumination came Sufism and the whirling dervishes. He emerged out of Islam the same way the Buddha emerged from Hinduiism. He became a fountain of poetry and love that has transformed countless lives over many centuries. He espoused the direct experience of “God” rather than a religious container.
To this day the Sufis are persecuted by fundamentalist sects in Islam as apostasy.
Just as I often say the Buddha was not a Buddhist and he didn’t teach Buddhism, I believe it to be true that Rumi transcended Islam and pointed at that which cannot be spoken or described. His roots are in the great religion of Islam, of course, however his his heart is the cosmos beyond all containment.
I have been deeply influenced by the message of Rumi. In 2010 I spent 18 days in Turkey with my daughter Tara. She is a Sufi as am I, having been initiated about 25 years ago. We went to experience the country and also to pilgrimage to Konya and Rumi’s tomb.
Within a few days I began to occasionally respond to the call to prayer and joined the men in the mosque for prayers. Sometimes Tara would accompany me and join the women in their separate rooms at the back. I was taught the proper way to bathe before prayers, and my obvious ignorance was not a problem. I was most welcome. It was remarkably powerful to stand and kneel and bow in prayer with a couple of hundred men on our adjoining carpets. I didn’t know the words they were saying but our hearts were certainly focused in the same direction…inward.
I discovered that the older men carried and used a a small set of strung medium-sized gray prayer beads (mala). I purchased one and began to maintain, as they did, a constant repetition of, Allah Huu Akbar There are many meanings from the fundamentalist “Allah is the only god" to the truly mystical “There is nothing that is not God”. This is the meaning understood by the Sufis. I had done a similar practice years ago in Nepal and Tibet when I used a Tibetan mala and repeated the Tibetan Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum as frequently as I could remember. In my childhood I carried a Catholic rosary and recited thousands of repetitions of Hail Mary. In all three instances I was attuning myself to the spiritual vibration of the land and people I was in. Many times while traveling in Turkey I would be working my mala and repeating the mantra silently when I would encounter a group of older Turkish men who would look at the mala and then into to my eyes. I would let my eyes linger in theirs and nod slightly and we would be connected as brothers.
Tara and I found the Turks to be among the most welcoming and loving people either of us had ever met anywhere on the planet. On several occasions, including in metropolitan Istanbul we were unable to pay for our dinner. The owners, older men, refused to accept payment. In one instance, it was the 80th birthday of the owner. Tara and I found a florist nearby and brought him back a dozen roses. There were no dry eyes. Love is the lingua franca of humanity if we can just get past the fear.
The spiritual highlight of our journey was the day we spent at Rumi’s tomb in Konya.
Across the street from the tomb there is a huge park in which thousands upon thousands of devotees of Rumi have been buried. It is stunningly beautiful.
Tara and I arrived in Konya late in the evening and stayed at the Hotel Rumi
We could see the tomb from our window.
The next morning we were the first in line when the tomb opened. We were issued little plastic booties to cover our shoes to enter the tomb itself.
As I stood there about to enter I found tears streaming down my face. To be there, where Rumi had taught and founded his school so long ago was deeply moving.
A “security guard” approached me and in quite good English asked if I was OK. I told him that “Yes I could not be better!”, and explained that for me this was not tourism, but a pilgrimage. He proceeded to accompany us as we made our way through the tomb/museum.
In addition to the great stone monuments that are covered in rich cloths there were hundreds of other artifacts from tiny Korans to articles of clothing. There were many signs saying “Photography Forbidden”
He took us to the book in the photo below, The M. This is the actual book that forms that is the source of almost all the poetry translated in the West. Once again I was deeply moved. I was remembering how my life has been transformed by Rumi’s poetry and here was THE BOOK. Our guide leaned over and quietly said, “Take a photo”. I replied quietly “Forbidden!” He then said “No Flash!”
We spent several hours with him during which he insisted that we have tea and a visit with HIS STAFF. He was the director of security for the entire tomb complex. As it turned our he was also a Sufi who got up early every day to do two hours of spiritual practice. He was beloved by everybody.
He explained Rumi’s school to us and showed us the place where the whirling took place. He also showed us a little landing where aspirants would have to wait before being allowed to join the practices. Sometimes they would have to wait there for months, hearing the practices but not able to see or join in! Many failed this test and left. Persistence and patience are part of every spiritual tradition it seems.
He explained this little fountain which is just in front of the tomb. The water comes in at the top, a single source, then splits into many different forms and paths as it falls….and then it goes back to the ONE. He was very pleased when we understood this.
At the back of the hall at PIMC you can see this goat skin painting. On it is written in exquisite Arabic script, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, which can be poetically translated "With every step that we take, may we be instruments of the One Light which guides us, the Source and Nourisher of all of creation.
Or, “We begin in the name of Allah who is compassion and mercy”
Our friend the Sufi, head of security (whose name has escaped me, though we did print and send photos back to him) manifested the love, generosity and welcoming that are so central to both the Sufis and Islam.
May the path of your heart open before you!