Jan 27 2010

The Celestial Drink 1: Introduction

Published by at 11:33 am under Celestial Drink,Ivan's Story,Poetry,Stories

Wine, amrita, ambrosia, dew, tea, elixir, honey, virgin’s milk… References to a secret or forbidden drink appears in the writings and songs of initiates throughout the world. It is a drink that imparts wisdom, inspiration, prophecy, divine madness, and bliss. It is the sign of divine union between lover and the Beloved, the mystic’s marriage wine. But what is this celestial drink really? Why does it appear in sacred writings all over the world?

Let’s explore those questions in this Celestial Drink series…

As I was considering how to begin our exploration of the Celestial Drink, it occurred to me that I needed to find a way to convey that we are not talking about actual wine …or tea or honey or any other physical drink. At the same time, this subtle drink is not merely a metaphor. It is real, and available to everyone.

As long as the discussion remains safely in the intellect, the taste of wine never touches our lips — and who wants somber sobriety when the wine pours so freely?

/ Photo by Jsome1 /

Academics and literary critics are better equipped than I to give you a standard history of how wine and drink images are used in the great writings of the world. Instead, let’s you and I speak in shared whispers, as mystics, passing the cup quietly between us. Let us share the true taste and not simply the description…

Omar Khayyam, Omar Khayyam poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Omar Khayyam

Iran/Per (11th Century) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

You know, my Friends, how long since in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse:
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

For “Is” and “Is-not” though with Rule and Line,
And “Up-and-down” without, I could define,
I yet in all I only cared to know,
Was never deep in anything but — Wine.

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas — the Grape!

The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.

– Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Illustrated Edition)
by Omar Khayyam / Translated by Edward FitzGerald

The language of a sacred drink, a secret drink that imparts wisdom and bliss appears in the writings and songs of initiates throughout the world — wine, amrita, ambrosia, dew, tea, elixir, virgin’s milk. But what are these really?

To help us know what we’re really talking about before we dive more deeply into the poetry, I am going to share with you my first encounter with the heavenly drink.

The above quatrains by Omar Khayyam opened up a world of beauty to me in mystical poetry that I hadn’t recognized before. But my appreciation and understanding was confined to the intellect — old barren Reason. At that point it was beautiful and inspiring poetry to me, but that was all… and it wasn’t really enough.

A deeper understanding didn’t come to me until several years later when I first started slipping into bliss, and I found that the “wine” of the mystics was real!

Several years ago I was going through a quiet crisis. I had just left the spiritual path I had been following intensely for more than a decade. At that time I was living on Maui, meditating and praying, eating a simple, pure diet, fasting a lot — and suddenly I had no framework for all of these practices. I had lost my spiritual orientation. Christmas came in the midst of this psychic collapse, followed quickly by New Years. A few days later, in early January — POW — I was catapulted into an ecstatic stillness. Perhaps what surprised me the most was that I realized I had been in that state always, I just hadn’t noticed it. I saw that everyone is always in that state, they just have to settle into themselves enough to recognize it.

And — accompanying this bliss was a sense of a subtle liquid-like substance descending through the head and down the back of the throat. It felt like I was drinking something, something utterly pure and nourishing, satisfying a soul hunger I didn’t even know was there until it began to be properly fed. This drink has an ethereal sweetness on the tongue that can’t easily be described. Drinking it, my heart grew warm and expanded until it felt to me as if the entire universe was held in my heart. Everything and everyone was alive inside my heart.

My body was so overwhelmed by this experience that it began to tremble, not in seizure, but surging to a powerful wave that couldn’t be resisted. And who would want to resist it? The joy was all-consuming! My eyes were closed and I have no doubt that a silly grin was plastered crookedly across my face. Anyone watching me would have thought I was drunk!

The intensity of that initial “taste” subsided slightly as I resumed my normal activities, but the flavor has remained with me…

(I want to give a quick disclaimer: I am not suggesting that I am spiritually “perfect” or anything like that. My wife can all too easily attest to my humanness and imperfections. Like you, I am on a journey. I share this special part of my journey in the hopes that it can open a doorway for you too, one that leads to the tavern.)

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

– Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Illustrated Edition)
by Omar Khayyam / Translated by Edward FitzGerald

I began to write about the deep opening I was going through in a journal, but I soon found that what really wanted to come out was — poetry. Naturally, I began to read spiritual poetry, as well: Rumi, Hafez, Kabir, Ramakrishna, St. John of the Cross. And, you know what I found in all of their work? Wine! Honey! Nectar! They were endlessly singing of the Celestial Drink. The more widely I read other mystic poets, the more I found this divine stream flowing through all religions and sacred traditions.

That’s when I conceived of the idea of the Poetry Chaikhana website as an Internet resource for sacred poetry from around the world. What is a “chaikhana”? It is a teahouse, a place that serves the Celestial Drink…

The Story of Tea

In ancient times, tea was not known outside China. Rumours of its existence had reached the wise and the unwise of other countries, and each tried to find out what it was in accordance with what he wanted or what he thought it should be.

The King of Inja (‘here’) sent an embassy to China, and they were given tea by the Chinese Emperor. But, since they saw that the peasants drank it too, they concluded that it was not fit for their royal master: and, furthermore, that the Chinese Emperor was trying to deceive them, passing off some other substance for the celestial drink.

The greatest philosopher of Anja (‘there’) collected all the information he could about tea, and concluded that it must be a substance which existed but rarely, and was of another order than anything then known. For was it not referred to as being a herb, a water, green, black, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet?

In the countries of Koshish and Bebinem, for centuries the people tested all the herbs they could find. Many were poisoned, all were disappointed. For nobody had brought the tea-plant to their lands, and thus they could not find it. They also drank all the liquids which they could find, but to no avail.

In the territory of Mazhab (‘Sectarianism’) a small bag of tea was carried in procession before the people as they went on their religious observances. Nobody thought of tasting it: indeed, nobody knew how. All were convinced that the tea itself had a magical quality. A wise man said: ‘Pour upon it boiling water, ye ignorant ones!’ They hanged him and nailed him up, because to do this, according to their belief, would mean the destruction of their tea. This showed that he was an enemy of their religion.

Before he died, he had told his secret to a few, and they managed to obtain some tea and drink it secretly. When anyone said: ‘What are you doing?’ they answered: ‘It is but medicine which we take for a certain disease.’

And so it was throughout the world. Tea had actually been seen growing by some, who did not recognize it. It had been given to others to drink, but they thought it the beverage of the common people. It had been in the possession of others, and they worshipped it. Outside China, only a few people actually drank it, and those covertly.

Then came a man of knowledge, who said to the merchants of tea, and the drinkers of tea, and to others: ‘He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not. Instead of talking about the celestial beverage, say nothing, but offer it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more. Those who do not, will show that they are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.’

The tea was brought from one stage to another along the Silk Road, and whenever a merchant carrying jade or gems or silk would pause to rest, he would make tea, and offer it to such people as were near him, whether they were aware of the repute of tea or not. This was the beginning of the Chaikhanas, the teahouses which were established all the way from Peking to Bokhara and Samarkand. And those who tasted, knew.

At first, mark well, it was only the great and the pretended men of wisdom who sought the celestial drink and who also exclaimed: ‘But this is only dried leaves!’ or: ‘Why do you boil water, stranger, when all I want is the celestial drink?’, or yet again: ‘How do I know that this is? Prove it to me. Besides the colour of the liquid is not golden, but ochre!’

When the truth was known, and when the tea was brought for all who would taste, the roles were reversed, and the only people who said things like the great and intelligent had said were the absolute fools. And such is the case to this day.

– Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani (1098 – 1131)

Tales of the Dervishes: Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years
by Idries Shah

So, what do you say we all gather together and sample the vintage!

Next, we’ll begin our journey by considering what draws us into the tavern: thirst…


2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Celestial Drink 1: Introduction”

  1. maryann moonon 29 Jan 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Dear Ivan, I loved reading all this about your decision
    long ago to abstain from “spirits”. But what I loved even
    more is your haiku: “real thirst draws rainwater from an
    empty sky”. Our real Thirst is our great longing for
    the Holy Spirit, our higher SELF, ever with us. When
    we do stop and ask: “WHO GOES WITH ME?” we are asking
    for the nourishment that knows – “always all is well with
    my SOUL.” which IS the rainwater that comes from an
    empty sky.

  2. Letitia Snydermanon 29 Jan 2010 at 2:14 pm

    I agree with maryann…your haiku was beautiful Ivan. Reading it, I had a sensation of looking up and seeing an ocean of light spilling towards me. Thank you for sharing YOUR light with us all ~ letitia

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