Aug 28 2013
The Good Darkness
by Hakim Sanai
English version by Coleman Barks
There is great joy in darkness.
in the half-light
but a scorched, blackened, face
can laugh like an Ethiopian,
or a candled moth,
coming closer to God.
Brighter than any moon, Bilal,
Muhammed’s Black Friend,
shadowed him on the night journey.
Keep your deepest secret hidden
in the dark beneath daylight’s
uncovering and night’s spreading veil.
Whatever’s given you by those two
is for your desires. They poison,
eventually. Deeper down, where your face
gets erased, where life-water runs silently,
there’s a prison with no food and drink,
and no moral instruction, that opens on a garden
where there’s only God. No self,
only the creation-word, BE.
You, listening to me, roll up the carpet
of time and space. Step beyond,
into the one word.
In blindness, receive what I say.
Take “There is no good…”
for your wealth and your strength.
Let “There is nothing…” be
a love-wisdom in your wine.
— from The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia, with Lectures by Inayat Khan, Translated by Coleman Barks
/ Photo by TheBroth3R /
Wow. What is there to say about a poem like this? Just reading it works its alchemy on the awareness. But I’m a talkative fellow, so I think I’ll say a few things anyway…
What is this “Good Dark”? Light is so often considered one of the attributes of the Divine, but we forget that dark too is also a metaphor for God. The Eternal is sometimes called dark because It is beyond the ability of the limited intellect to see. It is the realm where there are no longer separations; nothing is seen as separate from That. When the individual encounters such immensity, perception in a sense collapses; there is merging and awareness, but the faculty of seeing distinct objects and beings, even a distinct self, is overwhelmed. It can feel like a shining darkness.
So the Sacred Dark, the Good Dark, is God vast beyond comprehension, Being that gathers everything, even light, even perception, into Itself. This is the darkness where there is “great joy.” This is the immense Mystery.
But what does Sanai mean when he says “blushing embarrassments / in the half-light / confuse”? And he follows with, “but a scorched, blackened, face / can laugh like an Ethiopian, / or a candled moth, / coming closer to God.” What is he saying here?
First, why does a “blackened face” allow us to laugh and come closer to God? Because, if we understand the Divine to be that living, mysterious darkness, then when we become “blackened,” we finally recognize ourselves as the same as that darkness. In the “half-light,” where we are still distracted by our own faces, we are confused, more aware of ourselves than the holy mystery we touch. We become like a young lover too nervous and self-conscious to simply lose oneself in the embrace of the Beloved.
Sanai is telling us we must be burned like a “candled moth,” “blackened” until we have no face of our own separate from the “Good Dark,” and then we can melt silently into the darkness and mystery of the Divine One. This is what he means when he later speaks of “Deeper down, where your face / gets erased, where life-water runs silently…”
What do you think Sanai is talking about when he speaks of a place where “there’s a prison with no food and drink, / and no moral instruction,” but that place surprisingly “opens on a garden / where there’s only God”?
The prison is for the false self, the little self, the ego. There is “no food and drink” to satisfy the ego’s desires, not merely its sensual desires, but it’s intellectual desires go unfed, as well. This is the place where concepts fail, where reality is no longer parceled out into dichotomies of good and bad, right and wrong, making even “moral instruction” a hollow thing. The ego-mind is no longer able to say ‘this is separate from that.’ In the ego’s starvation, in the mind’s deep stillness, reality is perceived as one, whole, unsegmented, pure. That “prison with no food and drink” thus leads you to the garden “where there’s only God.”
This awareness is what Sanai is asking of us when he tells us to “roll up the carpet / of time and space” (both belonging to the ego’s attempts to segment reality), to “step… into the one word” (rather than the ego-mind’s many words). This is what it means to say “There is no good…” (or bad, no division of opposites), “There is nothing…” (except the Divine Wholeness that is all things, emptying individual ‘things’ of their substance). If you can settle deeply into this awareness, with supreme poise and balance, then you will find yourself drinking the ecstasy of true love-wisdom!
Not much is known about Hakim Sanai, often just called Sanai or Sanai of Ghazna. Sanai is one of the earlier Sufi poets. He was born in the province of Ghazna in southern Afghanistan in the middle of the 11th century and probably died around 1150.
Rumi acknowledged Sanai and Attar as his two primary inspirations, saying, “Attar is the soul and Sanai its two eyes, I came after Sanai and Attar.”
Sanai was originally a court poet who was engaged in writing praises for the Sultan of Ghazna.
The story is told of how the Sultan decided to lead a military attack against neighboring India and Sanai, as a court poet, was summoned to join the expedition to record the Sultan’s exploits. As Sanai was making his way to the court, he passed an enclosed garden frequented by a notorious drunk named Lai Khur.
As Sanai was passing by, he heard Lai Khur loudly proclaim a toast to the blindness of the Sultan for greedily choosing to attack India, when there was so much beauty in Ghazna. Sanai was shocked and stopped. Lai Khur then proposed a toast to the blindness of the famous young poet Sanai who, with his gifts of insight and expression, couldn’t see the pointlessness of his existence as a poet praising such a foolish Sultan.
These words were like an earthquake to Hakim Sanai, because he knew they were true. He abandoned his life as a pampered court poet, even declining marriage to the Sultan’s own sister, and began to study with a Sufi master named Yusef Hamdani.
Sanai soon went on pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned, he composed his poetic masterpiece, Hadiqatu’l Haqiqat or The Walled Garden of Truth. There was a double meaning in this title for, in Persian, the word for a garden is the same word for paradise, but it was also from within a walled garden that Lai Khur uttered the harsh truths that set Hakim Sanai on the path of wisdom.