Jun 29 2016

Truth, Tea, and Poetry

Yesterday’s Istanbul bombing. The Brexit vote. The murder of Amjad Sabri, the Sufi qawwali singer, in Pakistan last week. We could add several things from the American scene to this list. While it is not always the role of the Poetry Chaikhana to dwell on these sorts of events in depth, I do hope my occasional comments inspire serious thought, new perspectives, and deep discussion with those around you.

Poetry, especially sacred poetry, has a way of bringing down barriers and sidestepping dogmas, guiding us to the hidden strands of unity. Sacred poetry reminds us of our shared humanity and our shared divinity.

The poetry of Muslim Sufis and Christian mystics, the songs of shamans and Hindu rishis, of Jewish rebbes and Zen Roshis — these outpourings from the enlightened heart heal the world in ways that politics and social institutions were never designed for. The right word moves from the heart to the tongue to touch a new heart, and so quietly spreads through the world. An elegant formulation of thought and feeling and breath, the poetic word is itself utterly insubstantial, a phantasm, yet somehow alive with truth and beauty… and the recognition of the underlying unity we all are part of. And so poetry, in its quiet way, flows on hidden currents through humanity, unaffected by borders or bullets.

I believe poetry, sacred poetry, is essential to the healing of this suffering world.

The Poetry Chaikhana seeks to honor the way the mystic’s ecstatic insight flows naturally into poetic utterance, doing away with all the dogma and internecine sectarian squabbling. This idea was central to my decision years ago to call this site a “chaikhana.”

Chaikhana

I often get asked what a “chaikhana” is. The short answer is that it is a tea house (chai = tea). The inevitable second question is, why a “poetry chaikhana”? What does poetry, especially sacred poetry, have to do with tea? The act of sipping tea naturally has a contemplative quality to it, but there’s a deeper reason why I chose the name Poetry Chaikhana all those years ago. I was inspired by a Sufi story–


/ Photo by Doubtful-Della /

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 an 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

I hope the poems and thoughts I share through the Poetry Chaikhana bring a taste of that essential truth to your lips. This deep truth is loving and accepting, utterly unthreatened by the multiplicity of ideas, ancient and modern, that so threaten the rigid-minded. This truth permeates and enlivens the best of our notions and aspirations without being limited by them. And when a line of sacred poetry entrances us with its beauty, we have caught a holy glimpse of that truth, which is nothing less than the eternal Face of the Beloved, ever smiling just beneath the surface, drawing our spirits deeper, deeper into understanding, deeper into truth, deeper into compassion and connection.

Truth, tea… and poetry. Chaikhana.

He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not… Close the shop of argument and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Truth, Tea, and Poetry”

  1. Johnthebarmanon 30 Jun 2016 at 5:23 am

    Thank you for such a spiritual, helpful and enriching post. I hope your readership grows in number as it will in wisdom.

  2. Judith Shineron 24 Aug 2016 at 11:33 am

    I am grateful to have received the clear and true reminder about the value of sacred poetry and how a poem can return me to what matters most. My mind has been caught in some of the news of late about climate change, forests dying in the Sierra, etc. and I had started to become demoralized inside. And as one who writes poetry and participates in sacred poetry events where poems are learned and shared from the heart, I welcomed your reminder of its value. Thank you and blessings. Judith

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