Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Apr 19 2019

Li-Young Lee – One Heart

Published by under Poetry

One Heart
by Li-Young Lee

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings


was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

— from Book of My Nights, by Li-Young Lee


/ Image by hashmil /

It is both Passover and Easter this weekend, a time to celebrate liberation, the renewal of life and hope and possibility.

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born


out of nothing.

To take flight, birds launch themselves into apparent emptiness. Of course, successful flight requires an awareness that the sky is not truly empty, but a realm of subtle substance that can support us.

One must cultivate an inner emptiness and lightness in order to let go of the comforting certainty of the earth, to confidently leave it behind and meet that intangible space of open sky, and there dance among its secret currents.

The first sky
is inside you, open


at either end of day.

This, I think, is an important reason why practices such as fasting and other expressions of moderate asceticism are encouraged on occasion by most spiritual traditions. Forget the tormented dogmas of self-denial that tend to lead to hatred of the body — which should automatically be seen as a spiritual dead end. The real purpose of these sorts of practices is not disdain for the body but, rather, to awaken in our awareness that sense of openness, spaciousness, and inner quiet… while allowing the body to rest and regenerate and become more finely attuned to our higher purposes in life.

If we don’t cultivate awareness of the inner sky, the “first sky,” we fail to recognize that taking flight in the world around us is our natural expression. Instead, we fear that we will fall.

The work of wings


was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Perhaps we can think of flight as intentionally falling without ever hitting the ground. We leap into space, letting that inner emptiness lift us up. And perhaps what we thought was fear was in reality the exhilaration of the heart encountering the openness of the living moment while we soar upon nothing.

(This is a poem I have featured more than once, but each time I come across it again, it carries new life, and I think, Oh, I have to share this with the Poetry Chaikhana once more!)

Have a beautiful day!


Recommended Books: Li-Young Lee

Book of My Nights Rose The City in Which I Love You Behind My Eyes: Poems


Li-Young Lee, Li-Young Lee poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Li-Young Lee

US (1957 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Apr 17 2019

Ivan M. Granger – in love with the new sun

Published by under Ivan's Story,Poetry

in love with the new sun
by Ivan M. Granger

in love with the new sun
the cherry blossom forgets
the night’s frost

— from Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey, by Ivan M. Granger


/ Image by A-Daly /

I wrote this poem several years ago in my Maui days, on a spring morning after emerging from a meditation. It was a time of opening for me, a time of surprising bliss, a time of settling into myself. I had gone through such terrible internal struggles up to that point, but what had kept be balanced and focused through it all had been my fierce determination to seek meaning and insight, a sense of a greater love and truth. And then one day, whoosh!, it was like I had come through the storm and found myself at rest in a wide peaceful sea.

That struggle I went through to get there, it wasn’t even that I thought it had been “worth it;” it was is if even the struggle itself had been subsumed by that expansive bliss until it no longer existed, except as a story I had told myself.

I had the image of spring after a hard winter. Bright, blossoming with new life. And I wrote this haiku.


in love with the new sun
the cherry blossom forgets
the night’s frost

A few years back I was contacted by a young woman in San Francisco who asked my permission to use this haiku in a tattoo she planned to get. I was flattered and surprised. I mean, to have these words, which popped into my mind in a moment of inspiration, tattooed onto your body, to carry them with you for the rest of your days, that is humbling indeed. More than that, it was a responsibility after the fact. I really had to sit with the haiku for a bit and decide if I thought it was worthy of such an honor.

In her email, she said that the poem spoke to her, that the cherry blossoms suggested to her that, because life is short, you need to live to the fullest and seize opportunities, and that any difficulties or sorrows are temporary. She mentioned that she had been through many hardships in her life but that she recognized the importance of not holding grudges or dwelling in the past “because every day is special… like cherry blossoms that bloom for a short time.” Clearly a wise woman, wisdom that has been hard-earned.

I gladly gave her my permission to use the poem in her tattoo. But I still had a bit of a dilemma: With this haiku being utilized in such a special way, I wanted to ask for a photograph, but, you know, I wasn’t sure exactly where the tattoo would be placed on her body. I tried to find the most diplomatic language possible to ask for a photo “if appropriate.” A few weeks later she sent back a snapshot of the lines of the haiku tattooed in an elegant script running along her lower ribs on one side

(Whew.)

Have a beautiful day! Don’t forget to feel the new sun on your face.

=

First PS– Notre Dame
We are all stunned and shocked by the burning of Notre Dame in Paris. This is more than the destruction of a great landmark. Whether or not one is a Catholic or a Christian, Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the great sacred spots on the planet. Notre Dame, of course, means Our Lady, a reference to Mother Mary. Notre Dame is a focal point for the Divine Feminine. What aspect of the Divine Mother is in flames? The natural world? The treatment of women in culture? Nurturing and compassion in society? But I also find myself asking, How does fire change from destruction to renewal?

PPS– Rabbits!
Yesterday my wife and I were surprised to see a rabbit sitting on our front lawn. We occasionally see rabbits on our walks, but this rabbit seemed contentedly camped out right in front of our house. Then we saw a second rabbit, and eventually a third. As we watched them, we noticed they were scurrying in and out from under our front porch. One rabbit in particular would pop out, grab several fallen pine needles and other leaves, then dart back under the porch. We think they are building a new warren under there. We’ve been blessed by a family of rabbits just a few days before Easter.


Recommended Books: Ivan M. Granger

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics Diamond Cutters: Visionary Poets in America, Britain & Oceania
More Books >>


Ivan M. Granger, Ivan M. Granger poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Ivan M. Granger

US (1969 – )
Secular or Eclectic
Yoga / Hindu : Advaita / Non-Dualist

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Apr 11 2019

Goethe – Something Like the Sun

Published by under Poetry

Something Like the Sun
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

English version by John White

The eye must be something like the sun,
Otherwise no sunlight could be seen;
God’s own power must be inside us,
How else could Godly things delight us?

— from Art & Wonder: An Illustrated Anthology of Visionary Poetry, Edited by Kate Farrell


/ Image by CasheeFoo /

We might react to a casual reading of this selection by Goethe with the thought that it’s poetically inspiring, but is the poet doing anything more that just playing with pretty ideas? The answer, when we really contemplate these lines is, yes, there is something of deep insight being conveyed in these lines.

We only ever perceive what is already inside of us.

The eye must be something like the sun,
Otherwise no sunlight could be seen

In a literal, material sense, we don’t have a massive stellar object burning within each of us. (Or, well… I’ll avoid the many tangents I could go off on here…) Anyone with biologically functional eyes can see the sun and sunlight on a spring day. But we see that brilliant object in the sky as “sun” because we carry an idea of the sun within ourselves. The physical object is just a brightness in the sky that we could be indifferent to, but we have an intensely personal relationship with the sun. In the light and warmth and daily rhythms of the sun, we see our own potential for clarity, hope, comfort, love, life, strength, and steadiness. The object may be physically outside of our bodies, but the “sun” is really inside ourselves.

Ultimately, whatever we perceive outside of ourselves is actually an archetypal presence within us reflecting back to us.

Every relationship and interaction, everything we perceive, when we really pay attention, is actually mirroring back to us something we are trying to see within ourselves. Every person we love, every thing we desire, is really telling us about something we want to bring forth within ourselves. And everything we hate or reject also tells us about something within ourselves we fear or are afraid to discover.

Every perception and every aspiration is a conversation between spirit and material existence to deepen self-awareness and inspire greater wholeness. It’s not really the experiences “out there” we want. They just tell us what we are uncovering and integrating within ourselves. One way to understand the complexity of material existence is as a dialog of self-awareness within consciousness.

This is true even of God, or our ideas about God.

God’s own power must be inside us,
How else could Godly things delight us?

God is not some person or thing out there to be found. Divinity is found within, as well. The fact that we seek something eternal and true, the fact that we are elevated by kindness, compassion, creativity, beauty, purity, truth, these tell us not only that they already exist, but that they reside within ourselves. We don’t need to tenuously hope to one day uncover them. Whatever we feel and perceive or even imagine already has full existence within us. We just need to recognize and embrace them, then allow them to lead us deeper within to their brilliant source at our own core.


Recommended Books: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Faust News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Germany (1749 – 1832) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Apr 02 2019

Ivan M. Granger – To goslings

Published by under Ivan's Story,Poetry

To goslings
by Ivan M. Granger

To goslings
just hatched, all the world
is a spring day


/ Image by Jlhopgood /

Today is my birthday. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, it is my fiftieth year to heaven. Or, as I said on Facebook, I am now halfway to my first century.

I thought I’d celebrate by sharing this poem of new life and fresh vision with you today. (And thank you to Kris H. for suggesting it!)

I wrote this poem a few years back while on a walk by a local lake during a golden spring day. The Canadian geese were out, gliding through the water or on shore cropping at the grasses. Several paraded their new families of goslings. I watched these little ones, new arrivals to the world, with their fuzzy yellow feathers halloed by the sun. Such a pure moment of new life. I was reminded that that same life is in me too, and in everyone.

Have a beautiful day!


Recommended Books: Ivan M. Granger

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics Diamond Cutters: Visionary Poets in America, Britain & Oceania
More Books >>


Ivan M. Granger, Ivan M. Granger poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Ivan M. Granger

US (1969 – )
Secular or Eclectic
Yoga / Hindu : Advaita / Non-Dualist

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Mar 29 2019

Yunus Emre – One Who Is Real Is Humble

Published by under Poetry

One Who Is Real Is Humble
by Yunus Emre

English version by Jennifer Ferraro & Latif Bolat

To be real on this path you must be humble —
If you look down at others you’ll get pushed down the stairs.

If your heart goes around on high, you fly far from this path.
There’s no use hiding it —
What’s inside always leaks outside.

Even the one with the long white beard, the one who looks so wise —
If he breaks a single heart, why bother going to Mecca?
If he has no compassion, what’s the point?

My heart is the throne of the Beloved,
the Beloved the heart’s destiny:
Whoever breaks another’s heart will find no homecoming
in this world or any other.

The ones who know say very little
while the beasts are always speaking volumes;
One word is enough for one who knows.

If there is any meaning in the holy books, it is this:
Whatever is good for you, grant it to others too —

Whoever comes to this earth migrates back;
Whoever drinks the wine of love
understands what I say —

Yunus, don’t look down at the world in scorn —

Keep your eyes fixed on your Beloved’s face,
then you will not see the bridge
on Judgment Day.

— from Quarreling with God: Mystic Rebel Poems of the Dervishes of Turkey, Translated by Jennifer Ferraro / Translated by Latif Bolat


/ Image by Hossein Ghodsi /

Yunus Emre gives us several wonderful lines in this poem…

There’s no use hiding it —
What’s inside always leaks outside.

That just about sums up the spiritual perspective of everything, doesn’t it? One way or another, the inner world always reveals itself. Whatever masks we wear eventually fall away or slowly take the shape of what lies beneath. Why hide what’s inside? We should cultivate and celebrate that inner self. It will show itself anyway.

This poem in general seems to be a critique of religious hypocrisy, and specifically it deflates the idea of religious superiority. Those first lines give us a strong image:

To be real on this path you must be humble —
If you look down at others you’ll get pushed down the stairs.

I imagine a stern imam (or bishop or preacher or rabbi) who has spent his life carefully studying the minutia of religious law and has come to see everyone as falling short. He casts a cold eye on flawed and worldly humanity and judges them all to be far beneath him. It’s as if he is looking down a long staircase at the world.

That figure is in far greater spiritual danger than most of the people he looks down upon. The thing he hasn’t recognized is how unstable those stairs are. Any distance of spiritual perfectionism we construct in our minds is inherently rigid and brittle, yet it must stand on a living, shifting ground. Those stairs will always collapse in the end.

The more people “look down on the world in scorn,” the further they fall. This is simple gravity.

Even the one with the long white beard, the one who looks so wise —
If he breaks a single heart, why bother going to Mecca?
If he has no compassion, what’s the point?

Yunus Emre gives us the essential keys: humility and compassion. Everything else leads to pretense, which disjoints the soul. False superiority enforces the illusion of separation and leads to collapse.

Yunus, don’t look down at the world in scorn —
Keep your eyes fixed on your Beloved’s face,
then you will not see the bridge
on Judgment Day.

We shouldn’t miss the logic of the first two lines: When we cast scornful eyes on the world, we can’t possibly see the Beloved’s face. The opposite is true, as well; when we are transfixed by the beauty of the Beloved, we see nothing but beauty. This is a clue… any religious figure who speaks with scorn, is not engulfed by the vision of the Divine and should be avoided.

The final couple of lines are also worth understanding. What does he mean about not seeing a bridge on Judgment Day? According Muslim tradition, in order to enter Paradise, one must cross as-Sirat, a bridge that is as thin as a hair and as sharp as a blade. But the purest never have to encounter the bridge. Yunus Emre is saying that it is only when we are not already lost in the vision of the Beloved that we must face the bridge. It is only when we cling to separation and duality that we encounter that cutting bridge. With that hair-thin bridge waiting, wasting focus on scorn is a dangerous thing, indeed.

To me, this is a powerful poem on the importance of compassion, humility, and proper spiritual focus. And it is a good reminder to us all that everything returns to the Golden Rule:

If there is any meaning in the holy books, it is this:
Whatever is good for you, grant it to others too —


Recommended Books: Yunus Emre

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems The Drop That Became the Sea: Lyric Poems of Yunus Emre Quarreling with God: Mystic Rebel Poems of the Dervishes of Turkey
More Books >>


Yunus Emre, Yunus Emre poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Yunus Emre

Turkey (1238 – 1320) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Mar 22 2019

Izumi Shikibu – Watching the moon

Published by under Poetry

Watching the moon
by Izumi Shikibu

English version by Jane Hirshfield

Watching the moon
at midnight,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.

— from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, Edited by Jane Hirshfield


/ Image by Gautam & Chitrabhanu Chakrabarti /

We just had an equinox full moon. Did you see it? I watched the luminous orange moon rise through the bare branches of the trees and climb with maternal majesty into the night sky. The full moon, it seems to me, embodies something both earthly and otherworldly, both at the same time. When the world around us takes on a luminosity and reveals new realities interwoven within the neighborhood we walk daily, that’s a good time to encounter ourselves for the first time….

Whenever the moon appears in a poem, we can read it as a reference to illuminated awareness — whether intended or not by the poet — and the meaning of the poem unwraps itself in fascinating ways…

The blissful state reveals itself as a shining light, as a luminescence permeating the still field of the mind. There is a sense of light from an undefined ‘above,’ silence, a fullness of vitality, and deep rest. In sacred poetry, particularly in Zen poetry, this is often expressed as the full moon in the night sky.

The moon is the individual consciousness that shines only by reflecting the constant light of the sun, which is unbounded awareness. Individual consciousness, like the moon, waxes and wanes, sometimes bright and clear, sometimes dark.

When the moon, consciousness, is full, it is round, whole, complete, perfectly reflecting the light of divine awareness. The full moon is enlightenment. It is Buddha-mind. It is the soft light that illumines the land below when all is at rest.

With this understanding, reread Shikibu’s poem. Do you feel the power of the statement beneath its beautiful words?

When she says she is “Watching the moon,” she can be describing the deep meditation practice of witnessing the radiance of opened awareness. To do so “at midnight” carries the double meaning of a late night meditation (which is often the best time for deep contemplation), but midnight also suggests the depth of the great Void. We perceive the enlightened mind shining quietly within a pregnant emptiness. There is only awareness. (I have read alternate translations of this poem that say “at dawn” rather than midnight, which carry their own meanings.)

The poet specifically describes the moon as “solitary” and “mid-sky.” In this profound communion, the awareness is recognized as being absolutely alone in the sense that there is no ‘other,’ nothing outside of its sphere; it is “solitary.” And it is the center point of being; it is the heart, it is the core; the moon is “mid-sky.”

When we stand silently bathed by the light of the moonlight, we finally experience our true nature. We know ourselves “completely” — all of the seemingly disjointed and conflicting parts of ourselves are seen to be parts of a unified whole, “no part left out.” We are the wholeness.


Recommended Books: Izumi Shikibu

Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry


Izumi Shikibu

Japan (974? – 1034?) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Continue Reading »

One response so far

Mar 15 2019

John of the Cross – Dark Night

Published by under Poetry

Dark Night
by John of the Cross

English version by Ivan M. Granger

(Songs of the soul delighted at having reached the high state of perfection, the union with God, by way of spiritual negation.)

On a darkened night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
— O happy chance! —
Unnoticed, I took flight,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

Safe, disguised by the night,
By the secret ladder I took flight,
— O happy chance! —
Cloaked by darkness, I scaled the height,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

On that blessed night,
In secret, and seen by none,
None in sight,
I saw with no other guide or light,
But the one burning in my heart bright.

This guide, this light,
Brighter than the midday sun,
Led me to the waiting One
I knew so well — my delight!
To a place with none in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!

Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept,
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.

I drank the turret’s cool air,
Spreading playfully his hair.
And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat. Drained
Of senses, I dropped unaware.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.
All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

— from Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey, by Ivan M. Granger


/ Image by lepiaf.geo /

I woke up this morning thinking about the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross.

This poem is one of my favorites. It has a giddy sense of escape, a secret lover’s tryst, yet it haunts us with its images of darkness and death. Let’s contemplate a few of these themes…

Although mystics often experience the Divine as a radiant, all permeating light, sometimes God is described in terms of night or darkness.

On a darkened night…

Night is the great Mystery, the unknown. Darkness is the place of secrets. It is the time of sleep, rest, peace. We drop all of our activities and turn inward.

Because nighttime is associated with sleep and, by analogy, death, it can also represent the time when the ego sleeps and most easily can “die” or fade away. The ego is less in charge at night, less demanding that its every desire be instantly met. The busy mind is less active, more likely to be at rest.

Night is the time when lovers meet, when the soul meets its Divine Beloved.

Darkness, like God, envelops everything in its embrace. It is in the darkness of night that all things become one, losing their individuality as they disappear into that mystery. Nighttime is the time of nondual awareness, when dichotomies and artificial notions of separation fade.

John of the Cross is particularly known for speaking of “the dark night of the soul.” This is not so much a reference to the experience of the Divine as mentioned above, but a preliminary state. Prior to experiences of union, the soul loses its orientation, where worldly distractions seem pointless, but the blissful fulfillment of divine union hasn’t yet been experienced. This can be a period of confusion, being “anxious,” a period of intense spiritual thirst, and a feeling of blindness that is the equivalent of trying to find one’s way in the dark. But that too can be an important stage of the journey that indicates the nearness of the sacred goal, not its distance.

Yet in this “blessed night,” John of the Cross discovers light. This is not just any light but an overpowering radiance, “Brighter than the midday sun.”

For genuine mystics, light is not a mere concept or metaphor; it is directly experienced. This light is perceived as being a living radiance that permeates everything, everywhere, always. This light is immediately understood to be the true source of all things, the foundation on which the physicality of the material world is built.

The sense of boundaries and separation, long taken for granted by the mind as the fundamental nature of existence, suddenly seems illusory, for this light shines through all people and things. It has no edges, and the light of one is the light of another.

This light is recognized as one’s own Self, while simultaneously being the Self of all others. Since this light is you and, at the same time, it radiates within all, the question arises: How can there be separation? conflict? loss?

This is how John proceeds so boldly from the experience of light to union, the sacred marriage, “Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!”

And what about death? Why does he startle us by shifting from the ecstasy of union to death?

And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat. Drained
Of senses, I dropped unaware.

Without understanding of this imagery, it can sound as if every mystic and saint has some strange death wish.

In deep ecstasy, the sense of individuality, the sense of “I” thins and can completely disappear. Though you may still walk and breathe and talk, there is no “you” performing these actions. The separate identity, the ego, disappears, to be replaced by a vast, borderless sense of Self. Suddenly, who you have always thought yourself to be vanishes and, in its place, stands a radiant being whose boundaries are no longer perceived in terms of flesh or space.

And why does he become “unaware” in this state? This profound sense of union, while being a state of supreme awareness, is sometimes ironically compared with blindness or non-awareness. The reason is that the mind has become so completely still that it no longer projects a conceptual overlay upon reality. A person is no longer seen as a person, a table is no longer seen as a table. Surfaces and categories — the foundation of mundane perception — become ephemeral, dreamlike, insubstantial. One stops witnessing the surface level of reality in the common sense, and this can be compared to blindness or non-awareness. Yet everything shines! Everything is perceived as a radiance with a living interpenetrating light. And the same light shines in everything.

This is why many mystics assert they no longer see the world and, instead, only see God. It is not that they bump into furniture when they walk across a room; perception on the mundane level doesn’t stop (except in the most ecstatic states), but surfaces take on a thin or unreal quality; it only occupies a minimal level of the awareness. It is as if the world everyone always assumes to be the real world that populates normal awareness, the visible world, is actually a world of shadow, but underlying that is an unseen world of brilliance and indescribably beauty.

This is how one becomes “unaware” while being supremely aware.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.

It is this experience, this complete shedding of the limited ego and the transcendence of mundane awareness, that is the death so eagerly sought by mystics throughout time.

All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.


Recommended Books: John of the Cross

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics
More Books >>


John of the Cross, John of the Cross poetry, Christian poetry John of the Cross

Spain (1542 – 1591) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Mar 02 2019

Podcast: Jack Kornfield – Beauty and Poetry

I occasionally listen to Jack Kornfield’s uplifting podcast, Heart Wisdom. Highly recommended for the insight, playfulness, and compassion he brings to spiritual practice.

A few weeks ago, he posted this exploration of how poetry can awaken us to life’s beauty:

Jack Kornfield – Ep. 87 – Uncovering Life’s Beauty with Poetry & Art

No responses yet

Mar 01 2019

Symeon the New Theologian – How is it I can love You

Published by under Poetry

How is it I can love You
by Symeon the New Theologian

English version by Ivan M. Granger

How is it I can love You
      within me,
      yet see You from afar?

How is it I embrace You
      within myself,
      yet see You spread across the heavens?

You know. You alone.
      You, who made this mystery,
      You who shine
like the sun in my breast,
      You who shine
      in my material heart,
            immaterially.

— from The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology), Edited by Ivan M. Granger


/ Image by JudiLiosatos /

The mystic’s riddle: How can such immensity be found within? How can the Eternal be discovered within such a limited space as the human awareness? And yet, at the same time, the Eternal permeates the vastness of creation, which itself is ultimately limited. How can this be?

How is it I can love You
      within me,
      yet see You from afar?

Symeon is not asking these questions as an intellectual game. This is not a dry theological exercise. His questions arise from the genuine surprise at this paradox as it reveals itself through direct perception: The Divine is both intimate and all-encompassing; within, yet everywhere

How is it I embrace You
      within myself,
      yet see You spread across the heavens?

In blissful states, we look within and see God. We look outside ourselves, and equally we see God. Near and far: God. Above and below: God. The mountain seats God, but so too does the pebble, and also the mote of dust that settles upon it. Friend–God; enemy–God; self–God.

It cannot be. And yet it is. The intellect balks at it, yet the mystic is confronted with it undeniably. This is not just a pleasant idea; when we really learn to look, this is what we see.

You know. You alone.
      You, who made this mystery,
      You who shine
like the sun in my breast,
      You who shine
      in my material heart,
            immaterially.

Let theologies try–and fail–to solve this riddle. Let us, instead, join with the world’s mystics and watch in wonder.


Recommended Books: Symeon the New Theologian

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives
More Books >>


Symeon the New Theologian, Symeon the New Theologian poetry, Christian poetry Symeon the New Theologian

Turkey (949 – 1032) Timeline
Christian : Eastern Orthodox

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Feb 27 2019

Yoka Genkaku – The hungry are served a king’s repast (from The Shodoka)

Published by under Poetry

[56] The hungry are served a king’s repast (from The Shodoka)
by Hsuan Chueh of Yung Chia / Yoka Genkaku

English version by Robert Aitken

The hungry are served a king’s repast,
And they cannot eat.
The sick meet the king of doctors;
Why don’t they recover?
The practice of Zen in this greedy world —
This is the power of wise vision.
The lotus lives in the midst of the fire;
It is never destroyed.


/ Image by ursrules1 /

I have passed over this verse from The Shodoka before without paying much attention, but reading it this morning it struck me as powerful for the first time. The words aren’t especially poetic, but it unlocks many thoughts as I read it.

The hungry are served a king’s repast,
And they cannot eat.
The sick meet the king of doctors;
Why don’t they recover?

I take the king here to refer to the Buddha. The “king’s repast” would be the teachings of the Buddha. The medicine offered by the “king of doctors” would be the relief from suffering as one walks the path of wisdom.

These gifts are available to all, yet most of humanity seems unwilling partake and unable to even recognize that it is what we all hunger for amidst our confusion and suffering. Sadly, this blindness to our basic need is the common state “in this greedy world.”

But, regardless of how few actively walk the path, regardless of how lost and chaotic the world may seem, the way of truth remains:

The lotus lives in the midst of the fire;
It is never destroyed.

But also, reading this selection, do you by any chance think of the story of King Midas? The king’s repast that cannot be eaten and the mention of a greedy world… Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated with the Greek myths, and it seems to me that most people don’t quite understand the message of the Midas myth. It depends on how much of the story one knows and how deeply it has been contemplated.

Many just know the phrase that someone “has the Midas touch,” that is, everything they touch turns to gold. If that’s all one knows, then the Midas touch is imagined to be a good thing. Look at the businesses that foolishly incorporate Midas into their business name. The notion that turning everything into gold is a good thing is precisely the opposite meaning of the myth.

For those who know a little more of the story, they see it as a comical tale about the problems of greed. That is closer to the truth, but it still misses the world-threatening horror of uncontrolled greed evoked by this potent Greek myth.

A quick recap of the tale: Midas was a foolish, small-minded king who was granted a wish by one of the gods. He requested the boon that whatever he touched be turned to gold — which he immediately received. Thrilled with this new power, he raced back to his palace, touching trees and animals and everything as he went, turning all to gold. Arriving at his palace, he was famished, so he had food brought to him. But as soon as he put the food in his mouth, it turned to gold and became inedible. In desperation, he grabbed a flagon of wine to drink from it, but he nearly choked when it too immediately turned to gold. In his horror, he cried out, which brought his daughter running to him. Frightened by his obvious distress, she ran into his arms… and, yes, was turned to gold. The gods, in order to prevent the entire world from being being destroyed by being entirely turned into gold, intervened and removed the power from King Midas’s touch, leaving him a broken man in his palace of gold.

If we think about the implications of this story, especially in this modern era of hypercapitalism, it illustrates the terrible world created by commodifying everything and everyone. When people and things and all the natural world are only seen in terms of their quantifiable economic value, we end up turning living beings and the planet itself into dead wealth. When an entire society is built on the Midas model, the only question is, will Midas starve to death before he destroys the entire world?

When we are enthralled by the perspective of the “greedy world” we measure all of life’s pathways and experiences using a crippled calculus. Spiritual truths, deep meaning, living connection– there is no column on our ledger for these things, and so they become unreal to us, valueless, invisible. In the greedy world’s cost-benefit analysis, we become unable to eat the “king’s repast” or receive the medicine from the “king of doctors.” When we assign mere financial value to anything, any person or creature, any experience, we blind ourselves to its inner nature, rendering us unable to imagine genuine connection, starved for spiritual nourishment and healing.

We weaken our capacity to interact with the world or engage with our friends and loved ones in a meaningful way. We become blind to life itself. People end up starved for meaning and purpose, not from a lack of meaning in life, but because that meaning, which is inherent and everywhere, remains unrecognized in the Midas worldview.

What then is the solution? On the personal, most human level, we remember how to see what is commonly overlooked. We remember to feel what the inner heart tells us is worth feeling. And we learn to measure value with the scales of the heart. In this way, slowly, steadily, we recover the full vision of ourselves and the world as an interwoven living panorama rich with endless illumination of meaning and value.

The mindset of the “greedy world” leads to blindness and lack of meaning. The greed of King Midas would have destroyed the world. We must seek instead the touch that connects and enlivens. That is what allows us to awaken and see and finally enjoy the feast laid out before us.

The practice of Zen in this greedy world —
This is the power of wise vision.


Recommended Books: Hsuan Chueh of Yung Chia / Yoka Genkaku

This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Buddhism and Zen


Hsuan Chueh of Yung Chia / Yoka Genkaku

China (665 – 713) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan
Taoist

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Feb 21 2019

Abu-Said Abil-Kheir – Love came and emptied me of self

Published by under Ivan's Story,Poetry

Love came and emptied me of self
by Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

English version by Vraje Abramian

Love came and emptied me of self,
every vein and every pore,
made into a container to be filled by the Beloved.
Of me, only a name is left,
the rest is You my Friend, my Beloved.

— from The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology), Edited by Ivan M. Granger


/ Image by Olga-Zervou /

Long-time readers of the Poetry Chaikhana know that I have dealt with chronic fatigue/ME for a long time. It has generally been much better in the last couple of years — thankfully. My energies have been more steady and dependable for the most part. Still, it is something always in the background that must be carefully managed. Navigating my way through the activities of each day is often an exercise of careful strategy and measured choices.

I woke up this morning thinking about my journey along the way with that demanding teacher, and I returned to my commentary on this poem from several years ago. I share it again in the hopes that it is helpful to those of you who deal with difficult health issues or other challenges that can make life feel constrained. It’s easy to feel sorry for oneself, to rage at circumstance, to just give up. Or we can uncover hidden vistas within ourselves…

=

I have dealt with chronic fatigue on and off for years. As part of that pattern, I sometimes feel an intense sensation of tremors, even though my body is entirely still. Sitting on the couch with my wife, I’ll turn to see if she is shaking her foot, causing the couch to vibrate. But, no, she is quietly sitting there with no agitating movements. Each time this happens I’m surprised to find that nothing is actually shaking at all, neither my body nor the environment around me.

When the chronic fatigue symptoms are that strong I usually don’t have the energy to do a full day’s work, yet my body isn’t at rest enough to meditate either. What is a person to do who strives to be “spiritual,” when he can neither meditate nor take action? Interesting things happen at such moments.

When the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can no longer be sustained, one option is to cling to the crumbling edifice and be injured by its collapse. Another option is to construct a new story. Or we can let all stories fall away. We can stop struggling to be either this or that. We can step beyond our stories. That is when we rediscover what we actually are. That is when hidden doorways open.
The little self is simply the sum total of all the stories we tell ourselves. When those stories fall away, the self becomes empty of itself. We then become a cup, empty and ready to be filled.

Of me, only a name is left,
the rest is You my Friend, my Beloved.

This is the hard wisdom that chronic illness teaches. Any life struggle—really any experience, pleasant or unpleasant—can be transformed into a teacher of wisdom when we stop taking it personally. Wisdom roots itself most deeply when we keep our hearts engaged and our eyes open in the midst of our shifting self-stories.

What can one do but stand in silent awe of the vision that emerges, showing us how much bigger we are than even our grandest stories?

Sending love!


Recommended Books: Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition
More Books >>


Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

Turkmenistan (967 – 1049) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Feb 15 2019

Ellen Grace O’Brian – Maya

Published by under Poetry

Maya
by Ellen Grace O’Brian

Buddha points to the earth
Zen master points to the moon
Arjuna points to the target
Mary points to her child
Jesus points to the heart
Rumi points to Shams


We all look
until we see

— from The Moon Reminded Me, by Ellen Grace O’Brian


/ Image by hapal /

I’m not quite sure why, but reading this poem this morning makes me want to laugh.

Everyone is pointing in all directions, yet they all somehow point at the same spot.

We all look until we see.


Recommended Books: Ellen Grace O’Brian

The Moon Reminded Me Living for the Sake of Your Soul A Single Blade of Grass: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Life Living The Eternal Way: Spiritual Meaning and Practice for Daily Life


Ellen Grace O'Brian, Ellen Grace O'Brian poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Ellen Grace O’Brian

US (Contemporary)
Yoga / Hindu

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Feb 13 2019

Rasakhan – Nectar Radha

Published by under Poetry

Nectar Radha
by Rasakhan

English version by Shyamdas

When Radha’s eyes bashfully meet Hari’s,
      their delightful gestures
            entice His heart.

Her enchanting banter swindles His mind.
      Her words divulge an exquisite disposition.

She puts Her lips to His,
      filling that Abode of elixir
            with the nectar of Her very soul.

Although Krishna is an expert in all of love’s spells,
      Radha captivates God
            with a few soft syllables.

— from Treasure House of Love: Poems of Rasakhan, Translated by Shyamdas


/ Image by Vishnu108 /

How about some bhakti verses in honor of Valentine’s Day?

As with many bhakti poems, this is, on the surface, a poem of lovers, Radha and Krishna (also referred to as Hari). But these, like the Song of Songs in the Bible, are usually understood to reflect deeper spiritual truths. Radha is the soul, the spiritual seeker. Krishna is the one the soul seeks, the eternal Beloved, God. Radha’s yearning and seeking is the spiritual journey. Their love play is spiritual union.

Most bhakti poems dwell on how Krishna’s enchanting beauty draws Radha (the soul) to him. God/Krishna is, after all, “an expert in all of love’s spells,” for all sincere seekers are in love with the Divine One. In truth, every soul, no matter how closed off, has a deep-seated hunger for something, and that yearning, whether recognized or not, is ultimately for the eternal Beloved. Every single being is caught up in Krisnha’s love spell.

But these lines by Rasakhan point out that there is a reciprocal attraction, as well. The soul doesn’t just reach out to the Divine. Turning one’s attention eagerly toward the Beloved magnetically draws the Divine to the individual soul, as well. When done with total sincerity and with one’s full, unedited being, a response from the Beloved becomes unavoidable.

In this way, “Radha captivates God / with a few soft syllables.” We can be more specific and understand Radha’s “enchanting banter” and “few soft syllables” as being her use of mantra. The repetition of mantra helps the mind, the heart, all of our energies to be enlivened with a focused attention on the Divine. It awakens awareness of the inner mantra, the inner vibration. One’s whole being becomes a love song directed toward God. How can the Beloved not be lured by this enticing melody?

The soul and God draw each other, the two becoming enfolded within their mutual love.

Have a beautiful Valentine’s Day with your beloved / Beloved.


Recommended Books: Rasakhan

Treasure House of Love: Poems of Rasakhan


Rasakhan

India (1534? – 1619?) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu : Vaishnava (Krishna/Rama)
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

One response so far

Jan 30 2019

May Sarton – The Work of Happiness

Published by under Poetry

The Work of Happiness
by May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall —
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

— from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993, by May Sarton


/ Image by Holly Lay /

This morning I rediscovered this poem and thought, I have to share this with everyone.

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.

I like the poet’s vision of happiness as a quiet, steady reality that comes upon us almost unnoticed. Real happiness does not come upon us in a hot rush, only to leave just as unexpectedly. It is not dependent on what is happening to us; it is not the result of events or experiences.

Happiness is cultivated. It is nurtured. It grows from silence, from peace, and from inner strengthening and unseen growth.

No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

If we are constantly focused outward on action and accomplishment and experience, at best we find fleeting, overly caffeinated, under satisfying versions of the happiness we truly crave.

For Sarton, happiness is about quiet presence, that which is steady and always there, yet unnoticed in the background — like solid furniture. It is what supports us and makes our lives functional. It is what populates the corners of our homes, defining the spaces in which we live:

A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall —
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done…

She sees in furniture something of timelessness. The chest or table sits there, year after year, timeless in its unchanging presence, as the days wash over it.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place…?

And, when we think about it, our furniture, our rooms, our apartments and houses are where we do our growth. They are the outer containers of our inner worlds. We move amongst them as we feel and contemplate and realize.

Tables, chairs, and beds are our intimate companions, knowing our movement and our silences. They are bathed in our breath and our thoughts. Over time they take on our energies.

No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless

When we do our inner work to cultivate happiness, our mundane material world frames and focuses our inner contentment.

Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

=

To everyone affected by the intensely cold weather, stay bundled up and warm and safe.

May Sarton, May Sarton poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry May Sarton

US (1912 – 1995) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by May Sarton

5 responses so far

Jan 23 2019

Mary Oliver

Published by under Poetry

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

— from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver


/ Image by AlicePopkorn /

Mary Oliver passed away last week. She is a favorite poet among the Poetry Chaikhana readers. When I feature her poems, I always receive lots of responses. Her sense of the natural world and how it opens us up and invites us into a deeper sense of self has made her poetry beloved the world over. Even when her poems contemplate difficult subjects, illness and death, she has a gentle touch, a universal kindness that comes from inner quiet and wisdom.

Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for your gift of poetry to the world. We are better people because you passed through…

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn

This poem is a meditation on death, but it isn’t really a poem that dwells on fear or loss. Instead, Mary Oliver uses death as a way to be present, to see, and to open to the big questions.

<I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

I love the lines–

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood

She gives us a wonderful vision in which all of existence is an interwoven tapestry. Without grand images, she suggests a communion of all things where every experience is recognized as a shared experience. Even crossing the threshold of death becomes part of that brotherhood and sisterhood of being.

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

These are words that make me giddy… and silent. These two lines are, for me, the heart of the entire poem. “Each name” is each individual person or thing, each unit of unique, life-filled identity. They have become “comfortable” and “music,” a sense of restful, meaningful harmony. Yet this symphony of life that is the music made by so many voices, that music tends to subside into silence. This is both a suggestion of death, but also a recognition that the real beauty of music is in how its vibration subtly reminds us of the grand silence it fills. We can expand this idea to say that all of life, all of manifestation, is a magical pageant that, through its moments of cruelty and compassion and grand dramas, eventually brings us to the recognition of the living stillness that underlies it all.

Sidestepping all fearful projections, death becomes a restful expansion, the embodiment of peace, the return to source.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.

Now there’s a good motto to live by: I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. Satisfaction at the time of death isn’t about bucket lists or bank accounts. It’s not found through having possessed things or even experiences, nor by impressive accomplishments. I suspect, along with Mary Oliver, that real contentment is found at the end of a life when we can say that we lived our lives, that we gave it our full attention, embraced it, so that everything, the great and the terrible and all the mundane in between, revealed its wonder.

The goal isn’t to have had a perfect life but to have participated in life — with eyes and heart open.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

A reminder to us all to keep our curiosity and wonder — and to participate!

Have a beautiful day!

PS- I didn’t quite get things organized enough to send out a poem on Monday, as I had planned, in honor of Martin Luther King. I did, however, post a Langston Hughes poem on Facebook, along with some thoughts I shared last year about King’s powerful legacy and how we tend to get a comfortably sanitized version of his message in popular culture today.

If you’d like to read it, here’s the link to the Poetry Chaikhana Facebook page.


Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
More Books >>


Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – 2019) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Jan 17 2019

Hakuin – The monkey is reaching

Published by under Poetry

The monkey is reaching
by Hakuin

English version by Norman Waddell

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

— from Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, by Norman Waddell


/ Image by NinjaRisu /

Hakuin paints for us an elaborate picture. First, we have the moon. It is reflected in water. A monkey hangs from a branch above the water, and it yearns for the moon that it sees reflected in the water. The monkey continually reaches into the water to grasp the moon, but the prize eludes his grip. He has constructed for us a Zen allegorical image.

Who is the monkey? Well, we are. Or, more specifically, it is the busy, grasping mind — the monkey mind. It is that chattering, erratic aspect of the awareness that we most often identify with.

The moon, as I have often pointed out, is a common representation in Zen poetry of enlightened awareness.

So the monkey, the mind, is seeking enlightenment, though it fails to understand what it is really grasping at. It just notices something shiny, and desires to possess it. The mind is not truly reaching for enlightenment; instead it grasps at a mere reflection of that light in the water below it.

What is this water? It can be understood as the world of manifest reality. It reflects the light of enlightenment. In fact, that is the world’s purpose. But while it appears to be real, it is fleeting, changing, ultimately intangible.

The monkey mind never tires of grasping at what shines and shimmers in reflection. This is partly because, in addition to the moon, the monkey sees itself reflected as well — and it loves its own face.

Hakuin laughs and gives us the solution: The monkey mind must let go of the branch it clings to and “disappear into the deep pool” of reality. The monkey’s fall represents the insight that the way is not attained through effort but through supreme yielding. When the mind stops grasping at reflections and, instead, fades into stillness, only then does the whole world shine “with dazzling pureness.” In other words, the mind can never possess enlightenment; it can only lose itself within it. When it finally yields itself, then enlightenment is discovered everywhere.

Have a beautiful day!


Recommended Books: Hakuin

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei The Zen Koan


Hakuin, Hakuin poetry, Buddhist poetry Hakuin

Japan (1686 – 1768) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Jan 09 2019

Yunus Emre – Those who became complete

Published by under Poetry

Those who became complete
by Yunus Emre

English version by Kabir Helminski & Refik Algan

Those who became complete
didn’t live this life in hypocrisy,
didn’t learn the meaning of things
by reading commentaries.

Reality is an ocean; the Law is a ship.
Many have never left the ship,
never jumped into the sea.

They might have come to Worship
but they stopped at rituals.
They never knew or entered the Inside.

Those who think the Four Books
were meant to be talked about,
who have only read explanations
and never entered meaning,
are really in sin.

Yunus means “true friend”
for one whose journey has begun.
Until we transform our Names,
we haven’t found the Way.

— from The Drop That Became the Sea: Lyric Poems of Yunus Emre, Translated by Kabir Helminski / Translated by Refik Algan


/ Image by Jono Colliver /

The Poetry Chaikhana is back! I hope you had a magical, renewing holiday and new year.

Let’s start the year off with something feisty–

Those who became complete
didn’t live this life in hypocrisy,
didn’t learn the meaning of things
by reading commentaries.

I love these cantankerous mystic poets. They come in all shades of religious sentiment, but they do tend to congregate outside the halls of orthodoxy. Most are profoundly devout and fiercely focused in their spirituality. But for the mystic to truly open to the Divine, one must clearly see the nature of reality and the nature of one’s very self — without blinders or pretense.

Reality is an ocean; the Law is a ship.
Many have never left the ship,
never jumped into the sea.

That’s why mystics don’t write poems in praise of rules, hierarchies, or secondhand knowledge. They want the wide ocean, not the creaking ship.

For this very reason, I often find myself more in alignment with the viewpoints of atheists than with religionists. I share the atheist ideal of questioning, critical thinking, testing and examination, a basic distrust of institutions, and an awareness of the danger of “true believers.” Whether we call ourselves theists or atheists, we must never settle into unquestioning belief.

There is a superficial way of being religious, joining the right group, following the right rules, reading the right sacred texts and commentaries, performing the right rituals and prayers. Don’t get me wrong, those practices can be important, but if our spiritually goes no deeper, then it becomes increasingly brittle and slips into pretense. That’s what happens with fundamentalism.

They might have come to Worship
but they stopped at rituals.
They never knew or entered the Inside.

The problem is that there is an increasing assumption that that is what religion is. Both religious-types and their atheist critics tend to define religion by that depthless definition. In that cultural debate, I have to side with the critics of religion. Superficial, rule-following religion lacks integrity and it tends to be sectarian in ways that can be goaded into violence.

But there has always been a deeper form of religion in every culture, an engaged spirituality that transforms the awareness in ways that awaken clarity and compassion. This is not a religion of blind faith or adherence to formulaic creeds; it is about direct experience of a wider reality, profound personal transformation… and bubbling joy.

This is where the common atheist critique of religion falls apart, especially the more strident voices of the so-called New Atheists. They tend to acknowledge only the most superficial and, frankly, idiotic expressions of modern religion. There is a willful blindness to the full spectrum of religious life and experience.

The argument I hear put forward by the New Atheists is that all religion is founded on a mythological fantasy at odds with firm reality, which results in a schizophrenic mindset which, in turn, leads to dysfunctional society. If only people would drop their attachment “made up men in the sky,” we could then start building a sane and rational world. That sounds like a pretty good argument, doesn’t it? If that was truly all that religion was, I might agree with their argument. But because they are so convinced that religion is nothing beyond fantasy and social control, they don’t feel the need to actually try to understand actual religious belief or history or what it means to people, let alone genuine mystical experience. There is no knowledge about religion in their argument, only disdain. And there is an underlying threat of force, as well: The religious delusion must be crushed in order to give us the sane world we deserve. It’s no coincidence that many prominent New Atheists have been vocal advocates for the recent wars in the Middle East, as they see Muslim Jihadist sects as the embodiment of their worst religious nightmares. The New Atheists have, in effect, become an increasingly violent fundamentalist sect of atheism.

There are certainly serious problems in religion, ranging from mere superficiality to violent extremism (in all religions). But those problems are not religious problems, they are human social problems. They are not problems that occur because of religion itself; they are manifesting because of complex social, political, economic, and even environment stresses, where very few authoritative institutions are addressing them honestly or coherently. Under those unrelenting stresses, people turn to religion, but not for religious reasons. Religion then becomes more extreme because other, more healthy responses are not available in society. We see the same toxic patterns in non-religious institutions, as well. It’s not a religious problem, but the resulting religious extremism grabs the headlines.

We don’t need enforced religion or non-religion. Instead, we need engaged hearts. We need minds that explore and question. We need a willingness to seek truth above approval. Whether we belong to a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a temple, an atheist discussion group, or stand alone beneath the night sky — it’s not a question of belief or faith, but of what is, who we truly are, and the kindness we show in the world.

Yunus means “true friend”
for one whose journey has begun.


Recommended Books: Yunus Emre

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems The Drop That Became the Sea: Lyric Poems of Yunus Emre Quarreling with God: Mystic Rebel Poems of the Dervishes of Turkey
More Books >>


Yunus Emre, Yunus Emre poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Yunus Emre

Turkey (1238 – 1320) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Next »