Archive for the 'Celestial Drink' Category

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.”


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

Feb 17 2010

The Celestial Drink 6: The Tavern

/ Photo by mattcameasarat /

In sacred wine poetry, the tavern is constantly evoked.

the tavern:
I learned the inside way
from a licensed guide.

Old Man Love:
“Come in, come in:
don’t loiter around
cups of pain.

The saki:
“Drink, drink!”
and he embraced me
so close…

both one
or one disguised
as two?
Nothing remains:
I know nothing:
all HIM
Nasimi: canceled out
in the beauty
of the

– Imadeddin Nasimi (1369? – 1418)

The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry
Translated by Peter Lamborn Wilson / Translated by Nasrollah Pourjavady

The tavern can be understood in a few ways.

On a social level, the tavern is the gathering place for the lovers of wine. The tavern is where mystics meet. It is the Sufi house of zikr. It is where Hindu bhaktis sing their bhajans. It is the Buddhist Sangha, the Christian fellowship. It is the kiva and the campfire. It is the circle of true seekers, deep thinkers – and wine drinkers.

/ Photo by indigoprime /

But understood esoterically, the tavern is the place within oneself where the many disparate and scattered parts of the individual come together in a unified whole to become drunk on the free-flowing Celestial Drink. Continue Reading »

One response so far

Feb 09 2010

The Celestial Drink 5: The Wine of the Sufis

The cup of wine for us
      is mother’s milk.
If we don’t taste it
      we no longer live.

– Qushayri (d. 1074)

Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by Michael A. Sells

While sacred wine imagery occurs all over the world, the theme is perhaps most fully developed by the great Sufi poets.

This is especially interesting because of the complex relationship Islam has with wine. In Christianity, wine is the sacramental drink of the Eucharist, but in traditional Muslim observation, wine is forbidden. Yet, surprisingly, wine is promised to devout Muslims in heaven. It is on this tension that Sufi poetry thrives.

Go to the Winery and exchange your robe for a drink of wine,
Despite the arrogant pious, drink like a Sufi.

– Moulana Shah Maghsoud (1914 – 1980)

The forbidden worldly drink is also the sacred drink. That which is most profane is somehow transformed to become that which is most sacred. What is the difference? What changes the forbidden into the most holy of substances? Continue Reading »

One response so far

Feb 02 2010

The Celestial Drink 4: Fermentation

/ Photo by tibchris /

We’ve talked about the winepress and juice, but juice alone doesn’t make men drunk. It must be fermented…

I drink no ordinary wine,
but Wine of Everlasting Bliss,
As I repeat my Mother Kali’s name;
It so intoxicates my mind that people take me to be drunk!
First my guru gives molasses for the making of the Wine;
My longing is the ferment to transform it.
Knowledge, the maker of the Wine,
prepares it for me then;
And when it is done,
my mind imbibes it from the bottle of the mantra,
Taking the Mother’s name to make it pure.
Drink of this Wine, says Ramprasad,
and the four fruits of life are yours.

– Ramprasad Sen (1718? – 1775?)

Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar
by Elizabeth U. Harding

In Ramprasad’s song of “no ordinary wine,” the “molasses” is the sweetening agent that feeds the fermentation process. It is the initiating element that readies us internally for the process of deeper awakening.

His intense desire or longing for God, here as Kali, the Divine Mother, “ferments” that energy, causing this sacred brew to bubble and expand, giving it a vitality of its own. Fermentation is the inner quickening.

“Drink of this Wine, says Ramprasad” — indeed, we should!

Fermentation and the Christian Tradition

We often think of the great sacred wine songs as coming from the Sufi poets, but I want to take a moment to point out that the Celestial Drink is universal and is described in all of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions.

The divine liquid appears in many forms throughout Christian sacred tradition, as wine, blood, oil, water… Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Jan 31 2010

The Celestial Drink 3: The Wine Press

/ Photo by d-man / Carpe diem /

If we want to truly get drunk on the wine of union, then we have to understand how the wine appears…

The grapes of my body can only become wine
After the winemaker tramples me.
I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling
So my inmost heart can blaze and dance with joy.
Although the grapes go on weeping blood and sobbing
“I cannot bear any more anguish, any more cruelty”
The trampler stuffs cotton in his ears: “I am not working in ignorance
You can deny me if you want, you have every excuse,
But it is I who am the Master of this Work.
And when through my Passion you reach Perfection,
You will never be done praising my name.”

– Jelaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273)

The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi
by Andrew Harvey

This verse by Rumi says so much. Here he is telling us that the wine of the mystic is really the refined essence of oneself. It is formed from “the grapes of my body.” The wine is the juice emitted by the ego, the selfish, separate idea of the self when it finally surrenders, crushed into non-existence.

Of course, working toward that complete surrender can be terrifying… so long as we identify with the ego. There are times when the seeker calls out, “I cannot bear any more anguish, any more cruelty.” But the Winemaker, caring for us too much to let us remain comfortably unfinished, continues with the work, knowing the pure sweetness of completion. Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Jan 28 2010

The Celestial Drink 2: Thirst

/ Photo by sergis blog /

Before the Celestial Drink can be tasted, there must first be thirst…

As long as I live I will eat and drink
The grief of loving You.
I will never give it up to anyone
Even when I am dead.

At the Resurrection
I will walk forward with this violent thirst
Still storming my head.

– Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani (1098 – 1131)

Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from the Sufi Wisdom
by Andrew Harvey / Eryk Hanut

What is this thirst and what does it have to do with spirituality?

The mystic’s thirst is, of course, a thirst for God, and for the bliss-filled Celestial Drink that often accompanies the experience of divine union. Thirst is a passionate longing for the direct experience of the Real, the Eternal, a longing so intense that it is felt in every level of being.


The parched know —

real thirst
draws rainwater
from an empty sky.

– Ivan M. Granger

This thirst must be acknowledged, cultivated, nurtured until it is a pain so sharp it clears the mind and orients the soul where every action and thought naturally leads to the Drink’s source — the wine cellar, the tavern… When the thirst is strong enough, the draw is so strong that rainwater falls from an empty sky.

O soaring eagle! darling lamb!
O glowing spark! Set me on fire!
How long must I endure this thirst?
One hour is already too long,
A day is as a thousand years
When Thou art absent!

Should this continue for eight days
I would rather go down to Hell —
(Where indeed I already am!)
Than that God should hide Himself
From the loving soul;
For that were anguish greater than human death,
Pain beyond all pain.
The nightingale must ever sing
Because its nature is love;
Whoso would take that from it
Would bring it death.
Ah! Mighty Lord! Look on my need!

– Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207 – 1297)
Of the Voices of the Godhead (excerpt)

German Mystical Writings: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and others
Edited by Karen J. Campbell

The mystic’s thirst becomes so powerful, so “violent” (as Hamadani says in the first poem) that it can be traumatic. It becomes a pain felt on many levels. On one level, it is the “hallowing pain” of relinquishing all to obtain the All… Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Jan 27 2010

The Celestial Drink & Alcohol

In the past I’ve had a few emails pointing out that the language of the Celestial Drink series raises warning flags for people who’ve struggled alcoholism. I have loved ones who are recovering alcoholics, so I understand how serious this question is.

In these Celestial Drink posts, I’ve affected the jovial language of wine and drinking, as do many of the poems we will look at. But I don’t want this to be misunderstood as encouraging alcoholic excess. I certainly don’t read these poems that way.

Actually, I personally don’t drink at all — and never have. I know that sounds bizarre to many people. I wasn’t raised in a strict religious family or anything. In fact, I am the child of hippies, and I was around my share of alcohol and other more interesting smelling substances in my early childhood.

/ Photo by jurvetson /

No, the decision to avoid drinking was a solitary one I made when I was thirteen-years-old. I’ve always loved words, and at that age I started thinking about the word “intoxication.” It hit me that getting drunk would, in fact, make my body “toxic.” So I decided then and there never to drink alcohol. A strange choice that made me something of an outsider throughout my teenage years, but it also taught me a lot about social patterns and behavior. When I was a young adult I discovered that alcoholism ran through my family, further reinforcing my abstinence.

If you want the full truth, I’ll admit that I have tasted wine, beer, champagne, and vodka, each once, and just a sip or two each. I wanted to see what they tasted like. My version of, “I didn’t inhale.” 😉

Neither drinking nor abstinence has anything to do with the Celestial Drink, however. The “wine” we are talking about in this series isn’t wine, and the mystic’s drunkenness is not intoxication.

I sincerely apologize if this series upsets anyone — that is not my intention. But the theme is a foundational one in sacred poetry. I hope that the boisterous language comes through without being weighed down by its literal meaning.

With the Celestial Drink you can be entirely sober and giddy at the same time!

One response so far

Jan 27 2010

The Celestial Drink 1: Introduction

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? Continue Reading »

2 responses so far