May 29 2015

pragmatic

A mystic must be supremely pragmatic:
Use what works,
whatever opens the heart
and fires the spirit.

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May 20 2015

Czeslaw Milosz – Late Ripeness

Published by under Poetry

Late Ripeness
by Czeslaw Milosz

English version by Robert Hass

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef — they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

— from New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001, by Czeslaw Milosz


/ Image by BennyBrand /

This is one of my favorite poems by Czeslaw Milosz. I hope you feel it too…

Try reading those early lines again:

I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

Notice how the breaking of the line influences the meaning. It is not written “I felt… / I entered…” separating it into two logical statements. Instead, the first line is “I felt… and I entered.” There the line stops, forcing us to stop as well and consider it as a statement complete in itself. And once we enter, we are almost overwhelmed by the next line; it is as if, at that point, all of existence has become “the clarity of early morning.”

That sense is further emphasized by the next lines, “One after another my former lives were departing, / like ships, together with their sorrow.” Milosz is describing how the weight of one’s personal history, the burden of past identity and the actions that seemed to give it reality, all of that is washed away in the flood of that light. Not even washed away; “departing,” gently drifting away. Reading that line, I have the sense of those laden ships, not sailing away, but fading out, like gloomy phantoms ever looking backward suddenly caught in the brilliance of dawn.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

The lines of this poem have an intuitive recognition of the unity at rest beneath the jangle and hurts of life. It is a recognition that allows for forgiveness… and self-forgiveness.


Recommended Books: Czeslaw Milosz

New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001 The Collected Poems Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness To Begin Where I Am: The Selected Prose of Czeslaw Milosz A Treatise on Poetry
More Books >>


Czeslaw Milosz, Czeslaw Milosz poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Czeslaw Milosz

Poland (1911 – 2004) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic
Christian : Catholic

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4 responses so far

May 20 2015

blind eye

If I turn a blind eye to the suffering of another
…I become a little more blind.

No responses yet

May 15 2015

Omar Khayyam – For in and out, above, about, below

Published by under Poetry

For in and out, above, about, below
by Omar Khayyam

English version by Edward FitzGerald

For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
      Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

— from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Omar Khayyam / Translated by Edward FitzGerald


/ Image by PaperTales /

Goosebumps! I get an electric thrill reading many of the verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It’s something about the rhyme in FitzGerald’s translation.

In this quatrain, we have “below,” “show,” and “go” in the first, second, and fourth lines. But the real magic for me comes from that secondary rhyme in the first line that matches “out” and “about” without disrupting the meter and end of line rhyme. And then the double rhyme of “SHadOW-SHOW”, and the “F” alliteration of “Phantom Figures”…

Read the lines out loud. Listen to the sound of it, the play of rhythm and rhyme.

When rhyme is done poorly, especially in modern poetry, it feels awkward or stilted, distracting from the poem. But when done well, rhyme carries a whole new level of enchantment, firing up a part of the awareness too often dormant in the modern mind. Reading FitzGerald’s rendition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a good restorative elixir.


Recommended Books: Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained The Sufism of the Rubaiyat or the Secret of the Great Paradox Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyan: A Spiritual Interpretation The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Illustrated Edition)
More Books >>


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

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

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2 responses so far

May 15 2015

no story

No story can contain you.

No responses yet

May 12 2015

Abu-Said Abil-Kheir – In the school of mind

In the school of mind you
by Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

English version by Vraje Abramian

In the school of mind you
learn a lot, and become
a true scholar for many to look up to.
In the school of Love, you become
a child to learn again.

— from Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir, Translated by Vraje Abramian


/ Image by smoorenburg /

Wow! What a wonderful response to my notes last week! I received a flood of blog comments and private emails. It is always a humbling experience to realize how many wise souls are reading these poem emails. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your thoughts and ideas and insights.

I realize, however, that I may not have done the best job in how I framed the subject in the first place. Several of your messages attempted to reassure me that I shouldn’t be concerned with people canceling their subscriptions to the Poetry Chaikhana, a few of you even gently chiding me for worrying about such things. I was so touched by all of your compassionate messages, but, truthfully, I wasn’t particularly upset by the cancellations. If anything, I was rather amused by the reaction, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to open up a discussion to see what everyone else thought. I find that when there’s a bit of a reaction, that’s often a sign that there is more good stuff to explore. That’s the time for Ivan to step down from his soapbox and hand around the microphone. And I’m so glad I did. Even though I do get inspired by these poems and have been known to ramble on a bit, community dialogs like this remind me that mine is one small voice among many. There are so many rich journeys being mapped out by all of you, and spiritual wisdom is not in the short supply we sometimes imagine.

Thank you again, everyone.

In the school of Love, you become
a child to learn again.


Recommended Books: Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) 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 The Mystics of Islam
More Books >>


Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

Turkmenistan (967 – 1049) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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One response so far

May 12 2015

day of possibility

Be thankful for this day
of possibility.
Who knows what magic will unfold?

No responses yet

May 08 2015

On Effort, Effortlessness – and the Fine Art of Giving Offense

After my observation that a number of people unsubscribed after Monday’s poem by Ikkyu, I have had several interesting email conversations with members of the Poetry Chaikhana community as to what the real reason may have been.

In one particularly insightful exchange, a friend suggested that people may have been reacting to my commentary in the Ikkyu poem in which I wrote, “It [enlightenment, spiritual insight] is not hidden behind arcane texts. It is not attained through uninspired, dogged effort.” He pointed out that this might be offensive or belittling to the very sincere and often difficult efforts people undertake in order to deepen their spiritual experience.

I thought that was an entirely valid – and compassionate – observation. And he asked me a really good point-blank question: “Do you believe that since we already are what we’re seeking, we can get there without ‘stiff meditation’ or ‘dogged’ persistence?” Or do I think that enlightenment can be attained “merely by looking at the moon, fishing and drinking” as Ikkyu and some other poets seem to suggest.

I wanted to share my brief response in the hopes that it will be meaningful to you and spark further discussion. Here’s how I answered:

I suppose, if I am being both honest and precise, I would say that I respect the essential truth that we already are what we are searching for, and when we are ripe, any particular moment of awareness can serve as the initiating experience; but, coming to that point of readiness usually requires patient and intense striving.

I like the image of a bow and arrow– It takes great strength and effort to draw the bowstring back, but in order to actually hit the target, all that is needed is to let go. If you try to let go without first drawing the bowstring, nothing happens, there’s nothing to let go of. But if you pull and pull and never let go, then all that will happen is you strain your back. To hit the target, you need the effort to produce enough tension, you need to focus on your target, and then… all you do is yield.

As part of my friend’s response to this, he pointed out how well it fits with my commentary accompanying today’s poem by Tagore: “But the spiritual seeker needs passion! The seeker needs the intensity, the energetic boldness of that passion. The art of spiritual success is learning how to tend the coals of that fire, to find a steady fuel, to feed it, to grow comfortable in its heat, to delight in it, to dance in its glow.”

Now you know a little more of my perspective on the subject. I hope it inspires your own thoughts and personal observations. What understanding do you bring to your spiritual practice?

55 responses so far

May 08 2015

Rabindranath Tagore – I am like a remnant of a cloud

Published by under Poetry

I am like a remnant of a cloud (from Gitanjali)
by Rabindranath Tagore

English version by Rabindranath Tagore

I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious! Thy touch has not yet melted my vapour, making me one with thy light, and thus I count months and years separated from thee.
      If this be thy wish and if this be thy play, then take this fleeting emptiness of mine, paint it with colours, gild it with gold, float it on the wanton wind and spread it in varied wonders.
      And again when it shall be thy wish to end this play at night, I shall melt and vanish away in the dark, or it may be in a smile of the white morning, in a coolness of purity transparent.

— from Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore


/ Image by timparkinson /

Today is Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday, so I thought we should commemorate that with one of his poems…

You know, what I especially like about this selection is its sweet tension. It speaks with a terrible spiritual yearning–

Thy touch has not yet melted my vapour, making me one with thy light, and thus I count months and years separated from thee.

Yet there is also a profound patience–

And again when it shall be thy wish to end this play …

That balance is essential, yet so difficult to cultivate. With passion, we want immediate satisfaction. The fire tends to flame up and all too quickly burn out. We cultivate patience only when all brash attempts to storm heaven have failed. But that is not so much true patience as benumbed acquiescence. And, in the process, the passion has been lost.

But the spiritual seeker needs passion! The seeker needs the intensity, the energetic boldness of that passion. The art of spiritual success is learning how to tend the coals of that fire, to find a steady fuel, to feed it, to grow comfortable in its heat, to delight in it, to dance in its glow.

This hot hunger isn’t satisfied with fast food. It is a lifelong love affair.

The speaker recognizes that apparent separation from God is part of the divine play — that there is a rightness to that. And even a beauty.

If this be thy wish and if this be thy play, then take this fleeting emptiness of mine, paint it with colours…

These lines give the seeker permission to feel in harmony with the divine will even though lasting communion has not yet been attained.

And a final secret: This recognition eases the psychic muscles, allowing that communion to come upon us even more swiftly and naturally.

Look up at the spring sky (or, more appropriately, autumn sky, for those of you south of the equator). Is that wisp of a cloud fading into the white morning?


Recommended Books: Rabindranath Tagore

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Gitanjali The Lover of God The Fugitive Lover’s Gift and Crossing
More Books >>


Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Rabindranath Tagore

India (1861 – 1941) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu

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2 responses so far

May 08 2015

liberation and theft

What the heart recognizes
as liberation,
the ego sees
as theft.

No responses yet

May 06 2015

Kabir – the mind has put up a swing

Published by under Poetry

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing
by Kabir

English version by Robert Bly

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.

Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.

— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell


/ Image by Johnny Jet /

Monday’s poem by Ikkyu inspired a few notes from people who really responded positively to it… and lots of cancellations. Every time I send out a poem email, a few people cancel their email subscription; that’s just the normal rhythm. But every once in a while I send out something that triggers a few dozen cancellations, and it always leaves me amused and scratching my head. Did people dislike the poem or my commentary? Were they offended by the poet’s biography? Or maybe it was just the full moon stirring the pot.

I certainly didn’t intend to upset anyone. Well, I do occasionally like to shake things up a bit, but hopefully in a healthy and ultimately uplifting way.

Today’s poem probably won’t cause upset, but it may leave us just a bit dizzy… in a good way, I hope!

This is a rather loose translation, but I like it.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.

There is a continuous flowing between the subtle and the manifest, between spirit and matter. Spirit pours through matter, giving it life and awareness. Matter, in turn, gives form to spirit, striving to embody the limitless amidst limitation.

And so the swing goes back and forth, patiently, playfully, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening.

It isn’t a process where we find that perfect spot and then it all stops. “It never winds down.” It is an interplay that continues, and we find our rightful place by seeing the entire dance…

Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.


Recommended Books: Kabir

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi Songs of the Saints of India
More Books >>


Kabir, Kabir poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Kabir

India (15th Century) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi
Yoga / Hindu

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6 responses so far

May 06 2015

Self experiencing Self

What is there
but Self
experiencing Self?

One response so far

May 04 2015

Ikkyu – A Fisherman

Published by under Poetry

A Fisherman
by Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

English version by John Stevens

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

— from Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, Translated by John Stevens


/ Image by Untitled blue /

I like Ikkyu’s gentle mocking here.

The deeply committed spiritual path can so often become all consuming — scholarship, meditation and other practices — that we either become attached to the path, or engrossed in our own efforts, and in the midst of it all we forget our true goal… what is sometimes called in the Zen tradition, Original Mind.

In true Zen style, Ikkyu cuts through all impediments, even those within his own spiritual tradition, in order to bring us back to the realization that our goal is immediate, right here, and utterly simple. It is not hidden behind arcane texts. It is not attained through uninspired, dogged effort.

When we have readied ourselves, it is simply there. Sometimes all we need is the simplest reminder of fundamental truth — a solitary fisherman singing his timeless chant on the river at night.


Recommended Books: Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Crow With No Mouth: Fifteenth Century Zen Master Ikkyu Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan


Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun), Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun) poetry, Buddhist poetry Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

Japan (1394 – 1481) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

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4 responses so far

May 04 2015

present through perception

We are present through perception,
not action.

No responses yet

May 01 2015

Fakhruddin Iraqi – Whether they know Thee or not

Published by under Poetry

Whether they know Thee or not
by Fakhruddin Iraqi

English version by William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson

Whether they know Thee or not
      all creatures of the world
now and forever-without-end
      bend but toward Thee.
All love for someone else
      is but a whiff
of Thy perfume:
      none else can be loved.

— from Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality) , Translated by William Chittick / Translated by Nasr Seyyed Hossein


/ Image by vanillapearl /

Why not a second poem by Iraqi this week?

all creatures of the world
now and forever-without-end
bend but toward Thee.

Love those lines. And we forget that this is true. Not just all people, but all beings, consciously or unconsciously constantly turn toward the Eternal. Everything desired, everything loved, every hope, every goal, everything we seek we seek because on some level it reflects back to us an image of the Divine.

All love for someone else
      is but a whiff
of Thy perfume

When something catches our eye or our heart, beneath the love or the lust, when we really look, we find we have witnessed a glimpse the transcendent light. That light, that entrancing luster, is what we seek so passionately.

Understanding this leads to the deeper question: Why seek the countless objects of desire that only reflect the glistening light of the Beloved? Why grasp at glinting shards of a mirror when we can bathe in full sunlight?

In every love, we love the Beloved.

none else can be loved.


Recommended Books: Fakhruddin Iraqi

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality) Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition


Fakhruddin Iraqi

Iran/Persia/India/Turkey (? – 1289) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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May 01 2015

maintain our pretenses

Too tired to maintain our pretenses,
we rest in awe.

No responses yet

May 01 2015

Cauldron of Inspiration recording unavailable

Some disappointing news about my recent talk: Several of you have said that you are eager to watch the video of my recent talk on “The Cauldron of Inspiration.” It turns out, however, that there were technical difficulties with the video recording. I was told that there may be short sections that are useable, but as a whole the recording did not work. I’ll have to think of some other way to share that talk with everyone.

One possibility is to make an audio recording of the talk, like a podcast, I can make a video of it by incorporating photographs. The drawback to that, in my mind, is that speaking into a microphone can lack the dynamism of speaking before an audience. And there is no opportunity for a Q&A session afterward.

I may at some point expand the material into a written form, and publish it as a book or an ebook. But that’s another project for a later time.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, send me an email. And, in the meantime, I hope you find your own cauldron of inspiration…

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