Shaykh Fadhlalla suggested that I talk about living the message of Rumi beyond culture. It’s true that I have been immersed in Rumi’s Way through the cultural forms and expressions of the Mevlevi tradition, which developed in the Ottoman world and persists to this day in Turkey.
My own shaikh, Suleyman Hayati Dede, was one of the last dervishes to be brought up and educated in the traditional system of Mevlevi training that was abruptly terminated in the early years of the Turkish Republic. He lived most of his life in Konya and travelled little outside Turkey until the last few years of his life. Despite his limited exposure to the world he was a man who in many ways transcended his culture. He did not hesitate, for instance, to give Western women permission to be trained in the practice of whirling and to participate side by side with men in public ceremonies. This is an issue that is still being debated among shaikhs nearly forty years later.
I would attribute Suleyman Dede’s transcendence of his own culture to the vision and understanding that informs the Mevlevi path he followed. To experience what the self is beyond culture, beyond the demands of the ego, to know the timeless nature of the soul and the purity of one’s inmost consciousness, is to realize the relativity and limited nature of all cultural conditioning. While the Mevlevi whirling ceremony with its iconic white dervish robes and tall camel’s felt hats has been popularized by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, various cultural organizations, not to mention appearing in tea-houses and cafes, the true path of Rumi is a process of discovering “the root of the root of the self.”
What an irony it is when Rumi’s way becomes a preoccupation with formulaic phrases, outward customs and rituals. When “adab” comes to be understood as customary ways of doing things and less about sensitivity to appropriateness, the living tradition of Rumi has been betrayed and replaced with a “Sufi orthodoxy” which is potentially its antithesis.
A Mevlevi shaikh should be able to perform the Mevlevi Sema ceremony with the appropriate dress and a thorough knowledge of the rituals, but this is just the outer manifestation. Much more important is the inner “hal” or state by which the Shaikh consciously attunes to the transmission of the lineage all the way back to the Pir, the Prophet, and God. In fact it is this inner reality, beyond culture and form, that should be the heart of the ceremony.
By his faithfulness to Rumi’s example, Suleyman Dede could easily see beyond his own culture and understand other cultures. He was pre-qualified for cultural literacy; he was a global citizen because he was from “God’s wide earth.”
From the very beginning of my own training I was led to ask the question: If Mevlana were alive today, would he teach in the same way that he taught in Konya in the 13th century? So many aspects of his teaching and thought seem strikingly contemporary and this is not merely the result of translations that try to make him appear contemporary. His transcendence of his immediate culture is intrinsic to his message.
* * *
By the time I was in my late teens I had come to believe that the Divine did not have a brand name or require human beings to subscribe to an exclusive approved program. I felt neither obligated nor threatened by the proposals of religions but was intent on exploring the more or less uncharted oceans of spiritual experience.
Being a so-called spiritual teacher was never my objective, but sharing my experience with soul companions who could understand my longing seemed a necessity.
Very early on I had a life-changing experience under the stars on the shores of a frozen lake in northern New Hampshire. I was in the company of a group of cosmic hipsters from Brooklyn, the kind of people you might meet in a pool hall or boxing gym, and yet these people were already authentic masters of wisdom in an American idiom. Their presence and appreciation of nature introduced me to true silence and being.
The White Pine trees on the distant shore of the lake became for me timeless archetypes, like the renderings you see in some oriental art. At the same time there was a sense of what can only be called celestial music which sounded to me like the fugues of Bach and the ragas of Indian music.
The big realization I experienced can be expressed in its totality simply with the words: It is. Anything more than that, anything further that one might say is you’re doing, not Its reality. I cannot tell you why this is still for me the supreme Truth, except to say that it has something to do with the way It is. Its beauty, its peace, its quality of Being.
I would spend many years learning the many ways that Being is described in the most profound sacred traditions before I came to Sufism and found words like these:
To us a different language has been given,
and a place besides heaven and hell.
Those whose hearts are free
have a different soul,
a pure jewel excavated from a different mine.
Furuzanfar Quatrain 403
But it was also with Islamic Sufism that I encountered a revelation and a practice that seemed to have some objective reality but did not resort to dogma or claim a monopoly on truth.
Rumi’s tradition has been a subculture embedded in Turkish culture for seven centuries. We have benefitted in many ways from the cultural aspect of Mevlevi tradition because the cultural aspect can be a reflection of the inner essence. The qualities we have learned to love include: the refined courtesy that Mevlevis practice; the hospitality, generosity, and friendliness that is common among the Turkish dervishes; and the true sincerity and devotion we sometimes encounter in the pure hearts that are drawn to this path.
My own first Murshid looked far beyond his own culture, as Rumi did. Some cultural form almost always mediates spiritual experience: Sufi zhikr, Zen meditation, Christian liturgies, and the Native American vision quest.
How important are these forms? When does attachment to them become an obstacle? Some people become spiritual fetishists, attached to and identified with the cultural and religious forms in which they encountered spiritual experience. A fetish is a material object to which magical powers are attributed. The Sufi version is that certain physical objects and places can become charged with “Baraka.” This is no doubt true. Sufism also cautions us about all forms of idolatry, especially the subtle forms.
It has been my own experience that these cultural forms can become like antique furnishings in one’s spiritual house rather than a doorway to the infinite. Maybe that opening to the infinite must remain something rare; but surely it is the true purpose of spirituality.
O God, reveal to the soul
that place where speech has no letters,
so that the pure soul might go headlong
towards the expanse of nonexistence
out of which we are fed.
Was there a cultural element intrinsic to the meeting of Rumi and Shams? Or was it something that transcended culture? For many people religion becomes an expression of social identity. But the encounter with Shams exerted such power over Rumi that it stripped him of status, reputation, and finally identity. What happened between Rumi and Shams took them far beyond the construct of social identity to a transcendent dimension beyond social and cultural norms.
I believe he described the process of deconstruction quite clearly in this well-known and much loved ghazel:
I Was Dead but I Came to Life
I was dead, but I came alive; I was all tears, I turned into laughter.
The authority of love arrived, and I became Love’s authority . . .
He said: “You’re not out of your mind, nor fit for this house.”
I became so crazy they tried to put me in chains. . .
He said: “You’re not drunk enough; get out of here, you’re not one of us.”
I got joyfully drunk.
He said: “You’re neither dead, nor smeared with grief.”
I let myself be defenseless and was slain before His life-giving Face.
He said: “You’re so smart, intoxicated with your own imagination and suspicions.”
I turned into an idiot, embarrassed myself, and left everything.
He said: “You’ve become a candle, the qibla to this gathering.”
There is no gathering, no candle; I’m less than wafting smoke.
He said: “You’re a Shaikh, an authority, a celebrity, a boss.”
I am not a Shaikh, nor a celebrity; I’m just a servant of Your command.
He said: “You have your wings and fancy feathers; I offer you neither.”
Wishing for true wings and feathers, I stripped away my own plumage.
The new Dominion told me: “Don’t try so hard, don’t trouble yourself;
Since out of favor and bounty I am coming to you, Myself.”
The ancient love told me: “Do not separate from me!”
I said: “Of course I won’t.” And settled down once and for all.
Be silent as a game of chess; let the moves speak for themselves.
Didn’t the face of that King of the world (Shams) finish the game?
Those who would like to walk in Rumi’s footsteps must pay more than lip service to the process of transformation that “our master” (Mevlana) underwent. This is a path that disregards social conventions, that soars above cultures. When the student is sincere and when the teacher is capable, it eventually wears down the false self with all its lies and rationalizations, with all its self-important or self-denigrating narratives. But this is only one side of the transforming power of Love.
At the same time this transforming power of Love liberates the compassion and creativity at the heart of the human being from the imprisonment of the false self. This same spiritual power, while transcending cultures, is also the creator of culture and civilization. The Mevlevi tradition, for instance, was an incubator for many creative expressions that helped to enrich Ottoman culture not only spiritually, but also in art, music, and healing.
It seems that human beings who embrace this infinite dimension of freedom, this framework of unconditioned reality, also are compelled by a sense of urgency to make a difference in their societies. Being in contact with the transcendent seldom leads to withdrawal from society; on the contrary, it most often leads to engagement with the world of form, with relationships, ethics, culture, and even institutions. So traditions are born and hopefully keep something of their original inspiration intact.
Within this luminous, transparent tradition of Rumi I encountered many tensions that I would have to learn to deal with: The tension between formalism and freedom. The tension between creativity that contributes to tradition and the conserving tendency that does not easily accept change. The tension between spiritual authority and spiritual selflessness. The tension between language and silence. I’m thankful, at least, that our tradition allows for these possibilities, and that within this tradition these polarities can be reconciled.
Rumi’s work navigates in subtle ways among these tensions. His Mathnawi, especially, provides diagnoses and remedies for many religious pathologies and spiritual diseases of the heart. Here is just one example:
Fools honor the mosque
yet seek to destroy those in whose heart God lives.
That mosque is of the world of things;
this heart is real.
The true mosque is nothing but the heart
of spiritual kings.
The mosque that is the inner awareness of the saints
is the place of worship for all:
God is there.[II, 3108-11]
The transformation that was effected in Rumi through his encounter and relationship with Shams of Tabriz was both the ultimate human relationship, Friend to Friend, and also the complete unveiling of the Glory of Non-Existence, the Radiant Mercy of Being.
Shams had one purpose in life. . . and when his job was done, it was done. Rumi shares with us the overwhelming beauty of this Intimacy with the Divine. He offers a categorical Way of Love that surpasses all spiritual strategies.
Whispers of Love
Love whispers in my ear,
“Better to be a prey than a hunter.
Make yourself My fool.
Stop trying to be the sun and become a speck!
Dwell at My door and be homeless.
Don’t pretend to be a candle, be a moth,
so you may taste the savor of Life
and know the power hidden in serving.”
Rumi is addressing the human being who has already achieved a high degree of personal integration, a strong and healthy sense of self. It would be a mistake to apply this guidance to justify passivity or fatalism. But for the reasonably integrated and healthy human self, the power of this Love is such that it eventually annihilates the sense that we have that we are strictly the doer of our own actions, the center of our own universe, the cause that produces the effect. “Better to be a prey than to be a hunter,” but only in relationship to that One that is the underlying Universal Intelligence and Generosity.
If the Divine is absolute Beauty, then we are the mirror to reflect that Beauty. And furthermore, Nonexistence is giving birth to existence, just as “handlessness is fashioning hands.”
Abundance is seeking the beggars and the poor,
just as beauty seeks a mirror.
Beggars, then, are the mirrors of God’s bounty,
and they that are with God are united with
Absolute Abundance.[I, 2745, 2750]
From non-instrumentality a hundred kinds of instruments are born.
Handlessness is fashioning hands:
the Soul of the soul shapes a complete Human Being.[VI, 3712-3715]
All well and good, but how do we achieve this reversal of our habitual sense of agency, our ego’s stubborn insistence on its own desires?
O sea of bliss, O You who have stored
transcendental forms of consciousness in the heedless,
You have stored a wakefulness in sleep;
You have fastened dominion over the heart
to the state of one who has lost his heart.
You conceal riches in the lowliness of poverty;
You fasten the necklace of wealth to poverty’s iron collar.
Opposite is secretly concealed in opposite:
fire is hidden within boiling water.
A delightful garden is hidden within Nimrod’s fire:
income multiplies from giving and spending—
so that Muhammad, the king of prosperity, has said,
“O possessors of wealth, generosity is a gainful trade.”
Riches were never diminished by alms-giving:
in truth, acts of charity
are an excellent means of increasing one’s wealth.[VI, 3567-3573]
And if we are still at a loss, Mevlana teaches us to pray for nothing less than transformation of ourselves:
O You who have transmuted one clod of earth into gold,
and another into the Father of mankind,
Your generous work is the transmutation of essences;
my work is mostly forgetfulness and mistakes.
Transmute my mistakes and forgetfulness into knowledge:
With my imperfect nature, turn me into patience and forbearance.[V, 780-782]
He solves the problem of the “I”, transmuting it through the power of Love.
The beautifying of your grave isn’t done
by means of wood and stone and plaster;
no, but by digging your grave in spiritual purity
and burying your own selfhood in His,
and by becoming His dust, buried in love of Him,
so that from His breath, yours may be replenished.[III, 128-132]
Let “our master” talk some more.
The spirit was made glad by that I-ness without “I”
and sprang away from the I-ness of the world.
Since it has been delivered from I, it has now become I:
blessings on the “I” that is without affliction—
for it is fleeing from its unreal I-ness
and the real I-ness is running after it,
since it saw the spirit to be selfless.
If you seek the real I-ness, it will not become a seeker of you:
only when you have died to self
will that which you seek seek you.
If you are living, how should the corpse-washer cleanse you?
If you are seeking,
how should that which you seek go in search of you?[V, 4139-4143]
This “I-ness without ‘I’” may sound paradoxical, but less so to someone who has practiced the art of presence. The beginning and end of spiritual practice is the quieting of thoughts, the stilling of emotional reactions so as to simply “be,” if only for moments, as a pure center of consciousness. It may seem nearly impossible to the superficial self whose sense of identity is rarely more than their self-image and the contents of their minds, but a gentle discipline of meditation and presence in life will gradually lead to this state of simple being, the true life of the soul.
But lest we think that the whole of the spiritual path is nothing but an exercise of awareness—a trap some fall into by becoming only “observers” of their lives—Rumi eventually asks even more of us. And what he asks seems “crazy” to the ego, but is in total alignment with that beloved and beautiful one who said “Become like the lilies of the field”: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Matthew 6:25. Rumi takes us even further along the path of radical reliance on the Divine:
Conventional opinion is the ruin of our souls,
something borrowed which we mistake as our own.
Ignorance is better than this; clutch at madness instead.
Always run from what seems to benefit your self:
sip the poison and spill the water of life.
Revile those who flatter you;
lend both interest and principal to the poor.
Let security go and be at home amid dangers.
Leave your good name behind and accept disgrace.
I have lived with cautious thinking;
Now I’ll make myself mad.[II, 2327-32]
There are spiritual paths that focus on, even fetishize, a single practice or technique. These may reduce anxiety and stress, or may simply keep us off the streets and out of trouble. These may be just what is needed in an individual soul’s development. Then there are spiritual paths that take us part of the way but eventually require that we “transfer” to a way that is complete. A ladder that is not tall enough to get you over the wall is not sufficient. And then there are paths that can bring the soul to completion: not only liberation from the demands of ego, but also communion with the Divine and a great capacity for Love.
Being Rumi beyond culture is to go beyond the ego’s need to be secure, to make any claims about itself, or to be convinced that we are “right,” or to say that particular forms are required to reach completion. The way of Shams and Rumi, which does follow a path marked by the example of Muhammad and the core principles of the Qur’an, is also a path that leads to complete transparency of the self and an awareness of how the Real and Its Compassion imbues every detail and particle of existence. Sometimes, when I looked into my Murshid’s eyes, I saw no end.
If Rumi could be said to be leading us toward something what is it?
No mirror ever became iron again;
no bread ever became wheat;
no ripened grape ever became sour fruit.
Mature yourself and be secure
from a change for the worse. Become the Light.[II, 1317-8]