Jalaluddin Rumi lived seven hundred years ago, yet his work calls to us as vividly as anything written today. Regarded by many as a saint, and as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, Rumi composed many of his verses in a state of ecstasy. By turns radiant, severe, tender, rowdy, Rumi is filled with a wild longing for God; the smile that plays about his lips is always a little mysterious, no sunny new-age grin.
Rumi left behind tens of thousands of poems; his masterwork, the Mathnawi, ran to six volumes and contained 51,000 verses — which were, amazingly, spoken aloud and taken down by his scribe. Until now, some of these poems hadn’t been translated into English because Rumi scholars considered them too risqué; instead, the verses were cast from the original Persian into Latin.
In Delicious Laughter, translator Coleman Barks has gathered together these teaching stories as part of his continuing work on the Mathnawi. Aware that the poems may offend some readers, he suggests that for Rumi, anything people do —any blindness, any cruelty — resonates with wisdom about the inner life. “We should remember,” he writes, “that these stories are not necessarily about people. The characters here represent impulses within people, which can act and change, for the better or the worse. Rumi’s world is a tangle of creatures, in all their guided and misguided ways, participating in a cosmic play. . . . Everything is a metaphor for this poet. . . . Moments of sexual shame, erections and their sudden droopings, a clitoral urgency that admits no limit, the mean impulse to play a sexual trick on one’s mate — these are recognizable behaviors, and Rumi does not so much judge them as hold them up for a lens to look into the growth of the soul.”
Coleman Barks teaches poetry at the University of Georgia. Some of his other “versions” of Rumi are This Longing, Unseen Rain, and Open Secret. While faithful to the original, they make Rumi’s work more accessible than literal translations.
Delicious Laughter is available for $8.50 postpaid from Maypop Boks, 196 Westview Drive, Athens, GA 30606. We’re thankful for permission to reprint a few of the poems here.
Some time ago there was a man named Nasuh. He made his living shampooing women in a bathhouse. He had a face like a woman, but he was not effeminate, though he disguised his virility, so as to keep his job. He loved touching the women as he washed their hair. He stayed sexually alert, at full strength, all the time, massaging the beautiful women, especially the Princess and her ladies-in-waiting. Sometimes he thought of changing jobs, of doing something where he wouldn’t be so constantly lustful, but he couldn’t quit. He went to a gnostic saint and said, “Please remember me in a prayer.” That holy man was spiritually free, and totally opened to God. He knew Nasuh’s secret, but with God’s gentleness he didn’t speak it. A gnostic says little, but inside he is full of mysteries, and crowded with voices. Whoever is served that Cup keeps quiet. The holy man laughed softly and prayed aloud, “May God cause you to change your life in the way you know you should.” The prayer of such a Sheikh is different from other prayers. He has so completely dissolved his ego, nothing-ed himself, that what he says is like God talking to God. How could such a prayer not be granted? The means were found to change Nasuh. While he was pouring water into a basin for a naked woman, she felt and discovered that a pearl was missing from her earring. Quickly, they locked the doors. They searched the cushions, the towels, the rugs, and the discarded clothes. Nothing. Now they search ears and mouths and every cleft and orifice. Everyone is made to strip, and the Queen’s lady chamberlain probes one by one the naked women. Nasuh, meanwhile, has gone to his private closet, trembling. “I didn’t steal the pearl, but if they undress and search me, they’ll see how excited I get with these nude ladies. God, please, help me! I have been cold and lecherous, but cover my sin this time, PLEASE! Let me not be exposed for how I’ve been. I’ll repent!” He weeps and moans and weeps, for the moment is upon him. “Nasuh! We have searched everyone but you. Come out!” At that moment his spirit grows wings, and lifts. His ego falls like a battered wall. He unites with God, alive, but emptied of Nasuh. His ship sinks and in its place move the ocean waves. His body’s disgrace, like a falcon’s loosened binding, slips from the falcon’s foot. His stones drink in Water. His field shines like satin with gold threads in it. Someone dead a hundred years steps out well and strong and handsome. A broken stick breaks into bud. This all happens inside Nasuh, after the call that gave him such fear. A long pause. A long, waiting silence. Then a shout from one of the women, “Here it is!” The bathhouse fills with clapping. Nasuh sees his new life sparkling out before him. The women come to apologize, “We’re so sorry we didn’t trust you. We just knew that you’d taken that pearl.” They kept talking about how they’d suspected him, and begging his forgiveness. Finally he replies, “I am much more guilty than anyone has thought or said. I am the worst person in the world. What you have said is only a hundredth of what I’ve actually done. Don’t ask my pardon! You don’t know me. No one knows me. God has hidden my sneakiness. Satan taught me tricks, but after a time, those became easy, and I taught Satan some new variations. God saw what I did, but chose not to publicly reveal my sin. And now, I am sewn back into Wholeness! Whatever I’ve done, now was not done. Whatever obedience I didn’t do, now I did! Pure, noble, free, like a cypress, like a lily, is how I suddenly am. I said, ‘Oh No! Help me!’ And that Oh No! became a rope let down in my well. I’ve climbed out to stand here in the sun. One moment I was at the bottom of a dank, fearful narrowness, and the next, I am not contained by this Universe. If every tip of every hair on me could speak, I still couldn’t say my gratitude. In the middle of these streets and gardens, I stand and say and say again, and it’s all I say, ‘I wish everyone could know what I know.’ ” Some time later a messenger came to Nasuh, “The young Princess would like for you to wash her hair. She will let no one touch her but you.” Nasuh and the Princess had been very close, but he replied, “Nasuh is very sick. I’ve lost my touch. Look for someone else to tend the women’s hair. I’m out of that business.” He thought to himself, “The cold way I was still frightens me. In it, I tasted a kind of bitter living-death, but this new life is real. I will stay in its grace, until my soul leaves my body.” One delight can only be replaced by a greater delight. Nasuh found a Friend lovelier than the Princess.
Images Of The Unseen
Is it right to make images of how the Unseen world works? Only the One who knows such things can do that. How can our bald heads explain hair? Moses thought what he saw was a stick, but it had a dragon inside it. If such a spiritual King could not see inside a piece of wood, how can we possibly understand temptation and destiny, the grain thrown out and the Thrower’s purposes? We’re mice peeking around and meddling where we ought not. The images we invent could change into wild beasts and tear us to pieces! Satan said that He was fire and that Adam was clay, and with that comparison he destroyed himself. In Noah’s time people mocked his shipbuilding with metaphors. “Maybe it will sprout legs and walk away!” “Put some wings on it!” But Noah knew his work was right. He didn’t mind what they said. Here’s a story. A thief was cutting a hole through the wall of a house at night. The owner was sick and groggy, but he heard the soft, digging tap of the pick. He got up and climbed out on the roof and hung his head over to look. “What’s going on down there? Why are you out in the middle of the night? Who are you?” “I’m a drummer, my friend.” “How wonderful. But I don’t hear any drum music.” “You will. Tomorrow you’ll hear a song that goes, Oh no! What has happened? Oh no! I’ve been robbed!” This is how we sound when we talk about spiritual matters, saying “moon” and “soul” and “spirit guide.” What do we mean by these words? Sometimes I say The Sun within the Sun inside the Sun, and claim to be describing God. I’m talking in my sleep.
The Pear Tree
To the Prophet, everything is soaked in Glory. To us, things look inert. To Him, the hill is in motion like the stream. He hears a subtle conversation between the clod and the brick. We don’t. There is no difference in awareness more extreme than between His and ours. We see all graves the same, whereas He sees one a garden, and one an ugly pit. The sensual say, “Why is the Prophet so solemn? What does He have against pleasure?” The saints reply, “Come into our eyes, so you can hear the laughter opening out.” You’re seeing things reversed as from the top of a pear tree, the pear tree of phenomena. All you see from there is a thorn thicket full of scorpions. When you climb down, you’11 see a crowd of rosy children with their nurses. Once there was a woman who wanted to make love with her lover in the presence of her gullible husband. She says to him, “Lucky you, I’m going to climb the tree and gather some fruit.” In the top of the tree she starts screaming and pointing at her husband, “Who is that woman you’re lying on top of?” “You’ve lost your mind,” says the husband. “I’m standing here by myself.” “I see what you’re doing, you humping bastard!” “Come down,” he says, “You’re getting senile. I’ll pick the fruit.” She climbs down, and he climbs up. Immediately she and her lover begin what they enjoy. “Hey whore, what’s going on?” “Don’t be silly,” she says from underneath. “I’m here by myself. It must be the tree making the illusion. When I was up there, I saw things just as weird. Climb down, so you can see right.” Joking is teaching. Don’t be fooled by the lightness, or the vulgarity. Jokes are serious. Come down from the pear tree that’s been making you dizzy. Pear tree of ego and jealousy. The pear tree itself will change because of your humility in climbing down. True seeing is not easy. Muhammed himself prayed for it, “Show me each part from above and below as You see it.” Now climb the pear tree again. Pear Tree of Being. Pear tree and burning bush in one, the green fire along its branches saying, This. This. In the shade of this fiery tree there’s peace for your wantings. What you are supposed to become, what you should know, is in your climbing up and down that tree, with its roots in the damp ground and its limbs in airiness.
A lover was telling his Beloved how much he loved her, how faithful he had been, how self-sacrificing, getting up at dawn every morning, fasting, giving up wealth and strength and fame, all for her. There was a fire in him. He didn’t know where it came from, but it made him weep and melt like a candle. “You’ve done well,” she said, “but listen to me. All this is the decor of love, the branches and leaves and blossoms. You must live at the root to be a True Lover.” “Where is that! Tell me!” “You’ve done the outward acts, but you haven’t died. You must die.” When he heard that, he lay back on the ground laughing, and died. He opened like a rose that drops to the ground and died laughing. That laughter was his freedom, and his gift to the Eternal. As moonlight shines back at the sun, he heard the call to come home, and went. When light returns to its Source, it takes nothing of what it has illuminated. It may have shone on a garbage dump, or a garden, or in the center of a human eye. No matter. It goes, and when it does, the open plain becomes passionately desolate, wanting it back.
Chickpea To Cook
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it’s being boiled. “Why are you doing this to me?” The cook knocks him down with the ladle. “Don’t you try to jump out. You think I’m torturing you. I’m giving you flavor, so you can mix with spices and rice and be the lovely vitality of a human being. Remember when you drank rain in the garden. That was for this.” Grace first. Sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins, and the Friend has something good to eat. Eventually the chickpea will say to the cook, “Boil me some more. Hit me with the skimming spoon. I can’t do this by myself. I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention to his driver. You’re my Cook, my Driver, my Way into Existence. I love your cooking.” The Cook says, “I was once like you, fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in Time, and boiled in the Body, two fierce boilings. My animal-soul grew powerful. I controlled it with practices, and boiled some more, and boiled once beyond that, and became your Teacher.”