The drab brick building in Athens, Georgia, where I meet Coleman Barks is sandwiched between two car-repair shops. “This used to be a restaurant famous for its slaw dogs,” Barks says after I’ve stepped with surprise into a clean, spacious, well-appointed room in his new workplace and guesthouse, which still smells of fresh paint. “It’s been a crack house and a whorehouse. It’s been a machine shop. And it’s been a beauty parlor. I’m thinking of maybe calling it the ‘Inner Beauty Parlor.’ ”
Barks is a private person who avoids admirers and the curious. “One appointment ruins the day,” he explains in his gentle Tennessee accent. “I love having nothing to do.” His initial wariness gives way to animation as he takes me on a tour of the place, which has the feel of a bachelor’s lair, with its big bed and large-screen television in the windowless downstairs.
This is the house that Rumi built. Born eight centuries ago this year, the Persian mystic is now one of the best-selling poets in the United States. That astonishing fame is due in large part to Barks, who has spent much of the past thirty years rendering thousands of Rumi’s poems into an English that captures the deep humanity and sublime divinity of the poet’s verse.
A poet in his own right who has published six books of poetry, Barks taught literature at the University of Georgia for thirty years before retiring. His journey with Rumi began in 1976, when friend and fellow poet Robert Bly gave him a copy of a stilted academic translation of Rumi’s poetry. “These poems need to be released from their cages,” Bly said. Barks had never heard of Rumi, and he did not speak or write Farsi (nor does he now), but he accepted the challenge, using existing translations and his own poetic talents. That work led him to Philadelphia, where he became a student of Sri Lankan spiritual teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who provided Barks with a living example of Sufism, the mystical Islamic tradition of which Rumi was an adherent. All Muslims believe they will be reunited with God after death, but Sufis use esoteric practices to encounter the ineffable in this life. Barks’s Rumi project eventually grew into a series of books — now numbering nineteen — that shocked publishers by catapulting a thirteenth-century Persian poet onto the bestseller lists. It’s no small irony that a Persian Muslim is one of America’s most popular poets at a time when relations between the U.S. and Iran — and the Islamic world as a whole — are so strained.
Jalaluddin Rumi was born September 30, 1207, in the ancient trading city of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan, during a time of war, social upheaval, and spiritual questioning. In the West, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Saint Francis of Assisi were remaking Christianity; in the Holy Land, Europeans were fighting Muslims; and in the East, the medieval world of Islam was at the height of its intellectual and artistic vigor. When Rumi was five, his father took his family west to avoid Mongol invasions, passing through the great city of Baghdad before settling at Konya in what is now Turkey. When Rumi was thirty-nine, he met the mysterious Shams, an older mendicant who was to have a profound influence on Rumi’s life and work. Legend has it that Rumi and Shams first met beside a fountain in Konya. Rumi was talking to his students with his father’s spiritual notebook, the Maarif, open beside him. Shams apparently interrupted the conversation by pushing the precious text into the water. When Rumi demanded to know why Shams had done this, Shams reportedly replied, “It is time for you to live what you have been reading of and talking about.”
This was the start of a passionate friendship between the two men. At one point Shams disappeared — or, some say, was killed by Rumi’s jealous followers. The brokenhearted Rumi ultimately composed forty-five thousand verses in honor of his lost friend. He also produced works of theology and philosophy, including the massive six-volume Masnavi, which is called the “Persian Koran” for its lyricism and wisdom. Rumi died in his bed in Konya on December 17, 1273.
Barks’s interpretations of Rumi sometimes irritate both liberal academics and conservative Islamic theologians, who say he has catered to a New Age market by downplaying the religious and patriarchal aspects of the poet’s huge corpus in favor of the universal and the sensual. Most scholars, however, give Barks credit for breathing life into poems that are notoriously difficult to translate into readable English, and for making Rumi virtually a household name in the West.
Barks has a grizzled beard and wavy eyebrows, and he drives a pickup truck. There’s little of the media star about him, despite the fact that his books of Rumi’s poetry have sold more than three quarters of a million copies, earning him the attention of everyone from Iranian imams to journalist Bill Moyers. Rumi’s poetry, Barks writes, “is God’s funny family talking on a big, open radio line.”
Lawler: Rumi’s poetry comes to us out of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that’s still mysterious to many in the West. How much do you need to know about Sufism in order to appreciate Rumi?
Barks: All I know about Sufis is that my teacher, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, was one. His presence was beyond religious categories. Likewise, Rumi dissolves boundaries. People from all religions came to Rumi’s funeral. When asked why, they said, “He deepens us.” His presence was poetry, and his friendship with Shams made everybody feel more alive and more in a state of praise and grief. Everything was sharpened and deepened by this longing. That’s so easily misinterpreted as New Age vagueness, but I don’t think that’s fair, because I’ve met at least one person — Bawa Muhaiyaddeen — who could be in a universal place beyond the categories of religion, and even beyond the categories we have for love.
Rumi’s poetry is love poetry, but it’s a poetry of a kind of love we may not even know yet. It’s beyond our ideas of mentoring or romance or even friendship. It’s a place beyond the synapse of relationship. “Fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connecting,” Rumi said. All his poetry is about love as a region, not a relationship. The Sufis say that human reality is the heart, and we’re walking around in it. When somebody asked Bawa what reality was like, he said it’s like you’re driving a car, and you’re inside driving, but you’re also the landscape you’re going through. Evidently that makes sense when you’re enlightened. [Laughter.] At one point Rumi was out walking in Damascus, looking for Shams, and then he realized that he didn’t need to look; he was the friendship. Then there’s no one missing, no separation — and, suddenly, no more country music, either! “Oh, she left me. Oh, I left him. Oh, she left me again. Oh, she came back!”
Lawler: Rumi grew up in a highly disciplined household, son of a great thinker and theologian. Is that discipline necessary for any spiritual seeker?
Barks: Rumi does say you should submit to a daily practice of some sort. It’s like the knocker on the door: if you keep knocking, eventually some joy will look out the window and see who’s there.
Lawler: What is the source of Rumi’s poetry?
Barks: Rumi and Shams met in that mysterious place we call the heart. It’s difficult to explain; it has to be lived. Any claim that I might have in this area comes from having met Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who lived at their level of enlightenment. He once asked me, “Will you meet me on the inside or on the outside?” With my typical English-teacher evasiveness, I said, “Isn’t it always both?” I should have looked in those eyes and said, “Inside.”
Lawler: What is it about Rumi’s poetry that makes it so appealing to Americans today?
Barks: We have been somewhat prepared for Rumi by our own national poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: our odd couple, with their extensive inner dialogues and ecstatic visions. Also I feel there is a natural expansiveness in the American soul that is willing to receive what Rumi is giving. Fluid yet formal, lyric and narrative, his poetry is like some wild mixture of Miguel de Cervantes, John Milton, James Joyce, John Coltrane, and Robin Williams on lunch break with the crew. Americans have a native hilarity that mixes well with Rumi’s sense of humor.
Lawler: How did you become a poet?
Barks: I’ve never thought of myself as anything but a writer. When I was twelve years old, I kept a little notebook of words that I loved: azalea, halcyon, jejune. I just liked the taste of them. I was getting my tools ready. Then I began writing short stories in high school and won some contests there, and I kept on writing in college, and I’ve just always kept on with it.
Lawler: Your father was headmaster of a prep school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Did your home life feed that exploration of writing?
Barks: We ate every meal, three meals a day, with four hundred people in a big dining hall. I ate with my father and mother and brother and sister and five other people at the table. Among the tables around us were several magnificent English and Latin teachers who were storytellers and writers. There was also a group at the school called the “Round Table” that met every two or three months and discussed a book. It was a very literary place.
Lawler: Did religion enter the picture in your childhood?
Barks: We were Presbyterian, but I was sort of a river mystic. There was a curve of the Tennessee River near the school, right across from Williams Island. It was a very beautiful spot. People have been living in that place for fifteen thousand years. That’s where I learned about beauty, just watching that river. There are three mountains there — Elder, Signal, and Lookout — and you could yell at Elder Mountain and hear your name come back. And it was perfectly all right at any time just to wander off from the family and sit by the river. My sister had her own spot out on the bluff where she went. We would see her out there, and we realized that you shouldn’t go and talk to her when she was out there. She was doing what I did — just looking at the river.
Lawler: So your family allowed for creative expression and reflection?
Barks: I grew up in an ecstatic family. Anybody at any time could burst into song for any reason. My mother would just dance around the house, singing. I recall those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor, especially in April. I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, “Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.” She said, “I know you do, honey.” Rumi says just being sentient and in a body is cause for rapture, and I think his reminding us of that is one reason why he’s so popular.
Lawler: Rumi calls grief and joy “the double music” of life. What has this looked like in your life?
Barks: Both of my parents died in 1971, within six weeks of each other, of unrelated causes. I went into a period of grieving in which I felt as if I had blinders on. It also opened me out into a new freedom with bursts of creativity. My dreams became lucent and spectacular. Grief and joy very much did feel like two wings on the bird of my consciousness during that time.
Lawler: I was struck in your first book, The Juice (Harper & Row), by your fascination with the body. One poem is called “Big Toe”; another is “Tongue.”
Barks: Rumi says there’s a great wisdom in the body. You’ve got to listen to it and do what it tells you to do, as a student walks behind the teacher, because this one knows the way more clearly than you. This also comes down to us through Whitman.
Lawler: If that’s so, then why are you so quick to dismiss the idea that Shams and Rumi were lovers?
Barks: I seem to have been forced to make that pronouncement. Some members of the gay community like to claim that Rumi and Shams were lovers in the physical sense. I don’t believe they were. Rumi’s poetry teaches us about a friendship, a love in a place that is beyond sex.
Lawler: But why couldn’t Rumi and Shams experience love on all levels, including the physical? As you make love, Rumi says, so will God make love to you.
Barks: Rumi’s so honest, I feel he would have mentioned it. I think we would have descriptions of sexual acts. When I claim that his friendship with Shams was beyond touch and time, beyond teacher and disciple, beyond lover and beloved, beyond longing, I’m not being afraid of the erotic. They met in the heart.
Lawler: So many of the Rumi poems you’ve chosen to translate are the sensual ones. Why?
Barks: When I first began translating or rephrasing, I was in my thirties and forties, and I was drowned in sexual energy. Now, at seventy, my libido is less strong, and the poems are becoming less sensual. Maybe that’s not the right word, because they’re still delighting in the senses, but they feel less driven by sexuality.
Lawler: As you’ve aged, then, has your passionate sexuality mellowed into a more subtle sensuality?
Barks: Subtle is a good word. You slow down to the pleasures of just being in a body, and it all becomes keener and deeper. Pinot noir tastes better than the wine you guzzled before. You begin to sip and to have a more profound experience. Pleasure doesn’t go away; it becomes more complex. And the passion is there too, less coarsened by lust. I think that’s a process of soul growth, and as part of that, sexuality becomes less important. Thank God! It ran me all over the place.
Lawler: There’s a poem in which you write about jumping in the car and driving eleven hours to meet a woman.
Barks: Yeah, I did that. Rumi once mentioned a teenager who had done something naughty that teenagers do; we don’t know what — masturbation, being a peeping Tom. Rumi said, “No, don’t scold him for that. He’s getting his wings, his feelings.” Life has to be lived. You have to live your sexuality. Of course Rumi felt and followed his sexuality, just as he knew the taste of wine and how wine affects the company at a table. Jesus knew about wine too. That was the good stuff he was making at the wedding in Cana.
Lawler: We don’t seem to know much about Jesus’s sexuality.
Barks: I feel that one of the great failures of Christianity, of the organized-religion part, is that so little — nothing, really — is said about Jesus’s sexuality. The Mary Magdalene passages are expunged. We have nothing about Jesus’s life from when he was twelve until he was twenty-nine. That is a powerfully sexual time for most men. What we are given instead is monastic celibacy and a heightened sense of sexual guilt.
I don’t mean to offend anyone; this is a sensitive subject, the meeting of faith and sexuality. Just bringing it up is considered provocative, even offensive.
Along similar lines, it is not very well-known in the West how Mohammed’s sexual energy is celebrated in Islam. He had several wives, and he is said to have visited each wife every day. That part of the Islamic world is not well recognized here. You could call it the “positive masculine,” that which loves women and enjoys sex. And there are other parts of Islam that we are blind to: the courtesy and peacefulness; the attention to craftsmanship and the simple worker’s daily practice. There is also a respect for the feminine in Islam that we don’t see. We see the sexually repressed, fundamentalist elements, which are present in nearly every religion.
Lawler: One scholar, a fan of yours, says his only criticism of your versions of Rumi’s poems is that you tend to choose poems that center on love, romance, and the erotic — things Americans generally prefer to hear — while ignoring the more traditional Islamic messages of the poet.
Barks: I’m getting around to those other passages now more and more. I began thirty years ago by focusing on sensuality because that’s what I knew. The only way I can get to Rumi is through my filter. But my interests are gradually widening; my desires are changing. Now I’m getting so I like and understand more of the Koranic commentary, especially when Rumi talks about silence; that’s becoming more resonant for me. We poets can do only what resonates with us. There are many respectable translators of Rumi, but there need to be hundreds more, because he’s a universe. He has all the moods and modes of human existence.
Rumi was out walking in Damascus, looking for Shams, and then he realized that he didn’t need to look; he was the friendship. Then there’s no one missing, no separation — and, suddenly, no more country music, either! “Oh, she left me. Oh, I left him. Oh, she left me again. Oh, she came back!”
Lawler: Rumi talks quite a lot about wine. What is the link between the altered states reached through divine conversations and those reached through intoxicants?
Barks: Wine is one of Rumi’s metaphors for our desire for transcendence, for finding some kind of friendship with the divine. But so are fasting and walking a mountain road and diving into the ocean to look for a pearl. The mystery of dissolving the ego is what Rumi continually finds new terms for, although, as he says, “Love cannot be said.” He sometimes invents physically impossible images for the process, like the individual worm eating grape leaves who suddenly becomes the entire vineyard and the orchard too, with no more need to devour, no desire, no more grape-leaf thirsting. The longing of a wine drinker is notoriously not satisfied by wine. Drunkenness gives one an uncentered, artificial kind of selflessness.
Lawler: Your latest book is called Rumi: A Bridge to the Soul (HarperOne). Why a bridge?
Barks: Robert Bly and I recently went to Iran. The University of Tehran flew us over there because they wanted to give me an honorary degree, which was good, because the one I’d gotten from the University of North Carolina had worn off. [Laughter.] We went to Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz. While we were there, I fell in love with the Khajou Bridge, which was built by Sufi architects in the seventeenth century. They say the Sufis mixed the concrete of this bridge with egg white to create some kind of chemical reaction, or perhaps to foster a connection with mother consciousness. People don’t use the bridge only to cross the river. There are two levels to it: The upper level is a road. The lower, pedestrian level is a destination in itself. People are sitting there, meditating on the steps, singing, or reciting poetry in the alcoves. There is a beautiful atmosphere. Nobody is selling anything, and there are no guardrails on the bridge. It’s slippery. It’s wonderful.
Lawler: When you were in Shiraz, did you visit the grave of the Sufi poet Hafiz [Iran’s national poet]?
Barks: Yes, we did. When we were sitting at the tomb, busloads of kids came in, first- and second-graders, and they all stood around the tomb and sang Hafiz songs. They serve great sherbet at Hafiz’s tomb, and music is going all the time. The Iranians know how to enjoy their poets.
Lawler: Didn’t you also visit Afghanistan?
Barks: The U.S. State Department sent me there in March 2005. There hadn’t been an American speaker sent to Afghanistan in twenty-five years. They decided that because Rumi was both the most-read poet in the United States and the national poet of Afghanistan — his work is on the radio all the time there — the two cultures should acknowledge that they love the same man. I went to the site where Balkh, Rumi’s birthplace, used to be. I was also invited to the city of Herat because they wanted to test me out.
Lawler: What do you mean, “test me out”?
Barks: I went to visit the Herat Literary Association, which was identified by a sign in English above the door. I walked in, and there was a long table filled with ferocious alpha males: the fire chief, the mayor, the professors, the powers of the town. They love poetry, so they meet every Thursday to read each other their own poems. They were all bilingual, and they all wanted to see what I had done with their poet. So I would read one of my versions of a Rumi poem, and then my translator would read them the original. They didn’t applaud; they just said, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” They weren’t there to boost my ego at all. They said, “Are you a poet?” I said, “Yeah.” So they said, “Read us one of yours.” So I read them a poem called “Purring.” It’s about poetry as the human purr. Cats purr when they’re contented, and they purr when they’re mortally wounded, and they purr when they’re giving birth. Maybe poetry is some deep umbilical voice that moans at having to die and delights at being in a body. Cats can’t talk, but we can, so we talk and purr simultaneously. This is the double music we make whenever we use words. Rumi touched on this when he said language is like a reed flute: In order to make any noise at all, the reed has to be pulled out of the mud; it has to be separated from the whole. So language is always saying, “Help! I want to go back to the mud of God.” It’s always a whine, like the reed flute. A complaint.
Lawler: Is that what Rumi means when he says the only rule is to suffer the pain?
Barks: Yes. This longing you express is itself what you’re longing for. In one of Rumi’s poems, a man cries, “Allah, Allah,” in the middle of the night, until a cynic asks him, “Have you ever heard anything back?” The man says no, and he quits praying and praising. But the poem says that what you’re longing for is that longing, as when a dog whines for its master. Rumi says the whining is the connection with the master. That’s what you wanted, and you’ve got it: that core of intensity, the love that is our being alive.
Lawler: So is Rumi still a presence in Afghanistan?
Barks: Very much. I told the man taking me around Herat that I wanted to meet a real Sufi. He thought a bit and said there was a man named Omani, from the Chishti line of Sufis. He was ninety-five years old, and he had been teaching Rumi’s Masnavi for seventy-five years in this little back alley. I got my guard, this six-foot-eight Minnesota-farm-boy soldier, to escort me across town to meet him. I asked a lot of questions, and we got to talking about Rumi’s friend Shams. Finally I said, “Who is Shams?” And he said, “Shams is the doctor who comes when you hurt enough.” I replied that I’d come to Afghanistan to hear him say that. He said that in this era, the longing is not deep enough, not intense enough, but in the thirteenth century it was deep and intense enough, so Shams came to Rumi.
This man was so deeply gentle that I could have just drowned in his eyes. Apparently Rumi had that quality too. There’s a story about the Mongol armies coming close to Konya. Rumi walked out alone to talk to the Mongol general. After meeting with Rumi, the general said, “There might be other people like this man in the town, so we’re not going to go in there.” So they didn’t sack Konya.
Lawler: Given Rumi’s connections to Afghanistan and Iran, I wonder whether he would be on Homeland Security’s no-fly list today. What do you think he would make of our world?
Barks: Rumi might remind us how each human consciousness is the result of an extravagantly complicated evolution, from mineral to plant, through animal life to this human consciousness, which is continuing on into unimaginable stages beyond. He was always excited by the beauty of that and by the unique properties and potential of every person. He would be a powerful peace activist for that very reason. He would say something like: “We must nourish the strand of consciousness growing in everyone. We must reduce the absurd weaponry budget, so idiotically destructive of that growth, and we should instead spend twenty times what we do now on education, healthcare, fighting poverty and disease — all the peaceful arts.”
And Rumi would try to restore balance, which is to say compassion and tenderness, to this insane situation we find ourselves in. He would see our pretended elations, and the soulless violence we sponsor. He would do what he could to wake us up. Surely he would encourage cross-cultural linkages and propose ways to blur the boundaries between religions, so that those great mythologies and hypotheticals would not divide us but, rather, unite and befriend. Rumi would help us, and he does help us, to see the impulse toward war for what it is.
Lawler: You start with translations of Rumi’s poetry instead of the original texts. Have you ever wanted to learn Farsi?
Barks: I didn’t hear Rumi’s name until I was thirty-nine, and by then it was too late. To write poetry in another language, or even to read it, you have to have the language in your mother’s milk. You have to know the language so well that you know the nuances of how the word plank is different from the word board. You can’t learn that from a dictionary. So I’m lazy. I’m hopelessly monolingual, and I love doing this work with scholars. I really appreciate literal scholarly translations, but that’s only getting halfway; you still have to make a poem in English, and that’s what I claim to be able to do. It’s so delicious to have a text that is badly phrased — which you can pretty much count on scholars doing — and then fix it. They tend to use words like firmament, and I cross it out and put sky.
Rumi says that if you love words, you get to approach the divine through words. God exists in the space between you and what you desire. That’s why Joseph Campbell told us to follow our bliss. Whatever you love is your path. I happen to love words, so that’s where I see the beautiful, and this is, of course, the beauty parlor that we’re sitting in! I just love lively language wherever it occurs, and I like to feel it flowing through me. An artist is somebody who adores the inspired moment.
Lawler: Is the inspired moment a visitation from the divine?
Barks: Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. So for me, it’s going back to the Tennessee River. When I’ve read novelist Thomas Wolfe, I’ve felt the larger energy coming through him. He felt it too. He had to stand up to write, you know; he couldn’t sit down when he felt that energy coming through. I’ve always loved that moment when I feel the language coming. Nobody knows what the source of the flow of language is, that inspiring eloquence, but we know it when we feel it. Artists of any kind get addicted to that: “Why can’t I be this way all the time?” We destroy ourselves with ways of faking it, of manufacturing inspiration. Writers are so impatient.
Lawler: How do you develop patience?
Barks: You have to guard your time so that you have time when you are just waiting. You do that by not giving interviews! It just ruins the day!
Lawler: What else do you do for inspiration?
Barks: I have a cabin in the mountains right next to a creek. I told the real-estate agent I wanted to be so close to the creek that you can’t talk over the sound of the water. Walking seems to loosen things up for me. I try to walk at least thirty minutes a day. I also like a sixteen-ounce cafe latte — one shot, skim milk — for that coffee rush. We are in these bodies, and they do respond to chemicals.
Lawler: Do you see Rumi as a mystic, an artist, or both?
Barks: Rumi is really unusual, because he’s a master of poetry and such an enlightened human being. The most gifted artists are usually so independent that they can’t surrender their mind. Think of Vladimir Nabokov: so proud of himself and enjoying being Nabokov, and just a hairbreadth away from enlightenment. Mozart is interesting on this subject. He says, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of a genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
To live in the heart sounds so simple. But if it is not lived, then those are just empty words. Rumi and Bawa would say that’s the work we are here to do. We’re here to dissolve the ego and live in the heart with compassion and kindness. The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is kindness.”
I know I’m not enlightened. I’m not there. People who are enlightened say once you get enlightened, it becomes so funny because obviously everybody’s enlightened, but they don’t know it! It becomes a huge joke.
Lawler: What’s your religion?
Barks: My religion? I like them all. I have recently been reading Zen and Taoist books.
Lawler: Do you have sacred texts?
Barks: The poetry of James Wright. Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. The poems Emily Dickinson wrote in 1863. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I love the Psalms and John 8. The poetry of Charlie Smith. Billy Collins’s Picnic, Lightning. John Ruskin; I would call him a Sufi.
Lawler: Ruskin? The nineteenth-century English art critic? How are you defining the term “Sufi”?
Barks: I define it in the most general way as someone who is on the path of the heart, whether it’s Bawa Muhaiyaddeen or Groucho Marx. Maybe it’s a way that has no definition at all. If you need a name for these strange vitalists, call them DUM — Disreputable Unaffiliated Mystics. But it’s best not to call them anything.
Lawler: Is there a difference between Barks the poet and Barks the interpreter of Rumi?
Barks: They’re beginning to flow together more and more. The work with Rumi is to get out of the way, to share the path of wisdom and experience the state of annihilation.
Lawler: Rumi talks a lot about the “great dissolution.” Is this the annihilation you’re referring to?
Barks: He has hundreds of metaphors for the dissolution of the ego: What happens to a child when it’s nursing, leaning into the breast. A dead mule being dissolved into a salt flat. Gnats in a whirlwind; that’s what it feels like to me. The drop going into the ocean, of course. These images of what it is like to die before you die. “You must be born again,” says Jesus.
Lawler: Were you ever born again when you were growing up in Tennessee?
Barks: No, although I did go up to the front in a Billy Graham crusade. It felt good, like surrender. But I know I’m not enlightened. I’m not there. People who are enlightened say once you get enlightened, it becomes so funny because obviously everybody’s enlightened, but they don’t know it! It becomes a huge joke.
Lawler: Have you ever felt the state of annihilation in your own life?
Barks: I felt something similar to it in the presence of Bawa. I felt real friendship, a connection, as well as a feeling of being out of time or place, a melting of the world. Bawa would say that this world is like snow: made of beautiful shapes, but it melts. Bawa’s teaching is slowly working on me.
Lawler: In the West, submitting to a teacher on the road to wisdom is often seen as cultish or degrading.
Barks: Islam means “submission.” Yes, we want things to be democratic, with everybody equal. It turns out they’re not. Maybe people are equal in terms of value, but in terms of soul growth, some people are farther along. This man, this being, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen came to get me in a dream. He could visit me in dreams and be conscious of having done that. I would go to see him and start telling him my dreams, and he would say, “You don’t need to tell me that dream. I was there.” If somebody told me that this had happened to them, I might not believe it was real, but it happened to me.
We have such lack of trust with spiritual teachers — the Jim Jones–guru syndrome. But with this man, trust was no problem. Surely people felt this around Jesus or the Buddha: the knowing that he is the real thing. Bawa never asked for money. He said you don’t charge for wisdom. And if he was giving a talk and he found that they were taking money at the door, he would say, “Go find the people and give it back!” This is un-American, not to charge, isn’t it?
He died in 1986, and our relationship has changed. He’s become more of a friend.
Lawler: As Shams was to Rumi?
Barks: Well, the friend is a mystery. Rumi talks about him in various ways. He’s a presence that is like sunlight. Whenever Rumi mentions the sun, he means Shams — a specific person and something as enlivening as sunlight is to the earth. Shams is, in fact, Arabic for “sun.” My teacher used to say that other people were the jewel lights in his eyes. And then there’s Joe Miller, the homegrown mystic who is dead now. He used to teach by walking; he’d get fifteen hundred people walking with him through Golden Gate Park. He’d get to the end of the park, and he’d buy a bunch of us ice cream. He called it “headquarters”: this shared inwardness, the friend, the beloved. “Coleman, now get back to headquarters,” he’d say — get back to your center. That’s the place Rumi calls “majesty.” “The Kingdom of God is within you,” it says in the Gospel of Thomas: “Lift up a stone and I am there. Break a stick and I am there.” Whoever’s saying that is the headquarters, the friend, the beloved, the sun. The sun that melts the snow.