Listen, Listen: Or, Rumi as a Zen Master

Listen, Listen: Or, Rumi as a Zen Master May 9, 2020



Listen, Listen: Or, Rumi as a Zen Master

James Ishmael Ford

A few days ago I posted a Rumi quote on my Facebook page. It goes, “Sit, be still, and listen, listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.” My friend and colleague in UU world, Roger Butts, challenged me as a Zen teacher to explain what is it, exactly, that I see in this quote.

If you’ve been living in a cave somewhere you may not know Rumi. His full name is Jalaladdin Rumi, and he was a Thirteenth century Muslim theologian, a poet, and a Sufi master. A couple of years ago it was widely reported that Rumi was the best-selling poet in America. Might still be so.

What I really like about him is that Sufi thing. He was a follower of the mystical traditions of Islam. And in fact, he established the Mevlevi Sufi Order, best known as the whirling dervishes.

If his writings are a way to judge him, he profoundly understood the spiritual life from a perspective that while totally Muslim, was also fully universalist. His words have touched many hearts across many cultures and ages. Including mine. I often find he says what the Zen teachers say, but with, perhaps, more heart.

I thought that lovely verse a perfect example.

First, with any Rumi quote these days, it is wise to make sure he actually said it. I suspect he may be misquoted on the interwebs more than the Buddha. And a legitimate challenge to a number of our most popular interpreters of Rumi is that their versions are so creative as to be unrecognizable when measured against literal translations. For instance, there is a lot of de-Muslim-ing, if that’s a word, that happens.

So, is the line real? The answer is yes. And is it recognizable when laid up against a literal translation? Well, judge for yourself. A. J. Arberry is so literal that the criticism of his work is he often loses the music of the language, the, you know, poetry.

His translation, it’s the concluding lines of a larger poem is “Be silent, and sit down, for you are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof.” The version I used, and which is posted all over the interwebs, which I’m pretty sure is from Coleman Barks, goes “Sit, be still, and listen, listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.” So, with a tip of the hat in gratitude to the great scholar and translator Professor Arberry, we know the more lyrical Barks version is also faithful to the original.

Which takes us to the four points in the verse. Sit. Listen. You’re drunk. And, we’re sitting at the edge of the roof. As someone walking the Zen way, the first line is really clear. Sit. As in sit down, shut up, pay attention. And, actually that second point, “listen” fills out the whole of that perennial Zen counsel. Listen. Don’t immediately respond, don’t think you know, don’t interpret a moment before you must. Listen.

And, there we get the other two parts of the message, points we find in near all the world’s spiritual traditions. In Sufi poetry “drunk” is an interesting word. Sometimes it’s a good thing. It’s the divine intoxication we experience when we come close to the mystery. In the Zen way we tend to be less, well, spiritual. The fundamental encounter is more described as a letting go of our delusions. We like “awakening.” When we’re being extravagant about the moment we might speak of the hazy moon. Or, just plain not-knowing. But the Sufis sometimes like to speak to that moment as a drunkenness. A loss of control and a tumbling into the arms of the lover.

But, here, that’s not the point. It’s the other drunkenness. It’s the lack of clarity, it’s the poisonous intoxication of one’s own opinions, views, what we know without a shade of doubt. In Zen we sometimes call this ignorance. We see the world through a fun house mirror, and we mistake what we’re seeing through the lenses of our aversions and desires. Drunk is a very good word.

And, then there’s that last line. You know, the one about the edge of the roof. Here we are. The world is on fire. The catch is, it has always been so. The world is as passing as a mayfly. It will all fall apart. It is falling apart. And so are we. You. Me.

The matter is urgent. The way is offered.

Listen. Listen.

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