Rumi’s Guest House: Three Versions of a Spiritual Text

Rumi’s Guest House: Three Versions of a Spiritual Text June 9, 2021

 

Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the great figures of world spirituality. He was born in what is now Iran in 1207 and died in what is now Turkey in 1273. He was a mystic, a scholar, a poet, and the founder of the Mevlevi Sufi Order, perhaps best known in the West as the “whirling dervishes.”

What captures me in the moment is his poem the Guest House. It is a perennial favorite of Insight and Zen practitioners as it captures much of the heart of the practices of intimacy.

Here are three versions, one a full on, and somewhat dry translation, the other two more creative efforts at capturing the heart of the matter.

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First, here’s a translation of the text by the scholar Reynold Nicholson, in his Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi, published by “The Trustees of E.J.W. Gibb Memorial” by Luzac, 1977:

This body, O youth, is a guest-house: every morning a new
guest comes running (into it).
Beware, do not say, “The (guest) is a burden to me,” for
presently he will fly back into non-existence.
Whatsoever comes into thy heart from the invisible world is
thy guest: entertain it well!

Every day, too, at every moment a (different) thought comes,
like an honoured guest, into thy bosom.
O (dear) soul, regard thought as a person, since (every) person
derives his worth from thought and spirit.
If the thought of sorrow is waylaying (spoiling) joy, (yet) it
is making preparations for joy.
It violently sweeps thy house clear of (all) else, in order that

new joy from the source of good may enter in.
It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in
order that incessant green leaves may grow.
It uproots the old joy, in order the new delight may march
in from the Beyond.
Sorrow pulls up the crooked rotten (root), in order that it may
disclose the root that is veiled from sight.
Whatsoever (things) sorrow may cause to be shed from the
heart or may take away (from it), assuredly it will bring better
in exchange.

(Whenever) the thought (of sorrow) comes into thy breast
anew, go to meet it with smiles and laughter.

***

Coleman Barks is no doubt the great interpreter of Rumi for English speaking readers. The problems with Barks’ versions are well known. He does not read the original languages, and often gives very free renderings from the available translations. On the other hand, he seems to have a profound spiritual eye, and his versions of the texts take on a life of their own. Often sort of collaborations between Rumi and Barks. Here’s Barks’ version of the Guest House, first published in Rumi: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 2004:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

***

Kabir Helminski is a Western born Sufi Shaikh in the Mevlevi Order. His version of the Guest House, first published in the Rumi Collection, Threshold Books, 1998:

Darling, the body is a guest house;
every morning someone new arrives.
Don’t say, “O, another weight around my neck!”
or your guest will fly back to nothingness.
Whatever enters your heart is a guest
from the invisible world: entertain it well.

Every day, and every moment, a thought comes
like an honored guest into your heart.
My soul, regard each thought as a person,
for every person’s value is in the thought they hold.

If a sorrowful thought stands in the way,

it is also preparing the way for joy.
It furiously sweeps your house clean,
in order that some new joy may appear from the Source.
It scatters the withered leaves from the bough of the heart,
in order that fresh green leaves might grow.
It uproots the old joy so that
a new joy may enter from Beyond.

Sorrow pulls up the rotten root
that was veiled from sight.
Whatever sorrow takes away or causes the heart to shed,
it puts something better in its place-
especially for one who is certain
that sorrow is the servant of the intuitive.

Without the frown of clouds and lightning,
the vines would be burned by the smiling sun.
Both good and bad luck become guests in your heart:
like planets traveling from sign to sign.
When something transits your sign, adapt yourself,
and be as harmonious as its ruling sign,
so that when it rejoins the Moon,
it will speak kindly to the Lord of the heart.

Whenever sorrow comes again,
meet it with smiles and laughter,
saying, “O my Creator, save me from its harm,
and do not deprive me of its good.
Lord, remind me to be thankful,
let me feel no regret if its benefit passes away.”

And if the pearl is not in sorrow’s hand,
let it go and still be pleased.
Increase your sweet practice.
Your practice will benefit you at another time;
someday your need will be suddenly fulfilled.

***

 


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