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The Ocean of the Mathnawi

Coleman Barks and John Moyne


The Mathnawi is Rumi's masterwork, and it is impossible to give much sense of it in a selection of excerpts. It runs to six volumes, over fifty-one thousand verses of poetry, couplets in twelve-beat lines, in which the hemistichs, or half-lines, also rhyme. I have not tried, of course, to duplicate the music of the Persian. These versions of the Mathnawi are set in the free verse of American poetry, one of the strongest and most spiritually open and questing traditions in Western writing. But the majestic intricacy of the original, its reef-like porousness, cannot be Drought over in free verse. The Mathnawi is complex, mature work, like Shakespeare's tragedies and the late romances, which cannot, of course, be translated, and yet they must.

To use Rumi's own metaphor, the Mathnawi is an ocean, with myriad elements swimming and adrift and growing in it: folklore, the Qur'an, stories of saints and teachers, myth, the sayings of Muhammed, jokes from the street, actual interruptions, whispered asides to Husam. There is an enormous generosity and humor at play here, and at work. Fresh, wild moments within a profound peace. Drunken, lyric dissolvings within a starry clarity. Spontaneous pleasure within discipline.

You may have heard the Sufi story about an Ocean-Frog who comes to visit a pond-frog, whose pond is three feet by four feet by two feet deep. The pond-frog is very eager and proud to show off the dimensions of his habitat, which in the story signify the limits of mind and desire. He dives down two feet to the bottom and comes up and asks, "Did you ever see water this deep? What is it like where you live?" The Ocean-Frog (from the Ocean of Ilm, the Divine Wisdom, which has no boundaries) cannot explain to the pond-frog what his Ocean home is Like, but he says, "One day I'll take you there, and you can swim in it."

I am very much the pond-frog before the Mathnawi. I love the feel of its motions, its shifting variety, its music and its wisdom. The Mathnawi is a sacred text that invites one to drown in it. I don't claim to have done that. It's a continuing work, for me, this digging in Rumi's Mathnawi, to let the Ocean come up through the effort-places, to let the words drift away and the experience flood in (p. 63).

It's one of the most compelling texts, sacred or secular, that I know of. All I can do, really, is point to it, like some unlikely visitor from Chattanooga faced with the Himalayas.


The Mathnawi was spoken aloud and taken down by Rumi's beloved scribe, Husam Chelebi. The following story is told of how it began: The two were walking in the Meram vineyards outside Konya when Husam suggested that Mevlana begin a new work in a new form, something different from the odes and the quatrains, something in the Mathnawi (couplets) tradition of Attar and Sanai and others. Rumi took a piece of paper from his turban and told Husam to read aloud what was on it. It was the opening of the Mathnawi, which Rumi had composed just that morning, the famous couplets spoken by the reed flute.

"There must be more," said Husam.
"If you will write for me, I will continue," replied Rumi.
"From this moment, I am your servant."

Thus the long, twelve-year process began. Husam describes it.

"He never took a pen in his hand while composing the Mathnawi. He would recite wherever he was, in the medrese (the dervish college), at the Ilgin hot springs, in the Konya baths, in the vineyards. When he started, I would write, and I often found it hard to keep up. Sometimes he would recite night and day for several days. Other times, he would compose nothing for months. Once for a period of two years he spoke no poetry .As each volume was completed, I would read it back to him, so that he could revise it."

The form, then, is an inspired and intuitively moving tapestry that can include anything it meets. A question from Husam, Arabic poetry, a surprise visitor, Quranic commentary, all get woven into One Vision, the pattern of which seems almost beyond human comprehension, as with the wonderful pun that Rumi uses to describe the daily motion of the sun as a weaver's shuttle (maku). Ma ku, in Persian, also means "Where are we?" so the weaving being done by the sun-shuttle back and forth, east to west, is also the repeated question, Where are We? with the implied pattern, and answer, not in sight. Not to the shuttle, anyway. (See pp. 37-8.) Likewise, the Mathnawi's whole truth may not be accessible to a particular reader standing in its surf, but the beauty and mystery of its Presence can be sensed.


Several of these Mathnawi segments are about teachers. It's a powerful theme throughout the six books, this longing for the Teacher, and for What Comes Through the Teacher.

When matter dissolves in the Ocean 
the particles glow. As who I am now 
melts in a candle flame, identity 
becomes one vast motion. (#2)

Many images of expanded, particular identity come through: the adoration of Sunqur (p. 34), the melting of the Debtor Sheikh (p. 6), Noah in " As the Orchard is With the Rain" (p. 50), the end of "You Are Not a Single You" (p. 49). The mystery of the Oceanic Teacher is that of the Mathnawi itself. The only real analogy that I know of for its form is the actual presence of a Sufi teacher. The movements, sometimes abrupt, from narrative to lyric, from melting ecstasies to stern, practical advice, are very much the weavings of a collaboration between a teacher and a community of students. The dialectic of subject and next-subject and return to former subjects, the waiting, wandering, and finding, these are the unfolding waves that flow between a teacher and lively students in the Sufi tradition. The sense of collaboration is strong in the Mathnawi, of a polylogue going on, a group-work, of many being helped along by this camel that can carry hundreds of mice across the river at once (p. 32).

A student once asked one of these teachers about the inner nature of poetry. Punning and gently mimicking the student's Southern accent, the teacher found the answer within the question. "Po-tree, bo Tree! Poetry must be like the bo tree! Do you know how it grows? Up, up, and then the long branches bend and where they touch ground they send out roots and a new system begins."

The bo tree was also the tree under which the Buddha's enlightenment came. One feels that complex grounding and then the ascending impulse in the Mathnawi. It is a poem full of rooted human pain and foibles, but they are always understood from above by the playfulness and atmospheric love that holds them. All the splintered stories live within a compassionate intelligence, a Humor (that word! from the Latin umor, wetness, so close to Dante's Amor, ecstatic Love). We need a new coinage for the swirling improvisation of this poem, an Amor-Umor.

The Mathnawi is a compendium of many elements, but the reader-swimmer feels a Gaia-mind regulating the saline percentages, keeping in balance the whole organism as well as the parts.

The Mathnawi is a text formed within a community and is itself a community, a collection of poetries living within the large poem, which is Rumi's Presence.

* * *

This selection also features Rumi's attention to animals. Their endearing, familiar doings, as well as their ferocities and compulsions. They stand in the niches, above the doors and downspouts, of Rumi's cathedral. They're everywhere. A baby pigeon hesitating all day on the edge of its nest. A dog sniffing food, looking around, sniffing again, and then eating. Behaviors we recognize, domestic as well as wild and improbable: a gazelle put in with a herd of donkeys, a dugong at night bringing a glowing pearl up on shore to graze by the light of it. The animals are, most often, in some difficulty. They signify the animal-soul torn between freedom and confinement, and they are always themselves, very froggy and cocky and ducky and doggy and dugongy, even as they serve as symbols for the nafs, the energies that move and blind and block us at various stages in our growth.

The animals reveal, again, Rumi's grounded compassion, how meshed with the texture of living he is, as the wonderful Letters at the end of this volume also show. His deep surrender is one with a sure grasp of the practical and the daily. The edge of the wheel that touches the ground here, presses firmly into it. I don't mean to imply that he observes behavior like an experimental biologist, but he does watch closely, and always on the verge of laughter - the dog and the rooster, the mouse and the frog, and even the dream-puppies that bark inside the womb ( p. 41). What could they be barking about? To keep watch? To start game? Or do they want to be fed? The embryo pups have none of those reasons, so he concludes they're like people who talk about something before they have the actual experience, who make idle talk on spiritual matters. "Still blind, they act as though they see." Rumi is tough on hypocrisy, and very complex in his treatment of the nafs. Perhaps the best image of how the animal-soul energies should be controlled is that of Jesus on the spindly donkey (p. 65), Jesus being the clear, rational soul and the donkey the nafs-ammara, or animal-soul.

Consider the characteristics of the donkey: It's transportation for the poor. It can carry large loads up a narrow path. It has a modest, steadfast, calm nature. Of even energy, patient, surefooted, not easily spooked. Not noble, not splendid, not high-strung, not used for war, and generally unimpressed with human authority, the donkey is more known for what it is not, than for what it is. The thin donkey gives many clues for the uses of controlled energy.

Don't feed both sides of yourself equally.
The spirit and the body carry different loads
and require different attentions.
                                                 Too often
we put saddle bags on Jesus and let the donkey
run loose in the pasture.
Don't make the body do
what the Spirit does best, and don't put a big load
on the Spirit that the body could carry easily. (pp.71-2)

The snake, or the dragon, is Rumi's symbol for the nafs when they're frighteningly out of control. See "The Snake-Catcher and the Frozen Snake" (p. 67) as well as the snake-swallowing episode of "Jesus on the Lean Donkey" (p. 65).

Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought Sufism to the West in this century , has this to say abut Rumi and the animal-soul energy, or as he calls it, the false ego.

Rumi says your worst enemy is hiding within yourself, and that enemy is your nafs or false ego. It is very difficult to explain the meaning of this "false ego." The best I can do is to say that every inclination which springs from disregard of love, harmony, and beauty and which is concerned with oneself and unconcerned with all others is the false ego.

This enemy, Rumi says, develops. The more it is fed, the stronger it becomes to fight with you; and the stronger it becomes, the more it dominates your better self. There comes a day when man is the slave of this enemy which is hidden within himself. The worst position is to have an enemy which one does not know. It is better to have a thousand known enemies before one than to have one within one and not to know it.

There are many meanings ascribed to the custom of sages in India to have snakes around their necks. One of those meanings is: "I have got it. It is still living, but now I know that it is there, and it is my ornament." What does this enemy breathe? This enemy breathes "I." Its breath is always calling out, "I, separate from you, separate from others, separate from everybody. My interest is mine; it has nothing to do with others. The interest of others is others' interest; it is not mine. I am a separate being."

Remember that no man is without it. If man was without it, he would never have said "I," because it is this enemy within him which is saying "I." The day this enemy is found and erased, or shed and crucified, that day the real "I" is found. But this "I" is a different "I." This "I" means you and I and everybody; it is an all "I."

* * *

Another theme is that of the urgency needed to burst open into love, and service, into the Ocean-Presence of the Teacher. Like the Hasidic saying, "Bake your bread with burning tears," the knot of God's generosity does not loosen until the halvah boy's sharp cry (p. 7). As God tells Moses, "I want burning, burning. ..Those who pay attention to ways of behaving and speaking are one sort. Lovers who burn are another" (p. 20). That torn-open-ness is what the reed flute, in the Mathnawi's opening passage, wants of its audience. "The music of the reed is fire, not air, ...such longing. If I were also touching the lips of someone who spoke my language, I would tell all that could be told."

Husam Chelebi was a student of Shams. With him, then, the collaboration, the Connection, revives, the lover-Beloved, friend-and-Friend synapse, that is the subject of the Divan. Rumi called that huge collection of odes and quatrains The Works of Shams of Tabriz. Perhaps in a more concealed way, the stories and teaching of the Mathnawi come from that intense shams-sun energy too. Shams means "the sun." The continuous ignition of moment by moment feels like the blood of that love flowing through this masterpiece.

And what of all the wine-talk? Some are troubled by it. Fermentation is one of the oldest symbols for human transformation.  When the juice of grapes, under certain conditions, is closed up and allowed to incubate for a time, the results are spectacular. That change can also occur in people, and the sharing of the crushed-open mystery and joy is the cup passed around, is the Tavern, is

Whoever saw such drunkards?
Barrels broken open, the ground and starry
ceiling soaked. And look,
this full glass in my hand!                           (p.33, Unseen Rain)

The grapeskin O of the ego crushes underfoot, and a pouring begins, that's like the freedom death allows. This is the rubble stage, when pronouns no longer apply. Two drunks meet, and
there's no differentiating them. But Rumi is clear: Look for the jewels within, and beyond, this Wine-drenched state. There is a sobriety that contains all drunkenness.

Here's the new rule: Break the wineglass
and fall toward the Glassblower's breath.     (p. 45, Open Secret)


Do that work, and you'll begin to hear inside
the maundering drunktalk of drunkards,
the Presence of the Winemaker, the Host
who served this wine to us. (p.73)

Drunkenness is Rumi's metaphor for the excitements of existence, which keep changing.

We feel freed from one noose,
and we run out yelling, Justice for everybody!

We think we're pure rain.
We don't see the next danger, how the road
we're on is matted with the hair
and bones of those who've gone before.

There's another region of excitements altogether.

One drop of that Wine,
and you'd never go back to these wines.

That's why God gave them,
so you can imagine the other. 
                      (Mathnawi, III, 806ff)

* * *

One of the longings that I feel when I read the Mathnawi is for community .The poetry and the teachings imply the joyful, and strenuous, ebb and flow of a powerful matrix.

For a dervish, there must be a purpose,
a cause for existence, and inside the cause,
a True Human Being.

Learning communities are being built everywhere.
The whole world is a learning community!
Where is the True Human Being? 

Perhaps when longing takes such a fully expressive form as the Mathnawi, the question becomes an answer. ]elaluddin Rumi is one of the True Human Beings.

A metaphor for the dynamic between such a Guide, the human mind, and the nafs is found in Book 1, 2492ff, with the image of the camel, the camel-driver, and the Sun (animal-soul, rational intellect, Teacher).

The Holy Ones have an amber
that when they show it to you,
you want it more than anything.

When they conceal it, your surrendered love
becomes meanness and arrogance. You are to them
as animals are to human beings.

You're subject to saints, the Teachers,'
the True Human Beings. Muhammed addressed
the whole world as, My Servants. ...

Your intelligence is a camel-driver. You are the camel.
The Holy Ones are an Intelligence within your intellect.
Give your profoundest contemplation to this:

Camel, camel-driver, the Sun. There's only One Guide
for these hundreds of thousands of people, all
leading their camels. Develop an eye

that can see into the Sun. The world is nailed shut
in night, waiting for the Sun to come up.
And here it is, hidden in a speck of dirt!

Like a lion somehow disguised
in a fleece! Like an Ocean
beneath a piece of straw!

Coleman Barks

References: Nicholson, R.A. (1925-40). The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. 8 Vols. London: Luzac & Co. Critical edition, translation, and commentary.

Coleman Barks and John Moyne, Poetry, Teaching Stories, and Letters of Rumi (Boston: Shambhala, 2000); pp. ix-xviii.

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