Coleman Barks: The Soul of Rumi – Part 2
Living Dialogues
Duncan Campbell

Episode 53 - Coleman Barks: The Soul of Rumi – Part 2

"Duncan you are a real national treasure, you make me smile, and I love that you ask me to be on your program...I just love how you come up with ways to tie these insights we discover together.  I don't know how you do it.  It's inspired..." – Coleman Barks

I described Part 1 (See Program 3 on this site below) of this three-part dialogue with Coleman as follows:

This three-part dialogue on The Soul of Rumi is a great embodiment of the experience and value of dialogue, showcasing Rumi's life and poetry as a perspective of timeless wisdom and inspiration.   For those unfamiliar with Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet born in Afghanistan who lived most of his life in Turkey, this first program will be a great introduction, and a "feast" for the great many around the world already deeply appreciative of his work.  In recognition of the worldwide inspiration for communication created by Rumi in evoking the spirit and experience of unity beyond religious, cultural and ideological boundaries, UNESCO proclaimed 2007 as “The Year of Rumi”.  As noted in my prior dialogue with Larry Dossey, M.D. (See Program 2 below), Rumi has remarkably become today -- 800 years after his birth on September 30, 1207 -- simultaneously the most-listened to and revered poet in Afghanistan and the most-published poet in America.  His continually growing popularity in the U.S. is due in large part to the incomparable translations by the great American translator and poet, Coleman Barks.

This then is a link to the co-creation of a "dialogue consciousness worldview" that Living Dialogues is promoting and holding space for. 

In this Part 2

Rumi’s poetry inspires in these dark times when we are trying to create a civilization without elders – that is to say, we are in the process of becoming elders ourselves in times of uncertainty, encountering unprecedented global conflicts and climate change. As I say in the dialogue, Rumi functions as an elder in our human journey as a species, whose words resonate down over eight centuries, across national, ethnic, religious, and language barriers, expressing the unifying essence we all share.  In the words of another eloquent member of the species, John F. Kenndy, 45 years ago this month in his historic American University speech proclaiming the world’s first nuclear disarmament initiative, in the name of creating together a planetary peace that would be beneficial for all mankind:  “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air; we all cherish our children’s future; and we are all mortal.”

To go forward on this great journey together, we need to develop the paradoxical consciousness which can hold our universal moral values and experience together inclusively and beyond ideology with our human diversity.  In that vein, this poem of Rumi serves as an inspiration and touchstone for the spontaneous investigations and ruminations evoked in this dialogue:

Today, like very other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

After listening to this Dialogue, I invite you to both explore and make possible further interesting material on Living Dialogues by clicking on the Episode Detail button at the top left of this program description, and by taking less than 5 minutes to click on and fill out the Listener Survey there (or click on the Listener Survey icon to the left of this column).


The best way to reach me is through my website:  Many thanks again for your attentive deep listening in helping co-create this program.  All the best, Duncan.



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Coleman Barks: Thank you, Duncan. You are a real national treasure! You make me smile; I really appreciate you, and I love it that you asked me to come on your program.

From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions, through the work of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo, and quantum physicist David Bome, neutrally participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness. Evoking a flow of meaning; a dia, flow of logos, meaning, beyond what any one individual can bring through alone. So join us now, as together with you, the active Deep Listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.

Duncan Campbell: Welcome once again to Living Dialogues, I'm your host Duncan Campbell, and I'm delighted to have with me Coleman Barks, the author of "The Soul of Roomi -- a collection of ecstatic poems." Coleman has been translating Roomi's poetry for over 25 years. He's a renowned poet in his own rite, who has taught English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia for many years. His two appearances on Bill Moyer's PBS Poetry series brought him wide acclaim; he's been I would say, the primary translator of Roomi for the American audience, and Roomi is now the most popular published poet in America -- in no small measure due to the vividness and vitality of your translations, Coleman. So welcome once again to Living Dialog!

Coleman Barks: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Duncan Campbell: And we know from your work in reading Roomi and writing Roomi and translating him that when we say "in no small measure due to your translations" there's really no ego involved; that something really has come through you as a calling. And we describe the remarkable events in your own life that led to how you became a translator of Roomi, and perhaps in this particular dialog, we could begin by talking a little bit about the remarkable events in the life of Roomi himself that led to this fantastic outpouring of poetry in his middle and later years and perhaps just to situate our audience we could talk about where he was born, and his background, his father, and how he came to meet Shams as you do beautifully in your introduction to "The Soul of Room".

Coleman Barks: Uh-huh. Roomi was born in the Eastern edge of what was then the Persian Empire, in what is now Afghanistan in the town of Balk -- or just outside it probably. In 1207; the traditional date is September 30th. He and his family fled the oncoming armies of the Mongols and ended up… they went down through Damascus and Asia Minor until they got to Konya, Turkey. His father then Bahauddin, became the head of a dervish community there, and when he died a few years later, Roomi became the head of that. He went through the initiation with a teacher named Burhanuddin and was an adept in the Sufi tradition. Until the crucial event, the galvanizing event of his life, which was his meeting with Shams of Tibris. Shams was... Robert Black calls him a “Mountain Meditator”. He's like a thurough times 500! Anyway, he's a fierce searcher for truth.

Duncan Campbell: One of those people we say: wanderers who are not lost.

Coleman Barks: Yeah, that's right.

He wandered the near East and students would gather around him wherever he was and he didn't want students. He would excuse himself to get a drink of water, and then he was just gone. He wore his black cloak, and he was called The Winged One” – Parinda.

Duncan Campbell: Who was that masked teacher?

Coleman Barks: Yeah, that's right! And he wanted companion ship on his way and finally, a voice came to him that said "what would you give if I tell you who your friend is?" And he said, "my head." The voice said, "Your friend is Jalaluddin of Konya". And so he went there, and they met. Several stories about how they met: one of them is that Roomi was teaching by a fountain and reading from his father’s spiritual diary, the mahareef, which was his favorite text and Shams came along and pushed the text off the side of the fountain and into the water. He said, "now you have to live what you've been reading about!" And Roomi said, "But that text is invaluable to me." Shams said, "We can lift it out" and it will be dry -- and his texts are always dry!

Duncan Campbell: [Laughs]

Coleman Barks: And they lifted it out it was still dry. And Roomi says leave it. And that renunciation of books at that point, in favor of experience. He wanted...he often says he doesn't want the poetry anymore, he wants the thing itself. He doesn't want God poems, he wants the presence. And you know that one about jars of spring water? He says,

Jars of spring water are not enough anymore
Take us down to the river.

Duncan Campbell: Oh, that's beautiful!

Coleman Barks: Yeah. And,

The face of peace -- the Sun itself
No more the slippery cloud like moon
Give us one clear morning after another
And the one whose work remains unfinished
Who is our work as we diminish?
Idle though occupied. Empty and open.

Duncan Campbell: Wow. It's like a gasp of astonishment and delight at the same time. And as you said in a prior dialog, it’s again, illustrative of that magical aspect of Roomi. And as you translate him you said that Roomi quite deliberately worked with the silence at the end of the poems. And perhaps you could restate that lovely phrase of what happens when the reading or declamation of the poem is over.

Coleman Barks: There's a tradition in the ghazal form, that the poet signs the poem by mentioning his own name at the end of the poem. Hafiz does that beautifully...

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: ...but Roomi never does it. He never claims the poem as his own. He either mentions Shams, or sunlight, or khamoosh -- silence. He gives it back to where it came from. That mysterious flute player, that is... He has a sort of reed flute theory of language. He says we are all like the reed flute; complaining. And we are all saying our emptiness -- that's all that language can say. "I'm empty, and I want to go back to the reed bed where I was in the mud of God and making sugar." You know?

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: ...I want to be back there. That's all language can say -- all it can do is whine! And grieve, over not being in the presence. In order to make a noise, we have to be hollow like the red flute and have those nine holes skillfully arranged. [Laughs] So then we have to be played by a flute player. Who that flute player is, is the mystery.

Duncan Campbell: Ah! You know I just got this wonderful, crazy moment there as I was listening to you of the "whine," another great metaphor of Roomi's, the "whine" of this kind of language kicks the "H" out of whine...

Coleman Barks: Ah! I never heard that pun. Kicks the "H" out of it! That's good! [laughs]. Wonderful!

Duncan Campbell: [xx] its really fun! What also was occurring to me as you spoke about Roomi's own moment of enlightenment of wanting to drink of the river rather than to drink from the water jar, is another one of the poems you translate in your work "The Essential Roomi;" And it’s been very inspiring to me, in these dark times, or when anyone has dark times. In some of mine I've turned to this particular phrase,

Today like every other day we wake up empty and frightened
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument. let the beauty we love be what we doe
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,

..And then, that is followed by the famous couplet,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
There is a field -- I'll meet you there.

Coleman Barks: Hmm.

Duncan Campbell: But that sense of when we feel frightened don't go to the books, don't go to the dry text. Create something; have gratitude for the beauty around you. Fall on your knees as it were, and worship.

Coleman Barks: Become music.

Yeah, he says, 'somehow we are'... that's why he loves to have... music and poetry are very close, as they were always together as also movement was part of the art form of his expression. And he says that poems are notations for the music that we are.

Duncan Campbell: [laughs] I love that. That's gorgeous!

Coleman Barks: Yeah.

Duncan Campbell: In fact, you know the next thing that occurred to me as you were speaking was in terms of the complaint that we can wake up with when we're empty and frightened or just at any point. And Roomi's saying we shouldn't whine; we should have gratitude, we should enjoy this life and all of its beauty and grieving, is a phrase from the course of miracles that Deepak Chopra likes to quote, where he says that "Any moment we have a choice between experiencing life as a grievance or a miracle."

In the sense that at any moment we can be flat and dry, or there can be some sense of wanting and needing things to be different, or there can be a sense of just profound appreciation of just the way things are in celebration even if its full of sadness and grief -- and we feel that in Roomi.

Coleman Barks: Uh-huh. He oscillates on all the possibilities, really. Sometimes he’s complaining and sometimes he says this is enough. And he says, that phrase, that sentence, "this is enough" was always true. We just haven't known it.

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: We just haven't felt it.

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: He says that the hippo already wears a crested crown. The ant was given its elegant belt at birth. And this love we feel comes through us like giveaway song. The source of now is here. [laughs] What has he said? He always says what I'm saying makes me drunk! [laughs]

Duncan Campbell: Huh?

Coleman Barks: It's kind of a...he surprises himself I think. By the truths that come through him.

Duncan Campbell: I think you're right. I think that's beautiful, because you know it reminds me now of Milarippa, the great Tibetan poet-saint of what was it...the 11th century, so a couple hundred years before Roomi. And he's often depicted in Bhuddist iconography wearing a simple cotton cloth and a red meditation band so that he could sleep sitting up in meditation posture; but most importantly, he has one hand cupped to his ear.

Coleman Barks: Oh, really?

Duncan Campbell: And he's the only one ever depicted like this, and the reason is that he's listening to his own voice in ecstatic songs of appreciation, of enlightenment, of being, and the thing I've always been moved by is that he's listening to his own voice because he knows that he's hearing these words for the first time; that something is coming through him; that this is not his proprietary invention of the small self. And he's as moved in the moment as anyone else that's hearing this because he's just the vehicle.

Coleman Barks: Ain't that beautiful?

Duncan Campbell: Yeah! And the great collection of 100,000 songs of Helareppa [sp] he's known as the great Tibetan yogi poet-saint just like Roomi is the great poet-saint.

Coleman Barks: Yeah. All artists know that in the moments of inspiration a great banjo picker and a fiddler [xx] and Earl Scruggs that got into the place one time where there was just something coming through them. And they got through it, and called it, "Nothing to it!" [laughs] It just came through them. Yeah.

Duncan Campbell: Another thing that occurs to me as we're speaking is a comment that I read -- maybe it was in August of 2001, or thereabouts -- where you made the comment that we're all trying in our culture today to make a civilization without elders...

Coleman Barks: Uh-huh.

Duncan Campbell: And that's never been tried before, and it probably won't succeed. And I think in a way that's you know symptomatic of the modern culture, that in its move towards liberation from prior constraints and more literalistic beliefs systems or dogma or doctrine that the modernist civilization has actually brought us to the brink of we're either going to move into a new paradigmatic resolution at a higher level or the experiment may fail. Unless we can talk about this comment that you made, 'trying to make a civilization without elders' and how we deal with that. How we can deal with that.

Coleman Barks: Oh, yeah. I don't have a community really, except this one that maybe you're making with the radio! You know the one we're in of what Roomi calls lovers or workers -- they're interchangeable -- the open-hearted people who are beyond structures of belief...

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: ...who are living outside of any belief system or of any cultural identification; we're citizens, maybe, of the World. And that's the bunch I'm putting Roomi into where he can be read as a Muslim poet too and he can deepen many faiths. But I love the whole,,, it's sort of a... you can see it as an American try. When Thurough went out to the Waldon pond to find out a truth that was his, for him -- he gave it a shot.

Duncan Campbell: Yeah. It's true, and it’s very American, and it's very interesting to me that you mention that transcendentalist time because it was not only Thurough, but Emerson and also the great poet Walt Witmon.

Coleman Barks: Oh, yeah!

Duncan Campbell: Songs of Myself, you know celebrating...

Coleman Barks: Changing the square deific -- That's right.

Duncan Campbell: ...Celebrating the possibility of going directly into the divine; not going through the mediation of convention behavior codes. I think it is very American, and I'm reminded of Viva Conanda's statemtent about the different kinds of yoga. The yogas that are described in the Bhagavat Gita, for instance, the Song of God, include the yoga of devotion, which be normally in a form whether it’s with a teacher or a student or whether its in a collective devotional community. There's also the yoga of Jaano, or the Wisdom Yoga. And in the Bhagavat Gita, Krishna describes this as the more difficult of the two. He said it’s like the elder brother who has to go out into the World and make it on his own using his own resources, making his own mistakes, testing his own wisdom against his own experience; whereas the devotional yoga, or the yoga of the institutional church, we might say, in this metaphor, is the yoga of the younger son who absorbs at the foot of the father, and remains within the family or the tribal structure. Viva Conanda then said, "If there's any culture in which Jaano yoga could flourish as a path, its America, because its the only culture that was founded on a principle, a vision of democracy", as opposed to evolving from a tradition of kingship and authoritarian structures.
Of course, we have a long way to go to actually realize the vision, but that notion is imbued in Americans as a people, I think.

Coleman Barks: Right. And he came down through Rama Krishna, didn't he? Viva Conanda?

Duncan Campbell: He did.

Coleman Barks: Yeah, so he came down that line that honors all traditions. And I want to do that, I want to honor all tradition as well as be part of them, to use them however they are useful.

Duncan Campbell: That's very beautiful. I like very much also, Coleman, your own life story where, I think it was with your teacher when you first met him where he asked you what religion you were, and you just threw up your hands...

Coleman Barks: Ah!

Duncan Campbell: ...and he burst into laughter approvingly!

Coleman Barks: Yeah. That was not Bala Muhyuddin, that was Jalaluddin Chelubi.

Duncan Campbell: I see.

Coleman Barks: ...who was the carrier – he's dead now...

Duncan Campbell: Oh, that's right.

Coleman Barks: ...he was the carrier of the Mevlevi line down from Roomi, and he sat me down at a table and he says, "What religion are you?" And I just threw up my hands; then he said, "Good. Love is the religion, and the Universe is the Book." So I interpret that to mean that your life is the sacred text you read and you've always got it with you, and it’s not exclusive, it’s yours. You know, and everybody else has their own text. So you don't have to get into wars about names or about sacred texts, or about any particular way that is exclusive. That to me is the deadly part of fundamentalism, which judges in a mean, dangerous and savage way against other paths. And that's what we're up against with the terrorists, I think.

Duncan Campbell: And in fact, in one of your interviews that I read in Salon magazine, you indicated, and I quote "These are a bunch of brainwashed terrorists who are literalists and who are insane. They seem like scholarly narcicists. They seem like kids. They don't seem to have ever met a fully mature woman or man. I don't think they know one. They haven't been initiated into the mysteries of compassion. They are stuck in some literal way, like a verse-quoting Souther Baptist would be."

Coleman Barks: That's kind of wildly judgmental itself, isn't it? But that's what I did say, yeah.

Duncan Campbell: It is, but on the other hand if we take the spirit of what you're saying and don't apply even that literally there is this sense of the trap that's there for all of us even as we're proclaiming our desire for inclusiveness...

Coleman Barks: Right.

Duncan Campbell: To suddenly get caught in this polarity...

Coleman Barks: Right.

Duncan Campbell: ...And yet the aspiration is there, the aspiration to go beyond the dualism and not make that the home and I think that's the critical thing. To move into the next paradigm, and we're all so saturated with this good versus evil polarization that, that its just not something we can say we want to go to this other place with some Polianish vision where everythings the same. We have to do some very deep work to go beyond that conditioning I think.

Coleman Barks: Uh-huh.

Duncan Campbell: And yet that's the path that could lead us out of the impasse that we seem to be in between modernism and fundamentalism.

Coleman Barks: Uh-huh.


Duncan Campbell: What do you think?

Coleman Barks: Well, Roomi said, if you think there's an important difference between a Muslim and a Christian, and a Jew, and a Hindu and a Bhuddist, and a Shamanist, is those, you think are important divisions, then you're making a division also between your heart, what you love with and how you act in the World. That is  a severing that is fatal to him and he said it, dare I say, with such authority, and such gentleness in the 13th century, that they didn't kill him. And even to say it now feels reckless almost, doesn't it?

Duncan Campbell: Uh-huh.

Coleman Barks: It was brave to say such a thing. But it seems like its so, to me. That those differences, we do connect in the heart and with all human beings; that connection is primary. Yeah.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell