contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Songs of Kabir

TURN ME TO GOLD

Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir (1) is a beautiful book, and the fruit of “five years spent in the unremitting presence of Kabir”. For Andrew Harvey, “Kabir is far more than a poet; he is a universal initiatory field, as expansive as Rumi and as embodied, radical and ferocious as Jesus”. Harvey himself is more than a translator, working with his “whole mind, heart and body on breathing and living his words, the fierce temperature of his truth” and speaking of his own work as “strange, precise” and “ecstatic”. I do not think of this post as an attempted book review, since both Kabir and Harvey are asking to be met rather than evaluated. Rather, I am attempting an act of recognition.

I have written about Kabir’s work before in this blog. In the past I have used other translations (2,3), particularly Robert Bly’s. Having now read Harvey’s work, I am clear that it would now be my first port of call when engaging with Kabir, whilst retaining my respect for the other translations and feeling glad to have them. When a text from another language, culture and time is important to me, I like to have multiple translations. Turn Me to Gold has the additional merit of Brett Hurd’s accompanying photographs of modern Varanasi.

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in the Varanasi (Benares) of the fifteenth century. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, he followed a devotional and ecstatic path, and like Rumi he tried to be a bridge builder between traditions. His work, written as songs for public performance with musical accompaniment, was enduringly popular, surviving in late manuscripts from different parts of India, which show modification over time by the region, religion and caste position of generations of listeners. Kabir experienced himself as filled with the Divine, simply, directly and completely, and so was not a friend of religious formalism or extreme practices done for their own sake:

“I’m not in austerities, not in meditation,

Not in feasts, not in fasts,

Not in rituals laid down in sacred texts,

Not in yogic exercises –

Look for Me with passionate sincerity,

I’ll be beside you immediately.

Kabir says; Listen to Me –

Where your deepest faith is, I am.

Kabir had no truck with waiting for an afterlife: “everyone says they’re going to ‘Heaven. Where this ‘Heaven’ is, I don’t know … As long as you look for ‘Heaven’, you’ll never find your home’. To come alive, spiritual experience needs to be present and embodied:

“More than anything else

I cherish at heart,

What in this world

Makes me live

A limitless life”.

That sense of living a “limitless life” in “this world” connects Kabir’s poetic witness to my own contemplative inquiry, helping to enrich its purpose and meaning. I am a modern Druid, more Universalist than Pagan, and I have been concerned, though active, practical inquiry, to craft a practice that I call ‘contemplative’. But this identification, socially useful as it is, dissolves within the molten core of the practice itself. I do not have quite the sense of personified divinity that Kabir and Harvey do, but I have what I imagine to be the cognate experience of at-homeness in the flowing moment. In practice terms, this is represented in the “peace” at the centre of my circle, which I describe further as “the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence”. This is an energised, dynamic and joyful peace, not a calm or static one. Such a peace, for me, is a taste of limitless life in this world. I find it hard to talk or write about – the words keep going subtly wrong for me. Kabir and Harvey use the language of love, and perhaps they are right. This peace is an aspect of love.

“You can’t tell

The story of love.

Not a word of it

Has ever been told.

A dumb man

Eats a sweet

And smiles for joy.”

(1) Kabir Turn Me To Gold: 1018 poems of Kabir Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 2018 Translations by Andrew Harvey Photographs by Brett Hurd.

(2) Kabir Ecstatic Poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 English versions by Robert Bly

(3) Kabir Songs of Kabir New York, NY: MacMillan, 1915 Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill

KABIR: ECSTATIC FLUTE

I know the sound of the ecstatic flute,

But I don’t know whose flute it is.

A lamp burns and has neither wick nor oil.

A lily pad blossoms and is not attached to the bottom!

Where one flower opens, ordinarily dozens open.

The moon bird’s head is filled with nothing but thoughts of the moon,

And when the next rain will come is all that the rain bird thinks of.

Who is it we spend our entire life loving?

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 (The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley).

A VOYAGE

In a contemplative state, I see myself in a small ocean going yacht, one which can run on sail or on a motor. It is a moonlit night in which it is possible to get a good view of the sea. The yacht seems to be stationary, or almost so. There are no crew on deck. Sophia and I are there together. It is winter and we are both well wrapped up, but I can see her face and make eye contact, which is how I recognize Her. She is somewhat as in my icon, although fully humanized and somewhat older.

She is in charge of the voyage, and she wants to show me the ocean. It is moving, relatively gently but enough to show the arising and dissolution of wave formations – the dance of the swell. Distinctive shapes appear, move, glint, before disappearing into the darkness or being reabsorbed into the mass of water, losing any claim to individuality. My immediate response is to feel the beauty in this process. Then I think, in quick succession, of my personal identity and my coming death. I experience myself as individuated and self-aware as a wave, in this moment. Woven into the hinterland of this experience is anticipation of my dissolution. I need to taste this, and believe it.

Then I find myself wanting to hurry – to perfect my understanding of me and the cosmos before I go. Sophia does not mock me. Rather, She nudges me to remember that I’ve got what I need, and to recall specific existing resources. One is my own review of Not I, Not Other Than I (1) in which Russel Williams talks of a “natural state of oneness with everything … stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being” and potentially available to all. It is “based on sense-feeling, and on filling the emptiness with loving kindness”. Williams talks also about following the Way of the Buddha rather than being enrolled in Buddhism. To him, Buddhism is a belief system, whilst the Way of the Buddha is a “recognition system”. I would like to claim the same for the Way of Sophia.

Another resource is my positive feelings towards a Water and Wave, a poem by Kabir (2) which asks the question: “Water, and the waves on it; how to tell them apart?” It also contains the verse:

There is a Secret One inside us;

The planets in all the galaxies

Pass through Her hands like beads.

I can remember this when using the rosary, which I wrote about in my last post (3). I am finding the current phase of my journey one of gifts, invitations, and reminders about where and how to focus my attention. I am understanding more about how to work with Sophia now that an enhanced dedication has been made. It feels now like a living process.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/poem-water-and-wave/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/rosary-paidirean-pahjurin-iii/

 

POEM: WATER AND WAVE

I’m sharing this song of Kabir because I enjoyed it and felt cheered by it.  I liked its devotional and ecstatic note – not my usual one.. I have harmonised it with my way of Sophia by changing a ‘his’ to a ‘her’.

 

 

I have been thinking of the difference

Between water

And the waves on it. Rising,

Water’s still water, falling back,

It is water, will you give me a hint

How to tell them apart?

 

Because someone has made up the word

“Wave”, do I have to distinguish it

From water?

 

There is a Secret One inside us;

The planets in all the galaxies

Pass through her hands like beads.

 

That is a string of beads one should look at with

Luminous eyes.

 

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in fifteenth century India. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, his generously devotional and ecstatic path made him a natural bridge builder between traditions.

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. Given Bly’s freedom I have changed a ‘his’ to a ‘her’ above to support the poetry of my own gnosis. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley.

 

KABIR: WATER IN THE HOLY POOLS

There is nothing but water in the holy pools.

I know, I have been swimming in them.

All the gods sculpted of wood and ivory can’t say a word.

I know, I have been crying out to them.

The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.

I looked through their covers one day sideways.

What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.

If you have not lived through something, it is not true.

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 (The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley).

GROUNDED WISDOM FROM KABIR

I read the songs of Kabir, partly for their power and beauty, partly for their touching humanity and partly to learn something as a contemplative practitioner. The songs themselves, according to John Stratton Hawley, have survived in late manuscripts from different parts of India, modified over time by the region, religion and caste position of their listeners. When it comes to translation, Hawley notes that Robert Bly presents a Kabir who stands for self-reliance (like Emerson), principled disobedience (like Thoreau) “and a set of practices that honors the meeting of mind and body and celebrates the intense emotions that connect them (like Bly himself?)”

So I feel I’m in good company when putting two songs together in a way that makes the second answer the first, in the pursuit of my own inquiry. It’s about this: how do I avoid the trap of working on my small personal narcissism only to embed a larger spiritual narcissism?

Here is the first, scene-setting song.

Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world

I hold to, and keep spinning out!

I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,

But I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap, but I still

Throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.

I pulled back my sexual longings,

And now discover that I’m angry a lot.

I gave up rage, and now I notice

That I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed

And now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to break its link to the world

It still holds on to one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,

There are very few that find the path.

Here, in the second poem, I find a way through – by not going anywhere. I read the “wanting-creature” below to be bound up in ‘Spiritual’ wanting, rather than the average sensual kind.

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:

What is this river you want to cross?

There are no travellers on the river-road, and no road.

Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.

There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.

There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!

Do you believe that there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?

In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;

There you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully!

Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,

And stand firm in that which you are.

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 (The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley).

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