Dialogue # 6: The Breathing Heart of Matter — The Sky-Drum of Hafiz

September 20, 2011

Excuse the expression, but I want to fall in life. I want to stay in the park
the singer’s voice sweetening the afternoon. So I write afternoon. Not the
word, the thing.  —from “The Alphabet in the Park,” Adelia Prado

[Steven and I are sitting in Steven’s  living room.  The sun is hitting a piece of stained glass that’s moving gently in the circulating air. The dialogue that ensues delves deeper into the process of seeing more intensely, and with greater and greater awareness what lies all about us.  It leads as well to a deepening understanding of what can be called cosmic morality.

Herrmann: I’m noticing this beautiful movement of the prism of light reflecting from the sun, these spherical colors moving about the room.

McKowen: Look at that!

H: You don’t get that very often where the sun hits it just right.

M: It’s like magic almost.  Look at it going over the ceiling.

Light and Darkness in the Human Psyche

H: They do represent something of that refracted light that is at the core, the center, of the human psyche that wants to emit its own radiance.  The forces of darkness do want to interfere with that illumination in the world and are actually envious.  Envy, I think, is a big part of the human shadow, and whenever a great light does appear in the world, you are going to find a Judas Iscariot.  You’re going to find a regime that wants to squash a Hafiz or a Rumi, poets who are all about light and about love and bringing that source of universal energy to the world. H: I think our discussions are hitting the nail on the head with regard to our nervous systems, which is to evolve toward greater and greater awareness, and part of that is becoming aware of the human shadow.  It’s a moral task.  Nietzsche said that Zarathustra had committed the greatest error in human history with the invention of morality, the postulation of the duality between good and evil, the powers of light and the powers of darkness.  As you know, the history of the Middle-East and the West emerges out of that foundation–which is the history of the world.  Whether or not morality belongs, nature is what we’ve got to live with.  And it’s certainly here for a reason.  I don’t think it’s an error, as Nietzsche said. I think it’s also part of human beauty that gives light to the cosmos.

M: Well, maybe he was thinking of it in the way that I object to, a kind of code of behavior, an abstract set of rules.  Knee jerk morality, as I see it, is about as poisonous as you can get.  Natural morality is another thing altogether.  As I experience myself, I have to take into account how I feel about my behavior.  As I said in our last dialogue, that behavior has to fit with the rest of me.  The whole package has to be unified.  A unified personality, I think, is a moral one.  That’s how I would define morality.  That allows for Gauguin going off to the South Seas and leaving his dependents to fend for themselves.  I thought he was being moral, as I define the word.  He had to do that. You’re setting the agenda today.  Do you have something in mind?

  I want to read you a poem by Hafiz and then read you a dream I had. The poem addresses the theme of spiritual democracy that we’ve been talking about.  It’s at the center, too, of my new book and at the center of my research on Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, and Jung.  It’s called, “I have learned so much.”

  I have learned so much from God
That I can no longer call Myself
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of Itself with me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel, or even pure Soul. 
Love has befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash and freed me
Of every concept and image
 My mind has ever known.
                      Ladinsky’s translation

The Beating Heart of the Universe

M: Perfect. That’s just perfect.

Like nobody’s watching

It speaks directly the the theme of my book Spiritual Democracy. Here’s another one that’s very beatiful, a shamanic poem for you”
Now the sky-drum plays
All by itself in my head
Singing all day long
“Allah, Allah, Allah.”
   –“The Gift, ”Ladinsky’s translation

So there’s the cosmic drum of the Universe playing by itself in the head of the poet-shaman, beating its eternal rhythm in three beats: “Allah, Allah, Allah.” The sky-drum is a metaphor for spiritual democracy: the unity of the human soul with the universal God that beats like heart everywhere. Whether one sings all day Krishna, Christ, Buddha, Shiva, or Allah, it is the same universal drum that intones in the sky. 

A Non-Verbal Illumination

M: People like Hafiz and Rumi and others get past conceptual experience and a non-verbal illumination takes its place.  The person is wholly there without any kind of description of how it works. Did you just discover Hafiz?  You hadn’t mentioned him before.

H:  I read the book The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, all the poems, and I liked them.  I had known about Hafiz, but I’d never picked up a book of his poems before.  As I believe I mentioned earlier, in 1844 Emerson was reading Goethe’s translations of Hafiz into German and translated them into English. In his journals he translated over two hundred poems by Hafiz! He was the most highly regarded poet by Emerson.

M: My god, to think that was going on in America in the 1840s, and America was privy to that information.

H: Well, as you know, Melville was reading Emerson and so was Whitman.

M: Think what an influence that Eastern poet had in our culture–that probably not one in a million knows about.

H: Actually, I’ve heard that Hafiz is the most popular poet today in what was once Persia.  In Iran he is the most famous Sufi poet.  More copies of his collected poems sell in Iran than the Koran.

M: Wow.

H: That’s how popular Hafiz is there.

I later emailed my Iranian friend, Sasan Eyhaie, about this 14th century poet:

Sasan: He is considered the king of poets in Iran. He literally perfected Persian poetry to its utmost beauty and love. He is the only poet I know of who repeatedly speaks of the elder of Mogh, a Magi elder, perhaps one of his teachers?! He is nicknamed Hafiz since it means the rememberer. They say that’s because he knew Quran by heart! They say the last 10+ years of his life he did not go anywhere and was in prayer the whole time.

M: What’s the matter with their people and our people that there’s this powerful force of love right next to the murderous tendency?

H: That’s what you were saying before we started to record.

M: Yes, this yin yang is working almost too dramatically on our country and Iran.  [A reminder: This transcription was recorded in September 2011. A lot has happened since then. Use Google for updates!]

H: Can you imagine if Walt Whitman sold better in the United States than the King James Bible?

Reading Poets in Their Deepest Sense

M: Well, when I was growing up, Whitman was in all the sixth-grade readers.  But I don’t think the people who put him in there knew what he meant.  It sounded good to them, but they didn’t get the deep meanings.  And that’s possibly the problem.  The problem is we need to read these people in the deepest sense instead of superficially.  I suppose that’s the common thread that runs through these dialogues you and have been having, tuning ourselves up so that we’re more awake during the whole day and pay more attentions to ordinary conversation, instead of being half asleep, so to speak.

H: That is the problem. I am hopeful, though, given that fact that Sufism is more popular for Iranians than fundamentalist Islamic interpretations of the Koran; the Middle-East appears to be on the verge of a miraculous transformation.  Poets like Hafiz appear to be leading the way out of the morass of morally-laden and worn out Koranic laws.

M: That’s what we’ve been saying, talking about this urge of the spirit to come forth in every creature, the urge to realize itself, to real-ize itself.  There’s this demand, whether people know it or not, including fundamentalists who don’t understand that what they really want to do is actualize their own spirits.  It’s confusing to them, so they think they have to punch things and break them.  Maybe there’s some way to get past that. 

Beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing

H: I think that’s absolutely correct.  Every human being wants to actualize his or her own inner light.  And these poems are all about that, realizing one’s inner light, one’s own truth.  That includes coming into relationship with the Beloved, with a capital B.  For Shams and Rumi, that was something between them.  Just like Hafiz and Attar.  Attar was Hafiz’s teacher for forty years.  Between them, there was this breakthrough of a universal force that he describes in his poems, which like Rumi’s, was a profound opening of the heart and of love emerging, accompanied by light, tremendous light. That’s something that Whitman speaks about in Section Five of “A Song of Myself,” when he’s lying on the grass and realizes that light.  The lover comes and opens his shirt, exposing his heart at the bosom bone.  He said he had an experience then that transcended all the art and argument of the Earth.  In other words, it was an experience of cosmic unity, the beating heart of the universe or what Hafiz calls the sky-drum. That is a pure shamanistic experience, an ecstasy. Hafiz says: “I know the ecstasy of the falcon’s wings / When they make love against the sky” (Ladinsky, 57). That is a surpassing kind of love.

All the art and argument of the Earth

M: “All the art and argument of the Earth.”  Perfect. 

H: It’s beyond image.  It’s beyond form.  It’s beyond thought.

The problem for most people is that they stop at the image

M: I think the problem for most people is that they stop at the image.  They think they’ve found it when they have the image in their hands.

H: The image is the direct channel to the light.

M: Yes, but if you stop there, then you may become a fundamentalist. 

H: Well, exactly.


The Image as a Gate not an End Point

M: They use the image as the end point, but it’s only the gate. 

H: Take that poem of Hafiz, “Now the sky-drum plays / All by itself in my head.”  The great Sufi master puts himself in accord with the Universal force of the drum, the beat. He does not play the drum; the sky-drum plays in his head! It does not matter so much what the poet shaman sings. It could be OM. For Hafiz it is Allah. Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam. The point is the sky-drum can beat in any person’s head if one attunes to the unitary force in the cosmos. The problem is that if the fundamentalist’s thumping of the Koran becomes the drum, then what’s lost is the sky.  Then what’s lost is the transcendence.

M: That’s well put. 

H: The drum, the drum of the universe, which is the drum of Shiva.  Shiva beats the drum of time.  It’s the same drum of the shaman.

M: So our problem is our settling for the little world rather than the great world. 

H: It’s exactly what the problem is. If the Book becomes everything, then one never writes one’s own book.

M: That’s good.

H: It’s basically what poets teach, and it’s what Whitman taught.  It’s what Emerson taught.

M: I mentioned this drive within the human being for the spirit to actualize itself.  It’s that Dylan Thomas poem:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
 Drives my green age.

It’s the same force.  I’m thinking how grass will come up through concrete, thick concrete. Amazing.  Well, it’s that force in the universe that just demands to find its way to the light.

M: It’s a great metaphor, Clark.

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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