Monday, March 11, 2013

The Conference of Birds by Farid Attar

The world’s birds gathered for their conference
And said: ‘Our constitution makes no sense.
All nations in the world require a king;
How is it we alone have no such thing?
Only a kingdom can be justly run;
We need a king and must inquire for one.’

They argued how to set about their quest.
The hoopoe fluttered forward; on his breast
There shone the symbol of the Spirit Way
And on his head Truth’s crown, a feathered spray.

Discerning, righteous and intelligent
He spoke: ‘My purposes are heaven-sent;
I keep God’s secrets, mundane and divine,
In proof of which behold the holy sign
Bismillah etched forever on my beak.
No one can share the grief with which I seek
Our longed-for Lord, and quickened by my haste
My wits find water in the trackless waste .  .  .

With Solomon I set out to explore
The limits of the earth from shore to shore
I know our King –but how can I alone
Endure the journey to his distant throne?
Join me, and when at last we end our quest
Our King will greet you as His honored guest. .  .

Do not imagine that the Way is short;
Vast seas and deserts lie before His Court.
Consider carefully before you start;
The journey asks of you a lion’s heart.
The road is long, the sea is deep – one flies
First buffeted by joy and then by sighs;
If you desire this quest, give  up your soul
And make our Sovereigns court your only goal.
First wash your hands of life if you would say:
“I am a pilgrim of our Sovereign’s Way";
Renounce your soul for love; He you pursue
Will sacrifice His inmost soul for you.  .  .

Whoever wishes to explore the Way,
Let him set out –what more is there to say?

The hoopoe finished, and at once the birds
Effusively responded to his words.
All praised the splendor of their distant King:
All rose impatient to be on the wing;
Each would renounce the Self and be the friend
Of his companions till the journey’s end.
But when they pondered on the journey’s length,
They hesitated; their ambitious strength
Dissolved; each bird according to his kind,
Felt flattered but reluctantly declined. .  .

All the birds in turn received their chance
To show off their loquacious ignorance.
All made excuses –floods of foolish words
Flowing from these babbling, rumor-loving birds.
Forgive me, reader, if I do not say
All these excuses to avoid the Way;
But in an incoherent rush they came,
And all were inappropriate and lame. .  .

When they had understood the hoopoe’s words,
A clamor of complaint arose from the birds:
‘Although we recognize you as our guide,
You must accept – it cannot be denied –
We are a wretched, flimsy crew at best,
And lack the bare essentials for this quest.
Our feathers and our wings, our bodies ’strength
Are quite unequal to the journey’s length;
For one of us to reach the King’s throne;
Would be miraculous, a thing unknown
At least say what relationship obtains
Between His might and ours, who can take pains
To search for mysteries when he is blind?
If there were some connection we could find,
We would be more prepared to take our chance.
He seems like Solomon, and we like ants;
How can mere ants climb from their darkened pit
Up to the  Simorgh’s realm? And is it fit
That beggars try the glory of a king?
How could they manage such a thing?

The hoopoe answered them: ‘How can love thrive
In hearts impoverished and half alive?
“Beggars,” you say – such niggling poverty
Will not encourage truth or charity.
A man whose eyes love opens risks his soul –
His dancing breaks beyond the mind’s control.

When long ago the Simorgh first appeared –
His face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared –
He cast unnumbered shadows on the earth,
On each one fixed His eyes, and each gave birth.
Thus we were born; the birds of every land
Are still his shadows – think, and understand.  .  .

You are His shadow, and cannot be moved
By thoughts of life or death once this is proved.
If He had kept His majesty concealed,
No earthly shadow would have been revealed,
And where that shadow directly cast
The race of birds sprang up before it passed.

Your heart is not a mirror bright and clear
If there the Somorgh’s form does not appear;
No one can bear His beauty face to face,
And for this reason, of His perfect Grace,
He makes a mirror in our hearts - look there
To see Him, search your hearts with anxious care. . .

An ancient secret yielded to the birds
When they had understood the hoopoe’s words –
Their kinship with the Simorgh was now plain
And all were eager to set off again.

The hoopoe’s homily returned them to the Way
And with one voice the birds were heard to say:
‘Tell us, dear hoopoe, how we should proceed –
Our weakness quails before this glorious deed.’

‘A lover’, said the hoopoe, now their guide,
‘Is one in whom all thoughts of Self have died;
Those who renounce the Self deserve that name;
Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!
Your heart is thwarted by the Self’s control;
Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.
Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight
For only then can you approach the light.

If you are told: “Renounce our faith,” obey!
The Self and faith must both be tossed away;
Blasphemers call such actions blasphemy –
Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.
Love has no time for blasphemy or faith,
Nor lovers for the Self, that feeble wraith.
They burn all that they own; unmoved they feel
Against their skin the torturer’s steel.

Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,
And tales of problems no one can remove;
Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine –
And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.
Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,
Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.
A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives
The vital essence to whatever lives.
But where love thrives, there pain is always found;
Angels alone escape this weary round –
They love without that savage agony
Which is reserved for vexed humanity.

[When love has pitched his tent in someone’s breast,
That man despairs of life and knows no rest.
Love’s pain will murder him, then blandly ask
A surgeon’s fee for managing the task –
The water that he drinks brings pain, his bread
Is turned to blood immediately shed;
Though he is weak, faint, feebler than an ant,
Love forces him to be her combatant;
He cannot take one mouthful unaware
That he is floundering in a sea of care.]

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s past at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And will show you the way to blasphemy.
When neither blasphemy nor faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of the task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat.

[You seek for faults to censure and suppress
And have no time for inward happiness –
How can you know God’s secret majesty
If you look out for sin incessantly?
To share His hidden glory you must learn
That others' errors are not your concern;
When someone else's failings are defined,
What hairs you split – but to your own you’re blind!
Grace comes to those, no matter how they’ve strayed,
Who knows their own sin’s strength, and are afraid.]

Once Jesus reached a clear stream’s bank –
He scooped up water in his palms and drank;
How sweet the water was! As if it were
Some rose-sweet sherbet or an elixir;
One with him filled a jug, and on they went.
When Jesus drank, to his astonishment,
The jug seemed filled with bitterness. “How strange,”
He said, “that water can so quickly change –
They were the same; what can this difference mean?
What tasted sweet is brackish and unclean!”
The jug spoke” “Lord, once I too had a soul
And was a man –but I have been a bowl,
A cruse, a pitcher of crude earthenware,
Remade a thousand times; and all forms share
The bitterness of death –which would remain
Though I were baked a thousand times again;
No water could be sweet which I contain.”

O careless of your fate! From this jug learn,
And from your inattentive folly turn;
O pilgrim, you have lost yourself –before
Death takes you seek the hidden Way once more!
If while you live and breathe you fail to see
The nature of your own reality,
How can you search when dead? The man who lives
And does not strive is lost; his mother gives
Him life but he cannot become a man –
He strays, a self-deluded charlatan.
How many veils obstruct the Sufi’s quest,
How long his search till Truth is manifest!

When the last veil is lifted neither men
Nor all their glory will be seen again,
The universe will fade – this mighty show
In all its majesty and pomp will go,
And those who love appearances will prove
Each others enemies and forfeit love,
While those who loved the absent, unseen Friend
Will enter pure love which knows no end.

The Conference of Birds by Farid Attar; translated by Afkhan Darbandi and Dick Davis; Penguin Books, revised in 2011


  1. A dog brushed up against a sheikh, who made
    No move to draw his skirts in or evade
    The filthy stray – a puzzled passer-by
    Who’d noticed his behavior asked him why.
    He said: “The dog is filthy, as you see,
    But what is outside him is inside me –
    What’s clear on him is hidden in my heart;
    Why should such close companions stay apart?”

  2. "And those who love appearances will prove
    Each others enemies and forfeit love,
    While those who loved the absent, unseen Friend
    Will enter pure love which knows no end."