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On Seeking The Meaning of Life – Part 4: From A Sufi Classic


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Sufi literature has many beautiful mystical works dedicated to describing the types of seekers, the different types of journeys and the quest for oneness with God and the meaning of life.

The Conference of the Bird by Farid Ud-Din Attar is one such classic which has attracted many commentators and derivative works over the years.

There are many insights to be gleaned from this wonderful poetic masterpiece.

b) The ‘Conference Of The Birds’ by Farid ud-din Attar

The book is an epic allegory of a seeker’s journey to God. Birds from many species gather to go in search of their ultimate great and mighty King – the Simurgh. The legendary Hoopoe acts as their leader advising them through the long and arduous journey through the seven valleys of search, love, understanding (mystic apprehension), independence (detachment), unity, bewilderment (astonishment), fulfilment in annihilation (total poverty and nothingness).
Along the way most birds give up, either due to their attachment such as the nightingale to the rose, and the duck to water, or through their sense of false humility of being too worthless to entertain such noble aspirations. Some are just too weak to last the distance. As the birds face their trials and tribulations the wise hoopoe counsels them with advice in the form of legendary tales teaching them lessons of the spiritual way on purity, austerity, gifts for the gods, humility, aspiration, loyalty, justice, majesty and many other qualities that tend to box those on the quest.

“So long as we do not die to ourselves,
and so long as we identify with someone or something,
we shall never be free.
The spiritual way is not for those wrapped up in exterior life” 

Only those birds who are tirelessly passionate in their search, overcoming fear of retribution and death, choosing courageously when facing the unknown, letting go of their inner and outer desires, freeing themselves of pride, vanity and ego and who joyously give up their sense of self in uniting with the Simurgh, end up seeing the light of lights, learning its secrets and gaining immortality.

Another bird spoke up: ‘I live for love,

For Him and for the glorious world above -- 

For Him I’ve cut myself from everything;

 My life’s one song of love to our great king.

I've seen the world’s inhabitants, and know

I could not worship any here below;

My ardent love’s for Him alone; how few

Can manage to adore Him as I do!

But though I’ve struggled on with all my soul,

It seems I haven’t quite achieved our goal.

The time has come -- my Self will disappear;

I’ll drink the wine of meekness and draw near;

His beauty will illuminate my heart;

His neck will know my touch; we shall not part.”  


The hoopoe said: The Simorgh isn’t won

By boasts of who you are and what you’ve done --

Don’t brag of love; He’s not deceived by lies,

And no one pulls the wool across his eyes.

His call is like some lightly wafted breeze

Lifting the veil from hidden mysteries --

Then He will draw you to Himself, alone;

Your place will be with Him, beside His throne

(Though if mere pride of place prompts your desire,

Your love prepares you for eternal fire).

 (Ref: The Conference of The Birds by Farid ud-din Attar, Translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

This beautifully written poem is not only a commentary on sufism. The birds are allegories for the different human personalities, conditions, desires and despairs. Their reasons and excuses, rewards and failures depict human nature in face of extreme fear and hardship in treading the unknown in search for the meaning of their life and oneness with God.

The message from the above stories and also many spiritual masters is that the seekers will have to earn the knowledge, they will be tested many times in many ways and will have to prove themselves worthy of the level of knowledge they seek. They will also have to demonstrate the qualities and capacity to use the knowledge in a rightful way. If a person is satisfied with simple glib answers that’s all he or she will get.  

In reality this is no different to any person wanting to be a musician, a doctor or an engineer or an expert in any field. They have to study, qualify, be examined, gain certification to be allowed to practice and then continue to practice to high standards to be allowed to continue in their quest to be an expert. Those that lack the required skills and stamina are unable to complete the journey. Those who have great desire overcome the greatest of hurdles to realise their dream.

In the next post we will consider what we would like our lives to mean.

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