Shaykh Fadhlalla suggested that I talk about living the message of Rumi beyond culture. It’s true that I have been immersed in Rumi’s Way through the cultural forms and expressions of the Mevlevi tradition, which developed in the Ottoman world and persists to this day in Turkey.
My own shaikh, Suleyman Hayati Dede, was one of the last dervishes to be brought up and educated in the traditional system of Mevlevi training that was abruptly terminated in the early years of the Turkish Republic. He lived most of his life in Konya and travelled little outside Turkey until the last few years of his life. Despite his limited exposure to the world he was a man who in many ways transcended his culture. He did not hesitate, for instance, to give Western women permission to be trained in the practice of whirling and to participate side by side with men in public ceremonies. This is an issue that is still being debated among shaikhs nearly forty years later.
I would attribute Suleyman Dede’s transcendence of his own culture to the vision and understanding that informs the Mevlevi path he followed. To experience what the self is beyond culture, beyond the demands of the ego, to know the timeless nature of the soul and the purity of one’s inmost consciousness, is to realize the relativity and limited nature of all cultural conditioning. While the Mevlevi whirling ceremony with its iconic white dervish robes and tall camel’s felt hats has been popularized by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, various cultural organizations, not to mention appearing in tea-houses and cafes, the true path of Rumi is a process of discovering “the root of the root of the self.”
What an irony it is when Rumi’s way becomes a preoccupation with formulaic phrases, outward customs and rituals. When “adab” comes to be understood as customary ways of doing things and less about sensitivity to appropriateness, the living tradition of Rumi has been betrayed and replaced with a “Sufi orthodoxy” which is potentially its antithesis.
A Mevlevi shaikh should be able to perform the Mevlevi Sema ceremony with the appropriate dress and a thorough knowledge of the rituals, but this is just the outer manifestation. Much more important is the inner “hal” or state by which the Shaikh consciously attunes to the transmission of the lineage all the way back to the Pir, the Prophet, and God. In fact it is this inner reality, beyond culture and form, that should be the heart of the ceremony.
By his faithfulness to Rumi’s example, Suleyman Dede could easily see beyond his own culture and understand other cultures. He was pre-qualified for cultural literacy; he was a global citizen because he was from “God’s wide earth.”
From the very beginning of my own training I was led to ask the question: If Mevlana were alive today, would he teach in the same way that he taught in Konya in the 13th century? So many aspects of his teaching and thought seem strikingly contemporary and this is not merely the result of translations that try to make him appear contemporary. His transcendence of his immediate culture is intrinsic to his message.
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By the time I was in my late teens I had come to believe that the Divine did not have a brand name or require human beings to subscribe to an exclusive approved program. I felt neither obligated nor threatened by the proposals of religions but was intent on exploring the more or less uncharted oceans of spiritual experience.
Being a so-called spiritual teacher was never my objective, but sharing my experience with soul companions who could understand my longing seemed a necessity.
Very early on I had a life-changing experience under the stars on the shores of a frozen lake in northern New Hampshire. I was in the company of a group of cosmic hipsters from Brooklyn, the kind of people you might meet in a pool hall or boxing gym, and yet these people were already authentic masters of wisdom in an American idiom. Their presence and appreciation of nature introduced me to true silence and being.
The White Pine trees on the distant shore of the lake became for me timeless archetypes, like the renderings you see in some oriental art. At the same time there was a sense of what can only be called celestial music which sounded to me like the fugues of Bach and the ragas of Indian music.
The big realization I experienced can be expressed in its totality simply with the words: It is. Anything more than that, anything further that one might say is you’re doing, not Its reality. I cannot tell you why this is still for me the supreme Truth, except to say that it has something to do with the way It is. Its beauty, its peace, its quality of Being.
I would spend many years learning the many ways that Being is described in the most profound sacred traditions before I came to Sufism and found words like these:
To us a different language has been given,
and a place besides heaven and hell.
Those whose hearts are free
have a different soul,
a pure jewel excavated from a different mine.
Furuzanfar Quatrain 403
But it was also with Islamic Sufism that I encountered a revelation and a practice that seemed to have some objective reality but did not resort to dogma or claim a monopoly on truth.
Rumi’s tradition has been a subculture embedded in Turkish culture for seven centuries. We have benefitted in many ways from the cultural aspect of Mevlevi tradition because the cultural aspect can be a reflection of the inner essence. The qualities we have learned to love include: the refined courtesy that Mevlevis practice; the hospitality, generosity, and friendliness that is common among the Turkish dervishes; and the true sincerity and devotion we sometimes encounter in the pure hearts that are drawn to this path.
My own first Murshid looked far beyond his own culture, as Rumi did. Some cultural form almost always mediates spiritual experience: Sufi zhikr, Zen meditation, Christian liturgies, and the Native American vision quest.
How important are these forms? When does attachment to them become an obstacle? Some people become spiritual fetishists, attached to and identified with the cultural and religious forms in which they encountered spiritual experience. A fetish is a material object to which magical powers are attributed. The Sufi version is that certain physical objects and places can become charged with “Baraka.” This is no doubt true. Sufism also cautions us about all forms of idolatry, especially the subtle forms.
It has been my own experience that these cultural forms can become like antique furnishings in one’s spiritual house rather than a doorway to the infinite. Maybe that opening to the infinite must remain something rare; but surely it is the true purpose of spirituality.
O God, reveal to the soul
that place where speech has no letters,
so that the pure soul might go headlong
towards the expanse of nonexistence
out of which we are fed.