Long after I’d met Osho, and my introduction to the spiritual literature of the East had started to mature, I came across the Persian master, Jalaluddin Rumi. He came packaged in a slim volume with a distinctive black cover that someone lent me while I was a farmer on the Rajneeshuram ranch in Oregon (made famous by the Netflix series Wild Wild Country). The book was called Open Secret, and it was Coleman Barks’ first exploratory collection of Rumi quatrains.
Open Secret, truly fulfilled the promise of its title. Poetry of the simplest nature exposing dynamic truths. For me it was a door that was suddenly, with a reverberating clatter, flung open to reveal what up till then I’d known without quite knowing.
And I wasn’t alone. Thousands of other secrets were unexpectedly revealed to hundreds of thousands of others.
In the US, the book became a bestseller, apparently the first book of poems to be a best-seller for more than half a century.
The Guru From the East Coast
So where was it that Coleman Barks took us via this Open Secret portal when he gave the world Jalaluddin Rumi?
In English, Rumi had been barely a whisper for 800 years until Coleman, instructed by his Sufi guru living on the US East Coast – or so he told me – joined up with a Persian linguist, John Moyne, and appeared to channel the 13th-century Turkish mystic and render his words in the modern American idiom.
Coleman is a poet himself, and was poetry professor at Georgia University in the US, so he was a perfect choice – if you could call such a calling a choice. Off he went to his cabin in the woods with his trusty typewriter under his arm (yes, in the 1980s we all had trusty typewriters), and there he began to write.
His true poetic heart plundered Rumi’s Persian verses and spun them out in English in much the same way as they had poured out of the mystic himself eight centuries before. Rumi, it is said, had fallen in love with his spiritual master Shams, and in his shock at losing him, had spontaneously begun to whirl – to ‘turn’, as his Order of the Mevlevi call it. He turned and turned for hours nonstop, it is said, till he fell to the ground. And all the while, as he turned, he recited the verse that his personal scribe wrote down and that ultimately constituted the huge work known as Rumi’s Methnawi.
It was these poems that made their way through the brilliance of Coleman’s inner mystic, and offered up, in a language all could relate to, a formidable abundance of different sightings into the spiritual heart. And they were strangely accessible to everyone.
Books on Fire
Following his guru’s instructions, Coleman diligently self-published, as poets have always done to kick-start their literary careers.
Soon his slim, quality paperbacks flew off shelves and into shoulder bags, backpacks and briefcases everywhere, as he kept rolling them off his local presses.
For lovers of books alone they were wee gems. Open Secret, Unseen Rain, Delicious Laughter…elegantly printed on heavy stock, hand-stitched and bound in modest but tasteful jackets…
I couldn’t get enough of them. And nor could publisher HarperCollins, it seems, as they scooped up all his by-now-bestselling volumes and jammed them into a thick, well-designed but poorly bound hardback that made Coleman a millionaire (at a guess) and us Rumi-Barks lovers a little sad because the pages all fell out…
The Master-Disciple Love Affair
My own love of Barks’ ‘versions’ of Rumi was partly connected to my love of my own spiritual master, Osho. Rumi expressed his devotion to Shams in such a variety of intriguing ways, it was impossible not to feel much of what Osho had meant to me reflected there.
For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.
Out beyond ideas of right-doing
and wrongdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Nor was I alone in that. Many of my fellow sannyasins, Osho lovers all, felt the same way. Open Secret was passed around, and though there was little time for reading in those heady hard-working days on the Oregon Ranch, we sneaked it in under the night lights and feasted anyway.
This love-bond between Rumi and Shams, Coleman himself recognised freshly several years later when he visited the sannyasin community.
“You people know what he’s talking about,” he said to me referring to Rumi and nodding his head in the direction of Osho’s house. “He is your Shams.”
Yes, we did. Devotion to a master who frees up your inner light and gives you back your Self… There are few ways to express it.
When Rumi is described as the “most popular” and the “bestselling poet” in the United States, it is really Coleman Barks’ Rumi they are talking about. It was his work that opened the gateway to contemporary Rumi translations and made them popular. Despite Coleman’s own generous suggestion that all Rumi lovers start digging into the huge mother lode of work available and translate their own (Rumi’s Methnawi covers six volumes), none of his imitators, none of the so-called poets, yogis and spiritual teachers who tried to follow in his footsteps, could hold a candle to him.
Coleman had hit a magic bulls-eye. A new spiritual market was rising from the dust – Osho’s sannyasins included – hungry for the inner wisdom of the ancients that was not tethered to organised religion or Victorian translators.
When you have an appetite for short vibrant insights, you could read these Spartan, deceptively easy-going lines of Barks’ Rumi and feel transported.
Coleman’s Zen Stick
From Osho’s viewpoint, alas, Coleman had come very far but not far enough. On Coleman’s visit to his Pune commune in the late 1980s, Osho told him to give up the devotional bhakti life of a Rumi lover (and of Shams, Rumi’s own master) and write Zen.
Zen – the very reverse. The cool-spring-over-hard-rock Zen. The marble-chip gravel garden Zen. The tipping water fountain. The green tea ceremony. The swirling black swashes of calligraphy brushes on rough-edged rice-paper.
His discourse addressed to Coleman in 1989 was the pivotal moment when Osho pulled the lover’s warm and cosy rug from under his people’s hearts and invited them to face the chilly blank wall of the Zen monk. Few spiritual disciplines have less in common.
Osho must have known how many of us were intoxicated by Coleman’s Rumi ‘versions’. Now, under the umbrella of his visit, Osho could speak to us all about the new direction he wanted his work to take.
Coleman took the hit well. He raced back to the US apparently planning to redirect his poet’s ways and find solace in the empty cup of Zen. But it didn’t work. Rumi was by now a thick flowering vine that had entangled him for life via the coaxing of his now-departed guru from the East Coast. For this lifetime, at least, there was no going back.
Some of us Osho-lovers secretly heaved a sigh of relief. The lovers of Rumi, the lovers of poetry, or simply the bhaktis – the devotees – undercover or not, most hung onto their heartfelt positions. However much Osho wanted to nudge us in the direction of a less devotional stance towards him and a sharper dedication to Zen, we still yearned for Rumi’s madcap relationship with love via language.
Whatever else this poetry evoked, we were mesmerised by Rumi’s devotion to his mysterious Other (Shams, the Beloved, the divine). We still longed for what that love had meant to us. We wanted to invoke that mysterious presence of the master to whom we were so abundantly grateful… In fact we yearned for whatever could, as music can, spring open a trap door to the soul and leave us to fall, to drown, into an abyss of our own making.
The Empty Heart
But it seems this was not what Osho wanted for his people.
It was not the route we could take after he was gone. It was a dead-end alley. The devotion we really needed for transformation was the devotion to ourselves, to our inner emptiness, our true beings. We needed Zen’s dedicated inward look, the quiet, witnessing search that has no name or number. Meditation – devotion to the great unknown. Osho seemed to be saying that the only way to reach the ultimate is to go within; everything else will take you outwards.
The Dangers of Devotion
Quite apart from our personal need to empty the heart rather than fill it to overflowing, there is another danger….
Without the living master’s capacity to hit where it hurts and love when it’s needed, the master himself is in danger of becoming a marble statue, poised unchanging on an ornamental pedestal. While the bhakti path is aiming our search in the wrong direction, Osho also appeared to be telling us that dedicated devotion on a path that focuses on the Beloved could in the long run lead to blind worship and empty rituals… And from there, lead on and on to the idolisation of gods, to the focus on a supreme deity…a supreme deity who would by then have become no more than just another projection of our own fantasy world – all of which would ultimately lead us further and further away from our selves to yet another vacuous institutionalised religion.
Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam’s search for God was expressed in rituals addressed, in spirit at least, to the outer god Allah. Osho seemed to want to strip us of any and all hints at relating to an ‘outer’ of any kind – including himself.
Ecstasy was out, silence was in.
(And if I hear someone whisper, But what about ‘Zorba the Buddha’…? Isn’t that another story, dear reader…?)