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To be, or not to be.  That is the question, isn’t it?

Samael Aun Weor said:

To be is better than to exist, and the reason for the Being to be, is to be the Being itself.

–Samael Aun Weor, Cosmic Teachings of a Lama, The Homogeneous Basis

Like others who came before us, and others who will come after us, we stand at the threshold, faced with the choice of whether we are going to BE, to abide in that unity, or whether we will simply exist, mechanically following the railroad tracks of our life, passing through so many tomorrows, each one much like the one before it, until we eventually reach the end. 

This choice, of whether to pursue something higher, to know something deeper, to BE something other than a simple machine reacting to mental, emotional, and physical stimuli, is a decision we are forced to confront when we first set foot on the spiritual path, but it also a decision we must continually make every day, every minute, when we are choosing to allow ourselves to follow our own egotistical, mechanical reactions to our life, or to perceive the world from a place of equanimity, compassion, and acceptance. 

So with that in mind, I wanted to spend some time talking to you guys today about a beautiful Sufi poem called The Conference of the Birds.  For those of you who don’t know, Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam.  We’ve been talking in the past few lectures about the steps of meditation from the perspective of the Hindu master Patanjali, as he wrote one of the definitive guides on meditation.  However, in this tradition, we see the importance of examining the stages of the spiritual path from many different angles, and seeing the synthesis, or the unity, of teachings that on their surface may appear to be contradictory. 

So for the next few lectures that we have together, we’re going to be looking at the path as it is laid out in the 12th Century Sufi poem called The Conference of the Birds, written by a Persian mystic named Farid ud-Din Attar, which is a pen name meaning a perfume seller, or an apothecary. 

It’s important to remember that even within the Sufi tradition, there are different ways of representing the stages of the spiritual path.  I’m going to put in a brief plug for a friend of mine from Chicago, who teaches a series of courses that look at the Sufi path from the perspective of a different Sufi master, and if you’re interested in learning more, come talk to me after the lecture, and I can tell you where to find them.  And perhaps our chat master in the back of the room can just put the link in the chat for those who are joining us online. 

At any rate, it can be helpful for us to learn about the Path from the teachings of many different teachers, because different teachers tend to emphasize different things, and sometimes hearing things in new ways opens up new paths of understanding. 

So with that as our preface, let’s get into the story. 

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’s 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[1] etched for ever 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.

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 honoured guest.

How long will you persist in blasphemy?
Escape your self-hood’s vicious tyranny –

Whoever can evade the Self transcends
This world and as a lover he ascends.

Set free your soul; impatient of delay,
Step out along our sovereign’s royal Way:

We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak
The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,

And He is always near to us, though we
Live far from His transcendent majesty.

A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,

And in both worlds no being shares the throne
That marks the Simorgh’s power and His alone –

He reigns in undisturbed omnipotence,
Bathed in the light of His magnificence –

No mind, no intellect can penetrate
The mystery of His unending state:

How many countless hundred thousands pray
For patience and true knowledge of the Way

That leads to Him whom reason cannot claim,
Nor mortal purity describe or name;

There soul and mind bewildered miss the mark
And, faced by Him, like dazzled eyes, are dark –

No sage could understand His perfect grace,
Nor seer discern the beauty of His face.

His creatures strive to find a path to Him,
Deluded by each new, deceitful whim,

But fancy cannot work as she would wish;
You cannot weigh the moon like so much fish!

How many search for Him whose heads are sent
Like polo-balls in some great tournament

From side to giddy side – how many cries,
How many countless groans assail the skies!

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 sovereign’s 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.

– Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds (translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

So that’s the setup for our story.  All of the birds of the world gather together to choose a king.  And the Hoopoe, who according to legend is the bird belonging to King Solomon, the wise king of Israel, comes forward and tells them of a mythical bird called the Simorgh, which lives in a far-off land, and he invites the other birds to make the journey with him to meet their wise and magnificent king. 

But before they begin, he tells them a few things about the journey, which, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, is an allegory for the spiritual path, the way to God, or as some traditions would put it, Enlightenment or liberation. 

So let’s start by considering what the Hoopoe says. 

How long will you persist in blasphemy?
Escape your self-hood’s vicious tyranny –

Whoever can evade the Self transcends
This world and as a lover he ascends.

Right from the start, the Hoopoe tells us the primary obstacle—the self.  In this tradition, we call it the ego, which is just a Latin word for “self.” 

Many people are resistant to this idea of eliminating the self.  For many of us, the self is all we know.  We rely on it.  We lean on it.  And if we look out into the world and what they tell us in the media, at school, even university, at work, society tells us to reinforce it, to fortify it.  Many people nowadays encourage self-esteem.  Our whole economy, our whole society revolves around lust, vanity, pride, anger. 

We, as a culture, are trained to worship those have fortified their personality and their sense of self to an extreme degree—celebrities, politicians, influencers.  And the Hoopoe tells that this is all blasphemy.  It is completely antithetical to God

But more than just a blasphemy, it is tyranny.  This might be a little harder to see, because we are so used to living under oppression that often we don’t even see it anymore.  So much of the way we live our lives is powered by desires and mechanical reactions that we don’t even question it. 

“This person hurt me, so I have to hurt them back, or at the very least, I would be justified in feeling resentment towards them in my heart.”  “This person wounded my pride, or acted unpleasantly, so I need to distance myself from them, so that my sense of self doesn’t get hurt.”  “I need to chase after this desire, to put to rest this burning craving that I’m feeling inside.  Appeasing it is the only way I will have peace!”  That is what we say to ourselves—all of this, and so much more. 

We labor under the tyranny of the entire spectrum of our conditioned responses that drive us to act, think, or feel in ways that are unhealthy, divisive, self-destructive, wasteful, and harmful to ourselves and humanity.  And we never stop to think, “Wait a minute, this is tyranny!  This is wrong!”

How many of us would rebel if any other person tried to exercise the level of oppression and control that our own mind, our own ego, exerted over our freedom?  And yet, when we do it to ourselves, we accept it without question. 

But for so many of us, it is unfathomable that there could be anything inside other than the ego.  The ego, the self, is all we have ever known. 

C.W. Leadbeater once said:

“It is one of the commonest of our mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all that there is to perceive.” – C.W. Leadbeater, Man Visible and Invisible, “Clairvoyant Sight”

He was talking about it in the context of clairvoyance and extrasensory perceptions, but it’s actually a fairly general principle.  But even if intellectually we acknowledge that there must be something more, something within us still falls prey to this pernicious cognitive bias, that “what we see is all there is.”

At least on a subconscious level, this notion is extremely prevalent.  We believe it about our circumstances—that our good or bad fortunes will last forever.  Even if we know that they won’t, we kind of feel that they will.  We believe it about our friends and acquaintances, that those we see as “good” or “bad” really are those things, or that those who are our friends or enemies today will always be so.  We even believe it about ourselves, that we really do have the positive attributes we’d like to believe we have, because we’ve never been tested, or even the negative attributes we wish we didn’t have, because we’ve never learned how to overcome them. 

It goes even deeper than that.  We believe that this way we have of living in the world, always filtered through the lens of an “I,” a self, always conditioned by craving or aversion, always assaulted by thoughts, impulses, and feelings completely beyond our control, is the only way we or anyone else could ever live.  Even if we know all that to be wrong, there is a part of us that still believes it, and it affects almost everything we do. 

But what the Hoopoe is telling us in the poem is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  There is something more, something beyond, something greater, if only we could escape the lies and the tyranny of our own oppressive ego. 

The Hoopoe continues on to dispel another common misconception about the Path:

No mind, no intellect can penetrate
The mystery of His unending state:

How many countless hundred thousands pray
For patience and true knowledge of the Way

That leads to Him whom reason cannot claim,
Nor mortal purity describe or name;

There soul and mind bewildered miss the mark
And, faced by Him, like dazzled eyes, are dark –

No sage could understand His perfect grace,
Nor seer discern the beauty of His face.

His creatures strive to find a path to Him,
Deluded by each new, deceitful whim,

But fancy cannot work as she would wish;
You cannot weigh the moon like so much fish!

The Hoopoe is making a very important point about the mind.  There is a notion, particularly in the modern, Western world, that religion—the Path—is about belief, and that if you believe the right thing, then you are saved, or, at the very least, you are on the right path. 

There are other people who treat religion as a thought experiment.  They say, “We can never really know what is true until we die, so we just have to choose something that seems reasonable, and live as best we can, and hope we’re right.”

Or they view the foundation of religion as philosophy.  I know in a certain Christian denomination, for instance, seminarians are required to get college degrees in philosophy. 

All of this suggests, or is indicative of, a feeling or belief that God, or the goal of religion, is something that can be approached through thought.  The Hoopoe tells us, that is not right.  What we are aiming for here is a state, an awareness, that is beyond the mind, beyond intellect, beyond reasoning. 

Samael says the following in The Pistis Sophia Unveiled:

The great emanations of Barbelo, the abode of the Light, can never be comprehended by the intellectual light.

The Uncreated Light is distinct from the intellect, as water is from oil.

 - Samael Aun Weor, Pistis Sophia Unveiled, Book I, Chapter 32

What he is talking about here is the nature of Absolute reality.  It can neither be approached nor comprehended through the mind.  That is why the Hoopoe says:

But fancy cannot work as she would wish;
You cannot weigh the moon like so much fish!

“Fancy” is imagination.  We would like to be able to do everything with our mind, imagination.  We rely on it so much that we even believe that we are the mind.  But the Hoopoe is telling us that approaching God through the mind is as absurd as trying to weigh the moon by putting it on a scale, like you would a bundle of fish.  It can’t be done, and it’s ridiculous to even consider it

That’s why Samael Aun Weor explains in The Revolution of the Dialectic:

To know authentic happiness, true wisdom, we must get out from within the mind and live in the world of the Being. This is what is important.

We do not deny the creative power of the mind. It is clear that all that exists is condensed mind. But what do we have to gain with this? Has the mind perhaps given us happiness? We can do marvels with the mind; create for ourselves many things in life.

The great inventions are condensed mind. However, these types of creations have not made us happy.

What we need is to become independent, to come out of that dungeon of matter, because the mind is matter. We have to come out of matter, live in the role of spirits, as beings, as happy creatures beyond matter. Matter does not make anyone happy. Matter is always gross even when it assumes beautiful forms.

If we search for authentic happiness, we will not find it in the matter but in the spirit. Therefore, we need to free ourselves of the mind, because true happiness comes to us when we come out of the dungeon of the mind. Again, we do not deny that the mind can be the creator of many things, of inventions, of marvels and of prodigious things. However, do any of those things give us happiness? Who is the happy one among us?

Consequently, if the mind has not given us happiness, we have to come out of the mind and find happiness somewhere else. Obviously, we will find it in the World of the Spirit.

 – Samael Aun Weor, The Revolution of the Dialectic, “The Dominion of the Mind”

The mind has its place, its purpose, and its function.  But what we’re working at here, what this journey entails, is something beyond the mind.  That is where this journey will take us—beyond the mind, beyond belief, beyond the self.  That is what the Hoopoe tells the birds about their king, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is true of our king, too. 

But since we’re studying the august tradition of the Middle East, I’m gonna pull a Scheherazade on you guys, and do exactly what she did in the Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  The birds have gathered together.  They’ve stated their problem, and the Hoopoe has made his pitch.  He’s told the birds about their king, and the journey to reach him.  It’s a difficult journey.  It’s long.  It’s hard.  Will the birds be willing to follow him on this long and difficult path?  If they do, what will they find along the way?  And more importantly, what might we be able to learn from their adventure? 

If you want to know, you’ll have to come to our future lectures. 


[1] Bismallah = “In the name of God,” the opening words of the Qur’an.