Chapter 1: The Marketplace
“As the sun drew its sword
Across the night
It spilled the blood
Of a thousand dawns.”
The air was still and heavy. There was a light breeze, and the scents of rosewater and cardamom from the spice shops nearby mingled with that of stale cabbage and cooked onions from a food stand across the fountain. The faint background sounds of the people in the square helped me reflect as I studied by the fountain.
I had gathered about me the works of the great saints and poets. The words I read possessed the wisdom of the learned from past times who wrote of great and timeless truths.
But such study did not help me feel the fire of the lovers who had illumined such truths through their actions. I had drowned myself in the philosophy of ages, but found myself lost in a place devoid of color, in a land of darkest night.
“What is it that you are so intent on studying?”
He was an emaciated man, but clean and about sixty years of age. His simple clothes—a black shirt, a coarse black felt robe, and a cloth wrapped hat—held no distinction and from his worn carrying bags it seemed he was here to buy and sell goods at the sugar shops.
I was deep in thought and annoyed at being interrupted, so I replied, “Such things as you may not understand.”
A faint smile formed amidst his graying beard as he snatched my books and tossed them into the pond right next to where I sat. Shocked by his action, I got up and grabbed the books from the water. I opened my most prized book, my father’s personal diary, a book containing much spiritual knowledge and noted that all the books were completely dry.
“How is this possible?” I asked.
“There are such things as you may not understand,” he said.
that does not
is much worse
“What is it that you would tell me? And why did you throw my books into the water?” I asked.
“Tell me what is it that you wish to find in these books?” he said.
“Knowledge,” I said thinking of the enlightenment that comes through the transformation of a weary soul into a pure spirit.
He then responded with silence. I heard the sound of the passersby. A donkey brayed in the distance. All the while he stood still as if waiting patiently for me to speak. Finally, he whispered as if he were disclosing some unspoken secret and said, “There is a story, that is in all the stories. It is the sweetest of stories. Though we may not have heard it, we all recognize its music. As in every song, it starts in silence. Silence must be practiced when setting out on this path because progress on it requires abandoning everything.”
I hovered in the moment as a breeze passed by, taking with it the many silent prayers uttered in the stillness. I then wondered what would be gained by abandoning all knowledge.
Shams seemed to speak directly to me as he paused and in a soft resonating voice said, “At his deathbed, the famed mystic and poet Sana’i was saying something under his breath. When they put their ears near his mouth they heard:
‘I’ve turned away from all I’ve said
There is no meaning in words, no words in meaning.’”
“It is true that meaning cannot be fully contained in words, but without words how could we reach the truth?” I said.
“Whoever is more learned is further from his goal. The more obscure is his thinking, the further he is. This is the work of the heart not the forehead,” he said as he placed his hand on his heart and then tapped his forehead using his index finger.
“The iniquitous man knows hundreds of unused matters in the sciences, but he does not know his own spirit. He knows the properties of every substance, but in explaining his own substance he is like an ass,” he said pointing to the donkey that was no longer braying and now seemed to stand in quiet contemplation across the street.
“The first step is that we have to abandon all we think we know. Only in this way can we discover those things we cannot yet imagine,” he said in a calm voice that blended with the sound of the water fountain.
“But what is there to gain from abandoning all knowledge? Certainly some knowledge is good and useful,” I asked. I thought I saw the donkey bobbing his head in agreement.
“There is a story of a man who found a map to a great treasure written on a piece of ancient parchment. The directions read ‘Go out to such and such gate. There you will see a dome. Put your back to the dome, your face to the east and let go an arrow. Wherever the arrow falls, there lies the treasure.’
“He went there, nocked an arrow, pulled the bowstring and let the arrow fly. No matter how often he tried he couldn’t find the treasure. Then the news of this great treasure reached the king. The master archers flew their arrows from that spot and nothing was found. When he prayed to God for help, he received an inspiration. ‘We did not say that you should pull the bowstring.’ He came and placed the arrow in the bow and it fell in front of him. One stride and he arrived at the treasure.
“Whoever shot the arrow was far from the goal. This is because you need a single ‘stride’ to reach the treasure.”
The calm of his words carried a great depth as he said “Why a single stride? He who knows his soul knows his Lord.”
Thereupon I perceived that our Lord is near and with us always even while we are lost. And that we only have to look within. All knowledge is inherently finite and often misleading. Perhaps this old man had been sent to guide me along this path.
“Who is this man?” I wondered. Outwardly neither a mystic nor a sage, yet this man whose face was marked by great age and time spoke in a voice that rang with the truth of the soul.
1 - Sana’i as quoted by Shams.