Thursday, January 27, 2011


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám (for copies, click here) is said to be one of the ten best known poems in the world. At any rate it is doubtful whether any other piece of Oriental literature has been as widely read, and as much loved, in the Western world as The Rubaiyat.

When I was growing up as a kind we had two copies of The Rubaiyat in our home – one which had been my late mother’s (bought, I think, before her marriage to my father), and one which was my late father’s (similarly bought before their marriage). Nothing was ever thrown out in our household. My wife would say, “Nothing has changed there, unfortunately.”

I still have my mother’s copy of The Rubaiyat (see copy of its cover below) but my Dad gave his copy away to a very dear friend of his - a devout Catholic - not long before his (Dad’s) death, with the remark, “This book makes more sense to me than what your Church teaches.”
My father was not a formally religious man, but he was the most honest person, and one of the wisest, I’ve ever known. He often said that there was more wisdom in The Rubaiyat than in The Bible. I won’t go into that. All I’ll say is this ... there is, in my view, much less that is culture-bound, and thus irrelevant to our times, in The Rubaiyat than in The Bible.

The question of whether or not the Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam (pictured below) was a Sufi mystic is a hotly contested issue. My view is that of Edward J FitzGerald, The Rubaiyat’s most famous English translator and interpreter, who wrote: “No doubt many of these Quatrains seem unaccountable unless mystically interpreted; but many more as unaccountable unless literally. Were the Wine spiritual, for instance, how wash the Body with it when dead? Why make cups of the dead clay to be filled with—‘La Divinité’ by some succeeding Mystic?”

I don’t think that Khayyám was either a Sufi mystic or a promoter of Epicurean hedonism. To me, he was an early exponent of, and apologist for, Mindfulness and, in particular, the practice of mindful living, that is, living mindfully and consciously in the present moment - in other words, simply being aware of the fact that each moment spent wisely, and with awareness, is to live in the now, and to be truly present in and fully engaged in the moment. Take, for example, this well-known quatrain:
The caravan of life shall always pass
Beware that is fresh as sweet young grass
Let’s not worry about what tomorrow will amass
Fill my cup again, this night will pass, alas.
Note those words ... “fresh as sweet young grass”. You can almost smell the grass, yet how ephemeral it is. Then we have this:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

The bird is “on the Wing”. Watch it fly away ... it will, of course! Further, as is written in another quatrain, “The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.” Observe them both, without judgment, condemnation or fear, for is it not the case that ...

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

So, what are we to do? How are we to live? Here, in my view, is some good advice:

Look to the Rose that blows about us—"Lo,
Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

Living mindfully means that we accept the fact that everything is in the process of becoming a dissolution ... yes, everything is in a state of flux. All is transitory and will eventually vanish from view. So, as the American Unitarian Universalist minister and former head of Amnesty International, Dr William Schulz, points out, “the paradox of life is to love it all the more even though we ultimately lose it.”

That is what makes this present moment so very special. So let us engage with it ... with a whole-body-and-mind awareness. When we do that, and interfere with nothing, strangely our minds become free from all limitations, fetters and bonds.

So, in the words of Omar Khayyám, "Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life."


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