The voice of the river that has emptied into the Ocean: Hafez the Disciple

The voice of the river that has emptied into the Ocean: Hafez the Disciple

The voice of the river that has emptied into the Ocean
Now laughs and sings just like God. –  Hafez

Detail of an illumination in a Persian manuscript of the Divan of Hafez, drawn in the 18th century; British Library, London.

In the legend of the Persian master poet, Hafez, there is a tale which illustrates the profound relationship of Hafez with his teacher.  As legends are prone, this story also acts as a metaphor and parable for the great spiritual path attained by Hafez, the noble path of mentor and disciple.

Although we know but a few details of the life of the great poet, his profound effect on Persian life and culture has had an enduring popularity and influence, which has in modern times extended to the greater world’s spiritual awareness. The spiritual path he followed is, however, familiar to us in the time-proven unity of master and disciple, of teacher and student, of adept and apprentice. This tradition, apparent in many forms and schools of religion, shares the belief that there are always living persons who are one with God. These rare souls disseminate light upon this earth and entrust Enlightenment to others.  Hafez is regarded as one who came to live in that sacred union, and sometimes in his poems he speaks directly of that experience.

A poet is someone
Who can pour light into a cup,
Then raise it to nourish
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.

By the time he was sixty, Hafez had become famous as a master poet.  A circle of students and companions gathered around him, and he served them as a teacher and counselor until his quiet death at about the age of seventy.

But Hafez was, in fact, a spiritual student.  As a young man, he became a disciple of a Sufi teacher who guided him through a difficult spiritual apprenticeship that lasted most of his adult life.

During his entire life, Hafez  regarded himself as but a student and servant of his master teacher, Muhammad Attar.  Attar signifies a chemist or perfumer, and it is believed that Muhammad Attar owned a shop in Shiraz and lived a very ordinary public life.  Only his small circle of students knew him as a spiritual teacher.

In the West, Sufism is usually regarded as a form of Islamic mysticism.  However, the Sufis themselves say their “way” has always existed, under many names, in many lands, associated with the mystical dimension of every spiritual system.  In ancient Greece, for example, they were identified with the wisdom (Sophia) schools of Pythagoras and Plato.  At the time of Jesus, they were called Essenes or Gnostics.  After Muhammad, they adopted many of the principles and formulations of Islam and became known in the Muslim world as “Sufis,” a word given various meanings, including “wisdom,” “purity,” and “wool” (for the coarse woolen habits of wandering dervishes). One common thread that ties all these traditions, and which is common to all the world’s spiritual schools and customs, is the central role of the unity master and disciple, teacher and student.

Sufi schools flourished under the guidance of master teachers such as Rumi, and developed their methods of teaching according to the needs of each group and the talents of the master.  Some stressed formal meditation, others focused on selfless service to the world, and still others emphasized devotional practices: song, dance, and spiritual poetry celebrating love for God. Sufis cherish the poetry of Hafez as a perfect expression of the human experience of divine love.

How Hafez came to be a student of Attar is a famous and popular story told in many versions throughout the East:

One day, when Hafez was twenty-one and working as a baker’s assistant, he delivered some bread to a mansion and happened to catch a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful girl on the terrace. That one glimpse captured his heart, and he fell madly in love with her, though she did not even notice him.  Because of their social stations, their situation was hopeless and their love remained of the tragic, unrequited variety.
As months went by, Hafez made up poems and love songs celebrating her beauty and his longing for her.  People heard him singing his poems and began to repeat them; the poems were so touching that they became popular all over Shiraz.  Hafez, oblivious of his new fame as a poet, thought only of his beloved.
Desperate to win her, he undertook an arduous spiritual discipline that required him to keep a vigil at the tomb of a certain saint all night long for forty nights:  it was said that anyone who could accomplish this near-impossible austerity would be granted his heart’s desire.  Every night, Hafez went to the saint’s tomb and willed himself to stay awake for love of this girl.  His love was so strong that he succeeded in completing this vigil.
At daybreak on the fortieth day, an angel appeared in glorious, radiant form before Hafez and told him to ask for whatever he wished.  Hafez had never seen such a glorious, radiant being. And so, gazing on the unimaginable splendor of God’s angel, Hafez forgot all about the girl, his wish, everything.  He said, “I want God!”
The angel then directed hafez to a spiritual teacher who lived in Shiraz.  The angel told hafez to serve this teacher in every way and his wish would be fulfilled.  Hafez rushed to meet his teacher, and they began their work together that very day, and continued every day throughout eternity.

Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy
To hear.

Attar opened Hafez’s vision to fresh, ever deeper perceptions of the beauty and harmony of life and a much broader understanding of all the processes of love.  It was natural for Hafez to express these insights in the language of poetry.  For many years, Hafez created a poem a day for his teacher.  Attar told his students to collect and study these poems, for they illustrated many of the central principles of spiritual unfolding.

However, the relationship between Hafez and his mentor was not always an easy one.  In many accounts, Attar is presented as a stern and demanding figure who sometimes appeared to show no compassion at all. Hafez described his apprenticeship as “hell on earth”, as the teacher increased pressure to dissolve his student’s limited ego – or, as Hafez says, ground it to dust.   He “broke his head” at the feet of his master day after day, year after year, for forty long years.

Hafez frequently ran to Attar in despair, pleading for enlightenment or spiritual liberation after decades of frustration. Each time, Attar would tell Hafez to be patient and wait, and all would be revealed:

One day when Hafez was well over sixty, he confronted his aged teacher and said, “Look at me!  I’m old, my wife and son are long dead.  What have I gained by being your obedient disciple for all these years?”  Attar gently replied, “Be patient and wait, and all will be revealed.” Hafez shouted “I knew I would get that answer from you.”  In a fever of spiritual desperation, he began another forty-day vigil.

This time, he drew a circle on the ground and sat within it for forty days and nights, without leaving it for food, drink, or even to relieve himself.  On the fortieth day, the angel again appeared to him and asked what he desired.  Hafez discovered that during the forty days all his desires had disappeared.  He replied instantly that his only wish was to serve his teacher.

Just before dawn Hafez came out of the circle and went to his teacher’s home.  Attar was waiting for him at the door.  They embraced warmly, and Attar gave Hafez a special cup of aged wine.  As they drank together, the intoxicating joy of the wine opened his heart and dissolved every trace of separateness.  With a great laugh of delight, Hafez was forever drowned in love and united with God, his divine Beloved, through his teacher.

All I know is Love,
And I find my heart Infinite
And Everywhere!

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