Translated from the Iranian by Sholeh Wolpé

Parable of the World as a Drop of Water

A man asked a Wayfarer: “Everyone has his own fantasies of the two worlds. What are they really?”

The Wayfarer replied: “Both worlds, the upper and the lower, are but a drop of water, neither here nor there. When that droplet first appears, it is replete with reflections. But even if all those reflections were of iron, the hardest of metals, you could still shatter them back into water drops. Whatever has its foundation in water, be it fire, is nothing but illusion. When water itself is not stable, how can you use it as a firm foundation?”

Parable of the World as a Tray of Sand

You have perhaps seen how a foolish sage spreads sand on his tray and draws images and patterns on it, tracing fixed and moving stars. He creates an earth and sky, and makes prognostications about this and that. He calls forth the stars and the houses of the zodiac, and reveals their risings and settings. He portends omens and auspicious events, draws houses of birth and death. And when he has calculated and foretold to his heart’s content, he grabs a corner of the tray and shakes it all clean. When you look at the tray again, it’s as if nothing had been drawn on it and all those signs and images never existed.

The outward existence of this complex kaleidoscopic world is just like the forms and images on that tray: nothing.

If you cannot stomach this world, don’t loiter about this board. Go sit in a corner. This is where the brave become insignificant and live untroubled by either world. If you lack the courage to tread this Path, even if you are a mountain, you weigh less than a blade of straw.

Parable of the Jars of Honey

A Sufi was on his way to Baghdad when he heard someone call: “I have jars of honey. I’m selling them cheap. Where is everyone?”

The Sufi asked: “Good man, will you give me some for nothing?”
The man replied: “Away with you, are you mad? Are you the father of greed? Who sells anything for nothing?”

A voice from On High called and said: “Sufi, come away, there is a better seller than this. Come to a place where for nothing you will be given everything, and more.”

      Compassion is a sun that shines
      on all the atoms that float in its rays.
      The Almighty rebukes even a prophet
      for the sake of a wayward soul.

Parable of a Drowning Fool

A fool who had an enormous beard fell into the sea and was drowning. A man on the shore saw him and yelled: “Get rid of that feedbag around your neck!”

The fool replied: “It’s not a feedbag, it’s my beard that’s weighing heavy.”

The man replied: “Splendid! Then here’s to your beard and to where it’s taking you. Go ahead and drown.”

      Like a goat, you aren’t ashamed of your beard;
      captivated by it, you have no sense of shame.

      So long as you’re possessed by your ego,
      the pharaoh and his ministers will live on in you.
      So take hold of the pharaoh’s beard
      as Moses did and pull on it hard.
      Step onto the Path and give up your damn beard,
      how long do you plan to keep it?

      Come, begin the journey.
      Your beard is nothing but trouble,
      how come you don’t fear it?
      If you walk the Path to the Beloved,
      walk without a comb.
      Beware of your beard; use it as a napkin.

      Seek no liquid unless it’s tears,
      no heart unless it’s sizzling with longing.
      If you are a launderer, don’t go seeking the sun.
      If you are a farmer, don’t expect rain clouds.

Parable of the Fish That Inhales the World

A pure-hearted man asked Nouri, that wise man of the third century: “How far are we from our union with the Beloved?”

Nouri replied: “You must go a long way and pass seven seas of fire and light. Once you’ve crossed those seven seas, a fish will suddenly draw you into itself. When this kind of fish takes a breath, everything from the first to the last is inhaled into it. This fish is so large you can’t see its head or tail. It lives in the middle of the ocean of detachment. Like a crocodile, it snaps up both worlds and all of creation disappears inside of it.”

The Goldfinch

Welcome, Goldfinch. Engage. Enter like fire.
      Burn whatever comes your way
      and close your eyes to everything in creation.

      When you scorch everything in your path,
      each moment opens a new gift from the Beloved.
      Once your heart has learned the Creator’s mysteries,
      dedicate yourself to that Great One’s bidding.

      Become a flawless bird in the Beloved’s path,
      so that what remains of you will not be just you,
      but will be the Beloved too.

Considered by Rumi to have been “the master” of Sufi mystic poetry Attar (1145-1220) is best known for his epic poem The Conference of the Birds, a magnificent allegorical tale about the soul’s search for meaning. The poem recounts the perilous journey of the world’s birds to the faraway peaks of Mount Qaf—a mythical mountain that wraps around the earth—in search of their sovereign, the mysterious Simorgh. Attar’s beguiling anecdotes and humor intermingle the sublime with the mundane, the spiritual with the worldly, and the religious with the metaphysical. Reflecting the entire evolution of Sufi mystic tradition, The Conference of the Birds models the soul’s escape from the mind’s rational embrace.

Sholeh Wolpé is an Iranian-born poet and writer. A recipient of the 2014 PEN/Heim, 2013 Midwest Book Award and 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize, Wolpé’s literary work includes four collections of poetry, two plays, three books of translations, and three anthologies. Her most recent publications include The Conference of the Birds (W.W. Norton & Co), Coフ[o escribir una cancioフ] de amor (Olifante Ediciones de Poesia, Spain), and Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths (University of Arkansas Press). Wolpé’s writings have been translated into eleven languages and included in numerous American and international anthologies and journals of poetry and fiction. She is a visiting Associate Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). For more information, visit her website at:

Create a website or blog at