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Daniel Ladinsky ~ On His Poetry, Spiritual Journey and Intimacy with Hafiz

Say it brother, O say the divine name dear sister,
silently as you walk,

don't die again with that holy ruby mine inside
still unclaimed

when you could be swinging a golden pick with
each step.

~ Daniel Ladinsky, The Gift, Poems by Hafiz

Daniel Ladinsky is the greatest messenger of 14th century sufi mystic, saint and poet Hafiz in this contemporary time. Through his spiritual journey he has encountered Hafiz entirely differently; it is an intimacy with Hafiz on a different dimension from where his poetry arrives. Khwaja Shamsuddin Hafiz of Shiraz (1320-1389), according to Daniel Ladinsky, is "one of the greatest spiritual friends, lovers, and guides that humankind has ever known." Persian Hafiz and American Daniel meet at a pure land beyond the scope or mere subject matter of literature, language, grammar or textual translation. Since it is on a different dimension, there are also room for misunderstanding when people try to trace the original of Hafiz.

The works of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky are quite unique and those who look for word by word translation can be quite disappointed. Yet what is most astounding is the beauty, grace and love that flows through the versions of Hafiz through Daniel. The way they are received all over the world by many hearts and the way it touched those hearts, are already a Sign. Many have called the works of Hafiz by Daniel as guiding influence and healing for them. Those who are familiar with Hafiz in his original language have confessed even that they have never seen this great Persian Master more glorious in the English language.
The paradox between scholars criticizing Daniel Ladinsky and those who can't help but drown in the beauty, sacredness and vitality of the version is quite an interesting one. The way Daniel has reconstructed the spiritual DNA of Hafiz can also have an interesting Sufi lesson for us all perhaps. When asked to define a Sufi, someone said that a Sufi is 'Son of the Moment' (ibnul waqt). I feel that what Daniel's version of Hafiz did and does is that they release Hafiz in the moment for a reader. In this way, Daniel Ladinsky's work is a work of a living Sufi who, like Jesus, breathe life into the form of poetry of another time and energy, and they become alive in ours.

Those who are familiar with the writings of Rumi, will know that one of his greatest work is called Diwan of Shams Tabrizi. Now scholars will say these are works of Rumi, which they are and if we were to ask Rumi, he would perhaps say, these are words that Shams, his great spiritual teacher, poured into his heart. Thats why he calls it Diwan of Shams crediting the source which is more real. Think of Hafiz version of Daniel Ladinsky like that, and all our arguments will vanish.

A Poet

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

~ Daniel Ladinsky, The Gift

If you have not read Daniel Ladinsky, you have missed out something so sweet that no one can possibly describe it to you, for you. Here is a secret why Hafiz via Daniel Ladinsky is so successful - it is purely because a saint has sanctified these works - someone who is connected in his living connection with successive luminous human beings. The grace of Masters can do wondrous things, for they are but grace of the Beloved.

On October 2013 the Sun Magazine published an excellent interview with Daniel Ladinsky titled: Something Missing in My Heart: Daniel Ladinsky On The God-Intoxicated Poetry Of Hafiz where he shared about his spiritual longing, his encounter with a living saint in India who inspired him to work on Hafiz, his relationship with his Spiritual Teacher and much more. The interview conducted by award winning journalist, Andrew Lawler, is a rare surfacing by Daniel as he's quite reclusive and rarely appears in public. 

I am quoting selectively here from the interview and you may get a copy of the full interview as PDF at the end of this post.

From the Introduction to the Interview:

Most of Ladinsky’s work draws on Hafiz, a fourteenth- century court poet who lived in the Persian city of Shiraz. Little is known about Hafiz’s life, but his works celebrate the Divine as a dearly beloved, rather than as a remote being. His poems — rich with taverns flowing with wine, sensual nocturnal moments, and sunny gardens perfumed with flowers (the word paradise is of Persian origin) — were collected in a volume that is today as common in most Iranian and Afghan households as the Koran, and his tomb attracts pilgrims from around the world.

One such admirer of Hafiz was the spiritual teacher Meher Baba, whose name means “compassionate father” in Persian. Raised as a Zoroastrian in India at the turn of the last century, Meher Baba was influenced by both Islam and Hinduism and became a respected mystic. He began to visit the West in the 1930s and established several centers around the world to perpetuate his teachings, which focused on charitable works, abstinence from drugs, and remembrance of God.

Ladinsky visited Meher Baba’s ashram, Meherabad, off and on for two decades beginning in the late seventies. At one point he lived there for six years, working at the free dispensary and spending time with Meher Baba’s inner circle. He ultimately left the intensity of that life — “I was feeling too much heat,” he says — and now lives next to the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when he is not at his farm in the Ozarks. His poetry and spiritual life, he says, are inseparable. More than once he told me, “If it weren’t for Meher Baba, my books wouldn’t exist.” Under the guidance of one of Meher Baba’s close disciples in the early 1990s, Ladinsky began to work on English renderings of Hafiz’s poems. In 1996 he published The Subject Tonight Is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz and I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz. Since then he has added Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West; The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master; and A Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations. Last year he published The Purity of Desire, a collection of Rumi renderings.

From the Interview:

Lawler: You were born in the Midwest. How did you end up in India?

Ladinsky: After fooling around at a couple of small colleges, I enrolled at the University of Arizona when I was about twenty. I tooled down there in a Jaguar XK Roadster — my father was a wealthy developer in St. Louis, Missouri. I wasn’t a serious student. I took nine hours of classes, smoked a little grass, and messed around in Mexico.

I started to spend a lot of time alone. In the desert outside Tucson I heard a persistent voice — it was nothing weird — saying, “What do you really want?” Given a choice, I knew I wanted what gave me the greatest pleasure, and that was being in love. In high school being in love had given me a sense of life and enthusiasm. So I wanted to love someone or something deeply, and somehow God got factored into this. I became my idea of a good boy, a virtual monk, quite the opposite of how I had been living. And out in the desert I experienced sublime beauty for the first time in my life. Amazingly, when I stopped all chemical ingestion, the experience didn’t go away. It lasted continuously for more than two years. I was in a blessed state. At one point I came across the book God Speaks, by Meher Baba, as well as my first Rumi poems. I wanted to find a living teacher to integrate this feeling, to go deeper. On the back of God Speaks were the addresses of five centers. I sent letters to all of them but got only one reply, from a sweet woman in Australia. That was too far away, so instead I traded in my Jaguar for a Jeep and outfitted it with gas cans. I felt drawn to the Andes Mountains and planned to drive there. But first I thought I would take a little detour, a thousand miles or so out of my way, to visit the center listed in South Carolina.

Kitty Davy, 1952
I pulled up at a motel in Myrtle and asked the guy behind the desk if he knew about a spiritual center, and he said it was just down the road. I parked on the highway outside the center and walked in the half mile or so. It’s a beautiful place — five hundred acres on the ocean. I arrived in the winter, and it seemed deserted. Finally a woman asked me what I was doing. I said I was looking for someone who knew about life, love, and God. “Oh,” she said, “you’d better talk to Kitty.” Kitty Davy was a woman in her seventies who had spent fifteen years in India with Baba. We talked on the phone for a minute, and she invited me to her office. When I was ten feet away from her, I felt a huge wave of love hit me. I knew this was a person who knew about life, love, and God. I began weeping and even got down on one knee; she let me kiss her hand. Then she told me to sit down, asked if I was hungry, and ordered cheese sandwiches. She told me to just watch her work until the food came, clearly as a way to ground me. I stayed for three or four months at the center and then got a place in town. She told the others that she had never seen someone in the West who was so God- intoxicated without any kind of meditation or other practice.

But I didn’t become grounded, and after a few more months she called me in. Normally, she said, she would send someone like me, with no financial or emotional obligations, to India. “But you, Daniel, are in a rare state. The best thing you can do is go back to your family and get a job with your hands.” She wanted to bring me down into the world. So that is what I did. I went back to my crazy family. I told my father I wanted to become a carpenter, and he said fine, he’d get me into carpentry school.

I got a job with a remarkable tyrant. I thought I could do this for the rest of my life: put me out on a subfloor, and I could nail forever. I had an enormous amount of endurance. One day I was nailing a huge roof that went on for what seemed a hundred yards, and I thought, What more could I want? I started whistling. My boss said, “This isn’t any hootenanny out here. You can’t whistle on the job!” And I thought, Boy, they are really trying to bring me down.

Lawler: What was your return home like as a twenty- something?

Ladinsky: A few years after the carpentry job, I started working for my father in his investment company and living a very worldly life. I wasn’t angelic anymore. And for the first time I started to think that I wouldn’t care if I died. I wasn’t suicidal, but my life seemed empty. So I went back to the center in South Carolina. Kitty told me how good I looked, but I told her I wouldn’t care if the moon fell on me. She said, “Do you really feel like that?” I said yes. She said that I was now ready to go to India. So I went in 1978 and met Meher Baba’s sister and Eruch Jessawala, who became deeply significant to me. They changed my life. But though I’d planned to stay for months, I lasted only two weeks. It was like being locked in a room with [psychologist] Carl Jung, who wouldn’t let you get away with any bullshit. They didn’t do it consciously; it was just what happened when you were around them. And as soon as I got home, I knew I had to go back.

Lawler: What was your relationship to your teacher?

Ladinsky: Eruch was a low-key guy who wore baggy pants and a T-shirt. He never had private time outside his room or a small prayer hall, except when he went for a daily walk for an hour or two. He allowed me to walk with him hundreds of times, and he probably initiated conversation only twenty or thirty times. The first walk I took with him, he said, “Danny, I can’t really speak candidly to Westerners, since they would be hurt. But since you are going to be staying with us over the years, I will tell you something I don’t want you to forget: There is absolutely nothing I want to say and absolutely nothing I want to hear. If something stirs deep inside of you, and you need to spit it out, please make sure it comes from a sincere part of yourself.”

Eruch Jessawala - Meherazad 1975 - photo by Anthony Zois (credit)

Another time, walking on a gravel road lined with over- hanging trees, he turned to me and said, “Danny, it’s a shame you can’t hear the sweet things the trees are saying this morning.” I felt he was able to know things that weren’t possible to know. He was God’s watchdog. And he’d been one of the most intimate disciples of someone who’d said he was the Avatar — Jesus and Buddha come again. Eruch was a perfect servant of the Master — not words we like to use in the West. What does that servant want? To give 1,000 percent of his attention to the Beloved. I felt he was sticking his head in the toilet being with me, because to Eruch I wasn’t real; there was only God. I was illusion, a mirage. Sitting with him one day, I had a distinct feeling that this guy was somehow more me than I was. It was startling. Yet I felt relief, as if all the weight was shifted onto him. It was as if you had a powerful friend who could do almost anything. I felt no concern. He was as close to a perfect teacher as I have come across. Only once out of the hundreds of times that I initiated conversation did he say, “Danny, I have a lot on my mind this morning. I’ll get back to you.” Only once! He almost apologized.

Lawler: It sounds as if Eruch helped you find the path to the poems. How did the relationship evolve?

Ladinsky: When one spends time around a true saint, a wedding begins to be planned in the saint’s mind. At this juncture the one who has the grace to be hanging out with the saint may know nothing about the astounding great fortune that is waiting for him or her if he or she can just hang in there, be of at least a little service, and become a trusted friend. I feel married to my teacher, and a divorce is really impossible. I can draw upon him whenever I want. Our vows allow that. And I feel he can still give to me in remarkable ways, and even give to people who have not physically met him. If you google the name Eruch Jessawala, you can watch a five-minute video of him and form your own impression of this person who has affected every single poem I have ever written, including some four thousand original mutant haiku I scratched out in a oneyear period. I have written some eight thousand poems. Praying like hell helped a bunch!

Here are a few words from a prayer that Eruch wrote, a prayer I said every day for seven years before picking up my pen in the morning: “Guard me, guide me, help me.” I still try to say them every day. Why not?

Lawler: In one of your poems, you suggest that the litmus test for teachers is to hold them upside down over a cliff for a few hours. If they don’t wet their pants, maybe you have found a real one.

Ladinsky: Yes, that’s a Kabir rendering in Love Poems from God. What helped me accept Meher Baba’s extraordinary claim to be the Avatar, since I did not personally meet him, was meeting Kitty and some men who’d spent their entire lives around him. I saw that these people were operating in another dimension. They would say it was because Meher Baba just boiled them down.

Lawler: Your poem also suggests a disillusionment with gurus — fleets of cars, sex scandals, and such. When does a teacher become an impediment to God?

Ladinsky: The real teacher? Never. This is tricky, because how many real ones are there? How do you know? One of the safeguards is that the teacher should be celibate or morally impeccable and seem to have no interest in monetary gain. Those are general rules that can help with an evaluation. I think there are genuine saints in the world, and one of the greatest things that can happen to you is to have a personal relationship with someone like that — someone who not only cares about you but feels a deep responsibility for you. To jerk someone around sexually or financially — genuine spiritual teachers would die if they did that.

One of the famous saints of India is Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918. When people came to him, he supposedly would say right off, “Give me all the money in your pockets.” He wore rags. He didn’t care about your money. He would take it and give it away or throw it away. He was doing that for you.

Meher Baba, 1941
Lawler: Consciously submitting to another person is not something that comes naturally to most people in our society. How did you do this?

Ladinsky: In 1978, on one of my first visits to India, I came across three couplets of Hafiz that Meher Baba particularly liked — this was years before I knew I would be working with Hafiz. I thought that I could walk off to the mountains with one couplet and spend the rest of my days contemplating it and living the words. I saw in the words a golden key to unlock a lot of doors:

“Whatever my Master does
is of the highest benefit to all concerned.”

Most people don’t know that all of Rumi’s and Hafiz’s poems are intimately connected with the Master, or God, or the Beloved. To me this couplet means that whatever happens is of the highest benefit to all concerned. That is, whatever God does is of the highest benefit. And I think there really is just one doer pulling all the strings. Because if there is a God—and I want my words to be exact—if God is a reality, if God’s attributes are infinite knowledge, infinite power, and omnipresence, then there is nothing outside of God. Period. Teachers have used couplets like this for centuries to shift the focus from them to God. Imagine your teacher reading you this poem by Hafiz:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you as few
human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
has made my eyes so soft,

my voice so tender, my need of God
absolutely clear.

This moves the attention from the teacher to Hafiz.

I think the smartest thing you can do is fucking chain yourself to that real teacher and let him kill you.

Lawler: How did Eruch encourage your work with Hafiz?

Ladinsky: I would go so far as to say that my teacher choreographed my work with these poems. It takes a lot for me to get up and read these poems in public, and to butt heads with a few so-called scholars who have given me some horrible reviews, or to take a single line from Hafiz and turn it into a twelve-line poem. I could do that only with the sanction of my teacher.

He had the closest thing I’ve found to a perfect ear. I would bounce poems off him, usually reciting them as we walked. One night I was working off Henry Wilberforce-Clarke’s nineteenth-century translations. A twelve-line poem might have forty or fifty or sixty lines of explanation. I came across half a sentence in a poem, and images began to come to me, and I thought, This could turn into a whole poem. I wrote it out longhand and became excited.

I decided to risk disturbing Eruch, and rather miraculously he was sitting by himself on a porch, listening to the BBC. It is so enchanting there at night, at this desert oasis. I read the poem, and he said, “Let me see that,” and he put on his glasses. “This is pretty good, Danny, but there’s one place in which Hafiz would have said it differently.” He switched one word to focus more on the Beloved. “That would have been Hafiz’s preference,” he added. All of Hafiz’s poems, like Rumi’s, are deeply rooted in the love of his Master.

Daniel at Sheriar Press, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (credit)

Lawler: So where does Hafiz end and Daniel Ladinsky begin?

Ladinsky: You remember the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? I have had a close encounter with Hafiz in the most extraordinary way. I don’t know why he picked me out of billions of people, but he put something into me that has affected every single poem I have written. And I pray like hell for help. Is it Hafiz or Danny? I don’t know. Does it really matter? All I know is, there is something in my books that many feel is of wondrous value and that may help those who are drowning.

His original work would be far more stunning than any rendering. My teacher said that what Hafiz in part did was to put the Koran, which he knew by heart, into unique poetry for the average Persian-speaker. But there are so many blanks with Hafiz. We don’t even really know when he was born or died. There are, I hear, different versions of his poems in Persian. Some argue that there are around five hundred poems; others, close to a thousand. There is not, I believe, one single poem in his handwriting, although it’s accepted that he was a professional copyist. As far as I know, all we have is his signature on a document. There probably are a lot more questions about attribution with Hafiz than we have about, say, Shakespeare. Some Muslim clergy would have been keen to eradicate words that were so liberating. My poems are based on what I think is the genuine spirit of Hafiz, something he could have said. Sometimes, by the time I’m finished with one poem, there are poems within poems that can come from one line. That of course makes them in no way translations.

Lawler: What does it mean to “render” a poem? Is rendering a poem that’s already been translated from a foreign language a kind of spiritual exercise for you?

Ladinsky: My connection to Hafiz is something far, far deeper than anything to do with what might be called a “rendering” of his work. The relevant definition of render here is “to interpret.” I have done that creatively with what’s available in the English language. And I have prayed hundreds of times for help with this. Of course working with the poetry of the great ones is a spiritual exercise, one I take very seriously. I typically begin in the early morning after doing some yoga and saying some prayers.

Lawler: Why do Rumi and Hafiz seem to strike such a chord with modern Westerners?

Ladinsky: In some ways we are all like very hungry dogs. The intelligent person of faith needs a special kind of gourmet nourishment for emotional, psychological, and no-bullshit spiritual support. Hafiz and Rumi are the masters at providing this. I have seen renderings of Kabir that also do the same. And then there are stunning poems by Rilke and many others, some of whom I have also worked with. But Hafiz and Rumi, for now, seem to be the rightful reigning kings, cooking and serving the best royal grub.

Lawler: How do you think Hafiz and Rumi would react to your renderings? They were, after all, living in devoutly Islamic societies far removed from our modern age.

Ladinsky: I had four remarkable dreams or visions connected to Hafiz. In one I saw something many would call “God.” I had just gotten to about the thousandth rendering of Hafiz, and this was before any of my Hafiz books were published. In the vision God said, “I thank you for doing this work for Me. You have removed a headache. May your verse always be sweet.”

My guess is, Hafiz might say, “Right on, cowboy.” I don’t think either he or Rumi would shoot me.

Tomb of Meher Baba - on top it reads, "Mastery in Servitude" (perfecting our ubudiyya)

Lawler: Do you have a particular spiritual practice?

Ladinsky: I’ve always felt that if I could sit long enough and quiet enough, I would deepen my awareness. And I hope someday to get more serious about that, although meditation is not really emphasized in my spiritual community. We are mostly into study and selfless service and internal remembrance — repetition of whatever is one’s most cherished name of God. On Meher Baba’s tomb it says: “Mastery in Servitude.” I would say that I’ve served this work with all my heart and mind for about twenty years. I’ve personally packed and shipped forty thousand copies of my first book, when it was still self-published. Even today I packed a book to a friend’s Tibetan teacher. I packed it as if it were the only book I would ever pack in my whole life. If there is a God, and someone ever said to me, “Danny, do you think God ever asked you to do something?” I would say he asked me to do this work, to write my poems!

[+] You may read the full interview here: Something Missing in My Heart - Daniel Ladinsky on the God-Intoxicated Poetry of Hafiz by Andrew Lawlyer on Sun Magazine (Oct 2013)


No one can keep us from carrying God

Wherever we go.

No one can rob His Name

From our heart as we try to relinquish our fears

And at last stand — Victorious.

We do not have to leave him in the mosque

Or church alone at night;

We do not have to be jealous of tales of saints

Or glorious masts, those intoxicated souls

Who can make outrageous love with the Friend.

We do not have to be envious of our spirits’ ability

Which can sometimes touch God in a dream.

Our yearning eyes, our warm-needing bodies,

Can all be drenched in contentment

And Light.

No one anywhere can keep us

From carrying the Beloved wherever we go.

No one can rob His precious Name

From the rhythm of my heart –

Steps and breath.

From: ‘The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky

Two of Daniel Ladinsky's most recent books are: A Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations as well as is first full book of Rumi translations/rendering The Purity of Desire: 100 Poems of Rumi.

+ A great radio interview with Daniel Ladinsky with Janet Conner

// Taste of Some of Daniel Ladinsky's Poetry:
* Poet Seers
* Poetry Chaikhana
* Hafiz Poems



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Technology of the Heart: Daniel Ladinsky ~ On His Poetry, Spiritual Journey and Intimacy with Hafiz
Daniel Ladinsky ~ On His Poetry, Spiritual Journey and Intimacy with Hafiz
An interview with Daniel Ladinsky, first published on Sun Magazine, Oct 2013 where he shared about his spiritual longing, his encounter with a living saint in India who inspired him to work on Hafiz, his relationship with his Spiritual Teacher and much more.
Technology of the Heart
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