The Recital of the Bird

From Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (Trans. Willard R. Trask) (Princeton: 1988), pp.186-92.

In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful!

A [Persian] translation by the Tongue of Truth [of Avicenna’s] Recital of the Bird, by the leader of the world, the learned of the age, the sultan of the scholars and philosophers, the Master (shaykh) and Meteor of the Religion (shihabuddin) Suhrawardi, may the mercy of God be upon him.
Is there none among my brothers who will lend me an ear for a time, that I may confide some part of my sorrows to him? Perhaps he could fraternally share my burden. For the friendship of a friend is not unalloyed unless, in good as in evil fortune, he guards its purity from all stain. But where shall I find so pure and sincere a friend, in a time when friendship has become a trafficking to which one turns when the necessities of a situation require an application to one's friend, whereas one ceases one's attentions to him as soon as the need is gone? No longer is a friend visited save when you yourself have been visited by misfortune; no longer is a friend remembered save when some necessity has restored your memory. There are, it is true, brothers united by the same divine kinship, friends who are brought together by the same frequentation of what is above; they contemplate the True Realities with the eyes of inner vision; they have purified the depths of their hearts from all stains of doubt. Such a society of brothers can be assembled only by the herald of a divine vocation. Are they so assembled? Then let them receive this testament.

Brothers of Truth! Impart your secret one to another. Meet together, and let each raise before his brother the veil that hides the depths of his heart, so that each may instruct the other, and that you may all realize your perfection through one another.

Brothers of Truth! Retire as the hedgehog retires, which in solitude displays its hidden being and hides its apparent being. As God is my witness! it falls to your hidden being to appear, while it falls to your apparent being to disappear.

Brothers of Truth! Strip yourselves of your skins as the snake casts his. Walk like the ant, the sound of whose steps none hears. Be like the scorpion that ever bears its weapon at the end of its tail, for it is from behind that the demon seeks to surprise men. Take poison, that you may remain alive. Love death, that you may still live. Be ever in flight; choose no settled nest, for it is in the nest that all birds are captured.

If you have no wings, steal wings, get them by sleight, if need be, for the best of illuminators is what has the strength to rise in flight. Be like the ostrich that swallows burning stones. Be like the vultures that gulps down the hardest bones. Be like the salamander that lets itself be wrapped in flame, at ease and confident. Be like the bat that never come out by day; yes, the bat is the best of birds. Brothers of Truth! The bravest man is he who dares to face his tomorrow; the greatest coward is he who dares to remain behindhand with his own perfection.

Brothers of Truth! it is nowise surprising if the Angel flees from evil, whereas the beast commits wickedness, for the Angel has no organ of corruption, while the beast has no organ of comprehension. No, what is surprising is that a human being, invested with command over his evil desires, should let himself be subdued by them, while yet he has within him the light of intelligence. But truly, like to the Angel becomes that man who stands firm under the assault of evil desires. But he whose strength does not suffice to drive away the evil desires that tempt him, that man does not even reach the rank of the beasts.

And now, let us come to our recital and explain our sorrow. 

Know, O Brothers of Truth, that a party of hunters went into the desert. They spread their nets, set out their lures, and hid in the thickets. For my part, I was one of the troop of birds. When the hunters saw us, they tried to attract us by whistling so delightfully that they put us in doubt. We looked; we saw an agreeable and pleasant place; we knew that our companions were beside us. We felt no uneasiness, and no suspicion kept us from setting out. So we hastened to the place, and suddenly we fell into the snares. The meshes closed on our necks, the strings entangled our wings, the cords hobbled our feet. Every movement that we tried to make only tightened our bonds the more and made our situation more desperate. Finally, we gave ourselves up for lost; each of us thought only of his own pain and no longer considered that of his brother. We tried only to discover a ruse to free ourselves. And in the end we forgot what a fall our condition had undergone. In the end we ceased to be conscious of our bonds and of the narrowness of our cage, and there sank to rest.

But one day it happened that I was looking out through the meshes of the nets. I saw a company of birds who had freed their heads and wings from the cage and were ready to fly away. Lengths of cord could still be seen tied to their feet, neither too tight to prevent them from flying nor loose enough to allow them a serene and untroubled life. Seeing them, I remembered my earlier state, of which I had lost all consciousness, and what had long ago been my familiar fellowship made me feel the wretchedness of my present state. Would that I might die, I thought, from the excess of my grief, would that at the mere sight of their departure my soul might noiselessly slip from its body!

I called and cried to them from the depths of my cage: "Come! approach! teach me by what sleight to seek deliverance; sympathize with my suffering, for truly I am at the end of my strength." But they remembered the ruses and the impostures of the hunters; my cries only frightened them, and they hastened from me. Then I besought them in the name of the eternal brotherhood, of the stainless fellowship, of the unviolated pact, to trust my words and to banish doubt from their hearts. Then they came to me. When I questioned them concerning their state, they reminded me thus: "We were prisoners of the same suffering as thine; we too have known despair; we too have been made familiar with sorrow, anguish, and pain." Then they applied their treatment to me. The cord fell from my neck; my wings were freed from their bonds; the door of the cage was opened to me. They said: "Profit by thy deliverance!" But again I prayed to them: "Free me also from this hobble that still clings to my foot." They answered: "Were it in our power, we should have begun by removing those that encumber our own feet. How should the sick cure the sick?" I arose from the cage and flew away with them. They said: "Far on, straight before thee, is a certain country; thou wilt not be safe from every danger until thou hast crossed all the distance that separates thee from it. Therefore, follow in our track, that we may save thee and lead thee by the right way to the goal thou desirest."

Our flight led us between the two flanks of a mountain, through a green and fertile valley. We flew pleasantly on, until we had passed all the snares, paying no heed to the whistling of any hunter. Finally, we reached the summit of the first mountain, whence we saw eight other summits, so high that eye could not reach them. We said to one another: "Let us hasten! We shall not be out of danger until we have passed those mountains safe and sound, for in each there is a company that is interested in us. If we heed them, and linger in the charm of those pleasures and the quiet of those places, we shall never arrive." With great labor we passed six mountains one after the other and came to the seventh. When we had passed beyond its borders, some of us said to the others: "Is it not time for us to rest? We are spent with fatigue. We are far from the hunters now, for we have travelled a long distance. An hour's rest will help us to reach our goal, whereas if we add to our weariness now, we shall perish." So we halted on the summit of the mountain. There we saw green gardens, beautiful palaces, charming pavilions; there were fruit trees, streams of living water. So many delights refreshed our eyes! Our souls were confounded, our hearts troubled, by so much beauty. And we heard lovely songs, ravishing instrumental music. We inhaled perfumes that not even the most exquisite amber and musk could approach. We gathered fruits, we quenched our thirst at the streams of living water, lingering until we should be completely rested. Then we said to one another: "Let us hasten! No snare is more dangerous than false security; there is no safety save in vigilance, no fortress so good as warning suspicion. We have already lingered too long here. To stay longer would be dangerous. Our enemies are on our trail, seeking the place where they may find us. On!"

So we renounced that place. Though it was so pleasant there, our salvation was worth more. Having agreed to depart, we tore ourselves from those scenes, and thus we came to the eighth mountain. Its summit was so lofty that it was lost in the firmament. Birds peopled its slopes; never had I heard such ravishing music, nor beheld such splendid colors, such graceful forms, nor encountered such sweet companions. When we had come down among them, they treated us with such charm, delicacy, and affability that nothing created could describe it or make it comprehensible. When we were perfectly at our ease with them, we told them of the sufferings we had endured. They sympathized in them with the utmost solicitude. Then they said to us: "Beyond this mountain is a city in which the supreme King resides. If any who are oppressed come to implore his protection and trust themselves wholly to him, the King by his strength and his aid frees them from all injustice and suffering."

Relying on what they told us, we determined to reach the city of the King. We came to his court and awaited audience with him. Finally, the order came that the new arrivals were to be brought before him, and we entered his castle. We found ourselves in an enclosure whose vastness no description could compass. When we had crossed it, a curtain was drawn up before us, disclosing a hall so spacious and radiant that it made us forget the first court, or, rather, compared with this, the other seemed of little account. Finally, we reached the King's oratory. When the last curtain had been drawn and all the King's beauty shone before our eyes, our hearts hung upon it and were seized with a stupor so great that it prevented us from giving words to our complaints. But he, perceiving our weakness, restored our assurance by his affability; so that we were emboldened to speak, and to recite our story to him. Then he said to us: "None can unbind the bond that fetters your feet save those who tied it. Now will I send them a Messenger to lay it upon them to satisfy you and remove your fetters. Depart, then, happy and satisfied!"

And now, lo! we are on the road, we are journeying in company with the King's Messenger.

Whereupon my brothers pressed about me, urging me to recite to them the beauty of the King. I shall describe the King. I found him who is in full possession thereof. For all beauty, in the true sense, is realized in him; all imperfection, even in the sense of a metaphor, is banished from him. By his beauty, he is all a Face that thou contemplatest; by his generosity, he is all a Hand that bestows. Whoever approaches him will have found supreme bliss; whoever cuts himself off from him will have lost this world and the world to come.

. . . How many of my brothers will there not be who, my recital having struck upon their ears, will say to me: "I see that thou art somewhat out of thy wits, unless sheer madness hath fallen upon thee. Come now! It is not thou who didst take flight; it is thy reason that has taken flight. No hunter ever made thee his prey; it is thy reason and naught else that has been hunted down. How should a man fly? And how should a bird fall to speaking? Verily, one would say that the bile has overflowed in thy complexio and that siccitas has taken its seat in thy brain. 'Twere well to diet: drink a decoction of thyme dodder, take frequent hot baths, pour warm water over thy head, take inhalations of oil of water lily. Then go on a light diet, avoid sitting up late; and, above all, no overexertion of mind. For in the past we have always known thee as a reasonable man, of sound and penetrating judgement. God knows how greatly we are concerned over thy state. Seeing thee thus deranged, we feel utterly sick ourselves!"

Oh, what a waste of words! and with what a miserable result! The worst kind of discourse is this chatter with which people are so liberal without any occasion! But in God be my refuge; toward men, my freedom! He who professes another dogma will lose his life in the world to come and in this world too, "for those who attack the first will one day learn by what an overthrowing they shall be overthrown (Qur’an 26:227)."

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