Thoughts on a Poem by Hafiz
By Seth Miller
Is where the Real Fun starts.
There’s too much counting
Zero is the state of having no preconceptions, of being ready to receive, of being at the beginning. It is contrasted with counting, in the sense that it is the opposite of counting, i.e. quality instead of number. At the same time there is an irony in Hafiz, because he says that there is ‘too much’ counting. In other words, he is in a way counting the counting! This tongue-in-cheek aspect is a signature both of the attitude of the spiritual seeker and of the esoteric message encoded in the poem: one must look through and beyond all that is countable, valuable, definable, limiting, and circumscribed. It is as if there were an Esoteric Zero inscribed in every experience as a potential – a circle, a circumscription, a boundary that forms a space through which to look beneath, within, and beyond the overt phenomenon to the deeper reality of God.
This looking marks the beginning of the adventure of the spiritual seeker – the Sufi on the path to God – which is then, the “Real Fun”.
What is ultimately REAL is only GOD – unqualifiable and unable to be identified as a separate aspect of existence. Zero is not a thing, not something with a particular, identifiable value. Thus God is in a way equivalent to a zero, a nothing, from the perspective of the separateness of the world; but at the same time God is, like the symbol for zero, the all-encompassing circle, the boundary and container of the entirety of existence. God is beyond all value, beyond all identifiability.
It is the ‘counting everywhere else’ that separates a spiritual aspirant from the masses of humanity – the spiritual aspirant knows the value of nothing, of the silent space made in consciousness into which God is invited. When we are busy counting – our money, our minutes, our friends, our possessions – we are Full, full of our desires, thoughts, and sense experiences, all of which take our attention, all without any lasting intention. The higher intention, that of the spiritual seeker, requires the liquidation and dissolution of the egoistic counting. This is a giving up, a surrender, an emptying of the ego into a state of nothingness, the state of the Zero, the Real, to God, so that God may be present even when we turn towards the world.
That’s the thing about Zero: you can always add it, an infinite number of times, to anything without changing its value. God, the Zero, as an experience, is present infinitely everywhere, in every experience infinitely, precisely because of God’s zero-nature – nothing is added that is not already there, in actuality, and in potential as an experience. In this sense, then, the Zero is also the mystical realization of union with God, which can take place only when we place ourselves on the side of God, as it were: egoless, open, receiving, attentive, and intentive. We must not bring any human or arbitrary value to God; no matter how big or how small, every value, positive or negative is equally infinitely far from being zero. The value of zero is not measurable, and thus is a perfect metaphor for the reality of the unrepresentable nature of God.
So for the spiritual aspirant there is an aspect both of having zero and being zero – on the spiritual path one must not only give up one’s desire for possessions, but must also give up one’s own idea of oneself. Our very ego must be sacrificed, and we cannot be attached to how others perceive us, our station in life, our relative ‘success’ or failure, or our skills or works. The value for all these things can only come from what a recent book on the history of Zero called “the Nothing that IS”.
Hafiz has a particular authority with which to speak of zero: he has himself written this poem from this state of experiencing the emptying of this ego. Perhaps this is why the poem is so short!
At the same time, Hafiz is in the culture that invented the symbol for zero. The Arabic word for zero, “sifr”, from which our words Cypher and Zero come, is itself borrowed from the Hindu term “sunya” meaning empty. The concept of sunya is central to Mahayana Buddhist thought, as one of its basic realizations: (from the Heart Sutra:)
* "Hear, O Sariputra, emptiness is form; form is just emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness. Just thus are perception, cognition, mental construction, and consciousness."
* "Hear, O Sariputra, all phenomena of existence are marked by emptiness: not arisen, not destroyed, not unclean, not clean not deficient nor fulfilled."
This is why Nagarjuna, who provided the most important Hindu philosophical formulation of sunyata, was able to point out that nirvana is neither something added to samsara nor any process of that takes away from it (i.e., it’s realization doesn’t remove the enlightened being from it). In other words, nirvana is simply samsara rightly experienced in light of a proper understanding of the emptiness of all things.
So in this sense, then, Zero represents not only the beginning of the path “where the fun starts”, but is also the end of the path, where nothingness is form, where samsara and nirvana are equivalent, where God is the only reality.
We hear echoes of this sentiment from a selection of a poem by Rumi called “Who Is a Shaykh” in which he speaks about the qualities of the Egoless Shaykh, the spiritual guide. This selection is, interestingly enough, from a website that used this poem as an example of the Zero Type of the Sufi Enneagram:
Immediate intuition or intuitive knowledge in relation to the egoless Shaykh
is what thought is to us.
Thought is of the past and future.
When it is emancipated from these two,
the difficulty is solved.
The spirit beholds the wine in the grape,
the spirit beholds 'thing' in "no-thing'.
It beholds every conditioned thing as unconditioned.
The spirit beholds the genuine coin
and the alloyed before it is discovered in the mine.
In hot July the egoless sees December;
in the sunbeams he see the shade.
In the heart of the grape
he sees the wine.
In his egoless state,
he sees the object.
To this we could add:
He writes a poem about Zero in which he speaks
of the whole world.