For the Birds
The journey of the soul from the realm of separation and selfishness to union and joy with God, has been described by many saints, using many literary forms. One of the most imaginative allegories was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth-century Sufi mystic and poet. In The Conference of the Birds, Attar compares a wide variety of human seekers to many species of birds. Then the king of the birds, the Hoopoe, invites them all to take an extraordinary journey. Although written some nine hundred years ago, readers may find it surprisingly familiar and may take comfort in the fact that we are not unique in our struggles.
The story begins with an invitation. All the birds of the world are gathered and invited to make the journey to the palace of the king. The Hoopoe bird is chosen to lead the expedition because he himself has travelled to the king’s realm. He asks all the birds in the creation to accompany him. All are welcome. All are wanted. All are included. The Hoopoe is quite specific. While sincere seekers are especially invited to travel towards truth, so are the passionate and the self-involved. The fearful and the skeptics are particularly welcome. The insightful, the depressed, the unfaithful rebels, the activists, and the escape artists are also urged to join the great exodus from complacency and delusion to the freedom and joy that will be experienced in the king’s palace. It is explicitly stated that each of them must travel in their own way.
The Hoopoe, the leader of this particular expedition, explains that the birds will need to leave behind their timidity, their self-conceit, and their lack of trust. But other than that, he says, “Come as you are.” He encourages them to travel the distance that separates them from the generous king. He explains that only what is real and true can satisfy their hunger.
And then, like in any assembly of seekers of the truth, the excuses for inaction, passivity, and paralysis start pouring in. The nightingale doesn’t want to abandon the rose she loves in her very own garden. Why leave the beauty she has right now, right here, for some garden she has only heard described? The parrot complains that the realm of truth sounds like it is much too far away. The peacock contends that the good work he is currently accomplishing is sufficient. The duck announces that she is already holy enough. The partridge confesses that she is too weak to undertake a long and challenging adventure. The hawk proclaims that he already keeps the company of kings and rulers and exercises all imaginable power and influence. The heron chimes in that his passion provides all the needed excitement. The owl is much too in love with the treasure he already possesses. The sparrow, in sharing how frail and powerless she feels herself to be, suffers from what can be described as “a humility which is a form of pride”.
The crippling condition of the birds is that they are in love with the status quo. They suffer from apathy and a lack of imagination. They cling to the small pleasures they now enjoy. They are birds without inspiration or understanding. Their consciousness is asleep. It is the Hoopoe who awakens them. How exactly he does that is somewhat of a mystery. But it has something to do with love.
The Hoopoe speaks to them of the love and truth that has been awaiting their return since the beginning of time. He reminds them of a powerful longing in their own hearts that nothing in their current circumstances has been able to satisfy. He tells them stories of such power and beauty that soon all the birds are tinged with a fiery desire to go on the journey. They are full of zeal and enthusiasm and strength. At the setting-out place there were so many birds that they hid the moon!
As with all earnest seekers everywhere, and apparently in every age and culture, even though they say that what they want is to move swiftly towards truth, they have doubts and a few questions. They seem apprehensive and fearful that they might not be properly equipped for the journey. They are more than willing to express their doubts and misgivings to their leader. They want discussion, listening sessions, and opportunities for feedback.
The Conference of the Birds is a marvelous testimony to the struggles and objections of a diverse flock. With infinite patience the Hoopoe listens to each individual objection. After most of the objections have been heard, the last three birds approach the Hoopoe.
They approach him with an openness and a sincere desire to learn. They plead, “Please teach us to accept what is real, what is true. Teach us to give up our desire to be in control, show us how to go forward with integrity and boldness and confidence.”
But the Hoopoe isn’t especially impressed with this last crop of eager seekers either. While their speech reveals great faith, he wants them to know that the actual journey has nothing to do with how they put words together. He says that pretentious verbiage won’t get them very far. This journey is not one of words. Instead it is a practical path of action. What is required is a single sigh of love. And the purpose of the journey is not to describe or imagine spiritual wealth, but to experience it. If they wish to reach the palace of the king, the Hoopoe explains, they have to go on the wings of love. The Hoopoe explains the kind of love that is required is the passionate variety. And he cautions that this will not be an easy, smooth journey. It will require bravery and determination. “He who undertakes this journey should have a thousand hearts so that he can sacrifice one at every moment.”
The hundreds of stories that the Hoopoe tells to his flock of argumentative, skeptical, and lethargic birds are sometimes obscure. Yet all the stories are intended to help his seekers to think in new ways. Of the thousand birds that set out on the quest, only thirty travel all the way to the king’s palace. And the thirty that do make it to the palace are in pretty bad shape. They are weary and have lost all their feathers. They have used up all their strength, courage, and passion.As far as they are concerned, there is nothing left of them. They seek refuge in the king’s court. They don’t have their beauty to offer, or their eloquence, or their wisdom. All they have to offer is their need.
This story of The Conference of the Birds has a very happy ending. A miraculous transformation happens when the birds reach their destination. There, they encounter one thousand suns and stars and moons, each more resplendent than the previous, to light their way. All of their feathers grow back, an important detail to a bird. And not too surprisingly, the truth that they had risked their lives to find, the place of genuine refuge, it turns out, was located within their own hearts and minds and souls. The kingdom of God was to be found within their own being. Their Master, the Hoopoe, says to them, “O you who love me, I am not absent from you for a moment.” The writer’s last words to his readers are, “I have described the way, now you must act.”