Three of the world’s most admired spiritual teachers — Francis of Assisi, the Christian saint (top left); Dogen, the great Zen Buddhist teacher (top right); and Rumi, the Islamic Sufi master (bottom) – lived during the same tumultuous century. They integrated mystical realizations of the sacred into their lives, and show us how we can do the same.
They weren’t superhuman. Francis began as a wealthy, wine-loving reveler and carouser in northern Italy. Dogen began as a sheltered aristocratic youth in Japan who wandered restlessly through China, seeking spiritual direction. Rumi began as a member of a far-ranging refugee family fleeing invasion and warfare, and became a lawyer and family man in present-day Turkey.
Though they possessed acute spiritual sensitivity, they didn’t show outstanding potential. Yet, their example as mystical teachers inspires millions of people in our own era. Through perseverance and courage — qualities any of us can emulate — they transformed. They devoted themselves to awakening into fully illumined lives.
They devoted themselves so completely, in fact, that: Francis became a beloved saint, esteemed today by the pope who bears his name; Dogen, who brought Soto Zen Buddhism to Japan, has become one of our world’s most respected Buddhist sages; and Rumi, who founded an order of whirling dervishes and dedicated himself to Sufism’s arcane teachings and practices, has become, in the 21st century, an internationally celebrated poet.
Though they never met, in the 13th century they became enlightened contemporaries.
They also were rebels. They cherished their spiritual traditions and honored them, but they saw that those traditions had become stagnant and, in many cases, corrupted by sloth and avarice:
• Francis undertook a revolutionary experiment, choosing to live as Jesus had, owning nothing, roaming freely, preaching love, extolling God and praising all the creatures of Earth.
• Dogen revolted against the Buddhist establishment in Japan by forsaking the cities and creating his own exemplary spiritual community in a remote mountain wilderness, inviting women and men who wished to seek enlightenment.
• Rumi declared his independence from the staid world of Islamic legalism and exulted in a world of ecstatic spiritual revelry, intoxicated with blissful love of the Divine.
They lived as mystics. They realized fully the gift we all share as our birthright: the ability to directly experience the sacred. They liberated themselves from strictures of the small self, of the ego, learning to let it subside so they could access God, Oneness, Allah.
They accomplished this in a world as turbulent and uncertain as our own. The 13th century reeled from crises, whether due to rampages of Mongols led by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who thundered out of the northern Asian steppes to terrorize civilizations from China to the Mediterranean, or due to the onslaughts of repeated Crusades, waged in the Holy Lands by the Christian church against the Islamic empire, or due to strife and feudal battles throughout Japan. Each of these crises affected Rumi, Francis and Dogen in his own country, dramatically influencing how his spiritual life unfolded.
But it also was an age of startling growth and dynamic innovation. The Chinese, world leaders in trade and technology, maintained vast cities of unparalleled splendor and sophistication, enriched by the Silk Road and the sea lanes plied by their massive triple-masted ships; the black African kingdoms were approaching their zenith; the Muslim caliphate, stretching from Spain to India, set new standards for cultural refinement; while Europe, an upstart emerging from its prolonged Dark Ages, was enjoying a proto-Renaissance, building universities and Gothic cathedrals, seeing towns of London and Paris expand to cities, nurturing a nascent science and blossoming with arts and poetry.
Francis, Dogen and Rumi — at a time when most people seldom ventured from home — traveled throughout parts of this world in ways that feel cosmopolitan and modern to us, and they lived it fully.
They also retreated from it to find seclusion and silence that would feed their spirits. They used time for prolonged prayer, meditation or enraptured, soulful contemplation as a path for experiencing directly a numinous reality. Much of this experience was, by nature, ineffable, yet Dogen and Rumi and Francis strove to communicate it in poems that evoked the sacred by employing the mundane — images of boats, or the moon, or of fire or flowers, derived from the commonplaces of daily life and written in vernacular language so that everyone, not merely the aristocratic elite, could understand.
Today, more than 750 years later, we still read those poems with pleasure and illumination.
Despite the vast differences of their religious beliefs and practices in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, Francis, Dogen and Rumi shared preoccupations and concerns. All three of these spiritual teachers, for example, intimately appreciated the natural world. Francis roved the countryside, singing to God by praising His creation, the brooks and wild animals and evening stars, blessing the sparrows, expressing a vision of harmony with nature that esteemed all creatures equally. This vision feels vital to us today, as we struggle to evade a looming environmental calamity.
Dogen, too, treasured the natural world, building his Temple of Eternal Peace, Eihei-ji, in the high, distant mountain forests. Dogen insisted that everything we consider insentient — even the water, even the stones — in fact teaches Buddha dharma through its own distinctive language. Each stream, each rock, exists by manifesting from Oneness into existence in being-time, and it does so through full exertion of its unique particularity, its “thusness,” amid perpetual flux and the inherent emptiness of phenomena. Dogen’s assertion implies that all things in the natural world have value — again, a vision that feels vital today as we confront global climate disasters.
Rumi, too, savored the world of nature, rhapsodizing of gardens and birds, sun and flowering trees, delighting in them not only for their wondrous beauty but because they symbolize the paradisal bliss of union with Allah, the Beloved. Rumi’s vision of the sacredness of nature, like that of Francis and Dogen, can inspire and sustain us as we seek spiritual energy for engaging the 21st century challenges of saving the Earth.
Women in the 13th century faced enormous hardships, but Francis, Dogen and Rumi found pioneering ways to help women who yearned for spiritual wholeness. Francis defied established Church protocols by authorizing a young woman named Clare (later Saint Clare) to establish an order of women who could live communally in a vow of holy poverty, exactly the same as Francis and his friars. This was unprecedented. Dogen boldly proclaimed, contrary to the sexist attitudes that dominated medieval Japan, that women could achieve enlightenment equally with men, and he welcomed women who wished to train with him. Rumi, despite misogynistic rhetoric in some of the poems within his vast corpus — rhetoric that derives from traditional Sufi symbolism ascribing masculine and feminine labels to positive and negative spiritual traits — also welcomed women and trained several as disciples.
Issues related to spiritual love and the physical body also engaged this trio of spiritual teachers. The path of the mystic is said to be the path of spiritual love, an all-encompassing, spacious opening of the heart that occurs when the small ego-self subsides, allowing loving kindness and compassion to flow unimpeded. Francis demonstrated this love in his embrace of lepers, considered the walking dead; he kissed their wounds and bathed their sores. Dogen evinced love by emphasizing the virtues of kindness to animals and considerate speech, and by inviting men and women of all classes who sincerely quested for spiritual liberation to join him in monastic community. Rumi displayed his spiritual love by conveying it in the swirling language of erotic fervor, describing the longing for union with Allah as a passionate torment and a giddy, drunken, dancing joyfulness of kissing the face of the divine Beloved, unveiled at last.
The intensity of their expressions of spiritual love was matched by the intensity of their attitudes about the physical body, although those attitudes varied widely. Francis called his body “Brother Donkey” and drove it harshly, in ascetic rigors of deprivation and brutal austerities meant to subjugate it so that the corrupt flesh would bow to the purity of the soul. Accordingly, his body broke down in sickness. These illnesses were so appalling that near the end of his life he nearly went blind and he bore bleeding suppurations that reminded his friars of Christ’s stigmata. In this instance Francis fails to seem modern to us; he seems a medieval fanatic — though, to his credit, approaching death he asked forgiveness of his body. By then, however, it was too late.
Dogen, on the other hand, extolled the physical body as the locus of awakening. He affirmed that Zen meditation happens with the body, and that the act of sitting on the meditation cushion is, in itself, enlightenment. As for Rumi, he viewed the body as a sensuous home of the spirit, which longs for release, much as a nightingale longs to fly from the magnificence of its cage into the open sky. Both body and spirit are the handiwork of God, and while one may be superior, the other is far from evil; it is the means by which the spirit dwells in this earthly realm.
Francis, Dogen and Rumi experienced awakening at profound levels. Francis heard the voice of Christ and saw a six-winged angel; Dogen “dropped body and mind”; Rumi met a saintly vagabond named Shams and woke to the Divine Beloved. Yet, in their awakening they did not transcend this world; they remained very much active within it. Those actions continue to move us. Had they met, this Christian and Zen Buddhist and Sufi Muslim undoubtedly would have recognized qualities in each other that would have allowed them to communicate wordlessly, as enlightened contemporaries. They flourished in the same era — and, across the centuries, we can know them as our contemporaries, too.