Of Pearls and Metaphors

A recent, much appreciated comment on one of the posts here mentioned the ‘pearl’ of wisdom, a thought that opens the door to a consideration of the metaphor of the pearl, and further, to the mystery of words concealing the pearl of divine knowledge.

Pearls are unique among gemstones in being the result of a biological process.  Gems such as the ruby or the diamond must be dug from the earth like common pebbles, and only reveal their inner character when they have been cut and polished; the pearl grows within a living creature, and shows its beauty the moment it is found, emerging like a smooth, round, lustrous surprise from the wet folds of its humble, shapeless maker.  What has given it value in the marketplace, in addition to its iridescent shine, is its rarity.  Although the pearl is now farmed on an industrial basis, naturally occurring pearls are very rare; one may open hundreds of shells to find a single one.

This combination of beauty and rarity make the pearl an apt metaphor for wisdom, or for spiritual truth.  Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to the ‘pearl of great price,’ for the sake of which the merchant is willing to sell all he has, so as to be able to possess it. The organic process by which the pearl is created makes the metaphor even more appropriate, for the origin of the pearl is the intrusion of some irritant, such as a parasite or a grain of sand, around which the mollusc (usually an oyster, although various species produce pearls) deposits layers of nacre.  What is more, the iridescence of the pearl is enhanced by the multiple layers of nacre; the internal reflection between layers makes the light particularly appealing.  Cultured pearls do not have many layers, and so are not as iridescent as natural ones.

It is easy to apply this image to our spiritual path: when something disturbs us, it can become the nucleus of reflection and attention by which, in time, something beautiful can appear.  The longer we reflect on the disturbance, the more layers of light are laid down, and the more depth the wisdom shows in our thought, speech and action.

But intriguing and illuminating as the metaphor is, it can also be understood as a picture of the way in which Divine truth is caught and reflected in the limitations of thought and language.  Truth–infinite, all embracing, and beyond the distinctions and differences of comparison–somehow finds its way into the humble limitations of our structured thought and feeling.  To put it another way, words are not the truth, but they can reflect the truth if the light of inspiration falls upon them.

This was addressed by the Sufi Mahmud Shabistari (ca.1288-1339) in The Garden of Mystery.  This poetic work was written in answer to a series of questions posed by Shaikh Sayyid Husseini of Khorosan (in what is now Herat, Afghanistan) and presented in the Sufi assembly to which Shabistari belonged. The tenth of the fifteen questions sent by the Shaikh is:
What is the sea whose shore is speech?
What is the pearl to be found in its depths?

Shabistari’s reply is too long to quote in full here, but he begins:
The sea is Being and speech is its shore.
Shells are words, pearls are heart-knowledge.

Thousands of royal pearls are tossed from each wave,
revealed in texts, traditions, and prophecies.

Thousands of waves surge from It every moment
yet It is never made less by even one drop.

The existence of Knowledge comes from that deep sea.
Its pearl is nestled in a covering of sounds and words.

When inner meanings descend to this [sensible] realm,
they must reveal themselves in allegory and metaphor.

Sahbistari then goes on to recount how, according to the belief at the time, the pearl originates from the oyster rising to the surface of the sea and, as a mist forms overhead, opening its shell to receive a drop of rain from on high; the oyster then closes its shell and sinks to the bottom again, and the drop becomes the pearl.  Although it doesn’t correspond with the workings of nature as we understand them now, there is a beautiful symbolism in the picture.  Shabistari continues:
When a sea diver plunges into those depths,
he retrieves from them resplendent pearls.

Your body is like the shore, Existence like that sea.
The mist is grace, rain is the Science of the Names.

In this great ocean mind is the diver
whose pouch holds a hundred precious pearls.

The heart is like a vessel of Knowledge.
the shell of language covers heart-knowledge.

Whoever wishes to find the pearl of knowledge, therefore, must be ready to cast aside the shell of language and listen to the knowledge of the heart.  No need to dispute about names and forms; we can let go of labels, and let the voice of Truth speak for itself.

Hazrat Inayat Khan often used the image of the pearl in his teachings.  Particularly inspiring is this verse from Ragas, in The Gayan:

I searched, but I could not find Thee;
I called Thee aloud, standing on the minaret;
I rang the temple bell
with the rising and setting of the sun;
I bathed in the Ganges in vain;
I came back from Ka’ba disappointed;
I looked for Thee on earth;
I searched for Thee in the heaven, my Beloved,
but at last I have found Thee hidden
as a pearl in the shell of my heart.


Mahmud Shabistari quoted from:
Garden of Mystery, The Gulshabn-i-raz of Mahmud Shabistari
tr. Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

3 Replies to “Of Pearls and Metaphors”

  1. Takbir

    Reflecting on this beautiful metaphor of the pearl, many thing come to mind. I imagined a huge number of oyster shells, something disturbed them all deeply, all were alarmed and decided to rush to the surface of the sea to find answer to their grief. When they got to the surface they opened themselves to the heaven above and asked for the disturbance to stop. Yet they only received a drop of water. Most closed themselves and submerged into the abyss of the sea, in anger, in despair In darkness. But only a few received the drop like a beautiful blessing, kept it within and returned full of hope and love to the bottom of the sea.
    With time the ones that didn’t receive the drop were empty and full of anger.
    But those that accepted the drop of rain within, had formed layers of nacre around the drop and the most amazing, beautiful pearls with an iridescent light had been formed.

    The light of these amazing pearls, brought hope to those that were empty and hollow. With time these too started to bring acceptance, love and light within themselves.

    • Nawab Pasnak Post author

      Dear Takbir, yes, the poetic grace of a metaphor is that it allows each person to understand it according to their own experience, and their own horizon. It has to be so, because we all represent slightly different points of view. And all are glimpses through the forest, so to speak, as we travel toward the goal. In Shabistari’s vision, which I had to limit by only including part of the poem, the oysters are all inspired and grateful for the touch of divine grace felt in the raindrop. The poem says,
      “Raindrops fall into the open shells
      which close their mouths tightly around them.

      With full heart, they sink back into the depths.”

  2. Azim Smith

    Dear Nawab

    The metaphor of the Pearl also touched me. Reflecting upon this I considered how a gemstone is cut and polished to remove the imperfections ; whereas the pearl starts with an imperfection and then grows layers and layers till the blemish is covered.
    Opposite approaches to achieve the same Goal ‘Towards the One ‘
    Beauty as revealed in reflection of the Divine Light
    ‘I was a Hidden Treasure and Loved to be Known’ Hadith of the Prophet
    With Gratitude
    Azim Smith


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