There was in a secluded place a lake, which was fed by a running stream, and in this lake were three fishes, one very wise, the second half wise, and the third foolish. One day some fishermen passed by that lake, and having espied the fish, hastened home to fetch their nets.
The fish also saw the fishermen and were sorely disquieted. The very wise fish, without a minute’s delay, quitted the lake and took refuge in the running stream which communicated with it, and thus escaped the impending danger. The half wise fish delayed doing anything till the fishermen actually made their appearance with their nets. He then floated upon the surface of the water, pretending to be dead, and the fishermen took him up and threw him into the stream, and by this device he saved his life. But the foolish fish did nothing but swim wildly about, and was taken and killed by the fishermen.
The wise man is he who possesses a torch of his own;
He is the guide and leader of the caravan.
That leader is his own director and light;
That illuminated one follows his own lead.
He is his own protector; do ye also seek protection
From that light whereon his soul is nurtured.
The second, he, namely, who is half wise,
Knows the wise man to be the light of his eyes.
He clings to the wise man like a blind man to his guide,
So as to become possessed of the wise man’s sight.
But the fool, who has no particle of wisdom,
Has no wisdom of his own, and quits the wise man.
He knows nothing of the way, great or small,
And is ashamed to follow the footsteps of the guide.
He wanders into the boundless desert,
Sometimes halting and despairing, sometimes running.
He has no lamp wherewith to light himself on his way,
Nor half a lamp which might recognise and seek light.
He lacks wisdom, so as to boast of being alive,
And also half wisdom, so as to assume to be dead.
That half wise one became as one utterly dead
In order to rise up out of his degradation.
If you lack perfect wisdom, make yourself as dead
Under the shadow of the wise, whose words give life.
The fool is neither alive so as to companion with Isa, [=Jesus]
Nor yet dead so as to feel the power of Isa’s breath.
His blind soul wanders in every direction,
And at last makes a spring, but springs not upwards.
Source | Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898)
Another rendition of this Rumi tale by Coleman Barks
This is the story of the lake and the three big fish
that were in it, one of them intelligent,
and the third, stupid.
Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake
with their nets. The three fish saw them.
The intelligent fish decided at once to leave,
to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.
“I won’t consult with these two on this.
They will only weaken my resolve, because they love
this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance
will keep them here.”
When you’re traveling, ask a traveler for advice,
not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.
“Love of one’s country
is part of the faith.”
But don’t take that literally!
Your real “country” is where you’re heading,
not where you are.
Don’t misread that hadith.
In the ritual ablutions, according to tradition,
there’s a separate prayer for each body part.
When you snuff water up your nose to cleanse it,
beg for the scent of the spirit. The proper prayer is,
“Lord, wash me. My hand has washed this part of me,
but my hand can’t wash my spirit.
I can wash this skin,
but you must wash me.”
A certain man used to say the wrong prayer
for the wrong hole. He’d say the nose-prayer
when he splashed his behind. Can the odor of heaven
come from our rumps? Don’t be humble with fools.
Don’t take pride into the presence of a master.
It’s right to love your home place, but first ask,
“Where is that, really?”
The wise fish saw the men and their nets and said,
Ali was told a secret doctrine by Muhammad
and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down
the mouth of a well. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to.
You must just set out on your own.
So the intelligent fish made its whole length
a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase,
suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it
to the edgeless safety of the sea.
The half-intelligent fish thought,
has gone. I ought to have gone with him,
but I didn’t, and now I’ve lost my chance
I wish I’d gone with him.”
Don’t regret what’s happened. If it’s in the past,
let it go. Don’t even remember it!
Back to the second fish,
the half-intelligent one.
He mourns the absence of his guide for a while,
and then thinks, “What can I do to save myself
from these men and their nets? Perhaps if pretend
to be already dead!
I’ll belly up on the surface
and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally
to the water. To die before I die, as Muhammad
So he did that.
He bobbed up and down, helpless,
within arm’s reach of the fishermen.
“Look at this! The best and biggest fish
One of the men lifted him by the tail,
spat on him, and threw him up on the ground.
He rolled over and over and slid secretly near
the water, and then, back in.
the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly
jumping about, trying to escape with his agility
The net, of course, finally closed
around him, and as he lay in the terrible
frying-pan bed, he thought,
“If I get out of this,
I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake.
Next time, the ocean! I’ll make
the infinite my home.”
Source | Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi
PONDER AND CONSIDER
- Which fish are you?
- How did the wisest of the fish get away?
- How did the half-wise escape?
- What happened to the foolish fish?