“Three Articles about Subud by Boulder member Dr. Reynold Ruslan Feldman.”
That’s what the late Fr. Raymond O., an Anglican priest, called our shared spiritual practice, Subud. The concept to be sure is presumptuous. How can anyone snap their fingers and have God? It’s not a matter of adding hot water and stirring.
Yet Fr. Raymond was not so far off. Subud, which originated in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, in the 1930s, puts into practice the Twelve Step slogan “Let go and let God.” You simply go into a room, take off your shoes, stand quietly with others, or alone, and follow whatever comes up for you. You are fully conscious and can stop at any time. Then, for the next 30 minutes you may move your arms, dance, sing, make sounds, say words in languages you understand or not, sit or lie down, walk around, see internal images, or just stand quietly. For those familiar with the New Testament, all this sounds like Acts 2. The fourth verse reads, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (KJV)
But here’s the important difference. Subud members can be from any religion or none. The founder, Muhammad Subuh, happened to be a Muslim. I am an American Jew. My wife comes from a long line of Congregational and Presbyterian ministers, and my late wife was a Lutheran from Germany. We represent the world. Imagine the excitement of being able to receive your own experience in a room filled with 500 others from 60 or 70 countries: Africans in dashikis, Indonesians in black fezzes, Germans and Jews, Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, Indians and Pakistanis, Japanese and Chinese. I did just that at our last World Congress, in Christchurch, New Zealand. We all worshipped together—for that’s what our receiving is—in a way that is harmonious, ever changing, and unique.
But let’s face it, if that’s all Subud is, getting together twice a week for a bizarre spontaneous mystical practice, what’s the point? It’s that the Subud practice initiates in most people a process of inner transformation beginning with an experience-based belief in the existence of a great life force. This force, which we conventionally call God or the Holy Spirit, shows itself willing to help us become fully ourselves if we are open to it. All you have to do is show up twice a week, hang around for 45 minutes including a quiet period before and after the “exercise,” and it’s as if an electronic transfer is made to your spiritual savings account. In daily life, meanwhile, you become calmer, more confident, more sure of your direction in life, clearer in your decision-making, better able to sleep, and so much more. In short, this is a spiritual practice with real-world benefits.
So if Subud is this good, why has no one heard of it? While it is widespread, with groups in 79 countries, there are fewer than 10,000 active members worldwide. Why? Well, for one thing, the founder advised us not to proselytize. As a result, most of us—from recent high-school graduates to a former prime minister—never let the word pass our lips. Thanks to this extreme reticence, Subud has to be the most in-the-closet spiritual practice ever. Yet as a 50-year practitioner, I know this simple, spontaneous exercise offers immense possibilities to humankind and have decided to provide this brief introduction. The rest of course is up to you—and God.
What Is Subud?
Honolulu, Hawaii (11/02)
When I became a Subud member in May, 1961, I could tell you exactly what Subud was. That was then. Now, after 41 ½ year of regularly following the Subud spiritual exercise, I am not so sure. However, as a professional student, I hate to say I can’t answer a question, especially one like this, where I have had some experience. So, here goes.
Subud, for me, is the practice of the Presence of God. (Those of you familiar with the Catholic contemplative tradition will recognize this phrase as the title of a collection of writings by and about Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.) The Sufi term for this practice is zikr, or dhikr.
How, you might reasonably ask, can one practice (in the sense of be on a regular basis) in God’s presence? Logicians will argue that if God is truly omnipresent, then all of us are always in God’s presence. Yet our free will gives us the capacity to jam the signal, so to speak. So, even though God may be present everywhere, we as individuals have the freedom and the capacity not to be aware of that presence.
For me, the Subud spiritual exercise provided a vital contact that opened the door of my awareness to the presence of God. This initial experience, translated from the Indonesian pembukaan as Opening, took place for me in Chicago on May 22, 1961. I was 21 years old, a recent Yale graduate with a B.A. in English. I came from a secular Jewish family. What religious formation I had derived from our long-time African American housekeeper and my four high-school years at an American Baptist boarding school. Religion for me at that point was primarily the feeling I got on occasion from the arts—Rilke’s poetry, Bach slow movements, Gregorian chant—or from nature (especially hiking and sailing).
Fortunately, once the door of my awareness was open, it stayed open, and I became more and more aware of two increasingly distinct power sources in my life: one higher, purer, and less insistent but very powerful; the other seemingly lower, coarser, and much more insistent. (It was powerful too.) The more I did my spiritual exercise, the more distinctive these power sources appeared to me, and—in general—the greater opportunity I seemed to have for choosing one or the other in whatever I was about to do.
Put another way, the pressure automatically to follow the “lower” power source decreased over time while my ability to discern “other options” increased. Sometimes, in fact, I felt myself guided to make one and only one choice. Later I could tell by the results of my choice whether or not it had in fact been a wise one.
In religious terms, you might say that Subud has given me an increasingly strong faith in the existence of a Higher Power, which I call God, that is actively and beneficially involved in my life and—if invited in—the lives of others. Having traveled now to 48 U.S. States and 22 countries, I feel that God is no respecter of any conventional boundary—age, race, ethnic group, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, profession, IQ, physical prowess, etc. I find brothers and sisters everywhere and feel, with Native Peoples, that the four-legged and the winged creatures are my relatives too. The Native phrase “all my relations,” spoken as one passes the pipe in a circle, has become more and more inclusive for me. And not just as a theoretical construct but as a matter of everyday feeling and action.
Thanks to Subud I also feel that I have undergone a major simplification process. Some of my friends remember what a sharp-tongued sophisticate I was at 21. “Eli Yale forever. Boola! Boola!” I am more like water now, adjusting myself to my circumstances.
Although this effect can in part be the result of aging, I also have less and less memory for what I have done and a corresponding lack of curiosity about the future. I seem to have gotten rid of a lot of personal history, in Carlos Castaneda’s phrase, and live pretty much in the present. I haven’t exactly been lobotomized. When I need to recall something I can. But memory no longer intrudes on me nor does concern for the future.
So, to repeat and perhaps amplify my original statement, Subud for me is the practice of the Presence of God, a process which is transforming me into someone who can live in and from that Presence, in the present, on a daily basis. Whether or not that transformation has benefited others, I can’t say. I hope so, but you’ll have to ask them.
Subud–A Practical Mystical Path for the 21st Century
By Reynold Ruslan Feldman, PhD Boulder, Colorado, USA
Founded in Indonesia in the 1930s, Subud is a practical mystical path now followed in 90 countries by people of diverse faiths or none. Since Subud makes no use of propaganda or proselytizing, it is still largely unknown despite the fact that one can practice it while living an ordinary life in this world, the contact is easily obtained for free, one can do it alone or in a group, and there is no special study or asceticism required. In this essay a retired American university professor and dean, a 49-year Subud member, introduces the practice and its founder, Muhammad Subuh (d. 1987), and discusses why Subud might be a boon to humankind in the 21st Century and beyond.
Putting the terms practical and mystical side by side poses a paradox. For mysticism, often seen as voyaging in the never-never land of the Spirit, is usually considered anything but practical. A Western person may think of the Desert Fathers, mystics in the early centuries of Christianity, living in caves, fasting and vigiling for months, to gain some sort of spiritual union with God. There appears to be nothing practical or ordinary about these spiritual acrobats who have separated themselves from the everyday society of householders toiling away to make ends meet and raise and educate their children. The Desert Fathers and others of their ilk, East or West, were and are the Olympians of the inner life. What do they have to say to or do with the rest of us ordinary people in the technologically rich, material-oriented, and increasingly secular 21st Century?
Well, to begin with, the 21st Century, despite the worldwide increase in material and even political well-being, is a century in crisis. Increasing wealth does not bring happiness. Toiling away for material goods alone does not bring fulfillment. Even democratic governance is not a cure-all for hunger, poverty, or disease. Wars meantime have become more dangerous and frequent. Our material lifestyle is depleting the resources of the earth and polluting the water and the sky at a frightening rate. Deforestation reduces oxygen, erodes soil, and increases the proportion of desert to arable land. Our global insistence on living beyond our planetary means is leading us on a one-way journey to disaster. What to do?
The answer has been ever-present in what the English novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) has called the Perennial Philosophy.1 All religious traditions per Huxley have always contained both exoteric and esoteric, outer and inner, dimensions. While the outer elements differentiate one faith from another and frequently cause believers to think in terms of us versus them, the inner traditions are all based on the idea that every human being must ultimately achieve an integration of the individual self with the Universal Self, referred to in Hinduism as the merging of Atman with Brahman. This integration in the Western spiritual tradition is known as the unio mystica, or Mystical Union. And the pathway to that goal is not conventional religious belief, attendance at worship, or even adherence to a religiously sanctioned code of ethics, but sadhana, or spiritual practice. Here it is worth noting that the word practice is intimately related to the concept of practicality. The assumption is if individuals can truly achieve this union, they will attain a noble character and will be guided to live in harmony with themselves, others, the planet, and the cosmos as a whole.
Mysticism is practical in another sense too. Mao Zedong once said that human beings must walk on two legs. By that he apparently meant the leg of politics and the leg of economics. I prefer to think we human beings, creatures of spirit and matter, need to walk on both our material and spiritual legs. In the common stereotype, the West is thought of as secular and materialistic, while the East is considered spiritual and other-worldly. To the extent that individuals and even cultures emphasize one of these poles or the other, it could be argued they hop on only one leg, the material or the spiritual. Consider that lands like India, China, and Indonesia, all homes to spiritually based cultures and thousands of spiritual paths, are now rapidly adopting materialist values and practices while the West itself perseveres in its dedication to the Almighty Dollar and the Bottomline. Time is everywhere becoming money. And money, in addition to being a medium of exchange, has become ever more the real god idolized by billions of adherents, East and West, despite people’s official religious affiliations. As a result of this misguided materialism, the world faces imminent destruction.
Human beings are not meant to hop on one leg but to walk on two. It’s all a matter of balance. Practically speaking, however, it is not possible for a 21st-Century citizen to desert his or her family, seek out some remote place or ashram, and be concerned only with personal spiritual development, even in an effort to restore the balance of the material and the spiritual. There needs to be a way of staying in the world, attending to one’s worldly obligations, and yet, at the same time, finding a method to train and be trained by the spirit. In the rest of this essay, I will describe just such a way that I was fortunate enough to find in 1961 as a 21-year-old recent literature graduate from Yale University. I say “fortunate” not just because this practice has helped me develop and strengthen my spiritual life while having a successful academic career and family life, but because it (Subud) does not advertise itself and is virtually unknown.
Originating in Indonesia in the 1930s, Subud, the name, is an acronym based on three Sanskrit words—susila (SU), budhi (BU), and dharma (D). The founder, a Javanese named Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo (1901-1987), a Muslim like most Indonesians, defined susila as “right living,” budhi as “one’s highest self,” and dharma as “the path of surrender.” Taken together, the words mean that by practicing the surrender of one’s everyday self, or personality, to one’s highest and best self, or essence, one will eventually be able to live the noble life of a true and fully developed human being. In this context, Subud is a spiritual practice transcending individual faiths yet accessible to everyone. It enables participants to integrate the best aspects of themselves into everyday life while deepening their understanding of the principles and beliefs of their respective religious or ethical traditions. As individuals develop through the Subud practice, they spontaneously come to realize that Earth and all its precious cargo, including the entire human family, are intimately related and therefore deserving of continuing attention, mutual assistance, and caring concern. Hence the World Subud Association has organized affiliates that pool the talents and energies of its international membership to work individually or with other like-minded persons or organizations in pursuing a sustainable world characterized by compassion, wisdom, and ongoing life-friendly development.
Examples include Susila Dharma International, or SDI (www.susiladharma.org), which helps national member organizations support social-service, human-welfare, and educational projects in their countries; Subud International Cultural Association, or SICA (www.subud-sica.org), which furthers the work of artists, writers, actors, musicians, singers, dancers, and artisans in Subud; Subud Enterprise Services, or SES (www.ses-britain.org/new-website or www.subudusa.org/ses.php), which encourages entrepreneurs in Subud to create human enterprises that are win/win/win for the owners, workers, and consuming public; the Subud International Health Association, or SIHA (www.subudhealth.org), which brings together physicians, surgeons, nurses, physical and massage therapists, psychotherapists, and other health professionals in Subud for mutual learning and support; and the Subud Youth Association, or SYA (www.youth.subud.org.uk), which reaches out to both Subud youth and their non-Subud friends and provides activities of interest to teens and young adults. In addition, a related charitable organization, the Guerrand-Hèrmes Foundation for Peace, Brighton, England, and Paris, France (www.ghfp.org), funds positive educational, social, and interfaith projects both in Subud and out. An example is the Varindra T. Vittachi Education for a Human Future conference series. Thus far three international meetings including upwards of 500 educators and students have been held honoring the late Dr. Vittachi (d. 1993), a Sri Lankan native, vice executive director of UNICEF, and long-time chair of the World Subud Association: The first in Jakarta, Indonesia (2001), the second in Crestone, Colorado, USA (2003), and the third in Ifrane, Morocco (2006). Currently (June 2010) the Foundation is hosting a planning meeting in its Brighton headquarters of an international team of Subud professionals to develop a World Subud Association Forum, a vehicle to bring together expertise from the Association with world experts on the major challenges now facing the world, from planetary sustainability to prejudices of all kinds to issues of justice, effective governance, social egalitarianism, affordable and effective universal healthcare and welfare policies, and balanced human development including what we are calling “human education.”
To give you a more concrete idea of what the Subud practice is and how it works, I shall now draw on a description of my initiation, or Opening, as we call it, originally published in my spiritual autobiography.2 I shall then share selected examples of my spiritual experiences over the last 49 years to show how this particular form of practical mysticism works. Finally, I shall conclude by offering some thoughts on how and why Subud might serve as a way for both personal spiritual growth and global transformation in this exciting yet critically challenged and challenging 21st Century.
May 22nd, 1961. Chicago. I arrived a little earlier than usual so that the men helpers could sit with me and I could become quiet before my opening. Like others before me, I was feeling a certain performance anxiety. Would I get it? What would happen if I didn’t? Was the latihan, the Subud spiritual exercise, really from God? I felt it was, but was it really? Stuart told me that everything would be fine and that I should just relax and prepare for whatever God had in mind for me. All I had to do when I got into the exercise room was stand there and wait. “Waiting for Godot” was the phrase that went through my nervous English-major mind.
We walked into a large room, perhaps 15 by 6 meters. Chairs were arranged around the sides, leaving a large, empty space in the middle. There were perhaps 20 men standing around, waiting for things to begin. The three Chicago men helpers—Harrington, Lee, and Stuart—stood in front of me, while the other men had deployed themselves around the room. Everyone, including me, had taken off our glasses and watches and put these along with our wallets and loose change in our shoes, which we placed under the chairs lining the four walls. Then we all stood at ease, although I’ll admit I felt the way I always had in boarding school just before beginning a 100-yard butterfly race in a swimming competition. The butterflies were in my stomach, now as then.
Harrington began to say the four or five sentences of Bapak’s Opening Words: “We are helpers in the Spiritual Brotherhood [now “Association”] of Subud and are here to witness your wish to worship the One Almighty God. We hope that your wish is truly based on sincerity. As you know, God is almighty, all-present, and all-knowing. Therefore it will not be right for you to concentrate your thoughts, self-will or desires but you should simply relax your thoughts and surrender everything to the Greatness of Almighty God. So that you will not be disturbed by the exercises of others, we ask that you close your eyes, stand quite at ease, and have no worries. Begin.”
As Harrington slowly spoke these words, I felt myself relax. At first, maybe for four or five minutes, I simply stood there. Nothing appeared to be happening. No movement, in contrast to the prior Friday outside the room. I was simply aware that others in the room, including the helpers, were going about their business of walking, singing, invoking God’s name, whatever. By this point I began to think nothing like that would happen to me. Then, as in a fairy tale, no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when I “saw” within me that someone was standing behind me with a gun pointed at the back of my head. “Nein! Nein! Warum?!” I said out loud in German. “No! No! Why?!” Then I “died.”
Being killed happened so fast that I didn’t feel anything. I sang a high note that went down to the lowest note in my register. Then I dropped to the carpeted floor and lay on my back. Being “dead” was fantastic. I have never, before or since, felt so peaceful or quietly happy. Then after perhaps ten minutes, a voice inside my head said, “Now you have to be born again.” I objected. “No. It’s much better here. Why must I go down there again?” But the voice insisted. So I stood up and starting dancing all over the room. I felt happy now. Then in my mind I saw a slowly turning globe. First I noticed Russia and said the Hebrew word Adonai, Lord, with what struck me as a Russian accent. Then I saw Germany and said Adonai in a more German way. Finally, I noticed that I was now looking at New York City, where I had been born in this life. As I started to feel myself being drawn down, I said Adonai one more time with an American accent. Immediately thereafter, Harrington said “Finish,” and everyone including me moved to the chairs where our shoes were placed and sat quietly for five or ten minutes. After that, the helpers and most of the other members came up and hugged me. “Welcome to Subud,” Harrington said. “You’re a Subud member now.” And with an echo of the Catholic priest he once had been, he added, “May God bless you.”
When I left the latihan room and walked into the waiting room, a girl my age, Trudy, a fellow probationer who would be opened a few weeks later, gave me a questioning look. “So how was it, Steve [my name then]?” “Unbelievable,” I answered. But what had struck me were her eyes. Unlike those of the Subud members, which appeared clear and deep, hers seemed muddy, as if a thin film were covering and somehow obscuring them. Then, the Biblical line crossed my mind, “And the scales fell from their eyes and they could see clearly.” For whatever reason, I had never understood that line. I kept thinking that the scales were miniature weighing balances and couldn’t figure how they could get into anyone’s eyes. But now it struck me in a flash—as many other things would over the course of my nearly 50 years in Subud—that these were fish scales. Some of Jesus’ disciplines had been fishermen. A fish scale over the pupil would mimic a cataract, being translucent but not transparent. With such scales obscuring one’s vision, one would see human beings as “trees walking” and reality, in the words of the King James translation, “as through a glass darkly.” Now the scales had fallen from my eyes. In the well-known words of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” I “. . . was blind but now could see.” It was a new beginning, a brand new birth. From now on, my inner life would take on an entirely different meaning and direction. I was now opened.3
Subud, as mentioned earlier, was started by an Indonesian named Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo. Bapak (“Father”), as he was called by his followers, was born in Central Java, volcanically fertile ground for mystical practices of all kinds, on June 22, 1901. Although descended from the sultan (Susuhunan) of Surakarta (also called Solo), his family was not wealthy. His father was a lower official for the Dutch Colonial Rail System; his mother, a housewife who went on to have a number of children.
When Bapak was born, his parents—actually his grandfather—named him Soekarno. Ironically, he was born a few weeks after and not far from the birthplace of his namesake, the future co-founder and president of Indonesia. In later years, he was in fact often mistaken for the president, even by Indonesians, because of their unusual height for Malays and a striking facial resemblance. But he did not keep the name. Within a few weeks, the baby fell ill. A wondering Arab, dressed in black, stopped by the house one day and warned that unless the child’s name were changed, it would die, since the name was dangerously incorrect. The Arab then recommended the name “Muhammad Subuh.” Muhammad was of course the name given many male children throughout the Muslim world. As for Subuh, it was the Indonesianized form of the Arabic subh, the Islamic pre-dawn prayer and standard Arabic for “morning.”
Once his name was changed, Subuh, as he was subsequently called, grew strong. He also turned out to be very intuitive. For instance, when his parents took him as a boy to weddings, he would comment in a loud voice if he felt the bride and groom were incompatible. Since he generally proved correct, his parents stopped taking him to these occasions. It was just too embarrassing for all concerned. Also, the boy seemed unable to lie and became incensed when others did. Moreover, as a strong, tall child, he would take it on himself to defend smaller children from schoolyard bullies.
The itinerant Arab, who was never seen in the village again, had also predicted that Subuh might die at age 24—something his parents felt duty-bound to tell him so that he could take whatever steps necessary to become physically and mental strong or, as a good Muslim, to prepare himself internally to accept God’s will, even if that meant an early death.
As a teenager, Bapak lived in a nearby city with his uncle so he could attend the Dutch- language high school. Fluency in Dutch was a precondition for natives to get any of the white-collar positions that were starting to be available to them in the early 20th Century. Through family connections, Bapak got a job with the regional railway while studying at night to become an accountant. As the story goes, one evening in his 24th year, Bapak finished his homework late and took his usual walk to clear his head before retiring. It was a cloudless, moon-free night as he passed the site of a new hospital under construction near his house. At that moment, he said, it was as if a bright light or ball of fire dropped from the sky and entered his head. (Later I was to learn that the Christian saint Hildegard of Bingen had had a similar experience as did John Travolta’s character in the movie Phenomenon.) He started shaking and got home as quick as he could. As he explained, he thought he was dying. He knocked on the door, which his mother opened. “What’s wrong, son?” She asked. “You look terrible.” “Nothing,” he replied, and went upstairs to his room, where he laid himself out on his bed, said his prayers, and prepared to die.
What happened instead was that he saw his hands as if with x-ray vision. Then he felt moved to get up and do his regular Muslim prayers. For the next three years, various automatic exercises, not just traditional prayers, came to him and sometimes went on all night. Not only was he moved to walk and dance, but he also sang songs he’d never heard before and did a variety of spontaneous martial-arts-type exercises. Surprisingly, Bapak didn’t feel especially tired in the morning and was able to do his work as usual and even got a promotion.
He was also shown a variety of things during these long nights. Once a large folio book with blank pages dropped onto his table. Whenever a question occurred to him, the answer would appear spontaneously in a kind of video format on one of the pages. He was also shown “videos” sometimes without asking a question. For instance, he saw in the late 1920s how in future the Japanese would occupy his country, drive out the Dutch colonists, and eventually leave themselves, after which Indonesia would be free. He also saw how he would travel the world one day and find himself in the midst of people of different races, religions, and nations, all of whom were worshipping God together.
Eventually, the book disappeared into his chest, and from then on he could ask questions and receive the moving-picture answers inside his mind. Finally, at the end of this three-year process, an Arab-appearing man showed up one night in his room and thrust a dagger into Bapak’s chest. Bapak felt the pain yet miraculously was not wounded, let alone killed. As the man withdrew the dagger, Bapak noticed a clot of blood on the tip. The man spoke in Arabic, which Bapak could recognize from having memorized portions of the Qu’ran as a boy. Surprising, Bapak could also understand the gist of what he was saying, that the blood on the dagger represented the last of his impurities that needed to be purged before Bapak could begin his mission. For anyone familiar with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, a similar thing happened to him at the hands of an archangel.
But what was that mission? The man had only told Bapak that he would know when the time came. Meantime, he was not to go anywhere nor speak to anyone about what he had received until he was specifically asked. Bapak was puzzled. He had nevertheless experienced so many unusual things by that point that he felt confidence in what the man had said. As a young man, Bapak had consulted various well-known gurus and spiritual guides then active in Central Java. They invariably told him that they could not help him with his inner development and that, when the time came, he would be guided directly from above.
Not long after the Arab with the dagger had appeared to Bapak, two young men showed up at his door. They had been sent by their master, they said, to receive some kind of spiritual contact from him. They became the first Subud members, although at that time Bapak’s spiritual exercises had not yet been named.
At first his exercises, eventually called the Latihan Kejiwaan, Indonesian for “spiritual training,” spread slowly to spiritual seekers in central Java, including members of Bapak’s family. It wasn’t till 1951, when Bapak was living in Jogyakarta, the revolutionary capital of Indonesia, that an English Muslim named Husein Rofé (died in February, 2008), who was teaching English to officials of the first Indonesian government, heard about Bapak, met him, and was opened. Actually, as the story goes, Bapak had predicted to his followers that a foreigner with roots in Syria who spoke many languages would join the spiritual exercises one day and become the vehicle for taking them out of Java and eventually to the West. Rofé’s father was in fact a Syrian Jew who had been raised in Egypt and then moved to Manchester, England, where he ran a profitable textile import/export business. Husein himself had studied Near Eastern languages in London and proved so talented that the British wartime military had recruited him and quickly taught him Japanese so that he could monitor enemy shortwave broadcasts. By the time he reached the newly formed Republic of Indonesia, he had taught English in a number of countries and already understood, spoke, read, and wrote more than 20 languages.4
Since it was not possible in the early 50s for Bapak to travel in Indonesia, let alone overseas, he authorized Rofé to go first to Sumatra, then Hong Kong, Japan, and Cyprus, in all of which places he started groups. Finally, in 1956, he traveled to England, where he opened John Bennett, a physicist who was also a leader of the Gurdjieff Work in the U.K. In 1957, Bennett and some of his wealthy associates raised funds for Bapak, his wife Siti Sumari, and two spiritual assistants called “helpers” to travel to England, where they stayed for eight months. Hundreds of people, including Gurdjieff members from the Continent as well as the U.K., were opened during that visit. There was even a miraculous healing of the Hungarian movie actress Eva Bartok which the European tabloid press was quick to pick up. This notoriety brought many more people to Combe Springs, Bennett’s Gurdjieff school in the countryside outside London. Some of these also joined what by then was called Subud. After, Bapak was invited to go home by way of a half dozen countries, where he and his party opened many more people. He also gave explanations about the aim, nature, and potential results of following the Subud spiritual exercise, especially if one followed them consistently over time.
Basically, one would do the exercise twice weekly—men with men, women with women—for approximately thirty minutes. Then, one simply lived his or her regular life. There was no requirement to do anything special. Over time, the “latihan” would purify the practitioner so that the individual’s life would become peaceful, harmonious, and focused on drawing on his or her true talents to support him- or herself and family and to contribute to the needs of others and the world. Still, as with anything else, a person had to stick with the process for a while to see the benefits. Why do men and women do the Subud exercise separately? For one thing, so that people can receive honestly and not edit their receiving to impress the opposite sex. Also, Bapak explained how the vibrations of men and women differ, and that men might “drown out” the receiving of women. A third reason is that because individuals are very open and relaxed while doing the spiritual exercise, there might be sexual attraction between certain men and women, and that would not be appropriate to the Subud exercise.
When Subud first came to England, Bapak permitted interested people to be opened on the spot. After six months or so, he thought better of it and decided it would be preferable for “probationers,” as they were then called, to wait three months while deciding whether or not they really wished to join Subud. Although the exercises are simple—you just do whatever you feel moved to do for a half hour—the process could occasionally lead to “heavy purification.” Bapak explained that if people waited three months before being opened, they would be more likely to persevere if the going got rough until they could break through to a better place in themselves.
My First Meeting with Bapak
When I entered the old loft building on East 21st Street in New York City’s Gramercy Park District that summer of 1963, hundreds of people had already taken their places on the uncomfortable wooden folding chairs that had been lined up auditorium style. I managed to find one about halfway to the front. Before long, we all stood up as Bapak and party made their way to their places. Bapak, wearing the typical black Indonesian fez (called a peci, pronounced “petchy”) and his hatless interpreter, Muhammad Usman, took their seats on the dais. The rest of the party, consisting of Bapak’s wife, Siti Sumari, and Bapak’s eldest daughter by his first marriage (His first wife had died.), Siti Rahayu, took their places in the front row.
As all this was taking place, a voice inside my head said, “Your prayer has been answered.” “What prayer?” I thought. As far as I knew, I was totally blank. I hadn’t been praying at all. Then it struck me. Back at boarding school, I remembered how disappointed I had been to be living in a world filled with technological wonders but seemingly devoid of people like Jesus. I remember thinking that if I had been given the chance back then, I would have surely followed him and not doubted. What a shame that there was no chance now! But maybe there was after all. Maybe my prayer had been answered.
That evening Bapak did the three things he usually did, as I later learned, when he visited Subud members around the world. He gave a talk. He did some public testing with groups of women and men. And he did latihan with the men, while his wife and daughter joined in the women’s latihan. During the talk he explained the fundamentals of the latihan and clarified how, if we practiced it regularly—two or three times a week for a half hour—our souls would eventually be purified and our instruments, the heart and the mind, would become willing to accept the leadership of the soul, itself surrendered to God, rather than doing things of their own devising. As a result, our lives would become harmonious, we would find work that accorded with our true talents, and we would be able to live in a way that conformed to God’s will for us. Moreover, when we died, we would be prepared for living in the world of the Great Life Force.
Bapak tested about fifteen minutes each with perhaps three groups of five men and five women. Bapak’s tests with us were to check how far our latihans had progressed. They were also to be illustrative for the other members present. He made sure to ask—all his Indonesian words being translated by Mr. Usman—that only those who had not gone to the recently completed Subud World Congress should come up for testing. As I recall, I was among the second group of men. He would ask questions like, “Where are your hands?” At that moment, we were not supposed to “do” anything but let our hands, as it were, speak for themselves. In other words, we were supposed to go into a latihan state of surrender and give space for our bodies to answer if they were able to. My hands went up and displayed themselves to Bapak, whom the five of us, eyes closed, were facing. “Now show what your hands can do” came the next question. Mine started mimicking long-hand writing, then typing. “What else?” Usman asked in English after Bapak’s Indonesian. I forget now what else they could do, but there were a few more things. “Can you cry?” All of us started sobbing in various tenor, base, and baritone versions. “What about laughing?” A few of us could laugh from the latihan, but not me. There was nothing funny. I simply couldn’t laugh. In fact, it took years of spiritual training before I could laugh in latihan. “You all can cry,” Bapak commented, “but only a few of you can laugh. But don’t worry, if you practice your latihans diligently, one day you will all be able to laugh, and this laughing from the inner will serve you well. Especially in the face of adversity it is important to be able to laugh, for laughter is something that can penetrate the clouds of emotions that often weigh human beings down and keep them from living satisfying lives.” Finally, he asked, “Can you sing?” To a man, all five of us, eyes still closed, sang “hoo” to our own individual note. Bapak commented that he was not asking if we could make the sound of a ship, but could we sing? The audience laughed. “Lagi!” Came his basso command. “Again!” Usman interpreted. This time we each produced some kind of rough melody that seemed to form a collective piece of modern music. “Enough!” Bapak said in English. Then he explained. “Right now your purification has not proceeded far enough for you to be able to sing something beautiful and original from your souls. That will come later. It is important to be able to sing from inside. In olden times, not only could mothers quiet their babies as today, but people in general, who were still closer back then to their true selves, could sing in such a way as to cheer themselves up when they were sad or gain courage when they were afraid. This is truly something that human beings could use again today when the world is so much more complicated and dangerous. So it is important for you never to forget this gift of the latihan, which little by little can make something fine out of something coarse. All right. That’s enough. Finish now and return to your seats. Thank you.”5
The next evening, on the bus back to New Haven, Connecticut, and Yale Graduate School, I was still in a special state. My feelings were wide and at rest. As far as my thoughts went, it was almost as if my thinking had taken a sabbatical. Everything was fine. Everything would get done in due course. There was nothing to think or worry about. I was totally relaxed and content. To be sure, this special state lasted only another day. Once back to graduate life, there was plenty of thinking to do plus the usual patches of worry about whether I would get all my work done well enough and on time. Also, when I did my next latihan, alone in my living room, I felt a sense of sadness and even envy for my friends who had had the opportunity to spend not one evening with Bapak but an entire ten days at the Briarcliff Congress. If I had gotten so much from a mere three or four hours, just imagine how much they must have gotten from nearly two weeks! At that moment the quality of the light in the room shifted, and although I could not see him, I was aware that Bapak was now with me. “Why are you sad?” He asked. “Don’t you know that in the case of your friends, Bapak poured slowly? But in your case, Bapak poured fast. All of you got as much as you were able to receive.” Then I began to cry. I was so abashed at my spiritual greed, and also at my ignorance. Yet I also felt the love streaming from this man who had made sure that all his spiritual children received the full measure of what they needed and could digest from his visit. This was a big lesson for me.6
Experiencing a Miracle in Hawaii
In 1967 my family and I moved to Honolulu so I could take up a position as assistant professor of English at the University of Hawai`i. Within six months we had a group of 25 Subud members. In 1968 Bapak and party stopped twice in Hawaii to encourage our new group—first at the Honolulu Airport for three or four hours on April 1st on their way from Indonesia and then for four or five days in May on their way home.
Even the brief rest-stop in the airport’s VIP Lounge proved memorable. All our members, including the kids, crowded into the room to be close to their spiritual guide and his Indonesian helpers. Both our new local members wanted to get Subud names—Subud’s form of mantra—so I asked Muhammad Usman, Bapak’s interpreter, if Bapak could take care of the matter on the spot. I asked loudly enough in Indonesian that Bapak overheard and said “Boleh!” [“Certainly.”]. So I showed him the two women, explained they were our two newest members, and stated that they brought up our local non-white contingency to three. Then I handed Bapak the two lists of ten names the ladies had selected for themselves.
At this point, the activities of the horde of little kids, the van Royens’ seven plus our Marianne, made the lounge seem like a perpetual-motion machine. Bapak and the Indonesians, far from being annoyed, seemed to take pleasure in this young, innocent life. But when Bapak got quiet and received for a few moments about Grandma Rose’s name, an invisible force seemed to pervade the space, and even the kids stopped what they were doing and made no noise. The effect was so dramatic that I was reminded of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. For no one had shushed the children or anyone else. “Nomor tujuh” [“Number seven”], Bapak said. With that, Rose’s name became Rosalind. The kids and all the rest of us, freed for the moment, went back to what we had been doing before. Then Bapak received again, this time for Donald’s wife, Phyllis. Again the same thing happened. Total stillness—no movement and no noise, not even from the little kids. It was incredible. “Nomor empat” [“Number four”], Bapak announced in his rich bass. So Phyllis became Melissa. I thanked Bapak, and as before, the adults went back to visiting while the kids resumed their play. After, my wife confirmed that she had witnessed this seeming miracle also.
A Significant Encounter in Brazil
During my period as Dean and English professor in Chicago (1979-87), I was fortunate to have been sent to Brazil for two weeks as a representative of Subud North America. The occasion was a meeting of the so-called Compact Council, an assembly of Subud representatives from the eight international zones. Since Bapak and party would be in attendance, about 500 other Subud members from North and especially South America arrived in Sao Paulo as well. Since I already knew Spanish, French, and some Italian, I took advantage of the opportunity to study Portuguese during the four months preceding the trip. Our Pan Am jet arrived in Sao Paulo on May 22, 1981, my 20th Subud birthday. What a present! I remember thinking.
Some important Subud experiences happened for me during this trip. By that point I had received many experiences in latihan; however, “seeing things” was not one. During a group latihan in the convent we were using, I suddenly became aware of a large emerald-green cross hanging in mid-air before my closed eyes. It just emerged in my mind’s eye, stayed for a few seconds, then disappeared. I remember feeling very happy that, as in the hymn “Amazing Grace,” I was blind but now could see.
During the same visit, I was in a group of men Bapak was testing. He said that, if God willed it, we might be able to be given indications about our true talent. When he said “Relax!” and “Begin!,” I started spontaneously to make the motions of leading a symphony orchestra. I would signal one invisible section to play more quietly while, turning to another, I would gesture vigorously for them to increase the volume and gusto of their playing. In my mind I understood that this miming was a metaphor. It didn’t indicate that I had the talent to be a symphony conductor. Instead, it suggested that my true talent was leadership—the ability to blend the efforts of many into a harmonious whole. The test pleased me, because as a university dean I was responsible for leading the efforts of a number of colleagues and making best use of our allocated funds.
By far the most significant of my experiences at the Compact Council Meeting came from a mistake I had made—lending credence to the commonplace that mistakes can sometimes lead to good outcomes. Because I was due to arrive in Sao Paulo as the first of our three-person North American delegation and because I knew Spanish and some Portuguese, I had promised to arrange for my two colleagues, who knew neither language, to be picked up at the airport. In the case of the first, I did so with no problem. But somehow, in the spiritual sea I was swimming in, I totally forgot about the second, a psychologist from Frazer Valley, British Columbia. That night as a bunch of us were standing around chatting, there was Mahmud. He came over and asked what had happened. “Oh, my God!” I thought. I had totally forgotten about him. Thank goodness he had somehow made it.
As Mahmud explained, when he arrived in the airport and found no Reynold there to meet him, first he waited for a while. So great was his faith in me that he hadn’t taken along a name, a phone number, or even an address for a Brazilian Subud contact. He was sure I’d eventually be there. When more time went by, however, and I had still not shown up, he found a Brazilian Catholic priest who fortunately knew English. After Mahmud told him what had happened, the priest went to a public phone, found a number in the directory for Subud-Sao Paulo—thank God there was one!—and made the call. The person at the other end was just 30 minutes away, she said; told the priest where Mahmud should stand; and everything worked out fine.
I apologized profusely and promised myself I’d find a way to make it up to Mahmud. My chance came twelve days later, appropriately enough at that same airport. This time Bapak and party were about to leave for Bogotá. Hundreds of us had gone to the airport to wave them off. Bapak and Sharif were ensconced in a VIP room. On either side of the entrance, two big security guards stood to keep the VIPs from being disturbed. Suddenly I saw Mahmud. Without thinking, I grabbed his hand and said, “Come with me!” He was surprised but didn’t ask any questions. We headed straight for the VIP-room door. In the moment before our approach, the guards each turned away, like two oversized ballet dancers in a carefully orchestrated pas de deux, to bend over and light their cigarettes. Consequently, we slipped in without being noticed.
I greeted Bapak and Sharif in Indonesian, wondering why Bapak, who was much older than Sharif, looked fresh, while Sharif himself seemed wasted. Sharif responded in Indonesian that it was always like that. Bapak simply lit up the room with his big smile. This time I didn’t forget my friend but introduced him to Bapak and Sharif. I also briefly recounted how I had unintentionally left him stranded at this very airport two weeks before.
Bapak by this point was sitting in an easy chair by a big window overlooking the taxi strips and runways. I went over to offer sunkum, the traditional Javanese leave-taking ritual, whereby one kneels and kisses the ring of a respected older person. Known for not looking others directly in the eyes for reasons we all speculated on, Bapak looked straight into mine. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, where time seems to stand still. I felt that he knew everything about me, all the good things and all those that were not so good, and that he was none the less bestowing on me an incredible gift of unconditional love. I also flashed on that evening in the summer of 1963, the first time I had seen Bapak, when I had rushed over to shake his hand, leaving dozens of folded chairs to crash to the floor in a cacophonous chain reaction, and receiving his dead-fish hand and averted face and eyes, while an undeniable look of disgust played over his lips. What a difference! This time I had expected nothing and had received everything—in God’s time, not mine.
I have presented the above experiences, from my Subud opening in Chicago through the significant encounter, or shakti, in Sao Paulo to give you the flavor of the Subud spiritual practice as lived by one person. Bapak died the night of June 23, 1987, just hours after his 86th birthday. By that point I had been a consistently active member for 26 years and, at 47, was very much a mid-career academic professional. Now 23 years later, a 70-year-old Subud member of 49 years’ standing, I can say that as extraordinary as Bapak was, what is really extraordinary is the Subud spiritual practice, or latihan, itself. Through its continuing practice, I have come closer both to myself and what I perceive to be the Great Life Force, or God. The results are that I worry less, sleep better, don’t use my mind except when cognitive thought is really useful, am able to relate to all ages and kinds of people, can interact easily with animals and nature, and was able to accompany my wife of 43 years, also a Subud member, in a strong, helpful way through the three-month process of her dying. Throughout my adult life I have felt a close connection with my true inner self and have received guidance to help me, as the Buddhist phrase puts it, to be in the world but not of it, that is, to live in a normal, effective way without ever being pulled down by material forces. At the same time, I have always been able, without drugs, bodily deprivation, or living in isolation or in a spiritual community, to feel a slow, steady sense of spiritual progress and a connection with all that is. This truly is a great gift for someone alive in our harried and hurried new century and millennium.
There are several other aspects of Subud that bear mentioning. First, the latihan is easily available to anyone who wishes it. Although we are still small—only about 10,000 active members—we are widespread, with organized groups in over 70 countries and members in over 90. An individual in practically any country can find a Subud contact nearby—someone from their own language and culture. Then there is the ease of transmission. Anyone wishing to receive the Subud contact does so simply by standing in the presence of a Subud member of his own sex who is doing the latihan, and the opening takes place. No mantra, no study, no penance, no payment, no advanced work is required—only surrender and the wish to receive.
Another factor that makes Subud especially fitting in this world of multiple divisions is its availability to people of all religions and traditions or of none. Religion is a matter of family tradition and personal conviction. By contrast, Subud, like any mystical path, is a matter of individual experience. That is why Evelyn Underhill calls mysticism first-person religion. Whereas religions depend on revelations given to others, often thousands of years ago, mysticism is always based on a person’s experience in the here-and-now. In this time of growing secularism and scientific proof, where the religions of former times seem increasingly old-fashioned and even superstition-based, Subud and mystical paths in general offer “proof” to each individual practitioner.
A corollary of Subud’s universal availability to any interested person regardless of their background is the fact that it can be done together with people of different faiths, the diversity of the world’s great religions, as well as with those who do not profess a religion. In Subud one does not have to change a belief or even a behavior. Personal change for the better evolves organically, like the seasons. Imagine the impact of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Shintos, Taoists, Atheists, and Agnostics all being able to receive their individual spontaneous spiritual exercises together in harmony in a world where the slightest difference can become the cause of dissension, even war. That is Subud.
Is Subud perfect? Of course not. All human institutions are inherently flawed, since they are made up of and run by us imperfect human beings. Not everyone who has come to the latihan has found it helpful or stayed. Others have had personal disagreements with one another. Still others have been put off by organizational politics. Yet 23 years after the founder’s death, Subud offers the opportunity of a dogma-free, world-centered, accessible, interfaith, and above all practical spiritual training. Does it work? For better or worse, there is only one way to find out.
1 See Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. London: Chatto & Windus, 1945, or more recent editions.
2 Reynold Ruslan Feldman, Stories I Remember—My Pilgrimage to Wisdom: A Spiritual Autobiography. Honolulu, Hawaii: Wisdom Foundation Publishing, 2009.
3 “Opening” is a literal translation of the Indonesian pembukaan. Frankly, I was not crazy about the term when I first heard it. In graduate school, the year following my opening, I learned that George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), referred to all his spiritual insights as openings. Frequently he would say, “The Lord opened it to me. . . .” Later, I found out that the introduction to the Qu’ran is called the Fatihah, Arabic for “opening.” A common Arabic prayer is Yah Fatah, in which one praises Allah as the One Who opens the way and takes away all obstacles blocking one’s progress.
4 When Rofé moved to Hawaii in the late 1990s, he told me the number now stood at an even 70, and he was currently working on Tibetan and Georgian. He died in winter 2008.
5The above is an approximation of what Bapak said, both in his talk and to our testing group, based on my memory of something that took place 35 years ago. It should not be construed as an exact rendering of what he actually said.
6 Bapak followed the older practice among Javanese of using his relational title, Bapak, literally “father,” in lieu of “I.” A servant I knew in Jakarta, Ibu Rus, likewise from Central Java, also spoke in the third person. “Ibu Rus just make brownie. Would Pak Reynold like to eat one?” (translated from Indonesian).
Reynold Ruslan Feldman, a Yale Ph.D. in English, is a retired university professor, dean, and academic vice president. The author of three books on practical wisdom plus an autobiography, he works part-time as an editor and tutor. The father of two adult daughters, he currently lives with his wife in Boulder, Colorado. (www.reynoldruslan.com)