Why explore Subud?

“Exploring Subud” is a collection of short articles, each exploring some key aspect of Subud’s history, thought, language or culture. This collection is part of the Subud Vision initiative, which aims to question aspects of Subud’s past and present, with the intention of creating a broader, more successful future.

Whereas the main Subud Vision site holds long articles which articulate an author’s point of view, the main purpose of Exploring Subud is to help you—the reader—undertake your own exploration and questioning of Subud.

Each short article will examine an aspect of Subud language, history, culture or belief. Each article will contain links to other sites and sources, so that you can undertake your own journey to find out the history and context of these ideas.

Examples of topics that will be examined:

  • zat, sifat, asma, af’al
  • all of mankind
  • meditation
  • teachings vs explanations
  • harmony
  • susila, buddhi and dharma
  • testing

For me, there are three reasons to investigate the historical roots of Subud language, beliefs and culture.

The first is about relating to other human beings. We may have come to take for granted the elements of Subud culture and belief, but our neighbours haven’t. In order to explain ourselves, we need to be able to relate to different ways of seeing the world. For instance:

  • The word ‘dharma’ doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the Indic tradition, and it has its own meaning, established over thousands of years, and understood by billions of people. If you’re talking to anyone from the Indic tradition about ‘dharma’, you’d better know what it means to them.
  • The concept of ‘asma’ is central to Islam, and if you’re talking to a Muslim, you might want to know what ‘asma’ means.
  • We see in Subud constant referent to ‘all of mankind’ (or ‘all of humanity’ as we might now say), but with little apparent understanding that 50% of humanity’s religious traditions are not monotheistic, and have no apparent interest in being converted. So, unless we are in the business of religious conversion, we need to be aware of that.

In other words, in order to connect with the world, we need to understand and connect with the language and beliefs of others.

The second reason is practical. Many Subud beliefs (such as the belief in ‘harmony’) have become so habitual, that it becomes difficult to explore the territory around them. As we reflect on our communal history, successes, failings and limitations, we need to be able to question that status quo that brought to where we are.

One of my favourite phrases is from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

When we do not understand the language and concepts which bind our way of seeing, we may run in circles, unable to see the rope that ties us to a central stake.

The third is personal. Some describe Subud as a mystical path. Pak Subuh described it as ‘beyond heart and mind’, a description which sits well within the mystical tradition. One of the names of the mystical path, in the Western tradition, is “The Way of Unknowing”.

I find that if I am bound by any belief, any pattern of thought, then I am restricted in following the way. I do not want to be too attached or captured by what is in the realm of the heart and mind. All beliefs lie within that realm. I find that knowing the history and background of the concepts that inform the Subud community helps weaken the hold that concepts have on me, and thus—perhaps paradoxically—helps me in my unknowing.

Have fun with this site.

David W.

Subud Vision


2 Responses

  1. Hi my name is Lucas Burton and my parents where once members of subud which they do not talk about why they left etc , one thing that has always puzzled me was why my older brothers and sister had there names changed during my parents time with Subud as my older brothers and sister described it one day I went to school and I was mike the next day I was to be called Rolf, I am wondering if this a standard practice in subud , my parents where members in the early 70’s to late 70’s

  2. Hi Lucas

    It was completely normal for members to get Pak Subuh to name their kids, and for members to change their own names.

    The founding member of the Byrds Roger McGuinn was originally Jim McGuinn. He changed his name as a result of a brief stint in Subud. The indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens said in interviews that “It’s a Muslim name. I was sort of born into a Subud cult that has ties to Islam and Indonesia and Middle Eastern spiritualism.”

    Pak Subuh taught that one’s name was very important to one’s spiritual progress. Hence we have the sad situation where people who formerly felt competent to name their children, came to feel incompetent. Instead they would send off a request for a name from Indonesia.

    At first, just the name would come back. Then there was some disgruntlement, because people didn’t like the names they got back. So instead, the practice became that the Pak Subuh would send a first letter. The person involved would then send back five names beginning with that letter. Pak Subuh would choose one, and that would then be it.

    When Pak Subuh died, Ibu Rahayu took over this practice. When she retires, it’s expected that the “International Helpers” will continue it.

    If you read the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s The Religion of Java, you’ll find that many Subud practices like this one are in fact just normal Javanese lore. Subuh himself was originally named Sukarno, but had his name changed by a travelling medicine man in order to cure him. Different names are believed to attracted different things: love, money, health, etc. Geertz said that the Javanese would change names “at the drop of a hat.” Specialist advisers exist even today, to advise on name change if your life isn’t going so well.

    All of this comes from Java’s Hindu undercurrents. In the Hindu tradition, the universe is comprised of different “vibrations”—a musical metaphor. Words have power because they vibrate at different frequencies. This is that same logic that leads certain Indian gurus to bestow a particular mantra on each disciple. It’s also been popularised in the West by the Theosophists, who took various things Hindu and expropriated them for their own purposes. (Much to many Indians’ dismay.) If you read Pak Subuh’s talks, he talks about the origin of the cosmos in Hindu terms, not Islamic terms, and mixed Hindu gods and stories with Islamic lore. That’s the religion of Java.

    As a result of this practice, many Subud members ended up getting Indonesian names. Since 9/11, some members have started changing their names back, out of concern that names like Hussein might attract the wrong kind of interest.

    In my mind, Pak Subuh was just doing what any good Javanese guru might do (and there were many like him). What pumped the whole thing up to a crazy level was the thousands of Western spiritual “seekers” seeking something. That was common enough in those days. If you look at Bennett’s book, which introduced Subud to the West, it seems that what they were seeking was the Second Coming. In fact, though Pak Subuh is credited as the founder of Subud, it was Bennett’s selection of Subud as his next big project that made it into an international phenomenon for a few years.

    If your parents came and left in the 1970s, it’s likely that they left because it was at this time that Pak Subuh started soliciting from his followers major “investments” in his personal projects. The result of the first round was a high-rise office building in Jakarta. This was sold recently. It also resulted in a bank, which went under, and was also sold. Almost of these projects failed, and many people who put their faith in his words lost their houses.

    A lot of people left around that time, and a lot of those that remained fell into a kind of collective depression later, because of the financial collapse, followed by the death of the founder.

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