Was Pak Subuh a dukun?

Was a Pak Subuh a dukun?

A dukun is, in Java, a traditional healer. There’s nothing wrong or disgraceful about being a dukun. I can remember when I lived as a kid in Cilandak, and I got a sore on my back—I had to spend several days lying face down—Pak Subuh kindly sent over a poultice, consisting of some black mixture of herbs, to help the healing. Whether he made this himself, or ordered it in, I don’t know. Whether it worked or not, I don’t know!

Inez Mahony has written some useful research reports on dukun practice:


According to Mahony, dukun are a normal and accepted part of Javanese society:

Dukun [are] traditionally… sorcerers and curers, predominantly male practitioners of Javanese mysticism from the various subcategories of santri, priyayi and abangan, who practice a variety of dukun specialties yet may be more skilled in a particular area. Literature suggests dukun regularly played a central role as priest, spirit contact and respected elder in the many traditional Javanese rituals and ceremonies and that dukun were generally consulted as curer and helper in alleviating physical, mental and spiritual problems.

Being a dukun is therefore consistent with Pak Subuh’s social origins and social class—priyayi—and his calling: spiritual guide.

Mahony tells us that:

…Today many dukuns mix these practices with Islamic terminology and thinking (by claiming, for instance, that whether their medicines work or not is ‘up to God’), and in one study, 50% of them didn’t want to be identified as a dukun, which they saw as associated with ‘black magic’. These dukuns prefer the term ‘orang tua’ — ‘old man’.

Among the many dukun practices is the preparation of rajah. Mahony describes the rajah thus:

The usual methods of treatment by santri [orthodox Islamic] dukun include chanting specially adapted verses from the Koran or burning rajah over glasses of water, which are then given to the client to drink.

From another source:

…a Qur’anic inscription is written on a leaf or piece of paper. The recipient soaks it in a glass of water that is drunk. This practice is undoubtedly an abangan legacy.


A rajah inscribed on a leaf. Pak Subuh’s were written on paper, which was then burned, and the ashes dissolved in water for the patient to drink.

Pak Subuh definitely prepared rajah. In one of his talks, he said: “I was surprised; I thought Mrs Subardjo must be ill. I started to collect some paper and a pen in case I needed to make a rajah.” [64 TJK 4] In another, he said: “That is why, for example, Bapak has advised you not to try, for example, to make rajahs. You may have heard that Bapak sometimes makes a rajah for people when they are sick.” [84 CDK 6]

When Pak Prio Hartono described his first encounter with Pak Subuh, he wrote, in Volume 2 of Inner Wisdom:

Suardi came to tell me that our mutual friend, Masrul Latif Pane, had arranged an appointment for me to meet a dukun (faith healer)… Masrul Latif introduced him as Pak Subuh and asked me to explain the purpose of my visit. This too annoyed me since it was not my idea to meet this dukun.

However, elsewhere Pak Subuh demurs from being called a dukun:

Bapak agrees that he is willing to give people rajahs, but sometimes there is no need to ask for one. And if Bapak were to make a habit of doing this, would you be pleased if people called Bapak a dukun (witch-doctor)? [80 CDK 1]

Mahony tells us that up to 50% of dukun do not want to be called dukun, for fear of being labelled a dukun santet: a black magician. We can see, however, that Pak Subuh thought that traditional dukun practices were helpful to people, and was not averse to preparing the occasional rajah.

This is where it gets interesting.

Medicine is not the only area in which dukun are asked for advice. According to Martin van Bruinessen, in addition to problems with illness, a dukun‘s advice is also called upon for:

  • economic difficulties
  • career issues
  • partner problems.

Moreover, dukun are asked to name children, which ties in with Javanese beliefs with regard to the importance of a person’s name in determining their fate. Almost certainly, the story of Pak Subuh’s own name-change, as he tells it in his Autobiography, involved a dukun:

The baby was named Sukarno. However, because he was sickly, his name was changed to Muhammad Subuh by a mysterious old man that nobody knew. Grandfather accepted the change of name with a feeling of satisfaction as its meaning fitted exactly the time of the baby’s birth: dawn. Thereafter, the baby was both happy and healthy.

There seems to me to a strong correlation between dukun practices, and the kinds of practices that Pak Subuh undertook because he saw them as helpful to Subud members. He would prepare the occasional rajah. He offered name-change advice, and career direction advice. All of these are consistent with the beliefs of the people of his place and time.

However, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Are these practices consistent with our own place and time?
  • Is it good and appropriate for Subud, which aspires to be international and universal in its practice and appeal, to be the conduit for disseminating practices that are local to mid-20th century Java?

14 Responses

  1. It is interesting as always to read your research, which you put together in a very thorough academic way. I have always been fascinated by shamanism and by traditional healers. As a university educated Medical Herbalist, I have studied traditional medicine of the Chinese and Greek traditions. What I find odd is that when I mention animistic or paganistic traditions to Subud members there is often a strong abhorrence that Pak Subuh would be connected to these pre-monotheistic religious traditions.

    A theme I see in your writings is that Subud’s guiding concepts are older than 1930/40/50,and that Pak Subuh did not invent these concepts, as a unique philosophy.

    Of the questions you ask, all I can say is that Subud is a paradox when the exercise is based on has the aim of awakening and training the individual soul, but one man’s particular cosmology is taught as the basis of Subud. It’s hard to get my head around.

    I wish you would write an article asking these questions to a larger audience, such as in Subud Voice, SWN or the UK Journal.

  2. What are the main themes that you’d like to see explore in such an article?

  3. Your articles are always interesting David but they always follow a particular stream of thought and thus suffer from incompleteness and a failure to alert us to your interpretation, which is often taken as obviously ‘true’.

    In the dukun article you never refer to the issue of the source of a traditional dukun’s power, which is crucial from a spiritual perspective and definitely something that Bapak spoke about. Naming children may be done by a dukun but its spiritual benefit depends on the source of the name. I believe Bapak on a number of occasions referred to the fact that usually a dukun’s powers did not arise from a pure source and that was problematic. He contrasted this with the kind of spitiual gifts that might arise from the latihan.

    And if I remember correctly, it was not a dukun that appeared when Bapak was ill as a child. Some of us used to think it was Khizr but Bapak stated that it was Sunan Kalijaga (alternative spellings apply), whom is considered one of the wali songo or nine saints responsible for spreading Islam throughout Java. He is definitely not to be confused with being a dukun.

    You write:
    – Are these practices consistent with our own place and time?
    – Is it good and appropriate for Subud, which aspires to be international and universal in its practice and appeal, to be the conduit for disseminating practices that are local to mid-20th century Java?

    What is so unique about our own place and time? My place is Thailand so these ideas are fairly common. I suspect when referring to time you mean the Age of Science and Reason. Being a postmodern sort of guy can’t you see how different worldviews might co-exist? And is Subud really disseminating these practices? You already mentioned that Bapak warned against doing rajas and you can add to this giving names to others.

    You make too much out of these things for some reason.

  4. Iljas

    I gather from what you’ve said that (a) you believe in the effectiveness of dukuns–depending on where they get their power; (b) you believe in the power of “the right names” to confirm “spiritual benefits”, (c) you believe in visitations by dead people.

    I don’t believe in dukun powers. I remember being told about the great encounter between the Dutch cannons and the Javanese magical weapons. The cannons one side; the magical krises on the other: bye-bye, Javan empire. I also know from my work in Indonesia that if poor people have no money, they go to a dukun; if they can afford it, they go to a doctor. I don’t think they’re being stupid. They know from that harshest and most direct experience what works, and what doesn’t. Middle class white folk, on the other hand, always backstopped by the public health and medical system, aren’t forced into that choice.

    I also don’t believe that “spiritual benefit” can be had by getting the “right name”. The traditional Javanese change their names constantly, maintain different names for different purposes, get name-changes to change their fortune, and support all this by the Hindu musical metaphor for the universe. There is no injunction or advice in Islam that supports such a practice. Islamic parents are enjoined to give their children names with good meanings: that’s it. In the West, this belief is the province of numerology, like the site advertising this service: “The power of your knowing your name’s meaning is in it’s ability to reveal the spiritual and emotional urgings of your soul that are meant to be expressed through the talents and physical capabilities of your personality. Together these radiate as your unique quality of consciousness and all that you intrinsically are – your character and the ways that you express it. Name Consciousness is great for understanding your names meaning, finding the perfect baby names or predicting the effects of name changes!” Perhaps Subud can open up such shopfront, too: imagine the endless benefits to humanity.

    Some of you used to think it was Khizr? That sounds to me like empty speculation. And, again, it requires belief in mythological figures, or rather a LITERAL belief in mythology. I love the Mahabharata. It informs my life. But if I were to start taking it literally, or worse–to start seeing Arjuna in the back garden–not only would that be weird, but it would miss the whole point of the Mahabharata.

    What I see going on in Subud is a conflation of animistic beliefs with religion, and spiritism with spirituality. Neither religion nor spirituality require one to reject a scientific understanding of the world.

    Consider the words of one Lisa E. Park, a professor of paleontology at the University of Akron, on visiting the Creation Museum: “I think they should rename the museum — not the Creation Museum, but the Confusion Museum. Unfortunately, they do it knowingly. I was dismayed. As a Christian, I was dismayed.”

    Most of the people fighting the Creationists are Christians, who don’t want Christianity conflated with ignorance, or the adoption of Medieval or superseded beliefs. Or look at Islam in its Golden Age, when it was centred in Baghdad. Or Buddhism today, in which the Dalai Lama can say: “If science finds anything that contradicts Buddhism, then Buddhism must change.”

    On Subuh’s childhood: How would Pak Subuh discern as a child that this was Sunan Kalijaga? After all, Mr Kalijaga was long dead by then. You’re not now saying that Pak Subuh consorted with dead spirits? Even more evidence that he was steeped in animism, not Islam. In Islam, when you’re dead, your dead, which is why you won’t find in Islam thousands of stories about apparitions of famous dead people, as you will in animist societies, or European spiritualism (or in Subud, for that matter.) People see visions of dead people in those societies in which people believe that kind of thing. On the whole, Muslims don’t.

    Furthermore, here is what Subuh said about his own birth: “The baby was named Sukarno. However, because he was sickly, his name was changed to Muhammad Subuh by a mysterious old man that nobody knew. Grandfather accepted the change of name with a feeling of satisfaction as its meaning fitted exactly the time of the baby’s birth: dawn. Thereafter, the baby was both happy and healthy. This is what my mother told me about my birth.”

    Nothing else. It should be clear from this passage that Pak Subuh did not remember this incident first hand, but heard it from his mother. If he didn’t recall the incident, how could he remember the “mysterious old man”? And if elsewhere and later he decided it was Sunan Kalijaga (whom he also claimed as ancestor), this more likely falls into the category of “authorization stories”, other examples of which would be his statements that “the jinn say I’m the World Teacher” and “the Queen of the South Seas wants to marry me.”

    Do you believe that there is a green queen, covered in seaweed, living under the water off the West Coast of Java. For an alternative view, see this:

    I agree that different worldviews can, and do, co-exist. That doesn’t mean that we have to subscribe to them all, or that they’re of equal value to human beings, or to our lives. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, “Intelligent Design” and social darwinism are all beliefs that co-exist with us today… That doesn’t mean that they’re good ones to hold. I’m sure that Thailand is today full of beliefs in spirits. So too in Indonesia. Why did my car break down? Hantu, hantu, hantu. Needless to say, when people believe that spirits cause their cars to break down, it becomes more difficult to instill a culture of periodic maintenance.

    The postmodern worldview accepts that many worldviews are viable. Thus, a world filled with spirits, life forces, levels, name-change, mysterious strangers, ancestral baggage, etc can be a viable world in which people are born, live, love, die, and raise the next generation. It was a viable world for centuries, for feudal Javanese. That doesn’t mean we should seek to adopt it.

    It also accepts that all are human constructs. All of them. So that the “reality” that Subud community has constructed for itself, around the texts of the talks, is no more nor less real than any other social construction.

    Again, this is not a matter of secularism versus religion. It’s a distinction between religion that’s practiced in a way that is tune with the wonders and successes of modern knowledge and technology, and religion that desires to hang onto medieval beliefs and magical thinking.

    You finish with: “You make too much out of these things for some reason.”

    I only take it seriously (or more precisely did), because the Subud community takes it seriously. Thus, we have the principal of an enterprise which has spent some $13m looking for gold in Kalimantan reporting: “Baroi is located 5 kilometers east of Lakapoi or Bapak’s Thumb, which is where Bapak placed his thumb on a map in 1985 indicating the place we should live. Bapak explained in some detail at the time, the type of house and size of the rooms we should each have. In hindsight five kilometers is an ideal distance for people to live from a mine site. This may well be another excellent indication that Baroi is the prospect we have been waiting for.” The writer is a delightful human being, but that such ways of thinking (and that’s all it is) are harmful.

    I say “or more precisely ‘did’ ” because I’ve come to realise there are thousands, if not tends of thousands of little religious groups in the world, all with their unusual, historically-given beliefs, many of them thinking that they are central to a divine plan, or are the key to the future of humanity. And that says much about human beings.

    I’ve also come to realise that those in Subud who choose to live so–like the Creationists–do so wilfully. They want to live in that world they have constructed for themselves. No-one has to join them, and few now do. I choose not to.

    What I’d like to establish here is some cultural context and some (dare I say it) objective truth around Subud’s history, including the character and beliefs of Pak Subuh, in place of the blind reverence which seems to be so widespread. That reverence, it seems to me, leads to uncritical consumption of his views and opinions.

    I write not because I hope to change Subud, but as a resource for other Subud members who feel discomfort with the spiritism and magical thinking–especially for those in the 2nd and 3rd generations, who never chose these beliefs, but were inducted into them before they had a choice.


  5. Your writing is replete with logical fallacies David. Because I believe that Bapapk had the power from God to give names that were of spiritual significance doesn’t mean I believe that all dukuns have unlimited powers. Therefore telling us about the Javans’ (with their krises) defeat at the hands of the Dutch armed with cannons is completely irrelevant, as is your story about how poor people go to traditional healers when they can’t afford a modern Western trained doctor.

    Many of the prophets and great spiritual figures had healing powers and used them out of compassion. In their own cultures there were dukun-like characters. As far as I understand matters, the prophets attributed their healing powers to God and not to occult powers. There is nothing wrong with healing powers as such. They are often based on herbs and other medicinal substances. Practices similar to the rajah are common in North Africa and perhaps other Islamic cultures. I think many of these things have become debased but there may be a truth in them. Revealing these truths may be one of the latihan’s fruits.

    You give the impression that Bapak and many Subud members are against the application of science and technology. But you know that is not the case. Bapak has encouraged us to use our minds (S&T) to advance our material and physical well-being and our social life. I have a religious worldview yet I drive a car, take it to be maintained, fill it with petrol, change the tyres etc and before driving off I say “Bismillah”. I listen to music on an Apple mac, but not during Ramadhan. I do use it to listen to Bapak’s talks during Ramadhan. I love some science and technology. I use modern medicine but realize in some instances I know myself better than a doctor and that many modern medicines have bad side effects. I have also learned that through the latihan I can sometimes find the cause and a solution to a health problem and thus don’t always need to run to the doctor. I’d say this is normal in Subud. For Bapak the development of science and technology can be inspired by God. But he didn’t give it more importance than the spiritual. See next point.

    You seem to want science to be the arbiter of what is true in religion. You will no doubt feel more at ease with the Dalai Lama’s interpretation of Buddhism in that case as you point out he has said something similar. But then again he neither believes in God or the soul. If your religion is based only on the mind and your own efforts that kind of materialist conclusion seems unremarkable to me. And until science disproves it, he is happy to approve that a certain child is a reincarnation of a deceased lama because the child chose the possessions of the deceased lama when presented with a diverse group of items. I don’t think this kind of practice is something that is of much interest to scientists. So I don’t think that particular aspect of Tibetan Buddhism will be challenged by science as such.

    Bapak as you know has spoken of the relation between science and spirit in terms of an ontological hierarchy, which is the position in Islamic metaphysics and in Christian (Eastern Orthodox) metaphysics. Bapak’s explanations I think are fairly nuanced, something you fail to acknowledge. Scientific reasoning cannot enter into the spiritual dimension and so cannot pass judgement on what pertains to that dimension. Of course this sort of “debate” has a long history and there are philosophers more knowledgeable than you or me who have rejected your inverted hierarchy of values. Mystics too, for want of a better word, have rejected your upturned hierarchy. According to Rumi (13th century):

    “The man more perfect in erudition is behind in meaning and ahead in form….
    A knowledge is needed whose root is upon the other side, since every branch leads to its root.
    Every wing cannot fly across the breadth of the ocean: Only a knowledge that comes directly from Him can take one to Him”.

    And, like Bapak, Rumi didn’t reject science and technology, he pointed out:

    “Those people who have studied or are now
    studying imagine that if they attend faithfully here [the spiritual exercise, sama] they will
    forget and abandon all their knowledge. On the contrary, when
    they come here all their sciences will acquire a spirit. The science are all paintings. When they gain spirits, it is as if a lifeless
    body receives a spirit. The root of all these sciences is from
    Yonder, but they have been transported from the world
    without sounds and letters into the world of sounds and

    W. Chittick, 1983.The Sufi Path of Love, p. 25-26.

    You frequently paint a picture of Bapak which elevates in importance and significance remarks about dukuns, healing etc and relegate (virtually jettison) his remarks about what is of supreme importance for Subud members: Surrendering to the Will of God. Bapak I’d say consistently confirms the Quranic characterization of the Creator and our position vis a vis the Creator. I understand that you are not comfortable with this kind of language and I believe it is leading you to paint a highly misleading and biased picture of Bapak and the contents of his talks. You emphasise the peripheral and de-emphasise the core in Bapak’s life and talks as the core is decidedly spiritual.

    The fact that you don’t believe in the spiritual benefits of names or visitations of the dead simply means that you haven’t experienced these things and aren’t prepared to accept the opinions of others. And another logical fallacy: The fact that Indonesians change names frequently including for non-spiritual purposes doesn’t invalidate the idea that names can confer spiritual benefit. But of course one shouldn’t overstate the case. I think Bapak and Ibu have faithfully avoided this. As someone who has changed his name, I have had experience of its spiritual benefit. The name Bapak gave me is the name associated with my soul and I have from time to time found that very helpful on my spiritual journey, no more than that. If you don’t believe in the soul then of course you can’t appreciate that. Renaming is common in most spiritual traditions. Is it simply a case of taking a name with a good meaning? Perhaps there was a deeper dimension now lost and refound in Subud? It’s possible. In latihan I have had an experience involving someone who had died years previously. I think many Subud members have had such experiences. It is very different I believe from spiritism where you intend to contact the spirit of someone who has died. You don’t have to believe in these experiences to practice the latihan. For those who have such experiences they don’t take up a central position in one’s life or spiritual practice. Muslims you tell us don’t have such experiences. But you will find in Islamic culture in general lots of experiences with the Jinn! Perhaps one has to be receptive in the first place.

    You say you write not to change Subud but as a resource for Subud members who might be similarly uncomfortable with the kind of ideas you have written about. I hope I have shown above that you are doing more than that. You have devoted considerable time and energy and intellectual resources not simply to say that we don’t have to believe these things to benefit from the latihan. Instead you have misrepresented Bapak. You have elevated in significance the peripheral and ignored the core contents of Bapak’s talks and advice to Subud members. In fact you are totally silent on Bapak’s core message. Curious I’d say.

    It would be interesting if you were to write about your experience of the latihan, talk about the meaning of the latihan for someone whose belief system is not theistic. It would be of interest to those of us who share a common practice with people with a very different worldview. It may be useful for those less experienced Subud members who find it difficult to adopt a spiritual worldview but wish for something positive while they develop in the latihan.

  6. waw… it’s so amazing^^ excited

  7. Thanks, Iljas, yor reply brought great relief to the feeling of suffocation that I felt reading David´s article.
    The fact that Bapak was “able” to heal or to give inner advice doesn´t makes him a dukun at all. That looks like sophistic argument to me.

  8. Manuel

    First, I take exception to your characterising me as a sophist. But I’ve become used to the fact that insults, gossip and slander are part of the culture of this bunch of people who claim to have 50 years of practice of the latihan, which purifies them and makes them into perfect human beings.

    Let me tell you a story. Some years ago in California, there was a cult called Heaven’s Gate. They were told by their leader that as comet Kohoutek came by, a spaceship would be following in the comets tail. And that if, as the comet passed, they all committed suicide (which they did), they would be spiritually transported up into this space ship. About two weeks before the comet was due to pass, some of the devotees went to a local telescope shop, and asked to buy the biggest scope available. A week later, they came back with the telescope, and explained that they wanted their money back: it was defective. The owner said he was happy to refund the money, but could they also please let him know the problem with the telescope. They said this: “Well, we were able to see the comet very clearly, but the telescope couldn’t resolve the spaceship in the tail.”

    This phenomenon is called “cognitive dissonance”. It happens when people get very, very committed to a set of ideas, they start finding difficult, even impossible, to consider data or information that contradicts the ideas to which they’ve committed. Rather, they start spinning more and more complicated explanations as to what the data means, without modifying their belief.

    Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar, tells this story: When he was at university, feeling confused about life, he fell with in some Evangelical Christians, and became one himself. As an Evangelical, he believed that the bible was the “literal and inspired word of God.” As such, he became interested in the historical origin of the book that he held in his hand, because he thought that if it’s the “literal and inspired word of God”, he’d better be damned sure that that is was produced by a sound process. So he went to Yale Divinity School. There, he was asked to write a paper about the Gospel of Mark. And in Mark, apparently, there are two passages in which Mark says things that are exact opposite of each other: in other words, a contradiction. And because one can’t have a contradiction in the “literal and inspired word of God”, there must be some reason why both must true. So he wrote a very long and convoluted paper which outlined a very far-out argument as to why and how these two opposite statements might both be true. Ehrman got his paper back. He’d received a good grade for his efforts. But the professor had also written a few words which, Ehrman, said, changed his life forever. These were: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

    Ehrman is now a highly regarded Biblical scholar. He is no longer an Evangelical.

    One question that Ehrman puts in his book is: How many versions of the Gospels were in circulation before the Gutenberg Press, which made it necessary to settle on a standardize version. The answer is: More different versions than there are words in the Gospels.

    Some people snap out of their cognitive dissonances. They return the human race, and make great contributions. Others die in their little self-made bubble.

    I say this because it’s clear from your entry that what I wrote disturbed you, and also that you jumped at a way of “explaining away” the facts I put forward, without any reference to what I said.

    So I’m going to walk you through facts, about healing and naming. These facts show that what Subud members absorbed from Pak Subuh’s talks comes direct from Javanese traditional beliefs, and has nothing to do with Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any of the other major religions.


    1. Subuh made “rajahs”, which he offered to members to fix their bodily ills.

    2. The way he made “rajahs” was exactly the same way in which dukuns in Java make rajahs.

    3. Rajah-making is what dukuns do, just like writing prescriptions is what doctors do.

    4. Subuh was a sick man, and when he became sick, he did not take his own rajahs. He had hypertension. He had diabetes. And whom he called on to treat him was Rachman Mitchell, trained not in dukunery, but at a good Scottish medical school. Rachman told him to give up smoking and Coca-Cola. He did what Rachman told him. IN the end, these diseases killed him at a relatively early age.

    5. Iljas wants you to believe the Subuh had mystical healing powers. There’s no evidence that this is true, and there’s evidence that he was just an ordinary human, frail and subject to illness and disease, and smart enough to call a qualified doctor to treat them.


    1. In Java, in Subuh’s generation, there was a widespread belief that naming had power. Want a good life? Get the right name.

    2. Dukuns were in the naming business too.

    3. In Subuh’s explanation of his own beliefs about naming, he said that he believed that if you don’t have the “right name”, then when God calls you, you won’t get into Heaven.

    4. The Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an all talk extensively about what you have to do to get into Heaven. What you have to do is act rightly, and these texts talk extensively about what constitutes right action. None of these texts suggest that having the “right name” has anything whatsoever to do with getting into Heaven, spiritual development, becoming a good person, being a good Jew/Christian/Muslim. That’s because there’s an explicit connection in these religions between Heaven, and the concept of moral code.

    5. These religions have no place for fiddling with your name as a way of either adjusting your life fortunes, or getting a better place in the afterlife.

    6. According to the Subud doctrine, Subud itself is not supposed to be “a new teaching.” Over and over Subud says it has no teaching.

    7. The naming business is a practice carried over from Subuh’s Javanese background. It is not new. It is not practice of any of the Abrahamic religions. Nor in Buddhism. There might be a bit of background. And a Just God is not going to keep you in or out of Heaven on the basis of whether you are called Steve or Imran.

    6. Importing this practice actually does harm. First, nobody believes that you’re non-denominational, when everyone, though clearly Australia, has an Arabic name. Why would they? No-one will believe you that you don’t have a teaching, when you respond to their questions about the funny names by explaining that you name your children by asking a little old lady in Jakarta to name them for you.

    And all of that is what happens when:

    • People focus acquiring magical tokens to assist their spiritual development, when the major religions are very clear that all of that is irrelevant, and the what matters is being a good and honest person. It distracts people from the real game.

    • People adopt these Javanese customs and habits (again: non-Christian, non-Islamic, non-Jewish) knowing full well that its going to help build a barrier to people joining under the advertised promise: but they simply don’t care.

    • David,

      It is one thing to feel insulted at being called a sophist (which you weren’t as Manuel pointed out), it is another to go off on a riff about the failures of the group to whom the imagined insulter belongs.

      You responded to Manuel by saying he responded to you by not taking into account what you said. But you repeat your arguments without taking into account what I said previously. Your response sounded somewhat patronising:(“So I’m going to walk you through the facts…”).

      Naming is not mentioned in the Quran but it is mentioned in numerous hadith and proper naming is very significant in Islam:

      “It was narrated from Ibn ‘Umar that a daughter of ‘Umar was called ‘Aasiyah (disobedient), but the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) renamed her Jameelah (beautiful). Narrated by Muslim, 2139.

      And narrated by al-Bukhaari (6190) from Ibn al-Musayyab that his father came to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and he said, “What is your name?” He said, “Hazn (meaning rough).”He said, “You are Sahl (meaning easy).”He said, “I will not change the name that my father gave to me.” Ibn al-Musayyab said, “And we have had roughness (in character) ever since.”

      Changing of names for all sorts of reasons is relatively common here in Thailand and is often done by Buddhist monks.

      I don’t want to make too much of this just to correct your perception that a focus on “proper naming” has no place in Islam and Buddhism.

      You say the way Bapak made rajahs was exactly the same as the way dukuns made them. Well clearly that is not the case. Bapak himself noted this. Externally perhaps the same, but Bapak added something. I call it an inner content, which perhaps you can’t accept. The way the rajah works and again this has been explained somewhere by Bapak or Ibu is that the content of the rajah helps one to surrender to God, just like listening to Bapak’s talks so it can help one recover (even modern science suggests religious beliefs are important in healing). Rajahs don’t necessarily replace other forms of treatment. So it is not that the rajah is like a pharmaceutical. The reason why Bapak didn’t take his own rajahs should be pretty obvious then.

      You say:

      “Importing this practice actually does harm. First, nobody believes that you’re non-denominational, when everyone, though clearly Australia, has an Arabic name. Why would they? No-one will believe you that you don’t have a teaching, when you respond to their questions about the funny names by explaining that you name your children by asking a little old lady in Jakarta to name them for you.”

      An exaggeration of course. Just as an experiment I went through the Subud Australia contacts list on the Web. Here’s what I found. The contacts are named: Davina, Subagio, Alexis,Greg, Michaela, Silvana, Mardijah (Arabic), Simlesa, Audrielle, Emmanuel, Swarupo, Ridwan (Arabic), Dahlan (Arabic), Nurami (Arabic), Les, Marianni. So I make that 4 out of 16. I’m not sure that all those with Arabic names are whites or of European ancestry. And do the names sound “funny” ? Don’t Australians watch CNN or BBC? Almost every newsreader these days has a “funny” name. Shouldn’t we rather be helping people to see that in our cosmopolitan world lots of people we meet are not going to be called David or Les or Peter or Anne or Meg and we better get used to it? Why would no-one believe you that you don’t have a teaching because you explained that Bapak or Ibu gave you your name? I don’t follow the logic. Generally teachings are things you have to believe in even if you haven’t experienced their truth or they are things that will be in an exam. Many of the things you mentioned are not obligatory in Subud. They’re not in a membership entrance exam and you get get refused entry into Subud or the latihan hall if you still use the name your mother gave you, or you can’t identify the names of the lower forces in Arabic, for examples. Many groups have strange-seeming practices to outsiders, not just Subud and not just spiritual or religious groups. It’s called cultural diversity and I have no problems with it unless its illegal or unethical.It’s a fact of life.

      Again I have to say you focus on peripherals. Why?

      Iljas (and here’s how I explain it: it’s a Muslim name as I am a Muslim. It’s the Indonesian spelling of the Arabic name Ilyas who was a prophet. The Indonesians because of being colonized by the Dutch pronounced a J like the Dutch i.e. as “Y”. Most people’s response is “that’s interesting”, not “that’s a funny name.”

    • David said:

      “The naming business is a practice carried over from Subuh’s Javanese background. It is not new. It is not practice of any of the Abrahamic religions. Nor in Buddhism. ”

      The web page of Namgyal Monastery’s Institute of Buddhist Studies has a piece on naming in Tibetan Buddhism by Venerable Tenzin Gephel, the Resident Namgyal Monastery Monk and Cornell University Buddhist Chaplain in which he says:

      “In Tibet there are two main sources for personal names. People get their names from either their parents or from great lamas. A lama is a great teacher or holy person. It is very common for people to request names for their children from lamas. Many people nowadays request names for their children from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Some parents request names while the child is still in the mother’s womb. When people go to the Dalai Lama to request a name for their child, he gives a name which is then written on a piece of blessed thread. These blessed items serve as protection from physical and mental negative factors such as negative thoughts or bad dreams. Blessed pills are made from different herbal substances. In brief, the giving of these blessed items is done in order to give the child an auspicious beginning to life and with prayers for the child to develop a healthy body and mind. We Tibetans feel that these blessings are created through the combination of religious power and the compassionate mind of the holy person.

      My name is Tenzin Gephel. I was named after Tenzin Gyaltso who is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. My first name “Tenzin” means “holder of Buddhist doctrine” and my second name “Gephel” means “increase of merit.” Tenzin is a very popular name among Tibetans because it is the first name of the Dalai Lama. When I was born I was named Nyima Dhamdul by my parents. Later my parents asked the Dalai Lama to name me. Then Tenzin Gephel became my name. I was very small and not a monk at that time. Although people call me by the first name Tenzin or by both names Tenzin Gephel I prefer Gephel because it is less common among Tibetans.”

      • Naming in Tibetan Buddhism Part 2, from same source as previous post:

        “Names are given to all people and things in order to differentiate who or what they are. Naturally nobody wants to have a bad name or reputation. We all want to be referred to by something nice. In Tibet, a person who gives a name to a child, in accordance with Buddhist tradition, always choose a name with an auspicious meaning in order to create positive predisposition for the future of the child. Many people in Tibet have names related to male or female Buddhas or enlightened beings. Some names such as “Tenzin” or “Dawa” can be both male or female although females often take the name of a female Buddha or deity such as “Dolma” (Tara in Sanskrit ) which means the “one who liberates others from suffering. There are also female names such as “Dicky Dolma” which means”one who is healthy, happy and liberates other by leading them to Nirvana.” Some names such as “Dawa” have several different meanings. “Dawa” means both” moon” and “Monday.” “Dawa” can be given to a child who is born on a Monday or it can convey the symbolic meaning of one who”gives light and removes darkness” as moonlight does. Tibetans names can come from important religious symbols such as the “dorje” which symbolizes indestructibility, compassion, and skillful means. People are also named after simple Buddhist terms such as “sherap” which is a word meaning wisdom, or “sopa” which means patience.

        In Tibetan culture people sometimes change their names. For example when someone becomes a monk or nun, they are given a new monastic name. There are occasions such as when someone becomes sick and medical treatments do not cure the person over a long period of time. At that time, according to lama’s advice, the sick person may have a name change in order to keep away obstacles and harm. When I was in school I got some kind of mysterious pain in my upper back and chest. I had to go home to live with my parent for special care. It was a very painful sickness. My parent tried their best to treat it. I tried modern treatment and ancient Tibetan herbal medicine for many days, months and a year. The doctors didn’t discover what kind of sickness it was. So the treatment seemed not so helpful. At the same time during those long periods of sickness my parents often asked others to perform many ritual prayers according to Buddhist traditions. Meanwhile my parents brought me to consult with Dhamo Loche Rinpoche, who still lives in Dharamsala. He is one of the greatest lamas among several who were escaped from Tibet in 1959. Dhamo Loche Rinpoche advised me to change my name. I was named after him, Losang Tenzin, which means good-hearted dharma holder. But I prefer to use Tenzin Gephel for the rest of my life. It is very auspicious for my present and future life to have this name. After I recovered from that sickness, I reused my name Tenzin Gephel. When I received the monastic vows from the Dalai Lama, H.H. did not change my name Tenzin Gephel into another name because he gave this name to me when I was very small and I became a monk. Another solution is that the sick or troubled person may take a name intentionally unpleasant such as Shilog. It means “one who seems likely to have died but come back to life.”

  9. Dear David. First of all, I never called you a sophist. (I said your arguments looked sophistic to me. That´s quite different.Sorry if I hurted you.It wasn´t my intention at all).
    You dont need to spend so many arguments with me. I understand and respect what you are trying to explain. Altough, I feel you are so convinced with your arguments that you leave little space for other points of view to emerge. Maybe if you can open a space to accept the fact that for many Subud members those “folkloric” aspects of Subud look fascinating, you would be able to make your point in a more relaxed way and, as a consecuence, more people would benefit from the experience of exchanging other points of view.
    In my opinion, westeners -in Subud- have adopted many aspects of the javanese culture because our culture is so poor in symbols and misticism, opposed to javanese culture that is so rich in them. Of course, by doing this we sometimes look quite ridiculous.
    It´s obvious that many aspects of the javanese culture have permeated Subud, and some of them look quite weird to our western culture, rising suspiccion about Subud being one more of those strange and dangerous cults from the west, who promote the worship of a charismatic guru ,leading members to fanatism and mental dissorders.
    I am with you in your efforts of purifying Subud from any animistic resemble, or any distortion in the way of the Subud latihan. Good¡¡
    But I just cannot share some of your appreciations about Bapak (or Subuh, if you prefer): he was a human being, of course, he had sickness, maybe even depressions, and weaknesses as any of us. He never pretended to be a god or a supernatural being. I guess some of us have builded the legend around Bapak because we feel more secure following some sort of super-man , or an infalible master.
    I feel we don´t need to destroy Bapak´s image so to free ourselves from any javanese influence. It,s enough to go on with our latihan and put our faith in our own receiving¡¡¡
    (Concerning giving names, Christ changed Simon´s name and told him:”now, you will be Peter, wich means stone”, ¿remember?)
    With my sincere respect. Manuel (Chile)

    • Hi Manuel.

      Thanks for your apology. Every page on a blog is like a room. In that room is the author, who has posted an idea or a bit of research, and has invited whoever wants to, to come in and comment. Every comment has to be approved by the author: so I see your comment, and approve it, before going it goes in. Now imagine yourself in my situation, and someone enters the room (imagine a real room), and without even saying “hi” to the host, makes a negative remark about the content, to another visitor. Anyway: that is the nature of the Internet.

      I have previously tried making my points in a more “relaxed” way, under the assumption that we might in a impartial and unemotional way start looking at some of the historical facts behind the mythos of Subud. You’ll see that I wrote this original post as a question: not a statement. But I am not now even interested in making any points to Subud in general. I had a shining insight about Subud about two years ago: that Subud is exactly the way that it is because this is exactly what Subud members want it to be. People get what they want. I don’t want what Subud is, and therefore I’m out.

      If one looks at the history of Australia, or of architecture, one does not encounter such resistance or emption. In my mind, the reason is that many people have fused their self-image with their image of Subud, and reframing the latter, would involve too radical a reframing of the former.

      Of course, Subuh was a regular guy. And often a nice fellow: see my opening paragraph. In NY, at Briarcliff, he stayed at our house, and I used to watch TV with him. I was eight. I prefer “Subuh” to “Father”, because that’s how we address each other in a world of equals. But after five years of research–not by myself, either, but with other members, I came to the conclusion that Subud as we know it today is not a product of Pak Subuh, and certainly not of any Divine Being, but of a group of “lost” Westerners surrounding J. G. Bennett, who jumped on Subuh as the source of their salvation. Almost all of the content of Subud belief and practice comes from the collision between his background as a teacher of Javanese mysticism, and their intense need for kind of messiah. And I include in that statement, the practice of the latihan kejiwaan, which it must be clear after 50 years does not transform people into the Perfect Human Beings promised, nor evidently anything better than the person next door.

      Einstein was probably the most respected physicist, and one of the most respected human beings, of the 20th C. Yet, when Einstein was wrong–as he was about quantum mechanics–other physicists just agreed he was wrong, without drama or hand-wringing. And when today they teach physics, they teach physics, not Einstein. What happens in Subud today is not normal acknowledgement of an historical figure. It’s something else. People do not need “an image of Bapak.” People do not need images. Deference to an image: what’s that called? Idolatry, isn’t it?

      You may know I am Chilean by birth. I was born in Santiago. About 9 years ago I revisited. Fernando Davanzo showed me and my wife and children around: a very kind man, long time friend of my parents. I spent most of my time though in Valpo, staying with an architect friend. He runs a cultural centre there.

      Ciao, and best wishes.


      PS: Yes, there is that one line in the Bible. But it’s much more relevantly true that throughout the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the five billion or so adherents of those religions never wrote letters to Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca asking religious authorities to name their children for them.

      • Well, David, this was felt much nicer ¡¡ (Actually, Fernando is my father in law¡¡¡ He passed away some months ago, and I miss him a lot)
        I can say I am , by now, starting to get your point better than in previous exchanges.
        But – just a comment-, maybe the fact that you are from a second generation in Subud gives you a more “evolutioned” point of view, so to say. Maybe everyone will get there after some time, reaching a point where each one has faith in one´s own receiving and not in others, no matter how respected or highly considered they may be.
        Basically, I feel I can agree with you when you put your arguments in a kind way. (If you put it too roughly it´s not so easy to swallow).
        For many Subud members- as for me, certainly- , Bapak or Subuh is a very much respected and loved figure. Even do, I very much agree with you when it comes to trying to make Subud more avaliable to everyone, by cleaning the way from any cultural or religious identity. Subud shouldn´t be perceived as muslim, or javanese, or any other… because it´s not¡¡¡
        So, although I´m certain I will remain loving Bapak until I die, I very much agree that we should´t center our Subud receiving around Bapak´s figure or sayings. We must build a Subud atmosphere in which nobody feels any kind of pression towards any culture, any religion, any special believings or any leader.(I have always understood that was Bapak´s intention and message, by the way) .
        I pray that things may go well for all of us, so that we can have enough space for diversity and avoid any distortion in our path. Maybe- Inchallah- the way of the latihan will be able to make a difference in our lives and, hopefully, in the lives of many.
        Kind regards, Manuel

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