June is here again, and soon there will be birthday parties for Bapak in many Subud groups. Every year there are more and more people attending these parties who never met Bapak, and some of them may have a question or two in the back of their minds.
They may wonder at the reverence and awe with which Bapak is spoken of by those who knew him. Having no doubt been told that in Subud we don’t follow a human teacher but are taught by God’s power, they may wonder what is Bapak’s significance for them personally. Should they take at face value the many wonderful stories people tell of their experiences with him? They may feel moved to do so, but that could raise another question: if contact with Bapak was such a crucial factor in their friends’ inner growth, does it mean their own inner journey will be limited by the fact that they can no longer meet him in person?
These are reasonable questions, and I’m going to share a couple of experiences with you in the hope that they might help you to resolve them. But please remember that these are simply my experiences – if they don’t ring true or seem fanciful, just let them go, and rely on your own intuition.
You may have heard people talk of ‘the physical Bapak’ and wondered what they meant. It corresponded to a real experience that many of us who knew Bapak share: there really seemed to be two Bapaks – the one you saw (the physical Bapak) and the one you (or at least I) didn’t, which we called ‘the other Bapak’. I’ll give you my version of this experience.
My first contact with Bapak was in 1959 when he arrived in Coombe Springs just before the first Subud world congress. A group of us were waiting for him in the reception hall of the main house at Coombe, and I had strolled outside the front door just as the cars arrived from the airport. I quickly tried to get back inside – where we were supposed to be – but was too late. I was pinned to the wall in the narrow vestibule as Bapak walked past, very close to me. As he passed, I had the strangest sensation, as if there was nobody there.
This isn’t easy to describe, so please bear with me. Normally, when someone passes very close to you, you feel a certain kind of force from them and with famous or important people this ‘force’ is sometimes stronger. But with Bapak there was nothing. The impression I got was that Bapak’s physical being was like a suit of clothes or a screen covering some other reality.
This strange impression was augmented a couple of weeks later when a friend of mine, an actor, dragged me towards a wall covered with photos for sale, mostly of Bapak and his party, taken by two talented photographers who had been covering the visit. ‘Look here,’ he said excitedly, pointing at one picture of Bapak after the other, ‘do you see? Here’s Bapak looking like an old man, nearly a hundred years old, making an effort to stand up straight, just managing to smile. And then here he is, a man in the prime of life, in his late thirties, exuding energy. And Mr. Bennett is a very large man, a lot bigger than Bapak, right? So how come that here they are standing next to each other, and Bapak looks bigger.’ He went on to explain to me that bringing about this kind of metamorphosis is every actor’s dream, ‘but before Bapak I’ve never actually seen anyone do it.’
This was very perceptive. I also later noticed this fluidity about Bapak’s presence, not just his movements and his appearance, but his whole being. He had a kind of freedom about him that I’ve never seen in any other human being, least of all in the ‘big shots’ I’ve met. A part of this was that he was the most relaxed person I’ve ever seen.
As the years passed, my life – like that of several of my friends at Coombe – was gradually drawn into a closer and closer orbit around Bapak. We each had our own orbit – there was Varindra Vittachi, fiery and spectacular like Halley’s comet, appearing in Cilandak for a day or two before disappearing into the void, while I ended up in close orbit, as Bapak’s interpreter, part-time secretary and a sort of somewhat incompetent valet. I came to be comfortable with ‘the physical Bapak’, accustomed to his wisdom, humour and infinite kindness, but there always remained a distance between us, due to my constant awareness of ‘the other Bapak’.
I don’t think in this my experience was so different from that of all my friends who made up our world at Wisma Subud – the force of attraction that kept us there came from that other Bapak, the one behind the one we saw. And who was that? I have never been able to think of this ‘other Bapak’ as a person, more like a window, a window to another world. The physical Bapak was to me like a curtain to make this window less disconcerting for us ordinary people to deal with.
Even so it was disconcerting enough. Sometimes there was the embarrassment of sitting near Bapak and feeling my own dirt inside me like vomit that I didn’t dare to let out – to use Varindra’s graphic description. There were other times I would come into a room where Bapak was and feel as if I had come close to the centre of the universe, into a place of total security and complete peace. And another time feeling Bapak’s touch on my arm followed by a sensation of love, like golden lava spreading through my body.
So here is your source of that awe and reverence you detect in our voices as we speak about Bapak. It was spontaneous and irresistible. Nor did the ‘physical Bapak’ encourage it; it was more as if he endured it, like an unavoidable nuisance. From his side he always tried to appear ordinary and to put people at their ease.
I guess perhaps I came to understand a tiny piece – corresponding to my own undeveloped stage – of what it means when God picks a human being to become His messenger. That person has to surrender most of everything he is, so he can be used as a conduit for something infinitely greater.
So here it is: for me ‘the other Bapak’ and where the latihan comes from are one and the same. That’s why I believe Bapak’s talks, which certainly came from the other Bapak, are actually of the same stuff as the latihan. Why else did they by-pass our mind – putting us into a deep sleep, if necessary, to do it – and search out our soul?
So did our proximity to ‘the physical Bapak’ confer a spiritual advantage? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not everybody could be close to the physical Bapak, but it is the other Bapak where spiritual advantage comes from, and that one was and will always remain accessible to all Subud members – our distance depending only on our willingness to come close.
With love and respect
I was born in the year Subud was registered as an organisation, 1947. I therefore was not part of the early days of Subud which my brother Sharif and many others were a part of.
I only met YM Bapak three times in this world. The first two times were when Bapak came to Brisbane, probably in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, I can’t remember the year.
At the house Bapak was staying in, I was supposed to go and help in the kitchen. I was scared stiff. I was very nervous about cooking. I’d heard all these stories about how we were supposed to be when we prepared meals and I could never seem to become so pure, at the relevant moment. However, I went at the designated time and walked in through the entrance to the house and into the living room with one of my sisters. As I entered the living room I realised that Bapak and members of his family were sitting there watching cartoons on television. Bapak was laughing. I felt that the only way I could cross the floor in front of Bapak was to get down on my hands and knees and crawl. I felt shocked by the strength of that feeling and at the same time too embarrassed to do it. I found myself walking across the room with a sickly grin on my face, turning and bowing slighty to Bapak as I passed and starting to breathe again half an hour later. Needless to say, I chopped the beans all the wrong way and was in disgrace in the kitchen. They didn’t ask me back, to my great relief, I found myself instead involved with the committee and in organising things.
Bapak gave a talk during that visit, at a university in Brisbane. I was seated a long way from Bapak towards the back of the room. As Bapak talked, the usual happened, a lot of immediate and deep sleeping went on in various parts of the room. For once I had stayed awake and was listening to what Bapak was saying and also drifting off here and there in my thoughts, from time to time. I was aware of looking at Bapak from a long, long way away. Then several things happened simultaneously. I heard Bapak say Amal and in the same instant I heard this, Bapak seemed to be right in front of me (absolutely “in my face”) and at the same time, still far away. He was looking straight into my eyes. I felt as though I received an electric shock. I seemed to leap up at least three feet in the air, then land with a noisy bump on my seat, very shaken and dishevelled. Everything returned to normal. I was frozen with embarrassment, I thought everyone must be looking at me. My face was red, I wanted to hide under my seat. I furtively glanced from side to side and I was very surprised to see that not a soul had stirred. Some were still sleeping peacefully, the room was quiet with not a head turned in my direction.
The third time I met Bapak was in Sydney and again I was a long way away, when he walked up onto the stage. Then I felt what I can only describe as the sun rising in my chest. I still get that feeling sometimes when I am aware of something happening for Subud.
Gradually my inner awareness of Bapak grew even though I didn’t see him again in this world.
This awareness of Bapak inwardly, became much stronger after Bapak died. I remember him saying something like this once in a talk – “After Bapak has died you will want to tell Bapak of your experiences. Bapak will hear you and listen to you. You need to pay attention to this and remember it”. This has helped me more than once when I’ve had difficult things to deal with.
In around 1994, I was at a congress in Melbourne. A meeting was arranged for the youth to speak with Ibu Yati. There were a lot of questions to Ibu Yati about the relevance of Bapak in their lives, about why they needed to read Bapak’s talks and the relevance of Bapak to their latihan. Some helpers had been asked to sit in at the meeting in case we needed to also answer questions, (really I think, to hear how Ibu Yati responded). I was very impressed by her directness. It seemed such a relief that in times when we had almost become afraid to mention Bapak, here was someone who was unafraid to acknowledge Bapak openly.
I happened to glance across the room towards the door at the height of the questioning and saw Bapak, a very, very large Bapak appear on the other side of the room. Simultaneously I seemed to receive a message inside myself . This message seemed to be for me and also not for me and it came from inside and outside at the same time – “you need to have the courage to acknowledge that Bapak is the Messenger of Almighty God. You need to have a deep feeling of respect for the advice and guidance given to you by Almighty God through Bapak. You need to pass both these things on to the next generation. This is necessary for the future of Subud”.
I’d been very aware during the previous few years of Peter denying Christ three times and in that moment I felt as if I’d denied Bapak three thousand times.
After the congress, this message really caused me to consider what I should do. How could I carry this out, when I clearly didn’t have the courage or ability to acknowledge Bapak in the right way. I thought of my children and I saw that if I lectured them, or tried to instuct them, if I was enthusiastic and tried to convince them, if I misused what said “Bapak said” said it too often or in the wrong way, that all these things would just drive them away.
Slowly I realised that this acknowledgement simply had to be part of who I was. That if I had this respect and courage, then in my daily life, in whatever I did, I would give evidence, just as the spark of the life of the latihan in us will attract people to Subud.
Working in the Archives has gradually, without any effort on my part, brought me closer to this deep feeling of respect for everything that Almighty God has given us through Bapak.
May they be with us always to help us carry out our commitment to Subud.
Two Articles from Subud Journal, No 4, June 1990
under the headline of Memories of Bapak…
I once had an awkward and embarrassing encounter with Bapak. It was in a Paris flat in 1964, when Bapak received members of the UK Publications Committee of which I was then chairman. Because of the “confrontation” over Borneo, Indonesians were being refused British visas and shoals of us crossed the Channel to see him.
Bapak asked if we had any questions. I boldly said that we sometimes had to print what seemed like conflicting guidance – in this case about children being kept away from the place of latihan.
“Give me an example,” Bapak said quickly.
I was astonished by the sharpness of his tone, and quailed. My facts were not clear, I stumbled a few words and my throat dried up. Harlinah Longcroft – bless her! was beside me and calmly came to the rescue and smoothed everything over. As we said goodbye and I shook Bapak”s hand for the first time – a big moment- I felt nothing at all. I realised he was completely “switched off”.
How marvellous it is that we have Bapak’s voice on tape – over sixteen hundred times, Faisel Sillem tells us. I never tire of listening to its rich modulations, ranging between the light and the urgent, the solemn and the hilarious with that infectious chuckle. While waiting for the translation, I’ve often thought of a Pennsylvanian Indian, Papeunehang. The famous Quaker John Woolman was preaching to him and some others and had the inspiration to dispense with the interpreter (who may not have been very good). This greatly pleased Papeunehang who said “I love to feel the place where the words come from”.
I once made a BBC radio programme about Henry Moore. He walked me around the sculpture park in his home in Hertfordshire, and we came to his famour bronze “King and Queen” which he had recently completed. The slenderised couple, slightly larger than life size, sit touching each other on a little bench on a plinth and gaze in front of them. The King’s right hand rests lightly on the edge of the bench, his left hand on his lap. Moore said he thought about the left hand for a long time. “You see, it has to show authority. Should it be half open, or clenched in a lump, or with forefinger extended? I decided it should not be not less relaxed and sensitive than the Queen’s folded hands.”
I can never see or remember that famous bronze without thinking of how Bapak used to sit in a kingly way as he waited to talk to us and how his authority, too, was shown by his refinement and total inner relaxation.
I once had a clear dream about how Bapak was relative to myself. I was in a seaside town, being driven along the front in an old-fashioned horse-drawn cab with the hood folded down. I was leaning back enjoying the sun and the lively scene, then happened to look over my shoulder. There, a few yards behind me, were two men jogging, both youngish and happy looking. It was Bapak and a companion (possibly Sjarif?). The meaning was plain: There I was at ease, getting all the pleasure and benefit of Subud, while Bapak was doing the footwork, on and on, keeping fit. ‘Always working’, Goethe’s motto, could have been Bapak’s.
Only Bapak could say things like,
“If God for a moment stopped working, the universe would cease to exist.”
In my only visit to Cilandak I once sat up front for a talk in the old latihan hall. I was fascinated to notice Bapak’s bare feet under his Javenese lungi. They were as physically flawless and well cared for as his hands. Poetic words of Isaiah came to mind:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth tidings of good.”
I keep a mental picture of Bapak as a young man and as an old man side by side. The latter is most vividly before me during his birthday celebrations at Anugraha in June 1986. As his frail body is assisted from the wheelchair by his granddaughters, he is an infinitely touching but radiant figure, calling forth a poignant joy in most of us. Once seated he becomes slowly suffused with inner energy and for a short while received words flow out in a clear voice, and even in an ethereal singing.
Some weeks later I woke up early, silently weeping. My weeping was full of love for an aging man who had, as he told us, lost his sense of taste, was forbidden rice, had weak lungs and a heart that needed a pacemaker; a man who never complained, but told often of the need to suffer; a man who never spoke to us from behind a screen of spiritual omniscience but who acknowledged that, being human, he made mistakes for which he asked forgiveness; one who often now asked us to pray for him. Had we failed him? Had we always told him the truth about how things were? Could we have done better for Subud and so for him?
It came to me Bapak was like a venerable, infinitely patient patriarch with numerous progeny. He equips them with various skills, teaches them about life, and sends them out into the world to seek their fortune. They keep coming back.
“It’s tough out there, father, give us more advice, more strength!”
“All right,” he says, “I will. But the main thing is to work together, persist and not to give up.”
But they don’t do much better. Some give their all and die early. There is quarrelling. One or two go off the rails or desert. The wise old man sees all, but surrenders his disappointment. He loves them no less, he has done all he can. Man remains. It is God’s will.
Did Bapak, I asked myself, like all devoted fathers have too high hopes of our collective ability and capacity? Will it be his grandchildren who enter the Promised Land which Bapak, like Moses on top of Pisgar, was allowed to see but not enter?
Of course, that is just a writers’ image, with not much of the truth of the matter in it. But I was very pleased when the gist of this dream was conveyed to Bapak in the Congress message of 1986.
My Most Vivid Memory Of Bapak
I have been a Subud member for a long time now, but it seems, even so, that it was not until after Bapak’s death that I really realised what I missed, perhaps because of what seems now a rather over-suspicious nature.
In the beginning I found many Subud people positively alarming, with a tendency to strange behaviours and ideas I didn’t agree with, and so I also tended to keep away as much as possible, and wanted no part in any “cult” behaviour. What really concerned me though, was that I felt many people regarded Bapak in the light of a “guru”, or close on one, and whilst I had never had any real doubts about the importance of the latihan, I was much more unsure about Bapak’s place in the scheme of things. I thought I had seen enough of human nature (and my own) to see that this “follow my leader” idea could be dangerous, and therefore I should make quite sure that I did not fall into that particular trap! Accordingly I tried to be very “objective” about all Bapak’s doings and even his sayings, although I did let go a little with regard to the talks, reading or listening to them occasionally.
Partly as a result, I hardly ever went to congresses, and hardly ever saw Bapak, and on one occasion that I did, came away with the impression of a cheerfully bouncy person with a great deal of light energy. It was not for about eighteen years that I was to see him again, when he visited Australia.
Australian members had rented a house for Bapak and his party, and I had no idea who was amongst them, or who was who, and did not know anyone by sight. I had volunteered to be on the kitchen roster and was put down for the morning of the first day. Arriving there a little early, I found no-one about and was just wondering what I should start doing when an old man entered the dining room. As soon as I looked at him, I felt an extraordinary impact which I cannot now describe, and found myself saying “But who IS it? What IS this?”, in the midst of a growing realisation that there was simply no-one else it could be. He turned and saw me, and still utterly confused in my inner astonishment, I beat a hasty retreat.
It maybe doesn’t sound great, but I am very grateful for that wordless knowledge that caught me unawares, allowing me to have an inkling of the immensity of the world of which Bapak knew so much more than I can even dream of, and which gave me the protection of directly knowing that he really was a true father to us. He could lead because he knew so much of the reality we do not understand, and towards which we needed guidance in taking even the first faltering steps. Now we must do so on our own, but all the same I have had the strong feeling, along with many others, that Bapak has not only been watching but helping us since his death. Who knows, maybe even the rest of the world too, since such great changes have been taking place in such a short time since 1987.