Chapter Three


Subud is representative of the efflorescence of Javanese mystical movements in this century. The essential basis of Javanese mysticism is revealed in microcosm both within Subud as a movement and in Subuh as a man. R. M. Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwijoyo was born in the central Javanese town of Kedungjati (near Semarang) on Sabtu-Wage (22nd) June 1901, or, according to the Muslim calender, the Maulud (Rabi al-Awwal in Arabic) in the year Dhal and is a descendent of the Mataram royal family through Prince Mangkunagara's line (Longcroft, 1993:11-23). The official history of Subud also records that Subuh's birth was accompanied by earthquakes and a rain of ashes from the eruption of nearby Mount Kelud (Longcroft cites Javanese newspaper reports - Retnoedhoemilah, June 1901 confirming the eruption of Mount Kelud), and that in an interesting coincidence, the Prophet Muhammad was also born in the month of Maulud in the year Dhal (ibid:21-22). Scholars differ as to the exact date of the Prophet Muhammad's birth but they generally agree that he was born in Mecca sometime between April and July in the year Dhal - around the year 570 AD according to the Gregorian calender (Hitti, 1960:5-17; Cook, 1983:passim).

Subuh's name at birth was Soekarno. He was a delicate, sickly child. Not long after birth the child experienced a crisis and seemed destined to die. An old man appeared - a stranger dressed in black apparently just passing through the village - who, after inquiring as to the baby's time of birth, suggested the names Muhammad Subhi would be more appropriate. The suggestion was accepted - except that the Javanese variant subuh, rather than the Arabic subh was used - but in the excitement the stranger was forgotten and later, when the family looked for him, he had disappeared. Almost immediately the child's health and strength improved (Longcroft 1993:23-24; Sitompul 59-60). Pak Subuh, or Bapak - as he is affectionately known to Subud members in Java and elsewhere - was raised by his great-uncle, R. M. Sumowardoyo.

In Javanese folklore, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and similar phenomena often herald the birth of a great man, or the appearance of a messiah. For many centuries Javanese folklore has anticipated the emergence of a "Ratu Adil" (a just king, or ruler). This prophecy, containing a mixture of Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic and Javanese mythologies, has been occasionally personified, such as in the story of Sultan Muradin described by Benda:

... he [Sultan Muradin] remained on Mount Surandil because his term as ascetic had not yet been completed, [but] once the term is up, in the year "alip," then there will be signs, [such as] eclipses of the sun and moon, a rain of ashes, the beginning of which will be that the sun rises in the wrong place, the water will be coloured red, and the moon rises in the wrong place. Then watch out, people of Java; a ruler ... will come to the land of Java! Pay strict attention when the "Ratu Adil" has not yet come! And pay attention again when the "Ratu Adil" shall have come ...(Benda, 1967:156).

The mysterious, yet timely, appearance of the old man is also reminiscent of Hindu legends in which the gods, disguised as simple folk, meet with humankind. As for M. Subuh himself, he believes that the stranger was his ancestor Sunan Kalijaga (one of the Wali Sanga), for 'not only had he vanished and nobody knew him, but he had also been wearing the type of black clothes this saint is known to have used. Subuh himself believes that on this occasion Sunan Kalijaga had come back to this world in order to help him when he was too young to help himself' (Longcroft, 1993:24).

As a youth Subuh actively sought out traditional Javanese spiritual teachers - including, but not limited to those who were learned in one of the many Sufi (Islamic mysticism) orders. Eventually he became the murid (pupil) of Kyai Abdurrahman, a well-known Sufi master from Semarang. Subuh grew frustrated with his teacher who refused to offer Subuh any teachings. Kyai Abdurrahman eventually confided to the young Subuh that he would receive his initiation from a "higher source". Subuh finally stopped attending these meetings, and no longer sought a spiritual mentor. He started to focus more on material advancement and secular studies in accountancy and language (ibid:25-35).

Late one night, in 1925, when Subuh was out walking, he had a vision of a bright ball of light which appeared above him. As he watched the ball of light touched his head, and he was seized by an uncontrollable shaking. Thinking he may be having some sort of life-threatening seizure, he rushed home and lay down on his bed. Subuh felt that he was about to die and decided that in the circumstances the only appropriate response was to sujud (surrender to the Will of God). No sooner was he stretched out on the bed than he felt himself compelled - by some mysterious force - to stand, then complete the ritual of the Muslim prayer. This was the first experience of "latihan kejiwaan" and the beginning of a series of mystical experiences which lasted for about one thousand nights. These nightly experiences - including a series of wahyu (divine revelations) - were seen as a process of spiritual cleansing, culminating in Subuh's ascent to heaven and mystical gnosis. Subuh states that these extraordinary experiences were completely unexpected and had no connection with the teachings of any of the spiritual guides with whom he had contact previously. Nor was it the result of any form of tapa (ascetism) or semadi (meditation) (Longcroft, 1993:48-49).

Subud was founded in central Java in the early part of this century (it has now become a large international movement). A student of Sufism, Subuh had a powerful mystical experience in 1924, then in 1933 he claimed that the mission to found the Subud movement was revealed to him. The movement was restricted to Java until the 1950s, when it spread (mainly through the efforts of an Englishman, Husein Rofé) to the West (Europe, USA, UK, Australia), at first in England principally among followers of the Russian-born mystical philosopher Georgy Gurdjieff. The central feature of Subud is the latihan, the only group spiritual activity, which is usually held twice a week in the evenings. During latihan, undergone by men and women in separate rooms, members allow the power of God to express itself through unrestrained spontaneous activity. There are no rules or requirements, except the suggestion that each member promote a personal state of receptivity - by practising some form of surrender to the will of God - and freely follow whatever is "received". The latihan prompts unprogrammed singing, dancing, shouting, laughter, and so on. Participants often report strong feelings of rapture and release, as well as psychological and physical healing (Needleman, 1970:105).

Subud has little doctrinal teaching, except for the belief in divine power and higher centres of consciousness implied by the latihan. According to Sitompul in his thesis Susila Budhi Dharma Subud the Indonesian word latihan simply means "exercise," "practice," or "training" and by itself latihan has no mystical connotation (Sitompul, 1974:82). However, one of my informants (a Subud member from Yogyakarta) states that latihan is inseparable from a core concept of Subud, that the soul or jiwa of a person is the spirit which controls one's budhi, or consciousness, and the latihan raises the quality of one's budhi as willed by God (personal correspondence August 1995).

According to Harlinah Longcroft in the History of Subud, Subud is not a religion, nor is it a teaching, nor is it a form of meditation. Rather it is a transcendental experience based on surrender to the One God in what is called the latihan kejiwaan (1993:xiii, and passim). The word Susila means "to have good morals, or right doing of men on the earth". M. Subuh interprets it as "to be able to live according to the will of God and really true human beings". Budhi is endeavour, character, power of the intellect, consciousness or will. In all God's creatures, including human beings, there is a divine power that works within him as well as outside him. This power is the "budhi" and is found in both humankind and animals. Subuh defines dharma as the "possibility for every creature including mankind, to surrender completely to the will of God, of whom a person is only a creation and has therefore, inevitably, to submit the will of his Creator" (Sitompul, 1974:79-80). When combined, the words Susila Budhi Dharma have been interpreted as: 'Right living according to the highest that is possible for man in submission to God's Will' (van Hien, 1963:25). Subud, like Pangestu, Sumarah and other aliran kepercayaan, has a membership across religious boundaries (Stange, 1980:passim). Subuh states that Subud's methods are for all humankind, and for those who already embrace a particular religion, the latihan would deepen their understanding and commitment to their individual religions (Rofé, 1959:110).

The central ritual of Subud, around which everything else revolves, is the extraordinary spiritual exercise known as the latihan. Members gather in a large room or hall for the latihan, where they remain for approximately half an hour. Males and females carry out the latihan separately; either at different times or in separate rooms. The latihan halls are large empty spaces similar to the interior of a mosque. The floor is often covered with tikar matting or rugs, but there is no other furniture. Invariably, a latihan begins by practising some form of surrender, or sujud, in order to establish contact with the Holy Spirit or Hakiki. People may sit, but generally they are encouraged to stand during the latihan. During the sujud each person submits in his/her own way to God. If one is able to still one's thoughts and to perform a sincere (ikhlas) sujud, then one should start to experience some form of physiological response (personal correspondence 1995).

Subud members believe that these spontaneous physiological responses confirm the soul's contact with the Holy Spirit. When members "receive", they may feel tingling in the body, they may feel compelled to walk, run, jump, dance, sing, pray, or shout. There are no rules or requirements, except the suggestion that each member patiently seek a state of receptivity and freely follow what ever he/she may "receive". There may be hundreds of people in the hall or only a handful, but it is not a meeting in any ordinary sense. There is no discussion and no leader (Sitompul, 1980:81-83). "Instruction" or more properly guidance is provided by "helpers" (pembantu pelatih) for the "initiation" (pembukaan) of new members. Apart from acting as "helpers" or guides for the pembukaan, the pembantu pelatih assist with "testing". The "meetings" may last one or two hours with about a half-hour for the latihan, and the remaining time used for informal discussion and talks. The discussion is generally about problems in achieving the necessary "stillness of mind" needed for successful contact.

The forms of sujud vary greatly among the mystical movements, from a simple silent prayer, or a short concentration exercise, to an ecstatic shaking session, from an elaborate physical ritual to a prolonged dhikir, often a repetition of the name of God, or part of the Shahadah (the Muslim confession of faith), la ilaha `illalah - there is no god but the One God. After the initial act of will by which a member submits to the process, the training received in the latihan does not come from any intentional action of his/her own. Subuh stresses that the true meaning of latihan is worship of God. In the latihan, the soul is awakened. When this takes place, an action begins in part or all of the organs of the body. In the latihan one's body is gradually permeated with the life force that flows from one's own awakened soul. Physical, facial, or vocal expressions are considered normal and part of the latihan. Bennett, in Concerning Subud interprets one of Subuh's explanations as follows:

When all the organs and their functions are trained to be receptive to the fine influences and impulses that proceed from conscience in the depths of the soul, then all participate in worship. True worship comes from the whole man from his highest soul powers to the skin and bone of his body. Worship is training, but it is training that comes wholly from within. (1959:95)

Generally, Subud members perform latihan only two or three times a week, and usually in the evenings. According to M. Subuh, the reason is that in the daytime most people are awake and do a lot of thinking. This means that they radiate all kinds of mental energy, or vibrations, and fill the atmosphere with distracting influences. In the evenings the air becomes relatively free of these disturbances. Therefore, it is easier to do latihan during the evening as there is little interference. Subuh cautions that only those who are spiritually strong should attempt to do latihan either in the daytime or at night (1957:passim).

Although no specific days of the week are prescribed for Subud to meet for latihan, many Subud centers strive to meet Monday and Thursday evenings at eight O'clock, in order to synchronise with the latihan at Cilandak, the Subud Headquarters in Jakarta. To have latihan on Mondays and Thursdays is not only typical for Subud members, it is a common practise among the Javanese to meditate and fast on those two days. 'Many Javanese, abangan and priyayi, still fast on Mondays and Thursdays, from dawn to dusk. To stay awake all night, particularly on holidays or special occasions, helps one stay young and leads to a long life' (Geertz, 1960:324). The Javanese also believe that the only way to receive power and wisdom is through fasting and meditation.

The Subud symbol.

Figure 1.

The Subud symbol was "received" by Subuh in the form of a wahyu, or revelation, and consists of a series of seven, evenly-spaced, concentric circles filled with seven lines radiating from the centre. According to M. Subuh, a circle represents the continuity and infinity of both life and (spiritual) development. Each circle represents a level, stage, or dimension, of spiritual growth. The seven radial lines represent the Holy Spirit (Roh Illofi) which permeates all the life forces from "within". The inner-most circle portrays the spiritual level of matter (Roh Kebendaan); the second, vegetable (Roh Tumbuh-tumbuhan, or Roh Nabati); the third, animal (Roh Hewani); the fourth, human (Roh Orang, or jasmaniah); the fifth, perfect human (Roh Manusia); the sixth, Saint (Roh Rohani); the seventh, Prophet (Roh Rahmani).

Subuh further explains that there are other spiritual levels above these: the level of the archangels (Roh Rabbani), and, also at the level of angels, the Roh ul-Kudus permeates the "outer", and is represented in the Subud symbol by the spaces between the circles. Furthermore, Subuh states that the Roh Illofi and the Roh ul-Kudus are different dimensions (inner and outer) of the life force which envelopes and permeates humankind, and which, at the same time provide a "portal" or "path" to Tuhan Yang Maha Esa. Subuh states that this experience is impossible to achieve through the use of the akal (intellect), rather it is only experienced at the higher dimension of intuitive feeling (rasa murni) through sincere (ikhlas) surrender (sujud) to Tuhan (Subuh in Soeharto, 1993, 23-25).

Subuh also elaborates how the four lower spirits, or dimensions, Roh Kebendaan, Roh Nabati, Roh Hewani and Roh Orang, play an integral, God-ordained role in the grand scheme of things, and influence and are influenced by, the human spirit. Subuh's eschatology essentially considers humans to be divided into two categories: (1) Those who have not made contact with the "life force" (Roh Illofi and the Roh ul-Kudus), and thus their ego is in control and their souls are still "sleeping"; these people are still at the spiritual level of the Roh Orang. (2) Those who have successfully diminished their ego through the latihan, or similar form of sujud, and contact with the "life force" has "awakened" their soul. People in this latter category are approaching, or have attained, the level of the perfected human being, or Roh Manusia. For example, the people in the first group are unaware of, but subject to, the powerful dialectal force that material objects, such as money, cars, weapons, and so on, has for them, 'because ... in those objects there exists a life force which can influence the hearts and minds of humankind' [karena ... dalam benda-benda itu ada daya hidup yang dapat mempengaruhi hati, akal-pikiran manusia] (Subuh in Soeharto, 1993:23-32).

Similarly, but with increasingly wider scope, the life forces in vegetables, animals and humans influence a person's development. The vegetable and animal forces are said to be able to exert more influence (than the Roh Kebendaan) over people because humankind must eat, and thus these lower forces are ingested with one's food. On the other hand, Roh Orang manifests its influence through the interaction and interpenetration of the jasmaniah force during the sexual union of man and woman. Subuh emphasises that, except in the case of sexual union between "perfected" humans, the jasmaniah force is not just human force confronting human force, but human force confronting other lower forces (collectively known as nafsu) veiled by a human mask (Subuh in Soeharto, 1993:26-28). Thus, a person can be influenced in manifold ways by one's nafsu, for good, or evil, but without real knowledge as to how or why. Access to real knowledge is not achieved through the intellectual process of reasoning (rasio, or akal). Because a person in this category does not yet possess an intuitive feeling (rasa murni), or awareness of the totality of nature.

On the other hand, Subuh states that through the latihan kejiwaan the human soul, or one's rasa murni, is "awakened" and the "ancillary" forces (Roh Kebendaan, Roh Nabati, Roh Hewani and Roh Orang), properly the servants of humanity, can be properly harnessed. This in turn leads to a spontaneous strengthening of one's status as a human being and opens the way towards perfection. Subuh concludes with the statement:

The meaning of perfection is that you as human beings will have found your individual inner purpose or the true (sejati) attribute. With this you will no longer feel like a body empty of the metaphysical power that arouses the inner feeling so that it can become an instrument for receiving understanding that will be of benefit to human life on earth and in the hereafter. [Arti sempurna, ialah: bahwa anakanda sebagai manusia, telah dapat menemukan sifat guna-diri yang pribadi atau sejati, yang dengan ini kamu sudah tidak merasa lagi sebagai badan orang yang tak terisi kekuatan luar dugaan yang membangktkan rasa-diri hingga dapat menjadi alat penerima pengertian untuk guna hidup manusia dan diakhirat.] (Subuh, 1957:378)

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