by Sahlan Diver
This is a long article, because it is almost certainly going to be my last written for Subud on the subject of Subud.
The article outlines my journey from 100% convinced Subud member of forty years ago to my newly awakened point of view today. One person’s journey by itself is not particularly significant. What makes it significant is that I seem to be not the only person now ready to transfer their energies and skills to upcoming new latihan initiatives. There is one such in operation already. With any luck there might be another three before the year is out. We are not talking breakaway Subud groups; we are talking new style groups that won’t be afraid to advertise the latihan. Subud may be willing to lose a few ‘dissidents’, will no doubt heave a sigh of relief, but when these newer, livelier, simpler latihan organisations inevitably begin to attract young people away from Subud, what then? No young people, no Subud future. It’s as simple as that. So, if you want to understand the phenomenon that could spell the end of Subud, read on….
A Lifetime Away
There’s something about modern television that distorts timescales. In the ’70s, when colour television first arrived in Britain, you could get a pretty good clue from the picture quality as to the era you were watching. World War II was fought in black and white, ’50s America was lived in glorious technicolor, the ’30s had their own particular flavour of grey scale, and so on. It comes as somewhat of a shock, therefore, when images of a time past contradict our expectations, such as the documentary series, ‘The First World War In Colour’, with re-mastered colour footage of countryside that could have been filmed yesterday, except it has the horror of that war superimposed upon it. Since the 1980s, with the development of higher quality video recording, visual clues as to time have been increasingly absent. You could be watching somebody interviewed as part of a recently made documentary, only to find out that the interview segment was conducted thirty years ago, and that the interviewee is long since dead. I recently experienced just such a visual time shock.
In 2008 I started tentatively writing a stage play, based on my experiences in Subud. I wasn’t sure how far I would get with the play, because (a) I never before in my life had any interest in the theatre and (b) I didn’t know whether I would have sufficient ability in the field to make a good job of it. To cut a long story short, I finished the play in 2012 and have since been sending it round to theatres and play-writing competitions. Because of my new-found interest I have naturally wanted to watch and learn from other playwrights. One convenient though limited source of stage-play performances is YouTube, on which I found this excellent production of Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’:
I recommend it. After a slightly shaky start, it gets funnier and funnier, and there is a superb comic turn by Julian Fellowes, the ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ creator, playing a manic young playwright.
It was while watching this play, that I had my time shock. I suddenly realised that the performance I was watching had been filmed thirty-three years ago in 1981— a lifetime away, literally so of course, but also in terms of attitudes and expectations. I started to think back to what Subud was like in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It occurred to me that everything that is wrong with Subud now was already wrong then, also that we saw what was wrong, but we variously explained the wrongness away for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for erroneous conclusions at the time. Subud was new and wonderful and all problems could be seen as a working-out, part of an unstoppable, collective development with only one direction — onwards and upwards. And even when you went from group to group and saw the same problems going around and coming around, it all seemed so parochial set against Subud’s big successes in the wider world: the establishment of an international bank, a multi-storey landmark office block in Jakarta, the inspiring hi-tech dome being built onto the upcoming Anugraha Conference Centre, the ambitious and imaginative plans that were being touted for redeveloping a harbour area in Sydney, Australia. These ventures were the counter-balance to the aggressive negativity frequently expressed by many members and helpers towards Bapak’s big idea, i.e. enterprise development with 25% of surplus profits going to charitable causes.
Just at the point when it all started to go wrong, with the collapse of Anugraha in 1989, my own life took a new direction, when I and my family relocated to the Republic Of Ireland. For the next three years, apart from trying to get to latihan twice a week, I was out of it all. 1992 saw me getting involved again, with a campaign to revitalise Subud in Ireland through a new type of national congress that combined cultural festival with the usual congress business. Such congresses are commonplace now, but we in Ireland were early pioneers. The three successive congresses from 1992 to 1994 were very popular, with increasingly large numbers of visitors from abroad. However, come 1995, with a new administration in place, we were back to the same old ponderous, depressing congresses of the past, with no sign of the life we had tried to breathe into them.
At this time, I started to experience a personal problem. I could no longer tolerate discussion meetings. I would go shaky all over and there were people in the meetings I couldn’t bear to listen to. I’d apologise and say it was ‘something I was going through’ and I’d leave the meeting. With hindsight I understand that I was starting to experience an internal tension caused by an awakening from all the ideas we had been told by Bapak, by Varindra, by helpers, by other members at latihan nights, by Subud reports, by articles in Subud publications, basically repeating the same stuff over and over, decade after decade, about how ‘it’s like this in Subud’. However, at the time it never occurred to me that the cause for my discomfort might be a growing realisation of something fundamentally wrong with the basis of Subud itself.
I am not a people-person, and have never applied to become a helper. My interest was always the committee side. Accordingly, I channelled my new problematic feelings about Subud into examining its committee procedures. I concluded that these were seriously flawed. My theoretical musings were confirmed by parallel practical experience, freelancing at various businesses, where I was able to compare at first hand the consequences of organisational styles ranging from good to downright appalling. I devised an alternative scheme for Subud organisation and, in 2002, I made the decision with a few other members to form a new breakaway Subud national organisation in Ireland, called ‘Subud Eire’. Looking back, what is interesting about that experiment is that it was still recognisably ‘traditional’ Subud. There was a constitution based on other national Subud constitutions, sharing their list of Subud’s aims; also, the helper system and the status of Bapak survived without comment. The only aspect that had changed, albeit radically, was the committee structure and procedures.
Late in 2006, David Week emailed to ask some questions about my experiences with Subud Eire. The email conversation that ensued led to our devising the ‘Subud Vision’ project (as later named by Stefan Freedman), with the aim of publishing fifty analytical articles in time for the 50th anniversary of Subud in the West in June 2007. The inevitable pre-judging, opposing voices did not dampen our authors’ enthusiasm to write, and we were soon receiving articles covering a wide range of topics, with suggestions for improving Subud. I think it is fair to state, for all of the Subud Vision editors, that our own personal viewpoints were considerably broadened by the informed writing of our peers. For example, previously I had been of the view that the real problems of Subud were mainly committee/organisational, but now I was being made aware of a whole lot of other issues: how useful was the helper system, how ethical was the way enterprises had been promoted, how correct were our ingrained ideas about the future growth of Subud, and so on. It did occur to me, right at the start, that our authors’ ideas for change might be examined and rejected, and that therefore a ‘Plan B’, a new breakaway latihan organisation, might be necessary, but it was obvious the idea had no support; certainly none of my fellow editors felt that was the way to go.
Like the other editors, I believed that our campaign of high quality articles would, over a period of time, gradually influence Subud thinking and make possible the changes that Subud needs.
That’s where I was in 2007, but, for me, it was my stage play about Subud that changed everything.
A Play about Subud *
Question: How do you write an effective play about Subud?
Answer: You don’t — well not about Subud, anyway. Whichever way you characterise it, Subud people will go into denial, and say, ‘Subud’s not at all like that’.
What you do instead is write about an imaginary spiritual movement that is clearly not Subud, but which has Subud’s faults. The aim is to present something that Subud people can look into ‘from the outside’, so to speak, and hopefully begin to understand how they could similarly try to see Subud more objectively. That was my theory at the time I embarked on the play and I intended it to be nothing more than another way of trying to get my point across. However, once I got into writing the play, I experienced something unexpected, a kind of spontaneous learning process. I saw that the problems of Subud were not unique but were the predictable results of fundamental flaws in human nature. In other words, the development of Subud was not being determined by God, as we liked to tell ourselves, but was being determined by human psychology.
It’s one thing to have a theme for a play, but you also need an engaging setting. I had the idea of placing the scenes of the play at a party, a perfect vehicle for recreating the stilted awkwardness of many Subud gatherings I had experienced, where people put on a show of bonhomie and harmony, while at the same time hiding their true thoughts and feelings, knowing that what they’d really like to say would not be welcome in a Subud context. But I needed more than a party setting — a play about ‘the spiritual’ is never going to have popular appeal — I needed an exciting back story, to keep the audience awake and engaged. The back story came about by a fortunate coincidence.
While freelancing on a three-month contract in the northeast of England, I’d walk to work every day through a modern housing estate, pass by a derelict 19th Century chapel, and arrive at a newly built science park. I couldn’t figure out what the chapel was doing, literally ‘in the middle of nowhere’, because when the chapel was built the surrounding area would have been open fields. My landlady provided the answer — it was once the chapel of a Victorian lunatic asylum. Now I had my back story and a perfect metaphor for Subud’s lack of grasp of reality. The setting for the play’s party became an ex-lunatic asylum ‘Chapel in the Middle of Nowhere’ and while the characters in my play are busy congratulating themselves on a glorious future guaranteed by Almighty God, the audience are anticipating, from a few judiciously placed clues, that a much more mundane, and sinister, fate is likely to be in store.
The Whole Picture Becomes Clear
Before I wrote my play, I’d always thought, like many other Subud members, ‘Of course Subud’s not a cult! Where’s our sinister leader, our walled compound where we live cut off from the world, our suicide pacts?’ But these are extreme examples. What I learnt was that cults don’t come about just through having a leader. Cults are nothing without willing followers. You don’t even need a sinister leader; a benign leader can be worshipped by his followers with such fervour after his death that a new cult arises.
How can a situation arise where a benign figure who has no intention of fathering a cult, nevertheless ends up doing so?
Quoting the words of a fellow editor:
[D]espite all [Subud’s] weirdness, there were no synaptic links in my mind that could enable me to join all the dots. Like Sahlan, I just assumed it was all purification and would eventually work itself out. I had somehow self-brainwashed and chosen to be a believer.
The term ‘self-brainwash’ is the clue. A Subud friend asked me recently how it was possible that intelligent Subud members could put aside their normal critical faculties when it came to Subud matters, and naïvely, almost childishly, believe absolutely in everything Bapak told them. I said I could answer his question, having been guilty of this myself. My theory is that it comes about through a progression of circumstances. First, you experience the latihan. That is extraordinary enough. For many also, difficult life circumstances have probably been the driving force that led them to ‘look for answers’ and eventually find Subud. Your first experience of Subud, as one of my fellow editors puts it, is as a ‘new family’. Everything seems positive and amazing. Then you start to be convinced that the latihan truly is a gift from the Almighty, to help mankind out of its current desperate state. If the latihan is from God, then surely he must have chosen a very special person (i.e. Bapak) to be the first to receive and spread this precious gift. Now (and here’s the emotionally appealing but nevertheless illogical step), if Bapak has been specially chosen, then he must also be in special communication with God, able to receive absolute and incontrovertible truths not only about spiritual matters, but also about worldly, organisational matters also. Therefore we must be obedient to everything he says.
Once you have ‘seen the light’ in this way, then you become a kind of religious believer anxious to explain the error of their ways to anyone who is experiencing doubt. A kind of self-reinforcing culture arises amongst like-minded converts, which discourages questioning and which rewards ‘positive’ attitudes that fit in.
So, what do cults have in common, whether deliberate or accidental? One thing they particularly have in common is their own unique way of looking at the world, which trumps normal experience. Every decision, every feeling, is measured against this new way of looking at things. Anything that doesn’t fit is discarded as invalid. Just as contradictory experiences must be discarded, so must contradictory people. Criticism of the cult must be marginalised, typically through insinuation that the criticisers are people with character flaws or evil intentions, poor unfortunates for whom the cult has been of no benefit. I was lucky enough to persuade a well-known expert on cults to read my play. This person, who had no knowledge of Subud, commented that the play ‘fully demonstrates the thought-control processes of cults’, which is interesting because all I did in writing the play was mimic the typical way Subud members speak, in some cases using verbatim quotes.
What is not typical about Subud is that the fundamental beliefs which determine how we collectively act are never explicitly stated. They only come out into the open if you happen to talk or act in a way that comes into conflict with them.
So what are these fundamental beliefs. It is not possible to characterise them precisely, but the ones that are the insuperable obstacles to change are:
· Bapak received it all for us and gave us the perfect gift of Subud. Therefore we do not need to criticise or question anything, only carry it out.
· Anybody who thinks he can improve on Bapak’s advice is obviously suffering from inflated ego and therefore should not be taken seriously.
· Since Subud is from Bapak there cannot be anything wrong with it, therefore anyone who complains about any aspect of Subud is merely indicating their own faults.
· Bapak’s advice was for always, not just for his time.
· Since Subud is a spiritual movement, all the important issues in Subud cannot avoid having a spiritual component, therefore no important decisions should be made without testing their rightness.
· Harmony is vital to Subud and we should not do anything that encourages discord and endless discussion. Be still and all problems will work themselves out.
· Receivings through the kejiwaan will always be more pure and correct than ideas from ‘mere mind’, which will be tainted by desire and ego.
Of course all of these ideas can be questioned. When people talk in reverent terms about ‘Bapak’s guidelines’, they take no account of the many times Bapak appeared to contradict himself; they make no assessment of whether Bapak was intending advice for a particular occasion only; they make no assessment of whether Bapak was giving some advice as an example of what we could do, not as a law to prescribe how something must be done; they don’t consider that Bapak might have been perfectly okay with many of his ideas and suggestions being adapted for a new era and new understandings; they make no admission that receivings in testing can also be influenced by ego, desire and collective prejudice.
But we know the ideas won’t be questioned because they are religiously fundamental to Subud, or rather to the people in the most prominent positions of power and influence. The ideas also have the perfect built-in protection mechanism. According to the aforementioned belief system, ideas cannot be questioned by ‘mere mind’. Only testing could change the fundamental mindset, and the practice of using testing to back up already strongly held beliefs is highly questionable.
How did we get from the situation of a dynamic and non-dogmatic movement in 1957 to today’s incarnation, closed to all appeals for change, and spiritually bloody-minded? You could say the Subud organisation was formed primarily as a means to protect and facilitate the practice of latihan, but it is clearly more than that, because of the adopted symbol, which is an expression of a spiritual teaching about the hierarchy of forces in the spiritual world, and because of the name, which again is an expression of a specific spiritual ideal, and because of the enthusiastic official promotion of Bapak’s talks, with all their contained teaching. This explains why many Subud members see no contradiction in asserting spiritual ‘fact’ in the context of discussions about the latihan and about Subud, even though it nakedly states on the subud.com web site: ‘[T]here is no particular Subud dogma that [members] are required to accept. The essence of Subud is the personal experience of the latihan.’
As long as people see Subud as a platform for aligning with spiritual ‘truths’, which are seldom anything original from their receiving, but are coincidentally usually either what Bapak taught them, or what they were taught in religion at school, or what tallies with the current prejudices of their society, then you will always get a cut-off point in discussion, beyond which it is not possible to go.
The Last Chance for Subud — a Manifesto
Subud’s system of democracy, however well-intentioned, is an inadequate vehicle for change. Local groups vote for proposals to go up to national level. National bodies vote for the proposals to go on to zonal level. Zonal bodies vote for the proposals to go on to Congress. Congress votes on and ratifies the proposals. At best that means a four-year turn-around, eight years if it gets referred back for further discussion, though that actually means never, because Subud has no formal process for handover and continuity.
But it gets worse. At any stage, helpers can step in, claim something is essentially a spiritual matter and test it out of existence. Worse, the helpers test the chairs, ensuring through prejudice you’ll usually get safe, status-quo-affirming candidates. Even should a non-trivial or non-mundane proposal makes it through, Ibu Rahayu is there to squash it if it doesn’t accord with ‘Bapak’s legacy’ as she sees it. This broken system, which takes no account of the flaws in human nature, is supposedly a precious gift from Bapak which we must uphold for ever and ever.
The only chance for change, therefore, is for individual groups to rebel and experiment with local changes without first seeking approval from committee or helper hierarchies.
I suggest there should be an openly stated manifesto, which interested groups can sign up to, maybe through a web site.
The manifesto would be very simple, consisting of two statements:
(1) Groups should be allowed and encouraged to experiment with changes to Subud at the local level, without interference from helper or committee hierarchies outside of the group.
(2) Group decisions for change should be by majority vote. No organisational decision, whether about a committee matter or about a helper-related matter, should be subjected to or overridden by testing.
If these two fundamentals were in place, then change could take place organically through the talents, brains, energies and personal latihan guidance of the members. It’s not necessary to tell groups what to do, just make them free to exercise their own creativity and encourage them to share their different ideas and experiences.
The reader might ask, ‘What sort of changes might a group decide to make?’ Here’s a tentative list of ten, but it is not intended to be either prescriptive or comprehensive.
1. Fast-track the applicant period to three evenings: Evening 1— talk and explanations; Evening 2 — questions and answers, and meet the group; Evening 3 — get opened.
2. Drop any opening statements with an implied imposition of specific religious ideas. The occasion should be free of any general or specific religious connotations.
3a. Appoint helpers on a temporary basis only, by annual voting. Introduce a rule that helpers cannot serve for more than two terms at a time. This is both to give helpers a fair break from the burden and also to prevent popular helpers being continuously elected thus inadvertently excluding others from having a chance to show their suitability.
3b. In a small group of experienced members, abandon the helper system altogether and instead organise a system of ad-hoc peer support.
4. Introduce an electronic voting system (by email, web site, mobile phone and by proxy or by telephone for those without access to modern gadgets) so that the right of all group members to vote is respected, including those too old, frail, impecunious or busy to attend the meetings.
5. Do not allow voting in meetings, where people can be heavily influenced by peer pressure. Ensure that every meeting results in a full report summarising the discussion, so that all members, including those who did not attend the meeting, have the information at hand to make a considered, informed decision in their electronic vote.
6. Ban the practice of testing decisions. If an individual wants to test for guidance on how to vote, that is of course their prerogative, but it should not be assumed that everyone should test, nor that testing should trump voting.
7. Advertise the latihan continuously in the local newspaper, inviting interested people to a monthly evening enquiry meeting, backed up by a wealth of information on the local web site, written in religion-free terms, without quotes from Bapak, and without all the Subud garbage that makes us look (to anyone but ourselves) like a guru-led cult.
8. Introduce experimental mixed-gender latihans for those that wish to try them.
9. Ban the practise of testing group chairs. Group chair candidates should campaign on the issues that they believe are important to the group. Members would vote based on their assessment of the platforms and of the capacity of each candidate to do the job.
10. No longer officially sponsor Bapak talks. If some of the members want to organise Bapak tape evenings, they should be free to do so, but that would be an initiative of enthusiastic individuals, rather than an organisation appearing to promote the talks of its guru.
On occasions when I have presented lists like these, people have said there are too many ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ in the list and that is it too authoritative. They are not reading carefully enough. If they look at the points one by one they will find that the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ are all there specifically to give people freedom of choice, freedom of action, and freedom from conformance to a prescribed belief model. The only people that are going to be uncomfortable with these kinds of ‘rules’ are precisely those people who use the force of their personality to exploit the absence of standards to wilfully gain an ascendancy over others.
Do we progress?
The Subud Vision editors were discussing whether there was any prominent factor that seemed to cause many long-term members to start having doubts about Subud all at about the same time, from the mid-1990s onwards. A prime candidate seems to be the lack of change in people. Over a few years, or even a decade, you might excuse it, but after four or five decades the claim that the latihan will purify all our faults is no longer tenable. There are just too many people exhibiting the same annoying qualities that you remember them being saddled with in their youth. And funnily enough, those people who are the most dedicated to the latihan and fervent in their Subud roles seem to be precisely the ones whose faults are the biggest obstacles to group harmony. It’s almost as if Subud gives them an excuse to behave badly.
An influential aspect of the Subud belief system is the concept that we will all jump together, that when we are collectively sufficiently purified, Subud will be freed from obstacles and grow automatically of its own accord. Funnily enough, the idea is in opposition to what Bapak said in his writings, the well-known talk of the parable of the soils, that the results of the latihan depend very much on the ‘soil’ the ‘rain’ falls on. Only the most fertile soil will give good results; if it falls on hard unyielding soil, it will go stagnant, create a stink, and so on. Bapak’s idea, unlike the adopted Subud belief, is fully in accordance with what happens in the real world, the famous bell curve distribution of statistics, with most people somewhere in the middle and the numbers tailing off in the direction of either extreme.
At the moment, if an individual raises a suggestion for Subud, the knee-jerk reaction is to consider the person is only motivated by ego. Since we all jump together and I myself did not receive the idea also, then it obviously must be an idea from the other person’s nafsu, and not worthy of further consideration.
On the other hand, if we really listen to Bapak, rather than to the Subud belief system, we should not be so quick to dismiss radical suggestions. Maybe that other person, hard as it may be for me to admit it, has actually progressed much further than myself and is receiving the next stage of inspiration about what needs to be done.
The Future of the Latihan
Thinking back to the initial enthusiasm for Subud in the West, it is clear that people saw it as something new and refreshing, the latihan promising an entirely tailor-made spiritual experience free from the dictates of clerics and gurus. Subud has not lived up to this promise of spiritual freedom. On the contrary, the longer it goes on, the more determinedly it promotes Bapak’s teachings at the expense of anything else. It has no interest in the spiritual experiences of its members, except when they align with the teachings of the leader. It has no interest in examining its working procedures, except to double-check they are line with the law as laid down by the leader.
There is a second sense in which Subud has failed also. Those of us who joined in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s were inspired by the idea of Subud facilitating a better world through a new kind of honesty made possible by the gradual diminishing of the power of the lower forces. Can we really say that Subud is a model organisation, willing to examine its limitations, and put right its faults, or could we more accurately say that a priority for Subud is to maintain a sufficient level of propaganda to persuade its own members that all is well in the Subud world and that there really are no problems we have to worry about? If you think I am exaggerating on this latter point, that I am suggesting conspiracies that don’t exist, I could tell you of special groups of helpers being set up to vet articles for ‘suitability’ in Subud publications, I could tell you of a new request that has only just gone out for ‘only positive articles, no criticism’, I could tell you of instances of Subud publication editors being censured for printing even the mildest criticisms. I give these tactics a name: ‘wilful mismanagement’. I suggest that the issues raised by Subud Vision and on various independent discussion forums have not gone unnoticed by the hierarchy, but that Subud prefers saving face to facing truth.
Subud beliefs about harmony seem more geared to avoiding confrontation as something distasteful and unworthy than engaging with dissent for the purpose of a collective working-out of issues. Which brings me to this question: If the latihan has been unable to save Subud from itself, how can we expect it to save the world? Marcus Bolt, in his first article for Subud Vision, raised the question asked by Varindra back in the ’70s: ‘Does the state of the world reflect the state of Subud, or does the state of Subud reflect the state of the world?’ The conceited answer which we gave back then was that the whole world was somehow influenced by the state of an obscure spiritual movement which the majority of the human population had neither heard of, nor would probably care to hear of. Our obligation was clear — if only Subud could learn to become harmonious, then the whole world would follow suit. The real answer of course, as shown with the benefit of hindsight, is that Subud is no more immune to the weaknesses of human nature than any other organisation. A perfect demonstration of how Subud reflects the current state of the world can be seen in Subud’s increasingly dominant theocracy. God knows best and we are the representatives of God on this Earth, therefore all must be done as we say. With fanatics from the Middle East warring not only to gain the upper-hand in their own region but also to spread their grim, morally bankrupt brand of ignorant, religious fascism worldwide, you’d think the last thing Subud members would want to do is identify themselves as followers of the will of God. But no, Subud thinks this image is okay and that therefore people should be queuing up to join it.
Maybe the latihan is not what we expected of it thirty, forty or fifty years ago, a world-changing force. Maybe for the majority of people it has had an unspectacular effect. Perhaps the latihan will change the world, not through the machinations of a small, unknown and isolated movement that thinks it has been favoured with a God-given guarantee of eventual success, but instead through the actions of a tiny handful of individuals able to harness the latihan to do truly exceptional things. For those individuals, if they exist, and for the vast majority of other people, who could get some benefit from the latihan if it were made accessible to them, we have an obligation to remove the latihan from its Subud containment and make it generally and easily available.
* ‘The Chapel in the Middle of Nowhere’, a stage play in two acts, by Sahlan Diver (2012)
Four members of an obscure cult, ‘M’, meet for a party in an isolated, converted-chapel home. None of them are prepared for the disruption that will be caused by three unexpected guests, one of whom may be hiding a dark past, and by the events that will play out during the wild and stormy autumn night. Who is mad, who is sane, and who is in danger?