Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An American Sufi Quest / Sohbet with Mansur Johnson

1.
Show us the straight path,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace.
- Invocation of the Opening (al-Fatiha), 6,7


2.
Murshid Samuel L. Lewis (Sufi Ahmed Murad Chisti), may God be pleased with him, was a remarkable Human being and a Sufi Master from many dimensions of his being who he was, and notably he was the first western born Sufi Teacher. Among those who enjoyed the blessing of the presence of this beautiful human being and was fortunate enough to sit near and receive from him is Mansur Johnson (Otis B. Johnson). Mansur is the author of the book, Murshid: a personal memoir of life with American Sufi Samuel L. Lewis where he details his three-year association with his Sufi Teacher in the San Francisco Bay area during the late 1960s. We are very fortunate to share here an exchange with Mansur Johnson in the spirit of what Sufis call Sohbet (sacred companionship).

The questions came from Sadiq and other visitors of the blog via the post: In preparation of Sohbet with Mansur Johnson, author of "Murshid".


3. Sohbet

Every true Murshid, a Master who is given the grace and responsibility to guide souls is like a Sun. Shams, the Mystic Master of Rumi - his name literally meant Sun and he was indeed one such Sun that awakened a new dawn in Rumi's life that changed forever his life by a mystical illumination and became guiding light and inspired his life's work. We find remnants of Shams in Murshid Sam. How big was his influence and in what way in your own life after you met him?

Mansur and Sufi Sam
Mansur Johnson: If I can riff on your opening before I get to the question, I would say Murshid considered himself the Shams to Pir Vilayat Khan’s Rumi. Consider that Murshid had been a disciple of Pir Vilayat’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan (HIK). Along comes the son. It was very dramatic the first meetings. I was very curious myself, and, as I write in the book (Murshid), organized an expedition to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles to obtain the teachings of the son. Since I was in the process of reading and indexing the 12 volumes written by HIK, the first thing I noticed was that Pir Vilayat was doing his own thing.

Murshid’s influence on my life was total. Sometimes I describe my 3 years with Murshid as doing post-graduate work in Oriental Philosophy. If you’re working for an advanced degree, that’s your life for that time. That’s how it was when I was with Murshid. And then when Murshid died, and I had received what I had received, let’s call it the privilege of close proximity to the teacher, I felt I had to give to others what I had received. Thus began a decade of giving back.


For East obedience and surrender to a Teacher is easily understood as it is part of the culture. But in the West such obedience and surrender which is required towards a Teacher, specially in a Sufi Path is often resisted by the mind, give rise to a cult-like insecurity. Do you think when it comes to Spiritual Transmission the Teacher Student relationship model has become obsolete in our time?

No, the teacher-student relationship model is not obsolete. It goes on all the time in academia. People have mentors. But obedience is not required in academic life or in Sufism. Al-Hujwiri said, “There is no compulsion in Sufism.” Murshid quoted this all the time. Surrender is a different matter. It is necessary to surrender, to make a willing suspension of your own beliefs and opinions if you want to have a chance to gain something from another in the spiritual world or the academic world. The difference between mentoring in academic life and the spiritual life is that what you gain from a mentor in the academic life is usually not spiritually liberating. Interaction with a spiritual teacher has the possibility of spiritual realization. I recommend The Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty, by Hazrat Inayat Khan. It is in volume 5 of my 1962 edition of The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan.


Did you have dreams of Murshid Sam after his passing? Is there any remarkable dream transmission that you would like to share with us? Any special instruction by Sam in terms of work.

No, not that I recall.  Before his passing, when I did tassawuri Murshid, which is fana-fi-Sheikh, I had lots of dreams, because I was thinking all the time about the teacher. But after his passing, not so many.  I think the reason for that is that after Murshid’s passing I went directly  from fana-fi-Sheikh to fana-fi-Allah, mostly skipping even fana-fi-Rasul. Fana is usually translated annihilation; or more meaningfully, attunement to or effacement in. The terms refer to concentration on one’s living teacher (Sheikh), concentration on Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or another world messenger (Rasul), and God.


How did Mansur continued his contribution to the Sufi Work after Samuel Lewis left his body?

As mentioned above, I carried on Murshid’s work by working furiously for 10 years after Murshid’s passing, giving to others all over North America and Canada what I had received from him--at weekend seminars and workshops and camps, in the form of leading dances, teaching the spiritual and astrological walks, and starting a Sufi School to offer a deeper training to those who were attracted.

I was with Murshid for 3 years. I offered two three year classes at my school during the 10 years from 1971 to 1981 that I was an active teacher. There were three houses of students connected with the school. So much for my public offering. Privately, the book Murshid that I began during the 70s took some 36 years to complete. I consider the book an important contribution.


As we know that it was Pir Moinuddin who was appointed the successor by Murshid to carry the Message. What became Mansur's role?

One of Murshid’s disciples remarked after Murshid’s passing, “We’re all Murshid now.” Obviously, the successor has all the responsibility, and for 30 years Moineddin shouldered the burden. Moineddin was my best friend from before our Sufi days. Little by little, I’m posting “Letters from Moineddin” at www.mansurjohnson.com/content/introduction, as a sort of book in progress. 

Pir Moineddin Jablonski  (1942 - 2001)
When you become successor, you have the organization to deal with. While I was in on the early organizational meetings, I thought I knew what to do and when everybody didn’t agree with me, I became impatient with them and felt frustrated in my ability to function freely. I finally stepped out. My role, as I defined it, was to function like Murshid on the East Coast in Boston, while my spiritual brothers and sisters were doing the difficult work of learning to function as a group on the West Coast. I always considered myself part of them, but I was free from any constraints. Especially free, because I remained in the Sufi Order with Pir Vilayat when he orchestrated the exit of the West Coast Sufis from the Sufi Order and caused them to take refuge in the Sufi Islamia Ruhaniat Society, a name given to Murshid by Sufi Barkat Ali from Lahore, Pakistan.


Question from Readers: How spiritual "component" works concerning our "thought-processes"? Science says "neurons" are fired into our brains which give rise to thoughts (any thought for example). This then triggers our nervous system, which in turn moves our bodies, whatever our thought has asked us to do. The mystery here is, does our thoughts first move the neurons, or is it the "neurons" that first triggers our thoughts ?

This is a sort of chicken-egg question to which I would answer that first there is the feeling, then the thought. We feel hungry, a sensation in the stomach, the digestive juices in an uproar, which get our attention. After which, perhaps, the mind formulates a thought: I am hungry. So before the thought, there is the growling in the stomach. Then the thought, I am hungry. As Sufis we were trained to develop the feeling, develop the thought, and then act. From way back the motto of my Sufi School, The Einstein Academy, was “Feeling before thought.” I took that saying from the physicist Albert Einstein, who answered thusly when asked, “What is the secret of your genius?” In your formulation, I would give the nod to the neurons.


What is your most important realization after walking so many years in the Sufi Path and what you see your life's work?

To the first, I would say that my most important realization was that one’s life is a work of art. And that one should create one’s life as a work of art. I am grateful for the tools that I have received from many spiritual disciplines that have helped me to develop for myself the Art of Living that works for me, including right breathing, right eating, feeling, right thinking, right acting.

I see my life’s work as assimilating the lessons I’ve learned and manifesting in action what is before me to do. My life as an activist started with air pollution in California in the 60s. I was doing Greek Dancing in Oakland and one of the Greeks was a State Senator. It came about that California was the first to  develop tough laws regarding auto emissions. Then, in the 70s my dual projects were anti-nuclear activism at Seabrook, New Hampshire, and a lawsuit, which prevented small towns in New England from financing more nuclear capacity than necessary. A victory there denied half a billion dollars in construction funds and a second unit at Seabrook was not built. At the same time, I lobbied for renewable energy, especially Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. My book Shamcher, a memoir of Bryn Beorse’s struggle to bring ocean energy to the United States tells the story. (see www.mansurjohnson.com/content/otec-update)  This endeavor continues to this day. Then, after various trips to Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela, I advocated for changes in United States foreign policies in articles found at www.mansurjohnson.com/content/articles.


In Sufi Path (as well as other spiritual movement) there has always been a tension between traditional, orthodox way and the new formation, unorthodoxy. In the book Murshid we clearly see Sufi Sam often wrote in defence of his unorthodoxy to orthodox or traditionalist Sufis. Did the position of Sufi Sam remained the same throughout his life? What did he communicate to you regarding this?

This very subject comes up in the “In the Loop” chapter in Letters from Moineddin [Moineddin Jablonski, Murshid’s successor] at www.mansurjohnson.com/content/march-12-1976 , where a practicing Muslim quotes not only HIK but Sufi Barkat Ali, Murshid’s Murshid, both of whom instruct Murshid to practice Nimaz and to give his students as well the Islamic prayers. There is no doubt that what Murshid was giving would inspire some to come at him with knives, when they saw men and women holding hands in a circle. But he was adamant. He wanted to reach Americans, he wanted to open hearts, he wanted to get 100,000 Americans to say “Allah”. What he communicated to me through his example was that you do what you are inspired to do. He dialogued respectfully at length with Sufi Barkat Ali about these matters, but he demonstrated that he was guided to do what he did, and that was that. No compromise.

Hazrat Sufi Barkat Ali Rahmatullahi 'alayh (1911-1997), one of the Teacher of Murshid Sam

As a close associate of Murshid Sam, the place where Dance of Universal Peace has come to, do you think it has flowered as Murshid had envisioned it, or it lacks certain element that would put it in the right orbit?

Yes, the dances have flourished as Murshid envisioned they would, reaching beyond the boundaries of North America to the far corners of the earth. As someone who has not led dances for 30 years, it is difficult to assess where the dances are at today in terms of their appropriateness for this time. I would hope that the dances are well attended all over the world by people of all ages and that each circle finds its own appropriate expression for its place at this time, but I don’t know.

Older people, who didn’t dance, comprised the bulk of Pir Vilayat’s audience when he arrived in the United States in the 60s. It was a boon for him that Murshid Sam was attracting young people, which Pir Vilayat gladly folded into his Order. Pir Zia, Pir Vilayat’s son, today is young, and I don’t know the demographic of his audiences, old or young or mixed? From the looks of Pir Shabda Khan’s audience at the recent jamiat khas [leader’s meeting], as you would expect in a gathering of elders, it is mostly older folks. There are also camps for young people at Mendocino (California) and in Kansas. In the 70s, I used to take my family to Sufi Leader’s meetings. Today, my kids are more interested in Buddhism than Sufism. But Murshid was interested in Buddhism and was a Zen Master. So, interest and participation in all religions is permitted and part of Murshid Sam’s Sufism as well as the Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan.


What is your vision of Sufi Message in the West?

This was the subject of my book talk (offered on the homepage of www.mansurjohnson.com) I called “The Unfulfilled Vision that the Sufi’s Bring.” In a sentence, my vision of the Sufi Message in the West would be when each individual gets their guidance without intercession of rabbi, priest or imam, and acts morally. Murshid calls this God-consciousness. And what does God-consciousness look like? To quote Murshid, “The spiritual realization of God-consciousness brings with it more than expansion. It brings with it love, compassion, mercy, harmonization, and consideration. It brings with it the central worthiness of others.”  I would add, “The vision of Hazrat Inayat Khan is not fulfilled until all individuals are free, valued by one another, and each walks their path as a divine being.” This understanding has caused me to label “Sufi” any number of socially conscious individuals working for positive change. For example, the recipients of the “Right Livelihood Award.” They are all Sufis in my estimation.

About Mansur Johnson

Mansur Johnson is a father, Sufi, world traveller, union member, writer, spiritual teacher, photographer, and activist.

In the 1960s, he was a close associate of Sufi Murshid Samuel L. Lewis, the book Murshid is one consequence. More about Mansur, his writings and work can be found at his site, MansurJohnson.com

He can be connected via his Facebook.



# Resources:
* Official site of Mansur Johnson
* Samuel L. Lewis: An illuminated soul and inspiration
* Life of Sufi Sam
* Murshid Sam's Living Stream
* Murshid Samuel L. Lewis: Selected Works
* Dances of Universal Peace
* Khankah Sam
* Ruhaniyat

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