The Inquiring Mind editors met with Pir Shabda Kahn in the backyard of his home in San Rafael, California, where he lives with his wife, Tamam. As we talked, we looked out at his extraordinary garden and waterfall, and at one point Pir Shabda paused midsentence and pointed high in the trees to treat us with a vision of a swarm of bees.
Shabda Kahn was born to German Jewish refugees in New York. His parents were not particularly religious in the traditional sense, but he remembers his father standing by the window and praying.
In the 1960s a confluence of encounters and experiences—psychedelics, hearing Baba Ram Dass on the radio, chance meetings—sent him on a far-ranging exploration of spiritual life. His journey took him from Ram Dass’s community in New Hampshire to lectures and classes in New York City with Swami Satchidananda and Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Khan (son of Hazrat Inayat Khan) and to Sufi camp in Colorado with Pir Vilayat. In 1969 Pir Shabda settled in San Francisco as a formal disciple of Sufi teacher Murshid Samuel Lewis, who developed the Dances of Universal Peace. From that time on Pir Shabda was devoted to Sufi practices and he is now the Spiritual Guide of the Dances of Universal Peace (www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org).
Music is an important part of the Sufi tradition, and in 1972 Pir Shabda became a disciple of the famous Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. He is also a disciple of the illustrious Tibetan Buddhist Master, the 12th Tai Situpa Rinpoche. Over a twenty-three-year friendship, he was also deeply influenced by the American mystic Joe Miller.
As Pir Shabda talked with us, we were often struck by how his path weaves together teachings from Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, always pointing to a truth that runs deep beneath all traditions.
Shabda Kahn is the Pir (spiritual director) of the Sufi Ruhaniat International (www.ruhaniat.org) in the succession of Hazrat Inayat Khan and Murshid Samuel Lewis, and is the director of the Chisti Sabri School of Music. He leads gatherings in the Bay Area and worldwide. You can find out more about him and his teachings at www.pirshabda.com. This interview was conducted by Susan Moon, Martha Kay Nelson and Barbara Gates.
To listen to Pir Shabda’s music, click here.
INQUIRING MIND: What does God mean to you?
SHABDA KAHN: My heart, my existence, my breath has a thirst. That thirst has not gone away. I wake up with it. I go to sleep with it. It’s a longing. In layman’s terms I would say it’s the wish for happiness. Or you might say, it’s the wish to overcome the false notion of the experience of separateness and to live in the great equanimity, the all-pervading reality.
IM: Is that God?
SK: In Sufi terms, God is boundaryless, all-pervading, all-compassionate, unconditionally loving, unconditionally present, our very self.
In the beginning, you have to make your own God ideal out of your experience. What is calling you? From your small self you aspire to the widest ideal you can imagine. God is not a fixed idea. The small self has to be transformed—often translated as “annihilated.” Everything you believe will be smashed on the rock of truth, the rock of awakening. In the first stage, you connect to qualities that are at the source of everything: unconditional love, mercy, wisdom.
In the second stage, you realize that everything you do is for that God ideal, and so you surrender to God. You might think surrender is weakness. But to the contrary, surrender makes you strong. The third is a very, very glorious stage. Everywhere you look, you see the Beloved, as the Sufis often call God. Where is the altar of God? It’s not in some building or statue; it’s everywhere.
And the last stage of the path to God is union. Where are you turning when you are praying? What are you calling to? This divine presence, which is looking out through your eyes and listening through your ears, is you. And you are calling to your very self, the closest, most reliable friend, your very being.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, my teacher’s teacher, said, “First I went in search of the soul. I found that I was looking for myself. And finally when I awakened I found that if there ever was anything, I was that. Whatever there is now, I am that. Whatever there will be in the future, I am that. And there was no end to my happiness and joy!”
That could be a Buddhist experience, or it could be Christian mysticism, or Jewish mysticism. If you’re a mystic you rise above the vehicle you’re traveling in.
IM: So there’s a universal quality in Sufism that is welcoming to all. But what is it about Sufism that is different from other traditions? What draws you to Sufism in particular?
SK: The mysticism of breath is central. Repetition of sacred sound is central. And the art of living wholesomely is also central. Our effort is to learn to live in the breath twenty-four hours a day. The actual practice is to outwardly connect with the breath, be conscious of the breath, and let the breath fall into its natural rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. And we combine sound and breath. We put a sacred phrase “on the breath.” We do this in meditation, and we do this throughout the day. It could be Om Mani Padme Hum. So we might put Om Mani Padme Hum on the in-breath and then again on the out-breath, and breathe it out throughout the day, throughout our life.
We recite sacred phrases out loud. Repetition is important. Sound has an effect apart from meaning, based on the rhythm it creates in our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. One of the phrases we recite is called “zikr.” The phrase is La Ilaha Ilaha Allah Hu. It includes both negation (there is nothing but God—separateness is a false notion) and affirmation (experience yourself as the ONE).
IM: Do you do these practices together with others?
SK: Yes. When I get around people who I feel have a lot of awakening, it’s thrilling—such great joy. My teacher, Samuel Lewis, had visions in the ’60s of people holding hands in a circle and chanting the ninety-nine names of God. The all-pervading reality can’t be confined to any name, but sacred languages have found useful sounds that tune and open the heart. So we started doing these dances with Murshid Sam, chanting and holding hands, and these became the Dances of Universal Peace. In forty years they have spread to fifty countries.
There are Sufis all over the world, doing various practices. In Turkey they whirl. In India they have sama—they sing a lot and go into ecstasy.
IM: What does the name “Sufi” mean?
SK: History does not know for sure. There are several possibilities. The word could come from Sophia, an expression of wisdom from the Greek. It could come from safa, meaning “purity” in Arabic. Or suf, the name of the rough wool that the mystics of the time wore in Persia.
But it doesn’t matter what you call it or what practices you do. Hazrat Inayat Khan’s view is that the Sufi tradition isn’t tied to any particular religion. It recognizes that limitless freedom is the ultimate nature of the heart. And it is the natural thirst and goal of all sentient beings.
IM: How have these teachings supported you as you’ve lived through the ups and downs of your own life?
SK: That’s a great question.
The main thing is: don’t teach anything that you don’t have as direct experience. Don’t teach philosophy. The essence of what I’m trying to teach is to help people develop strength and courage, because without those, you can’t do anything. From there, you can develop compassion and kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. The work of the Sufi is to be able to keep one’s rhythm throughout life’s conditions and to be in tune with the Infinite. In other words, an awakened being is a being whose condition is no longer based on circumstance. I’ve been teaching that for forty years, and I’m doing my best to manifest it.
In the last five years, I’ve had three major opportunities to practice in this way. The first one came because my wife and I had our life savings invested with Bernie Madoff. The first night was tough. How are we going to survive?
But the Sufi path is so optimistic and present. Your practice keeps connecting you to the primal level of experience. Inayat Khan says, “There is nothing you can do to improve your soul. There is nothing you can do to stain your soul.” From that point of view, nothing can happen. Nothing will happen. So you are at ease with the difficulties of this world. Nobody is free of difficulties.
IM: So with the Bernie Madoff situation, you—
SK: We got through it. People asked us, “Are you angry? Do you want him to go to jail?” But I know that no debt goes unpaid. So he’ll have to do his work. I wish him the best in the end.
The second challenge came up in the middle of a ten-day group meditation retreat, what we call a Sufi sesshin. This was a form that I had developed because I noticed how much easier it was for beginning meditators to enter meditation after a dance. So for ten days we dance and sit and dance and sit. I was in the sesshin and I noticed blood in my stool. One of my students is a physician, and he told me to get a colonoscopy.
I got a doctor’s appointment two days after the retreat ended. I’m lying on my side looking at the monitor and a dark spot shows up. The doctor says, “I’m going to be very frank with you. I’m quite certain this is cancer.”
It turned out that I had stage-two colon cancer. Within a few weeks I had surgery and donated nine inches of my colon. Then I had radiation. Everything turned out to be pretty easy. And that was that. I don’t wish for it again, but there it is. Fine, make friends with it. Our whole training is to make friends with what’s arising.
Then on January 30, 2012, I’m flying to India to lead a group. I’m in the Frankfurt Airport lounge. And my son Solomon is with his fiancée in Thailand, performing as a master DJ. There’s free Wi-Fi in the airport lounge, and I get an e-mail message from his fiancée’s mom. “You might have heard—Solomon and Nicole were in a car accident. Call me ASAP.”
I thought: Wait, it’s 2:45 in the morning. I can’t call them. But then I saw that the e-mail had just come ten minutes earlier. So I called on Skype. She said, “I want to tell you. Solomon is dead. And Nicole is in the hospital.”
He was thirty-four, and a beautiful master. Loved life, lived to the fullest, loved sports. The city of San Francisco honored him with a big plaque after his death. He had a big influence. When he’d spin music, it was like creating church for young people.
My wife Tamam and I said okay, this is what is arising. Let’s do our best to serve Solomon and his journey. What can we do for him?
Having studied Tibetan yoga, I had a keen sense of the stages of the bardos. So how do we support him through our aspirations? And how do we make friends with how it is right now? Naturally, that includes making friends with grief.
My whole training has been to go toward the demons. When it first happened, it was hard to look at his picture. Then I purposely looked at it, to make friends with the feeling that came up until it transformed.
I remember when I got back home, our older son and his family were at our home every day. Everyone pulled together, including Solomon’s fiancée, who fully recovered from the accident. One day I watched our granddaughter playing, and I thought, “Oh, no! In one moment she could topple over and die.” I was so angry about that. And then I thought, “Okay, make friends with that too. Life is fragile. Whatever arises, make friends with it and enjoy life. Be of benefit where you can.”
I remember whispering in Solomon’s ear when he was born—it’s part of our tradition to whisper aspirations in the ear of the newborn—I wished for him full awakening in this life. I said to him, “In this life I’ve been assigned to be your father and you’ve been assigned to be my son. Let’s do our best.” That worked out. We were very complete. There were no words left unsaid to him. There was never a time when he walked by that we didn’t hug.
One of the prayers of Lord Buddha that I practice regularly is, “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to avoid growing old. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to avoid death. Everything that I cherish I will have to let go of. My actions are my only true belongings. They are the ground upon which I stand.”
I’m getting shivers while I am saying it. I had done my best long before Solomon’s death to absorb that prayer. To know that life is impermanent. Just enjoy it and be enjoyed. Be beneficial, because I can’t think of any quicker path to awakening than service.
When Ramana Maharshi was dying and his disciples were gathered around him, they said, “Babaji, please don’t leave us.” And he said to them, “Where could I go?”
That may not be my direct experience, certainly not at the level of Ramana. But I know it. I know that what I cherish is impermanent, and I also know that life is forever. I know that. So okay. This is it. When I faced these three losses head-on, I made friends with them.
Here’s a great line for everyone to practice in order to make friends with life: This is how it is right now. This is how it is right now.