Interview with Leon Levy—Jan. 22, 1976
SABIRA: What we want to do here today is to tape your reminiscences of Murshid Samuel Lewis so that we can fill in our missing data on this man. As you know we are engaged in gathering material for a biography of Samuel, and are trying to interview as many of his relatives, friends, disciples as possible. Because you knew Sam at a time when he was a young man, and was his friend for many years, we feel that you have much significant information to share with us. Leon, the material you so casually gave me "off the cuff" last Tuesday is just the kind of data that we need to make this biography a living biography. Let's start at the beginning and proceed as chronologically as possible.
LEON: Our meeting was kind of like the wave touching the shore. It would touch the shore and pull away, it would touch the shore and pull away, in other words, my knowing Sam, and having—and I cannot tell you how many years ago I met him, I could say 50 yrs. ago and I possibly wouldn't lie.
SABIRA: Tell us a little about the meeting. Where did you first meet him?
LEON: If I could in any record, any nature, if I even had any inkling of the stuff you have downstairs that I should have looked at before I came up, then I could possibly piece in there those years, because I did know Sam, he lectured very frequently on his return from his many trips away from here, abroad to India, to Japan, to China. He came back to America and lectured for the Rosicrucian Fellowship center here in San Francisco, that group that Mr. S. R. Hoshkins (?) founded, that goes back about 40 yrs. Sam—and I tell you again—I couldn't actually tell you what Sam—I just knew him, it wasn't like my casual meeting with you a day or so ago. Sam travelled extensively, and when he did return to home—home was S.F.—he used to lecture to various metaphysical groups—and the one I was most interested in at the time was the Rosicrucian Fellowship center here in S.F.—that group that owes its allegiance to the group in Oceanside, the Max Handel (?) group. Sam spoke about his journeys and he spoke about his interests in Buddhism, Eastern religions and spread out whether it was Buddhism, Sufi; whether it was any phase of Buddhism, I do believe Sam had a working knowledge of the Zoroastrian / Mazdadian—not too much of it, but he had a working knowledge of it—so Sam did lecture on his world journeys and his lectures on the metaphysical phases of life, and I don't think that Sam, even though we were both born into Jewish families, emphasized that portion of his life very much.
SABIRA: Do you remember anything that he happened to lecture on in those days?
LEON: No, I gave some of the old programs we had to Devi Jamieson , if she has any programs with his name on them I'll check it out.
SABIRA: That would be fascinating
LEON: But you asked me a very important question, one which is so germane to his life when you said, "Tell me about his love life, Leon." And I told you Tuesday that his love of life was more important than his love life: The word love of, or love for, is far more important than an act of love. A he/she, male/female relationship or whatever you want to call it, and I know Sam was not homosexual, he was, I do believe Sam was asexual. Sam loved life himself, he loved people, and I remember my telling you then Tuesday that Sam was an angry man at the injustice of the world. He angered at man saying, "I hate the damn Jew, I hate the damn nigger, I have to murder this Jew, millions of them, and clear the world of them." This was his anger, his anger was not at people, but injustice to people. He loved people, he loved life, he wanted everybody to be a very, very close person, he would embrace you with a universal love. His love was almost a combination of phylos and agape. It was difficult to say that it was his [?] alone that brought this out, it was a combination of Divine brotherly love. This was his attitude toward life, the Divine brother, and he could not countenance anything else but the Divine brother. He became angry at many things, he became angry at people who refused to use their talents, that is so much that we can do for the world on a one-to-one basis or on a group basis: lecture, teach, whatever, he angered at people who were too lazy to take time out or to use the valuable mind that God gave us to help you, to help me, to help the other person. He was interested in helping the world, to make this world a better place when he left it than when he entered it.
SABIRA: How did you and Sam get along? What kind of relationship did you have?
LEON: Our relationship was always a friendly one and sometimes as friendly daggers-edge, a friendly quarreling. Sam angered because I would not take a large group of people to teach—though large groups do not scare me—I’ve talked to large groups but I do not like to teach a large groups, I would talk to one person until the subject was exhausted. Sam, whether it was his ego or not, whether it was his personality or not, he liked crowds, he was very much like his friend Joe Miller whom we were with the other day. He was very much like Gavin Arthur people who we knew closely. This type of person, he wanted people around him, he hungered for people so he could express, so he could give, and chances are, Sam was a lonely man, inside, Sam was lonely, he went out looking—he had his lamp in his hand—a lantern, searching for dark places and those dark places were truly in himself because he was always searching, reaching out, reaching out constantly to help other people, to find other people, to dig into other people. He dug into you to uncover, to unearth the hidden treasure that was in you. He was doing this constantly, digging at you, he wanted you to be productive.
SABIRA: Did he say that it might have been because of his own pain that he had so much compassion and understood people?
LEON: Yes, because Sam's own pain—in fact it was almost traumatic, there was great trauma in Sam's life, a great loneliness in Sam's life, he was lonely but not alone. You see you can be lonely in a mob. I've experienced this loneliness. You can be alone and not lonely—so Sam's loneliness was rather painful to him. He wanted people about, not because he wanted to build Sam up so much, it wasn't that, but he had so much to give people that—he cried to people to come listen, come partake.
SABIRA: Did he ever get angry at you or show his irascible side?
LEON: He only angered at me because I wouldn't teach, "Why the hell don't you teach, Leon, you have so much to give." These were the days when I probably had more to give and probably have something to give now, but this is why Sam was angry because I wouldn't give. I used to make the statement then, "Why should I write the book, so many books written now cluttering up peoples' libraries—I just came out of the Salvation Army store—and I go by second-hand book stores and I see in those book stores on the shelves, on the counters "To Phyllis with love from Mother," "to Joe on his confirmation," to father so and so, I've seen books, I saw one today, a book given to a girl by a priest—you see the books were so valuable they gave them away to the Salvation Army, or the Good-Will, or St. Vincent de Paul's, and that's why I say, there are so many books, why should I write the next book to be given away? There are more important things to be done. Surely Sam Lewis' life was a great life, I'm sure that whatever we can collect from him, even a little booklet he did we have in our library of his, it is so full of meat, so full of him—
SABIRA: Were you aware of his genius, of his abilities, the fact that he might have been heading toward being a spiritual teacher? Did any of that come out in your dealings with him?
LEON: In my early knowing of Sam, No. In my early knowing of Sam, back—when did I meet Sam? When did I know God? It's the same question. I don't know when I met Sam.
SABIRA: Were you in high school, in college, or were you 12 years old or what?
LEON: I knew Sam after my salad-days, after my teens.
SABIRA: Which would have been about when?
LEON: About 50 years ago, easily 50 years ago.
SABIRA: 1926, along in there?
LEON: And Sam was a young man then who was living with family, living with means, I wondered where all this money came from until I found out he was part of the Strauss family and of course the Koshlands who now control that great big firm, these are the people he inherited from, probably from Aunt Kara (?), Mrs. Margaret S. Koshland who was related to him to in some way. So you see there is very little more I can give you.
SABIRA: In the way of inheritance we understand, and this may not be accurate, he didn't receive very much money until his brother died, and at that time some money started to come in a trust fund of some sort.
LEON: You see I knew very little about his family.
SABIRA : We don't have very much an it either.
LEON: I knew little or nothing about his family, if I knew the city he was born in.
SABIRA: He was born in San Francisco.
LEON: You see after the earthquake, the records were destroyed. There are no records in S.F. , they were destroyed.
SABIRA: Did Sam ever talk to you about Sufism because he was initiated around 1923—so if you had known him around 1926—
LEON: When I first knew Sam he was a Buddhist, he was very much into Buddhism when I first knew Sam. And his Sufi training, his Sufi initiation came about after his Buddhist background much later. This I know, prior to that I can't tell you, I think, and I'm only hazarding a guess here, somewhere in Congregation Sherith Israel on California and Webster there might be a history of Sam and his background.
SABIRA: Is that the synagogue that he went to?
LEON: I think there is a history up there.
SABIRA: That's a source we haven't tapped.
LEON: I'm not sure—he might have attended there, and there is a probability—I wish Ted Reich were alive—Temple El Emmanuel may have something of his family.
SABIRA: Both places?
LEON: Either one. Because they were into Conservative Judaism and Reformed Judaism, they were not into the Orthodox. They were more into the Conservative background.
SABIRA: Were you a Rabbi?
LEON: No, my work, I never trained for the ministry in that nature. I worked mainly in the metaphysical. I had an ordination in it, but that has nothing to do with Sam. If you have a question to ask, please do.
SABIRA: Can you describe, in all the time you knew him, stories, anecdotes, like we knew he was sarcastic and was a great critic, humorous—
LEON: It seemed to have a lot to do with Virgo, analytical, critical,—you mentioned to me that he was born in October, Libra, his sun sign, and yet his attitude toward life, again the angry man—the Mars made him angry, and the Saturn was not too well aspected, but every attitude he had was that of a Virgo. First of all he was a bachelor, he was asexual, he was highly critical, highly critical of people, highly critical of life, highly critical of Sam himself; he was just as critical of himself as he was of you and me.
SABIRA: Can you give us any anecdotes of this particular time?
LEON: Anecdotes I cannot tell you.
SABIRA: Any story you remember, something funny or—
LEON: No, no, that's one reason I even hesitated to even come and give you what I have—
SABIRA: But this is the stuff we don't have, what you've been telling me.
LEON: Try if you can, if you have a copy of his horoscope, there are many people who can read the thing and pick out in his life configurations, things about Sam that he didn't know, we didn't know, I'm thinking of Paul B., one of Arthur Gavin's students who retired here recently, he's living in town. I'm thinking of men or women who are not just fly-by-night astrologers one whom you can go to and say, "this man, please read his chart," with a greater depth of understanding. Someone can do it. The fact is Sam's name—I don't know if it is worthwhile taping this—numbers and numerology tell an awful lot about a person. Samuel L. Lewis, Murshid Sam, all these names and titles have a numerical value, and put it on a kind of scale and weigh it or in a test tube and test it, or put it in a crucible, whatever you want to do with it, analyze it—names have a lot to do with—the very fact that he had a title other than Mister changes a person's type of life, whether he wears a type of or not, but nevertheless he—
LEON: Sam laughed, yes he laughed, but what did he laugh at? What did he laugh with rather than what he laughed at. Sam never laughed at anyone, Sam was too serious of a man in life to laugh at life. He wouldn't laugh at you because you'd made an error, because you didn't have the proper clothes on, or your social graces were not according to the book, he didn't laugh at these things, he laughed at the humor of life, he laughed at the funny things of life, he laughed at even the things that you and I can laugh together now with, He laughed at this, "Why am I so important," he laughed at that—he wasn't that important, he was not the kind of man who built himself up—he neither built himself up nor tore himself up—the fact is that Sam Lewis could go to work after he had spent his money during the second world war and work as a checker or expediter in the U.S. Army—
SABIRA: We don't have anything on that, so anything you remember—
LEON: This was during the world war—he worked for a corps of engineers, I think, and in that whole period, he spent his money—this is where he earned his living—when the war was over, Sam was gone, for Sam made his periodic trips away, he was gone for months sometime—for years?—he was gone—
SABIRA: How did he feel about the war? Did he ever talk to you about it? Or about any of the inner work that he might have been asked to do during the war?
LEON: He had nothing of any great secret nature or any great work other than moving freight. That's all he had to do, so all he had to do was pack it and move it. I did the similar kind of work.
SABIRA: We have one source that tell us he might have been connected with the CIA or something; do you have any knowledge of that?
LEON: There was no CIA in those days.
SABIRA: Whatever, the FBI—or some secret organization.
LEON: No, I don't think Sam would lend himself to things of this nature. Sam was too honest a man to lend himself to things of this nature. To things of espionage, intelligence, counter-intelligence—no he was too honest of a man to have lent himself to this, but to say that there was a war and he needed a job and he made his living doing this. You know also that he also worked as a gardener?
SABIRA: Yeah, I was going to ask you, that was next question. When did he get into horticulture or where did he have the training for that?
LEON: I don't think he trained; I think that Sam actually loved the flowers, loved the plants, and he wasn’t a professional, I don’t think he knew the name of that plant over there—
SABIRA: He did around 1956 when he went to Japan and India. We have we have a diary in here which shows that he knew every single Latin name—
LEON: Then he developed this later—then he was, you see, into his sixties, so he must have grown into this thing, but I don't think before that that he knew an awful lot about the plants.
SABIRA: From the school of hard knocks?
LEON: Yeah, and then he went to the Orient and Japan and China and chances are he learned these things there.
SABIRA: What did you and Sam talk about? Do you remember anything, what kind of conversations did you have? Did he ever tell you about his fears, was he the kind of person that would talk to you man-to-man?
LEON: I remember one occasion when he went to Tibet, and I know that when a Westerner goes to Tibet nine times but often he doesn't come back alive. I know that when Theo Bernard went to Tibet they found his camera, binoculars, things of this nature, they never found Theo Bernard, the white Lama; when Samuel Lewis went to Tibet he was welcomed, greeted, received a royal welcome.
SABIRA: Do you remember that year?
SABIRA: After the war?
LEON: After world war II, yes. But he said, “I went, I didn't say a thing about anything, I presented myself, I was my credentials, all the doors were open to me."
SABIRA: This happened in Japan and India too, do you think it might have been around 1956?
LEON: It was after the second world war—he made the trips to the Orient after the war.
SABIRA: The first trip that we know of that he made to the Orient was 1956. Would Tibet have been before that or after that?
LEON: Earlier, the 50's. You see, Sam's spiritual light, his own light is so great that when these Lama's saw him they recognized a kindred soul, a kindred spirit rather. They recognized one who was one with them. He was almost carried in a divan chair—the man had something that we in the West didn't see but those in the East that had eyes to see, saw. They saw a light, they saw an emanation, they saw a something that was beyond the human ken, beyond the human eye.
SABIRA: They understood his soul-force, they felt it.
LEON: They felt that Sam was an incarnation of divinity, let's put it that way, rather than blaspheme and calling him a divine incarnation, put him on a level of a Buddha, a Christ, we could say he was an incarnation of divinity, divinity existed in him, and divinity existed in him as it does in you and I, but for some unknown reason we have so much dross covering our own divinity that it cannot be seen. It's very much like a painting that you find all of a sudden an old master hidden under a piece of garbage, a painting that has no consequence but by carefully peeling away the outer surface, the camouflage, the master appears. And this is the same thing with us. We have our soul covered with garbage ourselves; this man whom we are talking about had no garbage; there was nothing artificial about him, maybe because he was so honest, probably because his love of life, love for life, his zeal, he was welcomed. I used to marvel at Sam when he'd tell me about how he was taken in to these various monasteries and fed—one would say in America, wined and dined, there he was housed, he was given great honors, he wore no badge of distinction.
SABIRA: What about his many initiations?
LEON: Yes, we were mentioning his many initiations, his many enfoldments, he went to so many different places throughout the years. No matter where he went to they saw something, they wished feet, they'd anointed his head, they touched his lips and his hands. They made him one of them wherever he went; he was never an outsider, an outlander. He was always one with everybody.
SABIRA: And yet in America, he was totally disregarded; how do you account for some of that?
LEON: The old story again, A man is not a Prophet in his own land. My family does not know me; does your family know you? Are you one of the nuts in the family, too? The very fact that he was initiated, anointed is a very different phase. Eastern phase, Eastern cultures where he was accepted wholeheartedly, this man proved himself to be not a Jew, not a Sufi, not a Buddhist, but he proved to be one of the great metaphysicians of the world, and I do believe that Sam, because of his great heart has to be called a mystic.
SABIRA: What did you not like about Sam? That’s always an interesting side also.
LEON: Sam, in retrospection, I won’t say this is wrong, but Sam used to brag of his accomplishments—not because be wanted to say how big he was, I see this now in retrospection, but to make you be greater than you are. Sam said, “I accomplished this—I went here and I went there, I was accepted here and I was accepted there,” not to show you how good a person he was—in retrospection I can see this—but when I first heard these things; he was a braggart, telling me what a great guy he is, and what a schnook I am. Why, I’m nothing compared to Sam Lewis, but he had all these things, a Message, so he wasn’t bragging so much. As Joe Miller says, “rattle your cage.” He’d rattle your cage, “Look I did it, why can’t you do it?”
SABIRA: How did that make you feel, when he rattled your cage?
LEON: Now I would accept it, you see, 20, 30, 40 years ago I couldn’t accept it, I wasn’t big enough to accept it. I wasn’t big enough to listen to four-letter words, it would be a shock.
SABIRA: Did other people feel that way about him too?
LEON: Many people thought him too bombastic. Maybe they also felt he—I use the word here of aggrandizement, many people thought him too much praising Sam, many people thought this, but as I said, I would tell him myself I didn’t know Sam. It was after Sam's passing—after Sam left this sphere, I began looking into the mirror, like it or not, look at the mirror and actually see the image that he left.
SABIRA: Do you remember anything about his death, funeral, illness, hospital—were you at the hospital?
LEON: No, I didn’t know about his death until it happened, he died in Arizona or New Mexico—
SABIRA: No, he died here. He fell down the steps in this house and he was taken to the hospital and he died about two weeks later.
LEON: I thought he died down in Arizona?
SABIRA: No, he is buried at Lama Foundation in San Cristobal, New Mexico.
LEON: I’m surprised that Sam allowed his body to be buried rather than burned or cremated, because with his Eastern Oriental acceptance—why did he allow his body to be laid into the ground to deteriorate. The same body could have been put into an urn, if necessary, put on a shelf, use it as Russians do an icon.
SABIRA: Did you ever discuss his feelings about death? Did he ever indicate to you that he preferred cremation?
LEON: It never occurred to me, but Sam didn’t give a darn whether he was buried or cremated or tossed out to sea to the end that he was either fish or prey. He didn’t give a damn. I don’t think Sam cared whether his body was preserved for posterity or whether it was going to rot in the ground. I don’t think he cared that much, and I don’t know whether people who are as much in the metaphysical field as you are even, even as I am, as he was, don’t give a darn. View the body, let it lay there for a few hours, let it rot, and then do what you want with it.
SABIRA: How did Sam influence your life?
LEON: Right now I’m kicking myself for not doing the things he said I should have done. I’m kicking myself occasionally. I find a person whom I can talk to for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes occasionally, I can spread a word here and there on occasion, But the thing that he wanted me to do, I didn’t do, I should have done: talk, lecture, counsel—why I accepted an ordination in the first place I don’t know, At the public ordination I was declared a doctor of metaphysics, it isn’t that important now, it was great then. I should have followed, Sam wanted to teach so much, Sam had so much to give—he’s laughing at me in his picture—he wanted to give so much that he was angry, I was angry now too because I didn’t do enough—there were so many things I should have done that he wanted me to do.
SABIRA: What do you think Sam’s purpose in life was?
LEON: Anyone’s purpose should be to leave this earth a better place to have been in.
SABIRA: Do you think he accomplished that?
LEON: Yes, I think he did, in a certain circumscribed area especially. We are told that Buddha’s vibration self went a mile in every direction. The Gautama Buddha—he was the fifth Buddha—as he tells it the Gautama Buddha’s vibrational self—he had that large of an aura that was felt for a mile around him—his influence was beyond that. Sammy’s influence is world-wide today, it was world-wide then, I don’t know how big his aura was. When you were in his presence you knew he was there, because he busied himself being there, not being a busybody, got wanting to be seen and known and being the big shot but he busied himself being there; he didn’t waste time.
SABIRA: Where you at his funeral?
LEON: That was in Novato? At Novato, I said nothing there. I did nothing, I started to say something and then sat back again-Gina Cerminara was there, Gavin was there, Ted Reich was there, Inayat Khan was there (sic).
SABIRA: You mean, Vilayat Khan, Pir Vilayat Khan?
LEON: Pir, yes.
SABIRA: Inayat was there too, in a way.
LEON: Inayat Khan was not there, but his son was—Gavin had a lot to say. I don’t know, I believe Gina Cerminara said anything. You were speaking about Samuel’s life, and I could almost say "life" plural—lives—in the physical embodiment, Samuel died many times. I remember he had illnesses, Samuel would go away; he was away more than he was here. And by that I mean, he may have been in the physical presence but he was "away" constantly. He "died" so frequently, he was born so frequently into a new phase of life, a new plateau of living—
SABIRA: All the time that you knew him?
LEON: Yeah, in retrospection I can say that all the time I knew Samuel he was changing, his life was almost like a kaleidoscope—it was changing constantly, not as a kaleidoscope twists and turns, more like the lights of a prism, that it might change so frequently, and he grew. I’m thinking of a parallel of Vivekananda—when Vivekananda first went into the work, into India, and did become a Swami, with each enlightenment that he had, he changed his name. You see the ananda part of his name was a word that means attainment through, and Viveka means discrimination—He knew the difference between it; So he used the name Viveka-ananda for his last initiation where he learned how to discriminate between one thing and another, using the two-edged sword, of discrimination and discretion. Add Samuel’s life paralleled this man, and very much in the same way that he died so many times that he became reborn a different person—when we say die, Paul in the New Testament says, “I die daily.” We die daily, when we go to bed at night, we fall asleep, we’re "dead," and we wake to a new life the next day, where Sam’s was different. Each initiation he had—we talked about that a while back—wherever he went he was recognized as a being of importance. An important part of life—an expression—that as one part of him died, a new portion of him was born.
SABIRA: Can you give any concrete memories of that? How would he change?
LEON: Every time I saw Samuel Lewis he was a different man. Even as a bearded man, towards the end, the patriarch Sam, you see, he was a different man to me than the man I knew 50 yrs. ago. That patriarch Sam was the last man that existed.
SABIRA: When is the last time you remember seeing him alive? Had conversations with him?
LEON: The last time I saw Sam alive was at the Congregational Church when they had the Buddhist celebration. And Iru Price had gotten all the Buddhists together every year at the Congregational Church. They turned the whole thing over to him and each Buddhist group was recognized and each Buddhist group had a part to do, a part in that meeting, The last time I saw Samuel was when he stepped on Lewis' Buddhist robe and tore it. That was an accident, not intentional. And Louis wears that now as a badge of honor, rather than anything else. Samuel’s tearing it—and that was the last time I saw Sam at that celebration where he wore his robe as a Buddhist rather than as a Sufi,
SABIRA: Do you remember what year that was?
LEON: About 3 years ago, because that group that meets over on 15th St. now, the Chinese group, the Gold Mountain, they took it away from Samuel one year and it was all different—
SABIRA: You mean 3 years before his death, cause he died 5 years ago.
LEON: Has it been that long?
SABIRA: Yes, he died 5 years ago on Jan. 15, 1971.
LEON: That when they had this Buddhist thing, the Chinese Buddhists took the thing over and he ran the celebration this time and I would have no more to do with them. He gave it up.