Joshua Sager on Murshid Sam—August, 1976
JOSHUA: Hi! It's really good to get your letter; been sort of out of touch with you all lately, but think of you from time to time. It's really good to hear that you are going to do a biography of Murshid, looking forward to reading it when you are done with it, and I'm going to try to put down some of my recollections of Murshid for you. I don't know if they are going to be any help to you or not, but anyway I'm going to put them down. It's kind of weird talking into this tape recorder, I've never done this kind of thing before, but anyhow before I get into recollections of Murshid, I'll tell you a little bit about what I've been doing. I married a woman named Barbara a few years back; Mansur met her in Albuquerque, but I don't think you have. After I finished going to school in Albuquerque, I had taken a couple of teaching jobs in out of the way places like Nacogdoches and Fargo, N. Dakota. Didn't get all that into them—either the places or teaching mathematics and computer science, so anyway I gave that all up, at least temporarily, and at present I am planning on going back to school here in Austin the end of this month, not really quite sure what I'm going to be taking, probably economics—but I'm not sure about that—anyway I'm just kind of going to see what happens.
Since Murshid left us, I have gotten heavily into karate, at first with the idea of fighting with the established order on the streets, but that was right after Kent State and the Cambodia invasion, but later on I got into it on the basis of physical, spiritual and mental development, and it’s worked out real well for me. I've been at it for over six years now. I can't really think of too much more to say about what I've been doing, just kind of getting by and living as best I can which is really all you can do anyway, so anyway I'll get into recollections about Murshid right now so here goes:
I met Murshid through Renee; at that time she was getting into all sorts of spiritual trips. It was the going thing back then, almost everybody was getting into all sorts of spiritual trips, whereas I thought most of that stuff was bullshit if not all of it being bullshit! So anyway one day she came home and said that I had to meet this guy who is a Sufi. And I didn't know what a Sufi was; I didn't really care at that point either, but well, I guess I figured it was better to humor her, so I went along to meet Murshid and I enjoyed the meeting. I don't think I was particularly impressed by it; the things I liked most about it were kind of negative things—that I didn't have to try and sit in weird postures I couldn't get into, that I didn't have to meditate for a long time—but I remember finding the meeting enjoyable, like I don't remember what we did. I know we drank some tea, and Murshid told a few funny stories, and we walked around and danced a bit, and I think we did Buddha's meditation for about a minute or two which was just about right for me. Back then I couldn’t meditate more than a minute or two, but I enjoyed myself. Nobody laid any dogmatic trip on me which is something that I had really gotten to dislike about a lot of spiritual groups, and it—I don't know, it was just kind of like low key—I didn't feel imposed upon there like I usually do, as I usually did when I went to spiritual meetings and things like that. It was like regular people just doing their thing—anyway, I got into it, I don’t really know why.
I kept coming back, but it’s just twice a week almost without fail, I’d almost never miss a meeting back then. I would just come over to Murshid’s and I guess it was like I kind of felt relaxed there. It was about that time that he started getting really heavily into the dances, and that was something that I really got into. It was like, I don't know how to put it, I guess what I could say is , well, it was something I could do. I would go a spiritual meeting somewhere you know and they would expect me to meditate or stretch my body in some kind of weird way where it wouldn't stretch, and I would go away feeling really weird. I didn't get that feeling over there; and another big thing was, he never asked me to believe in anything.
When I first went there I told him I was an atheist, and I was for a long time after I started going there, and Murshid said that was cool with him, that God was an experience and he didn't expect anybody to believe in anything they hadn't experienced. And that kind of made sense to me. How can you believe in something you haven't experienced? So, but I think a big thing about going there was I really enjoyed myself at the meetings and it seemed to me that the other people that came also enjoyed themselves. You'd see hardly any infighting, and people putting each other down, nobody was hassling anybody else or getting into personal, political things. It was just like people came there to get along with each other and enjoy themselves, and that's what they did. Murshid just had this tremendous power that would just make people kind of relax and stop hassling. There are not many people that seem to be able to do that, but he was—he just kind of had that way about him.
I was going through some heavy changes shortly after I met Murshid, broke up with my wife, and started going back to school, and ended up getting into mathematics which I suppose was in a way, kind of weird for someone who was into Sufism to get into mathematics, and I remember talking to Murshid about that once, and he was really into my learning mathematics, and he told me that it would give me as good a grasp on the Infinite as studying anything else and I think he was right about that from hindsight. He was real easy-going, anything I wanted to do pretty much, he just thought that was great, and I wanted to get into mathematics and he really encouraged me in it.
And the same thing happened a little while later just after I started going to school—we had a big strike out there—that was at S. F. State back in '68, and I got really involved in the strike back then, and I remember talking to him about that one too, and he was all for my getting involved in politics, which is something that most holy men, spiritual leaders don't particularly think too much of radical politics, which is a good part of the reason why for a lot of my life, and even in the present, sort of in a way down on people like that. But with Murshid it was different; he was all for my getting involved in it. Of course he did tell me that the strike was going to lose, which it did, and the reasons he gave was, he said that the people who were on strike just couldn't make up their minds what they wanted—which was certainly true, but in spite of knowing that it was going to fail all along, he encouraged me to be a part of it, to get involved in it. And this was a real important thing with me, because I had been involved in radical politics for all my life, and I still am, and it’s an important thing for me.
I think it was around then that I became Murshid's disciple. I had asked him about it a long time ago; I think it was awhile before he finally initiated me, but anyway, I never read any of the Sufi books. I never got heavily into doing the spiritual exercises beyond the dancing and the chanting, and that was totally cool with him. He wasn't asking me to be heavy and do it, just what I was doing was fine as far as he was concerned.
Getting back to politics, one of the stories Murshid used to tell me a lot—he seemed to like this one because he kept repeating it—was about this book that he wrote back in the thirties charting the probable course of most of the political movements back then in California. He said he was right about each one of them, and that every movement ended up hating him because of it. But he had a way of being able to see ahead, and he was a very good judge of character.
One of the things he told me back then was that Hayakawa was just trying to use the Presidency of S.F. State as a springboard to higher political office, like that he would probably end up running for Congress or the Senate, which is what he is doing right, now eight years later. However he also told me that he would never get elected because he was an atheist. We'll see whether that one comes true or not in November. But his main criticism of the strike was that the people on strike couldn’t get together and come up with some coherent program that they could stick to for any length of time. And that as a result the demands were changing from day to day and different groups were setting up contradictory demands and nobody really knew how to deal with it. Even the strikers themselves couldn't deal with it. And from hindsight that was certainly true, and played a really big part in the strike being such a failure in the end.
After it failed I went down to San Bernardino to continue going to school; I just couldn’t see hanging around S. F. State after the strike had failed because I knew that things were just going to be repressive and miserable there, and from talking to people that stayed up there, that's exactly what happened, and that it was a really awful place to be for years after. But I came back up to S. F. that following summer of ’69. There were a couple of summer seminars that they were offering, that I wanted to take, and I also wanted to come up and be with Murshid again. I'd really missed him while I was down in San Bernardino, so it seemed like a good thing to do for the summer, and I ended up staying at his house in S. F. and I got to know him a lot better then. One of the things about Murshid was that he was just so human. He wasn't at all holier than thou or anything like that. I mean he just acted like a normal person.
One thing about him though was that he had a really bad temper, and I think sometimes he would get angry and he would do things that he would regret later on. I can remember one time coming home from summer school, and there were about five or six of his disciples cowering in corners of the kitchen, and he is standing in the middle of the kitchen—and I could swear he was seven feet tall—and he was raving about how nothing ever got done around the house unless he did it himself.
It was just like he got mad and everybody was just like cowering and afraid of him. And another time I remember when he lost his temper was during the Precita Park festival, I don't know whether you remember that one, but anyway we were supposed to do some dancing for the festival and I think we were supposed to come on at noon, and they kept putting us off and putting us off and each time they put us off Murshid just got madder and madder, and then around mid-afternoon he just stood up smiling and, said, "Okay, we're going to dance in the garage," So we all went into the garage and started dancing and within ten or fifteen minutes, in spite of the fact that the day had just been completely clear, beautiful weather, there was this freak thunderstorm came in across the bay, it drowned out the whole festival, but we were sitting in the garage dancing and enjoying ourselves, and the next day they let us go on at noon like they said, well he used to always say that he used to be able to do miracles, and people would always want to see the miracles and he couldn't get through to people because all they were interested in was miracles, so he asked to have the power taken away from him. Alright, I don't believe that, I think he could still do miracles, and I am still sure to this day that he created that storm. He was just like a really powerful person, and I could relate to him like a person which is something I wasn't able to do with other spiritual people.
Another incident: this was back when I first started going to Murshid; this was back when I was still living with Renee. She came home one day, and she had been up at Murshid's. She came home crying that Murshid had thrown her out and wouldn’t let her come to the meetings anymore, and it was some little thing, something that I couldn't see anyone really getting uptight over. But I think what it was was that—well Renee has a way of trying to take things over, and I think Murshid just ended up telling her to get out. And a few days later, Renee asked him if she could go back; he wasn't angry at her anymore by then, he said, “Sure, but on one condition, you've got to be silent through the whole meeting," and that was something new to Renee. She had never been quiet through a whole meeting before in her life I don't think. But anyway she came to the meetings and she didn't say a word the whole time, and I think Murshid's the only person I've ever known in my life who could get Renee to shut up for an hour. That's just a little story.
When I went back to San Bernardino after the summer Murshid gave me an exercise to do, to chant Allaho Akbar—he said it would make we strong. I think I had mentioned to him that I didn't really feel I was strong enough for all these political things that I was involved in. And he just said that the chant Allaho Akbar would make me stronger, and from hindsight I think it has—or it helped to. But I didn't see Murshid again after that until he stopped in on his way up to the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. I had gone to New Mexico to do graduate work which was sort of heavy, in a way, for me, because I really didn't want to leave Murshid then. But I was up for something new; I was getting a little tired of California, so anyway I went out to New Mexico. The following summer he came out to spend the summer at Lama and the only thing I remember is him showing up in a broken-down V.W. that had thrown a rod back in Gallup, and he was sort of really upset about his being able to get up to Lama, but he was ready to start walking if there was no other way to get up there. He said that he told them that he was going to up there by Sunday, and he was going to up there Sunday whether he had to walk or hitchhike or what. And anyway I drove him on up, stayed a little while up in Lama, came on down and then I didn’t see him again until he was on the way back. He stopped in and stayed with me again in New Mexico, Albuquerque, and that was the last that I saw of him.
When he was down in Albuquerque he did a Sufi dance meeting in Albuquerque in the park. It was quite well attended, and a lot of people wanted to go on doing it, so I ended up for the rest of the summer doing a dance class which turned out real well. It sort of fell apart when the cold weather came in Oct. and Nov. but until then we would get together every Tuesday night and invariably the weather was good. We would just dance and chant and try to do the thing pretty much the way Murshid did back in San Francisco, and I wouldn’t talk any, all we’d really do is the dancing and the chanting.
A number of people used to ask me to tell them something about Sufism, and I would always say that if they wanted that they would have to go to California. But in spite of my lack of knowledge about Sufism I thought the class went rather well while it lasted. It turned out that that was the last time that I saw Murshid. The next time I heard about Murshid was—I came home and Mansur was sitting in my living room, he had just come down from burying Murshid up at Lama, and well that was a real heavy one for me! I mean, I didn’t really know how to relate to Murshid having died, it was like he was just so many different things to me. Like he was a father and a friend and a teacher, all in one. It was like I had always felt, you know if something went wrong, I could always go to Murshid, and all of a sudden he wasn’t there, and it was just a real heavy thing for me. I remember going up to Lama to visit his grave right after that. I sort of sat by his grave a long time. He told me to chant Allaho Akbar again, so I did that. It was sort of like it was not only the end of something, it was also the beginning of something too. It was like my life, I think, changed rather radically shortly after that.
It was like when Murshid was alive I really felt close to all his other disciples. It was like this whole family thing. It was like the first time in my life that I really felt like I had a family that I was close to. When I was growing up my family wasn’t particularly close. I never really had that kind of feeling, especially with so many people and I’ve wondered a lot over the years why I don’t look you all up again sometime, but somehow I’ve never done it. I just went my own way sort of after Murshid left. And it was like for a long time afterwards there was this kind of real void in my life.
I think I touched on this earlier in the tape, but maybe I could say a little more about it. It is sort of the whole anti-establishment tone of Murshid and everything that he was into. Murshid wouldn't care who he would put down; he just put down anybody and everybody, and it wasn't with the idea of putting somebody else down to build himself up, or putting somebody else down because he had the wrong opinions or he was the wrong something or other. Murshid just had no love for the establishment at all, probably less than I do, and I got very little love for it. In particular he would put down the religious establishment, even more than other types of establishment people, like politicians and college presidents, and people like that.
And his whole attitude too—like when I first started coming, I mean he didn't charge any money or anything. He didn't seem to care at all about money which I thought was really great. It was one of the reasons why I kept coming to him, I mean it wasn't because I couldn't afford to pay; at times, when he needed some bread or something, I would pay some bread on him. That was later on after I got to know him; I just figured that anyone who didn't want money to teach must really have something to say. But that's something that appealed to something in my nature.
He had a couple of his favorite remarks—he would have us do lord Buddha's meditation quite often, and every time he would always have to preface it by the remark that Buddhists don't do this meditation anymore. It was that kind of thing, and he used to say that the reason why he liked to be thought of as a Sufi rather than as a Vedantist or Buddhist is because the Sufis were the only spiritual group he knew of that hadn't gotten involved in religious wars and putting down other peoples' cultures and all these kinds of really heavy things that religions really had gotten into, like really selling out to the establishment, the capitalists, the militarists and so on, really getting involved in all the shit that goes on in the world. It somehow felt the Sufis had kept their hands clean in a way. And he felt that's reason that he wanted to be known as a Sufi rather than as something else. It’s like he really knew the inevitability that the religious establishment would sell out; he really understood it, not in the intellectual sense that a Marxist would understand it, but in a wholly personal sense, that only somebody who had spent his life studying religion and studying to be a holy man could understand this.
From the things he told me about his childhood growing up—he was the kind of person that always used to do things that they weren't supposed to. He was supposed to go out and make money and he didn't, and he was real lonely through most of his life, and just said, "fuck the establishment, I am going to do my own thing", and damnit! He went out and did it. And his whole character—I think it was this more than anything else the reason why I dug him so much, the reason why I felt so close to him, that I just felt that he had already gone through all the shit that I had been going through, that I was sure I was going to have to go through in the future, that I was going through then, that I still am now. It was an inward thing as well as and outward thing. Outwardly he never went for the trappings of religion; he never wore robes or anything until we all said, “Hey Murshid, why don’t you wear this robe?" Then, “Why don’t you grow your beard?” and all that. When I first met him he was clean shaven and short haired and would dress in a pair of slacks and a sport shirt. He didn’t look like anyone you’d expect to be a holy person, but that wasn’t just on the outside, that was inside too, but it is this is hard for me to really put this right in that it will sound right. In those days there were all sorts of radical priests, radical ministers spiritual and religious people around but a lot of it—or most of it wasn’t real, it was like a put-on outside thing. Underneath there was the same old establishment shit; it was like murshid never had to go through these outward appearances of being radical and all, because with him it was just inside him—he was anti-establishment to the core. The really important thing that I learned from Murshid is that spiritual development doesn’t have to be separated from political development, or scientific development or anything else; there is a synthesis there. It all goes together or anyway at all should go together, that you don’t have to give up your political beliefs to get into God, you don’t have to really give up anything and what’s more, if you get into this whole spiritual development thing it gives you the power to do other things better, it’s not an either/or situation and Murshid was the first person in my life that really got me into a spiritual level and the only person in my life that I have gotten into on that level. The other teachers of value in life—it’s been more of a practical thing. It’s like my relationship with Murshid was, and is just totally unique for me.