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Birth and Childhood

Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo was born at dawn on June 22nd 1901 in Kedungjati, a remote village in the mountains of Central Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies, connected to the outside world by the railway line. The moment of his birth was auspicious. It coincided with the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Muhammad, and just after Bapak was born, forty cannon shots were fired from the palace at Surakarta, to announce the beginning of the anniversary celebrations.

Situated on a winding river, Kedungjati even today has a timeless quality. As in much of Java legend and history are closely entwined here. The village takes its name from a bend in the river where an eddy, 'kedung', and a particularly large teak tree, 'jati', can still be seen. According to legend, Bapak's ancestor, Sunan Kalijaggo, used to come here to pray.

Soon after his birth, Bapak was taken to live with his great uncle, Raden Mas Sumowadoyo and his great aunt Sumirah. He spent his childhood with them and referred to them as his grandparents which is common in Indonesia.

Bapak's childhood was in most respects ordinary but there were some signs of unusual gifts and sensitivities. Taken to a wedding by his grandmother, he predicted the union would not last, which proved to be true. He found he could not swear or lie. If he saw people quarreling or fighting, he experienced pain in his body.

Bapak wished to go to regular school and was eventually able to attend a private school in the nearby town of Ambarawa, travelling back and forth each day by train.

At school he was sometimes in trouble because he could not say or write things he knew to be untrue. He could not say, for example, that the Javanese were inferior to the Europeans as was commonly taught in the Dutch schools at that time. After about two years Bapak transferred to the newly built government school in Kedung Jati.

"God Will Call You Back"

In Ambarawa at the age of fifteen he had a strange and powerful experience.

He was sleeping on the floor, when in the middle of the night, he saw a man approaching him. This tall older man dressed entirely in black leaned over Bapak and woke him up.

"I have to tell you something important," the man said. "Soon you will leave this place to go to work."

"You will work until you are 32 years old. But God will call you back when you are thirty-two. After that your name will become respected and revered by many people because of God's love for you."

Then the man disappeared.

Bapak interpreted the experience to mean he would die at 32. He therefore, resolved that in the time remaining to him he would study and work hard to support his family, and that he would prepare himself to be ready for death, so as to be able to find his way back to God in the hereafter when the time came.

Soon after, a fortuitous meeting with another uncle enabled him to secure a position with the railways. Then, just seventeen, he moved to Surabaya, but feeling unsettled there, he stayed for less than a year, returning to rest in Kedung Jati before moving on to a new job as a bookkeeper in the central Javanese port city of Semarang.

He worked in the bookkeeping department of the City of Semarang and also studied bookkeeping in his spare time.

Bapak was developing a strong interest in the spiritual life and would often go with a group of friends to visit teachers in the Sufi traditions of Islamic mysticism. To his frustration, these teachers would usually decline to take him on as a pupil, telling him that eventually he would find his own path to spiritual knowledge.

The Coming of the Latihan

After work Bapak would often study bookkeeping until late at night. After studying he would go for a walk to clear his head, often passing the hospital which was being built at that time. On one such night he received the experience which was to transform his life.

Out walking, he saw a bright ball of light like the sun which came down and entered his head, causing his whole body to shake.

He felt a sharp pain in his chest and thought he was going to have a heart attack. He went home and lay on his bed and prepared to die. Instead, he began to pray, not from his own will, but as if moved by a power beyond himself.

During the day, Muhammad Subuh continued his normal life. He was married, had children, and worked as a bookkeeper for the city of Semarang.

Now began a period which Bapak always referred to as the "thousand nights" when spiritual experiences came to him every night for about three years.

A crucial characteristic of these experiences were that they were not sought for or desired, but came spontaneously. He was not propelled by his own will, but moved by something beyond himself.

On one occasion, he found himself in front of wide ocean contained by a dyke with an irrigation canal with a lock. He felt himself pushed forward, the lock-gate opened and the whole ocean emptied his mouth. He belched and his belch smelled of sea water.

Once, in a vision, a man in Arabic costume approached him and opened up his chest with the point of a spear. It was very painful. The man withdrew a clot of blood from Bapak's chest on the point of the spear.

He threw the clot away and then took a shining object about the size of a duck's egg, placed it in Bapak's chest and closed the wound with his hand. Then man then disappeared. Bapak's chest felt clear and wide - his inner feeling sensitive, clean and calm - his faith in the presence of God stronger.

On another occasion, a book - about the size of an atlas - fell into his lap. The book showed people of many races and nationalities praying, weeping and calling out to God for forgiveness. It was a foretelling of how the latihan would spread around the world.

Bapak Meets His First Wife

Despite these experiences he continued on in most respects as usual in life. Then one day in 1925 on a train journey to visit a sick friend he found himself attracted to a girl travelling in the same carriage. There arose within him a strong feeling of love for her.

The girl got off at Pamotan station and Bapak quickly followed only to see her step into a horse and buggy which quickly went away. The next day he returned and spent all day searching for her. By chance a food server in the station restaurant told him who she was. The feeling for the girl persisted, so after his return to Semarang, Bapak called on a friend from the area who knew the girl's family. She was the daughter of the religious leader of Pamotan. After Bapak saw her again, his mother agreed to convey his proposal of marriage to her family. Bapak married Rumindah on October 9 1926.

They stayed for a while at Bapak's in-laws house next to the mosque which is now a religious school.

Then they went to Semarang to live. Bapak and Rumindah were to have five children: Siti Rahayu, Haryono, Hariadi who died in his 20s, Suharjo who passed away when he was still a small child, and Siti Hardiyati.

Bapak's Ascension

Then in 1933 - when Bapak was 32 years old, the prediction that he would be "called back to Almighty God" that had been made when he was fifteen, came true.

The experience began in this room around 9.30 in the evening. Bapak experienced himself being freed from the confines of this earth, like a jewel being released from its setting, and sped through the sky at unimaginable speed.

Throughout this journey he maintained a clear awareness and an alive feeling and constantly uttered "Allah Hu-Akbar, Allah Hu-Akbar" "God is Almighty, God is Almighty".

He passed the moon and other planets. He reached the planet Jupiter and saw a world of immensity. The beings there were hundreds of miles high. He swept in an arc through space towards the sun, He saw that it was a tunnel through which he had to go.

He asked, "Won't my body be destroyed by going through the sun?"

At first he thought he would be destroyed, but then he saw his own body was made of radiant light. He was told, "You are made of the same substance as the sun you must go through." And he was able to pass unscathed through the sun. He found himself in a vast realm. He traveled across a huge expanse at great speed. Then he saw seven mountain-like cones of light stacked one above the other. He traveled up through the cones until in the seventh cone, he had no direction and no purpose other than to say, "Allah, Allah, Allah." Then he felt a key penetrate the palm of his hand. Then he was moved with extraordinary speed and suddenly found himself fin surroundings where he felt as though he had returned to normal.

As he entered the "sphere of the earth" he went more slowly. He saw his own form complete and ordinary as it had been before he began the journey. About 5 kilometres from the surface of the earth he stopped his journey. He saw lights below which he at first thought were stars but then understood to be the lights of Semarang. He re-entered his house and saw that a clock showed 4.25. He performed his morning prayer and then his mother came to him and told him of an experience she had the night before. She too had experienced being taken up into the air, then woken in the morning to a normal situation.

Perhaps this experience had been given to her as a witness or confirmation of what her son had received.

The Development of Subud

Bapak now found that he could share what he had received with others and that they too could experience the latihan, this contact with the power of Almighty God, each in their own spontaneous unique way.

Bapak was also receiving premonitions about the future - that there would be a Second World War, after which Indonesia would become independent, and that Bapak himself would travel all around the world.

He had given up his employment and now gave all his time to looking after the needs of those who had chosen to do the latihan. These were difficult times when the family often did not know where its next meal was coming from.

When their third son, Suharyo, died as a young child, Rumindah, depressed over the loss, returned to live with her parents. Bapak joined her there but she became ill and died in 1937 and she is buried in the cemetery at Pamotan.

Ibu Siti Sumari

Bapak now had four young children to look after. The youngest child, the daughter Hardiyati was left in the care of her maternal grandparents, while Bapak's mother helped him bring up the others in Semarang.

On November 15 1941, Bapak married Ibu Siti Sumari, popularly known as Ibu, she would be Bapak's faithful companion in his work for the development of Subud until her death in 1971.

Her daughter, Rochanawati, was also to play an important part in the development of Subud, accompanying Bapak on his journeys.


In the troubled times following the Second World War, Bapak and his family left Semarang, staying first with Ibu's mother in the mountains, then moving to Jogjakarta. Jogja, in Central Java, is a cultural and spiritual centre, situated near the great monuments of Java's heritage such as the Buddhist shrine of Borobodur.

It was also the centre of Indonesia's struggle for Independence against the Dutch and Bapak served for a time as chief of the finance section of the Indonesian Army Medical Corps. It was in Jogja in 1947 that Subud was officially registered as a spiritual movement with the Indonesian Government.

In 1945, Indonesia declared its independence, and in 1949 this was recognised by the United Nations, and so Bapak's receiving that Indonesia would gain its independence came true. He had also often told his followers that Subud would eventually spread all around the world aided by a man who would come from the West.

In 1952 a young man named Husein Rofé came to live in Jogja. He was a linguist, fluent in many languages, and a journalist. He was a Muslim though his father was Jewish and his mother a Catholic. He had come to the east on a spiritual search, stopping first in India, before moving on to Indonesia. In Jogja he soon established himself as an English teacher, and some of his students, knowing of his interest in spiritual matters, introduced him to a follower of Subud, who introduced him to Bapak, and he was opened.

Subud Spreads Beyond Indonesia

As a result of some articles published abroad, Rofé was invited to go to a religious conference in Japan. Here he formed a small Subud group some members of which continue to form the nucleus of an active Subud life in Japan some 45 years later.

After about six months in Japan, Rofé moved to Hong Kong. He had hoped to return to Indonesia but was refused a re-entry permit because he was suspected of being a British spy. Rofé formed a Subud group here which included the Indonesian consul Iskander Ishak, and Michael Rogge, a Dutch banker who was responsible for taking early film relating to Subud.

An article written by Rofé was read by Meredith Starr, an English naturopath and spiritual seeker, living on Cyprus. Starr and his wife invited Bapak to come to Cyprus, but Bapak received it was not yet the right moment for him to go to the West and he sent Rofé in his place. Rofé left Hong Kong for Cyprus in August 1955.

Bapak had now moved from Jogjakarta to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Michael Rogge on a visit to Indonesia in 1955 took the first movie footage of Bapak with his family and some followers on a visit to the mountain resort at Puncak.

Bapak Comes to England

In May 1957 Bapak, accompanied by Ibu and two young assistants, arrived in England. News of Subud had spread amongst the followers of the Russian sage Gurdjieff who had died in 1949. After staying briefly in London, Bapak moved to a property, Coombe Springs, south of London.

The house belonged to the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences which was devoted to the study of Gurdjieff's methods. The Director was John Bennett who had already been practising the latihan for some months.

Large numbers of people who had been involved in the Gurdjieff work now came into Subud. Some 400 people were opened in the first two months after Bapak came to Coombe Springs and by the end of the year that number had doubled.

Fortuitously, a Gurdjieff seminar had been arranged for that summer attended by people from all around the world, and when they returned to their own countries, they brought news of Subud with them. Subud spread swiftly within the ready-made network of Gurdjieff followers.

Subud also attracted the attention of the media and the general public when it was reported in November 1957 that the film star Eva Bartok had experienced what appeared to be a miraculous healing, and had given birth to a baby which the medical profession had feared would result in her death.

One outcome of this was that, though Bapak always stressed the purpose of Subud was not physical healing, many people were attracted to Subud for this reason.

A pioneer Subud health project, Brookhurst Grange, was set up as a nursing home to look after the needs of the many people who came seeking healing.

In 1957 Bapak also visited the Netherlands and Germany, and in 1958 Switzerland, The USA and Australia, before returning to Indonesia. After four months in Indonesia, he went to Singapore and Sri Lanka.

These were to be the first of many world journeys who would undertake over the next thirty years or so, constantly attending to the needs of Subud members and to the development of the Subud organisation.

It has been estimated the total mileage of his journeys would be equivalent to travelling to the moon and back several times.

By the 1960s Subud was well-established in many countries around the world. Many groups had obtained their own Subud houses and often these became lively centres of communal activity, often expressive of the particular culture of their nation or locality.

Wisma Subud

By 1960, with the rapid growth of Subud all around the world, Bapak looked for land where he could establish a Subud Centre.

Many Subud members from other countries were coming to Jakarta to visit Bapak and the accommodation which could be provided by Bapak's family and other Subud members was stretched beyond its limit. There was a need for a proper guesthouse.

There was also a need for a sekretariat to respond to the many letters which were coming in seeking advice.

Bapak also wanted Subud to own its own latihan hall, big enough to accommodate both local members and overseas visitors.

In 1960 Bapak found several hectares of land to the south of the city in a suburb known as Cilandak which at that time was still an area of paddy fields and small farms.

The land was reached by road leading to a new hospital, Rumah Sakit Fatmawati.

The initial money for the purchase of what became known as Wisma Subud came from the sale of Bapak's gold watch and Ibu's jewellery and other personal possessions.

The first building was a dismantled structure, removed from a Jakarta building site and re-erected in Cilandak. It provided a latihan hall, two rooms for a secretariat and tow or three bedrooms.

Amongst the westerners attracted to Subud in the early days were some architects and engineers who moved to Jakarta and were able to help with the development at Wisma Subud, setting up a consultancy business next-door to the compound. A guest house was built with two floors. Bapak and his family made their temporary home in the upper floor, while visitors stayed downstairs.

The project was officially supported by the Subud World Congress and throughout the 1960s Subud members and groups were actively involved in fundraising to assist building at Wisma Subud.

More land was purchased and a large house built for Bapak and his family. There was a guesthouse and guest cottages. Indonesian and expatriate Subud members built homes in the compound and a lively, multicultural community was being established.

Although the latihan is a direct contact between each person and God, and while Bapak frequently rejected the role of a guru, it was nonetheless true that a special atmosphere surrounded Bapak.

People found that by visiting Wisma Subud they might experience the latihan with particular intensity, or resolve difficulties and questions about spiritual progress.

In the mid-sixties there was a crisis in Indonesian politics and many of the expatriates living in Wisma Subud had to leave the country.

The men at Wisma Subud, including Bapak himself, maintained armed all-night vigils to protect the compound.

But by the end of the 60s normality had been restored and 126 adults of many nationalities and 60 children were living in the compound.


Bapak had always encouraged Subud members to set up enterprises.

There are several aims in this. The financial needs of Subud and its social welfare projects could best be met by members setting up successful businesses which can donate a percentage of their profits to Subud.

But Bapak's emphasis on enterprises was also connected to the personal development of members.

He suggested that as people developed in the latihan, they would be spontaneously moved to find their true talent and direction in life, and that this would lead them to wish to be independent, standing on their own two feet, and determining their own destiny through their own enterprise.

While there had been some fledgling Subud enterprise activity, it was clear that Bapak felt Subud members had not yet fully grasped what he meant by enterprise. A major outcome of the 1971 Congress was a boost to enterprise development.

Bapak decided to give examples of what he meant by enterprise. He obviously intended a scale of seriousness and daring which few Subud members had been capable of imagining.

He first urged that a bank should be set up to fund enterprises. He traveled around the world encouraging Subud members to invest in this bank.

About US$1.4 million was collected and in 1974 Bank Susila Bakti was established with an office in Jakarta.

The next step was the creation of a fourteen-storey office block in Jakarta's rapidly expanding business district. The S Widjojo Centre was built for a cost of US$14 million and opened in 1980.

Bapak's Passing

Following the death of Ibu Siti Sumari in 1971, Bapak had married for a third time to Ibu Mastuti.

In 1979 Bapak had a heart attack, and in 1983 surgery to remove a cataract.

His last overseas journey was in 1985 when he again went to England, primarily for medical reasons. He was now frail and often in ill health.

By the 1980s Cilandak was no longer the quiet rural backwater it had once been. It was now part of suburban Jakarta, and Jalan Fatmawati, the road which ran past the compound was jammed with traffic, noisy and polluted.

In February 1987 Bapak and his family moved further out to Pamulang where a new house had been built for him.

On June 22nd 1987 a birthday part was held for Bapak in his new house. It was attended by many Indonesians as well as visitors from overseas.

Bapak appeared briefly to stand at the top of the main staircase to complete the Javanese custom of cutting the summit of a "rice mountain".

The guests sang the English and Indonesian birthday songs over and over again. Many sensed something special in the air. Bapak acknowledged their greetings and returned to his bedroom.

In the early hours of the following morning Bapak died while being taken to hospital.

Bapak was first buried in the Karet cemetery in Jakarta along with deceased members of his family including his mother and second wife.

However, his body - and those of the other family members - were later disinterred and reburied at Suka Mulia on a hilltop in the mountain region of Cipanas.

Bapak's Legacy

Bapak often said that no other individual would take over his role after his death, but that Subud would be governed by a Council representing the spiritual and material sides of its development.

This is indeed what has happened. Subud's affairs are guided by the meetings of delegates from the various countries at World Congress. Since Bapak' death there have been World Congresses in Sydney, Colombia and Spokane in the USA.

Between Congresses the World Subud Council is the major decision-making body.

There has been quite a smooth transition following Bapak's death with none of the turmoil or disruption which sometimes occurs in these circumstances.

Bapak's eldest daughter, Ibu Rahayu, now carries out some of the task which Bapak once did. In 1971, just at the time of Ibu's death, she had an experience of ascension which was subsequently confirmed by Bapak.

She now frequently gives talks for example about the direction of Subud - but she is always careful to emphasise that she is not following or replacing Bapak.



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