By Seno Gumira Ajidarma
One ordinary sleepy day a sufi teacher landed in Jakarta on his magic carpet at the gates of the toll road leading from Jakarta to Cengkareng International Airport. He hopped down and strolled into Jakarta as his magic carpet flew off again back up into the heavens.
It happened to be a Friday and at midday the sufi teacher went looking for the nearest place to perform his Friday prayers. He walked into the office block he was passing and on the ground floor found a small prayer room. The usual plastic prayer mats were laid out ready for Friday prayers but the room was still empty. A man who seemed to be the prayer room attendant was getting ready to perform his prayers, so the sufi teacher asked, “Prayer room attendant, isn’t it Friday today and shouldn’t everyone be here performing their prayers?”
“True. Usually there are lots of people here on Fridays to pray. The office workers in this building prefer to pray here on the ground floor rather than go out and look for a mosque.”
“But prayer room attendant, why isn’t anyone at all here today even though it’s time for prayer?”
“Ah, they’re all praying on the ninth floor.”
“And why is that?”
“Because.., it’s air conditioned. They say the atmosphere there is more conducive to prayer, and it’s nice and cool on the ninth floor, while down here it’s hot and sticky.”
“Ah, I see,” replied the sufi teacher in English, nodding.
And so he and the attendant performed their prayers together by themselves with the attendant leading the devotions.
When they had finished, the sufi teacher continued on his way looking for Gus Dur, the director of the Islamic community organization called Nahdlatul Ulama. He wanted to ask whether Americans could use the English phrase ‘good morning’ instead of the Arabic greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’.
A month later the sufi teacher was again going past the same building and as it happened to be right on time for midday prayer he once again entered the building.
It turned out that this time there were dozens of people preparing to pray in the small prayer room. There were so many in fact that they were spilling out of the prayer room into the lobby as the fiery sermon lambasted the spread of worldly greed.
The sufi teacher again asked the attendant, “Prayer room attendant, why are there now so many people praying here, so many that they are overflowing into the lobby? What has become of the air conditioned prayer room on the ninth floor?”
“Sojourner, the office workers have come back here to pray because the air conditioning is out of order, and the room which used to be so nice and cool is now unbearably hot. Because of the humidity on the ninth floor, they now want to pray here; if they are lucky they might catch a passing breeze.”
The sufi teacher again nodded, saying in English, “I see. I see.” Then he continued, “Well then, take note prayer room attendant. Reflect on this question: Is there any difference between those who pray in an air conditioned room and those who do not?”
The prayer room attendant was silent, and, after midday prayers were over, forever more followed the sufi teacher wherever he went.
One day on their travels they arrived at the edge of a river somewhere in Central Java where there was no bridge. To cross to the other side it was necessary to use a small bamboo raft. The raft landing on the other side was not directly opposite and had to be reached by using a punt some way along the bank before crossing over.
Punting along the edge of the river the sufi teacher noticed a man fishing at the edge of the river who didn’t seem to be using any bait. But even though the fisherman wasn’t using any bait, the fish were just jumping from the water by themselves and landing in the man’s basket, filling it to overflowing. As the basket filled, the local people emptied fish into their own baskets and carried them away to their homes. The villagers flocked to the fisherman’s basket.
Amazed at this sight, the sufi teacher asked the raft keeper, “Raft keeper, who is that man by the river fishing without any bait?”
“That’s Saint Jagakali.”
And so the raft keeper told the sufi teacher the story of the fisherman. It was said that long ago in that village there had lived a fisherman who lived solely from the fish he caught. Every day he would take his catch, return home and cook and eat it. One day one of the fish he caught was flapping gasping on the ground near him when it had begun speaking to him.
“Fisherman, please let me go. Grant me a great blessing and throw me back into the river. What good can I be to you? The small amount of flesh on my tiny bones will hardly fill you.”
The fisherman was astonished, but replied, “Talking fish, why do you speak to me this way? Does a fisherman not have the right to eat a fish he catches? This is the way it has always been, and the way it always shall be.”
“But life is like a wheel,” replied the fish. “What would happen if you should die and be reborn as a fish?”
The fisherman laughed aloud and threw the speaking fish into his basket.
Finally after the fisherman had died he was indeed reborn as a fish. On the other hand, after passing away the talking fish was also reborn, but as a fisherman.
One day the fisherman who had once been a fish caught the fish who had at one time been a fisherman. The fish who had been a fisherman was also able to speak.
“Good fisherman, I beg you to let me go because I am just a small fish and life means so much to me. My small body will hardly provide you with enough. Please throw me back into the river and set me free.”
The fisherman who had once been a fish happened to recognize that the fish he had caught was the fisherman who had once caught him.
The fisherman said, “Talking fish, do you not remember that once you were a fisherman and that once you refused to grant the request of a small fish. I am that very fish, and now you must experience what I felt that day.”
“No! Please! Haven’t you thought that one day you might be reborn yet again as a fish and I as a fisherman who might catch you? Remember that life is like a wheel, spinning around and around and around.”
“I don’t care; I desire vengeance. Aha ha ha ha ha!” responded the fisherman as he threw the fish into his basket. The fish flip-flopped backwards and forwards with slowly weakening flicks until it was finished.
In its next life, the fish did return as a man and the fisherman too returned, this time as a fish. The man who had once been a fish who had once been a fisherman did indeed become a fisherman who loved fishing more than anything in the world. But he did not forget that once he had killed a fish and had finally as a fish himself been killed by a fisherman despite his pleas for mercy. Full of reverence, he resolved to return the fish he had caught to the river.
Hence forth the fisherman fished without using any bait. The strange thing was that ever since he had decided not to use bait the fish had just leaped from the water by themselves into his basket. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish so he allowed the local villagers to take them. As there were more fish than a fish factory the local villagers took them gratefully.
The fisherman would sit by the river day and night fishing, refusing to use any bait. He did not want to eat any of the fish and he lived solely from the dew that formed on his lips in the morning, chanting the mantras of the poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri:
How many centuries must pass,
How many watches must stop,
How many signs must appear,
How many steps must I take,
Before I am able to reach You?
Over time, the fisherman had been given the name Saint Jagakali after the great Muslim mystic of Central Java, even though the fisherman himself had acknowledged no creed.
When the sufi teacher and the prayer room attendant arrived at the other side of the river, the sufi teacher thanked the raft keeper and together he and the prayer room attendant continued on their journey to East Java.
The sufi teacher wanted to meet the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Kiai Ahmad Shiddiq, to ask the venerable teacher what he would think if Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Jarre were to record Arabic devotional songs.
After that, the sufi teacher wanted to summon his flying carpet and return to Isfahan. He was planning to drop into Qom and let Khomeini know that wisdom had spread to every corner of the earth. But then he remembered, the Great Teacher was already dead, so he changed his mind.
The sufi teacher next planned to fly from East Java to Japan, but first he wanted to take the prayer room attendant to the modern Islamic boarding school at Gontor in East Java so he could learn English. After all, a prayer room attendant in an office block in Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’ central business district crowded with the offices of foreign investors needs to know English.
When he arrived in Japan the sufi teacher planned to go straight to Kyoto, find a Buddhist priest, and find out how he practiced Zen.
(Jakarta, February 1990)
The Sufi Teacher Passed By… (Guru Sufi Lewat…) was published in Kompas Daily in May 1990.