Pir Shabda Kahn is a widely known and respected spiritual teacher who connects teachings from Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, illuminating the truths that are shared beneath all traditions. Shabda Kahn is the Pir (spiritual director) of the Sufi Ruhaniat International in the succession of Hazrat Inayat Khan and Murshid Samuel Lewis, and is the director of the Chisti Sabri School of Music.
The spark that ignites the flame of a lifelong spiritual journey comes in many forms. For Pir Shabda Khan it was LSD.
“My spiritual path really started to bloom when I took the sacred substance called LSD in 1966. It opened a vision that life was a path. I started putting myself on retreat without a teacher, and without realizing that there were many schools that dedicated themselves to awakening and that that was the purpose of every religion.”
And then, while Pir Shabda was in New York going to City College of New York, he heard a radio interview with Baba Ram Dass, “First Ram Dass spoke about his experiences on LSD, then he went to India and he found his guru, and he talked about the journey he was on.” At that moment, I said, ‘Here’s my teacher.’ I left everything, I found him in New York. He gave me some practices to do and said, ‘Meet me at my father’s land in 6 months, we’ll start a community together. I was a little naive at the age of 21 or 22. We had a beautiful time there in New Hampshire. It didn’t last very long, it lasted 3-4 months. Some other people of note were there, you know Krishna Das, the famous Kirtan singer. He was there. Danny Goleman, who wrote all the books on Emotional Intelligence. A bunch of other people. Winter came, and it was too cold to live in New Hampshire the way we were living, and that was it. The whole thing disbanded.”
In December 1968, a Sufi teacher named Pir Vilayat Khan came to New York for the first time, and Pir Shabda connected with him and was given instruction in meditation.
“I never had any formal training like that. Never been given a way to really meditate. The instructions were to concentrate on a beam of light coming out of the forehead. The next day, I went up to the Cloisters in New York city. It’s a monastery that was in Europe which was, rock by rock, shipped to New York City, and rebuilt. An old, 17th or 16th-century monastery. It has a very romantic atmosphere….I went there to our favorite room where we’d usually go and get stoned, only this time, I was perfectly straight: no intoxicants. I sat down to meditate and I focussed on a beam of light coming out of my forehead. And that lasted for about 3-4 minutes. My knees started hurting and my mind was racing. So I said to myself, forget this, this isn’t happening. I walked 4-5 feet and a woman who was older (perhaps in her 40s), came up and stopped me, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Is it possible? I saw this incredible beam of light coming out of your forehead?’ I was stunned. I said, ‘Oh you know, I was concentrating.’ I started to realize then that direct experience was on a need-to-know basis, that a process was going on that we aren’t aware of when you were practicing. So it gave me a great dedication to practice that was not based on conscious results. Seeable results.”
Pir Shabda’s journey continued in much the same way as he became a disciple of the great American Sufi Master, Murshid Samuel Lewis, following the teachings that presented themselves. He has travelled the world to study with Sufi masters, Zen monks, classical Indian musicians, and to practice the Universal Dance of Peace with Ram Dass - and he has come home to the oneness in his heart.
It is useful to hear stories of Awakening such as this, as it helps to dispel the idea that there is one clear, direct path to God, or enlightenment. Pir Shabda Kahn recognizes that each person has their own religion, their own unique way the Path unfolds for them. “The path keeps unfolding, and serving” and each arising circumstance is perfect as it has unveiled for him the commonalities that unite each spiritual school and discipline.
How does someone become so awakened? Is that through practice or do you think some people are just born that way?
I feel we have to act like it comes by effort though everything will come by grace. There’s a saying in the Koran, that you take one step to Allah and Allah takes 10 steps to you. Don’t get confused what Allah means. Spiritual liberty, limitless freedom, awakening of your true Inner Nature. I feel all the spiritual schools describe the same thing in different language. The teachings of the soul, in the Sufi tradition, or from my own experience, is that the soul is an undivided portion of the All Pervading Essence. But when it’s surrounded by elements because it’s nature is love and it takes so much interest in looking through the lens that it’s covered with, it loses sight of its true nature. It feels it’s separate. Separate, and also temporal. Coming and going, taking birth and dying. Essentially the soul is never born and never dies. It has no location and is located everywhere. It’s like when you take a light and you shine it through a green cloth, after a while you don’t remember. You think “Oh I’m a green light". Sufism is based on experience, not on premise or philosophy. It’s fine that I’m saying these lovely words, but to emphasize what Sufism is, it is the direct experience of Unity.
My favorite way to describe this now is limitless freedom. When you sit in the Essence of your being, nothing can arise that can take away your freedom. You will always be sitting in the center of, in India they call it Satchitananda. Existence (sat), consciousness (chit) and bliss (ananda), or extraordinary joy, ecstasy. but it’s not the ecstasy in an ordinary sense. It’s another way to say that no circumstance can arise in our lives that will disturb our freedom. No incarceration, no terrible action, no coming and going. It’s not that fear is abandoned, it just doesn’t arise.
From this point of view, this is a completely non-dual teaching. But then we are honest and look at our current situation and our common wound, the one we all share, is a sense of separation. If we’re honest, we want to speak from where we’re sitting, rather than make some affirmation about what might be. From that point of view, we need to make some expression or aspiration toward something. We are moving toward the one, that’s honest. If we say, “we are the one”, it’s insolent. You’re thinking about that which you haven’t experienced in the fullness yet, even though that might be the case. If you’re honest, then you want to create a relationship to your heart, which is your essence. In that way, it’s like saying you need to create a good ideal. Something where your heart turns toward.
We’ve all grown with an anthropomorphic god in some other location, looking at this time like a man. At least, it should look like a woman, that would be better. I’d rather have my god look like a woman! But either way, beyond that, my own intuition says to me, that which is at the Essence of all is unconditional love, all wisdom, all healing, unconditional forgiveness and so on. Gradually I connect, this is how the sufi path works, gradually I make a relationship with that inner feeling, that it’s drawing me toward it. From here, then I begin to see that I dedicate all my actions to awakening. So my life now becomes service, or surrender if you’d like to use that word. Surrender to that inner power. It’s a kind of surrender that doesn’t make you weak, it makes you very strong.
The next stage that arises is a beautiful stage because now you begin to see God everywhere. When you have that stage arising, it’s super blissful. Not only do you see God in nature in something beautiful, but you’ll also see God in disguise, in the person who is mean and disturbed and confused. And so on. You’ll go, ‘oh quite a nice disguise you’ve got there today’. And then the last stage is union, and at that stage, all of your actions become beneficial what is called in Buddhist terms, a bodhisattva. in.
You’ve mentioned that your own thirst for oneness has been your guide on the spiritual path. Can you say more about that?
“All human beings, all beings, everything which is alive, has a yearning. We experience it, if we want to put words to it, like our deepest motivation, our thirst. If we look that every morning we wake up and are thirsty for something. The easiest placeholder word is the thirst for happiness. We want to be happy…
But we should be careful to see that not only are our skillful actions motivated by the wish to be happy, but even our most heinous actions. For all of them, the root wish, is to be happy. If I kill somebody, if I shoot them, if I’m mean, if I use pride or jealousy or greed-- my happiness based on your suffering is pride. If I show myself better than you, then I’ll be happy. It’s not wisdom, it’s unskillful means, but the root motivation for happiness is the same. That means that every action taken by anything everything ever was for this goal. There can’t be any action that isn’t for this goal, ever, by anything. Everything is for this, so it means that there must be some roadmap for this wish. And if we uncover that wish, we’ll find the spiritual path.
Now we begin to see that we’ve been under the misconception that if the world would change to what we wanted, we’d be happy… It’s not going to happen. Finally, we have to come to our senses, so to speak, and realize that what we’re looking for is our very self. That is the only source of lasting happiness, or if you want to put another placeholder word instead of the word happiness you could say Freedom. Limitless freedom. So this is the spiritual path and this is true for everything which is living, so everything which is living is placed on that path.”
So whether your path began with LSD, or a failed attempt at meditation, or a walk in the woods, it is your thirst that guides you into oneness. Listen, and it won’t fail you. And, it is always wise to find a lineage wisdom stream so you won't have to reinvent the wheel.
Pir Shabda Kahn has been transmitting the rich lineage of Sufism since 1969. He has been the Pir (spiritual director) of the Sufi Ruhaniat International since 2001. This universal Sufi lineage traces from Hazrat Inayat Khan and Murshid Samuel Lewis.
Pir Shabda has also studied and performed North Indian classical vocal music under the guidance of the late master singer Pandit Pran Nath. He is also a disciple of the illustrious Tibetan master, the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche.
Find more information about Pir Shabda Kahn here.