The Golden Sufi Center

How the Light Gets In:
An Interview with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

by Pat MacEnulty

This is an excerpt from the Interview.
The full interview is approximately 34 pages (12,180 words)
published by Prism Light Press


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At the age of 16, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee had a spiritual experience that propelled him on a lifelong spiritual path. For three years he delved into any spiritual teaching he could find. He studied sacred geometry with Keith Critchlow, he learned Hatha yoga, and he attended lectures by Zen masters and spiritual teachers such as Krishnamurti. Then at the age of 19, he met an elderly Russian woman named Irina Tweedie. Tweedie was a Sufi teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order and later wrote the classic Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master. Vaughan-Lee recounts that when he looked into her eyes he instantly and unquestioningly knew he had met his teacher.

For many years he attended Tweedie's weekly meditation sessions, which were held in a studio flat beside the train tracks in North London. There he met Anat who became his wife. The couple bought a house in London and invited their teacher to live downstairs while they raised a family upstairs. During this period, Vaughan-Lee worked as a high school English teacher for several years, and then studied Jungian psychology for a Ph.D. His scholarly worked explored Jungian archetypes in Shakespeare. Vaughan-Lee also delved into dreamwork and began integrating the ancient Sufi approach to dreams with the insights he gained from studying the works of Carl Jung.

When Vaughan-Lee was 36 years old, Tweedie appointed him her successor. Soon after that he felt called to bring the teaching to the United States. On his first trip to California, standing on the Marin headlands, looking down at the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, he felt a strong spiritual connection to this land and realized that his life's work was here. However, he did not intend to move while Tweedie was still alive. He believed that he needed to stay in England to take care of his elderly teacher until the end of her life. In his autobiography he recalls the day that this conviction was swept away: "One early summer afternoon in London I was standing in my kitchen with Anat, looking out over the back garden, the green lawn, and the flowers Mrs. Tweedie had so lovingly planted coming into bloom." Vaughan-Lee says that all of a sudden he was hit with a powerful energy blast that almost knocked him off his feet. In the shift that followed, he understood it was time to move to America and that he should start his Sufi center while his teacher was still alive. Tweedie understood and approved of the move.

Vaughan-Lee settled with his wife and two children in a community north of San Francisco and established The Golden Sufi Center. He continued to teach around the world. His order now has a following of about 800 people worldwide in the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, South America and Australia. Groups meet at private homes to meditate and engage in dream discussions.

Vaughan-Lee has written 19 books describing and discussing Sufism, the mystical journey, oneness, spiritual ecology, and the feminine nature of the Divine. I discovered Vaughan-Lee through his book Alchemy of Light, in which he describes our role in transforming and healing the world. His autobiography The Face Before I Was Born details his own spiritual journey with humor and humility.

For the past decade his writing and teaching have focused on the awakening global consciousness of oneness and the need for a spiritual response to our present ecological crisis. In his book The Return of the Feminine and The World Soul, he suggests that the role of women is especially critical now in healing the anima mundi or world soul and restoring balance to both the inner and outer worlds.

I met with Llewellyn and Anat, an artist who creates the covers for Llewellyn's books, at their home in Northern California. It was a mild October morning. I'd had a brutal case of food poisoning the night before but managed to feel well enough to drive the hour to his home north of San Francisco. After a brief tour of the garden and a visit to the meditation room, which was filled with light from a bank of windows facing the bay, we sat at the family table with a plate of warm scones and tea. I was feeling much better by then. But an odd thing happened during the interview. For some reason, just talking to Llewellyn brought tears to my eyes. There's a wisdom and a love in his voice and his being that I've rarely encountered. I felt I was in the presence of a true master. 

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What is Sufism's connection to Islam?

Vaughan-Lee: Sufism is often called the heart of Islam. However, in the early twentieth century an Indian named Hazrat Inayat Khan came to Europe and America and became one of the first Sufis to make Sufism accessible to the non-Muslim West. He stressed the universality at the heart of Sufi teachings. Something very unusual happened in our particular lineage. A Sufi lineage, by the way, is a succession of spiritual teachers stretching back to the Prophet. I belong to the Naqshbandi Sufi lineage, who are also known as the "Silent Sufis" because we perform our practices in silence—we do not use music or dance like other Sufi orders. In the late nineteenth century, a Muslim teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya lineage (an Indian branch of the Naqshbandi order) passed the tradition on to a Hindu family in Northern India. This was highly unusual. There were two brothers in this Hindu family. The son of the younger brother became the teacher of my teacher, Irina Tweedie, who was the first woman to be trained in this tradition. He asked her to keep a diary of her training, which eventually became the classic book called Daughter of Fire: A Diary of A Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master. She was also asked to bring this teaching to the West, which she did after his death in 1966.

While the traditional view is that Sufism is the esoteric heart of Islam, another view is that Sufism is actually older than Islam. It is the ancient wisdom of the heart, long before it was called Sufism. The name, which possibly derives from wool (Suf) referring the white woolen garments of the early Sufis, only came centuries later after it was integrated into Islam. Sufism flourished and developed under Islam.

Another teacher who helped bring Sufism to the awareness of the West was Idries Shah, an Afghani writer and teacher, who wrote a very influential book called The Sufis. He also held the belief that Sufism is not identified solely with Islam.

MacEnulty: A lot of people in the U.S. still don't know much about Sufism.

Vaughan-Lee: But they've read Rumi.

MacEnulty: Exactly. That's certainly where I got most of my ideas about it.

Vaughan-Lee: You've probably read the wonderful translation by Coleman Barks. Coleman Barks did a tremendous job of introducing Rumi to the Western audience and he stresses the universal nature of the divine love that Rumi writes about and that is at the core of Sufism. But there are a also lot of Qur'anic references in Rumi's writing because Rumi was a theology teacher before he met his teacher Shams. Rumi was steeped in the Qur'an. Coleman Barks provides a wonderful but edited version of Rumi to make his poetry accessible to the Western reader.

MacEnulty: I think a lot of Westerners have a resistance to Islam because of the perception of the treatment of women in Islam or because of the hardline positions of the more extreme elements. Yet Sufism seems to sidestep these issues.

Vaughan-Lee: Sufism, especially as it is practiced within some orders of the West, is essentially a mystical path that has to do with the heart's relationship to God, with going into that innermost core of the self to discover a relationship with God, whom Sufis call the Beloved. It's really a love affair. There are different ways to reach God. Those who need to experience this journey as a love affair are drawn to this path because it goes beyond identification with any form or any gender and speaks directly to the heart and soul. That's what Rumi does and why he's touched so many people in the West. He speaks to the need, the hunger, we have for Divine Love. Sufism is the path that beckons those who have this hunger.

MacEnulty: As I understand you, Sufism is not necessarily about a particular dogma.

Vaughan-Lee: One of the early definitions is that Sufism is "Truth without form." A great early Sufi said, "Sufism was at first heartache and only later it became something to write about." It's really about this longing in the heart. What is interesting is that longing is traditionally the feminine side of love, the cup waiting to be filled. Sufism speaks to the feminine nature of the soul. In the esoteric tradition, the soul is always feminine before God. There's a lovely story about the Indian mystical poet Mirabai. She was a princess who left her palace to become a wandering mystic. Mirabai was devoted to Krishna, her "Dark Lord," and once, when she was wandering in some woodlands sacred to Krishna, a famous theologian and ascetic named Jiv Gosvami denied her access to one of her Dark Lord's temples because she was a woman. Mirabai shamed him with the words: "Are not all souls female before God?" Jiv Gosvami bowed his head and led her into the temple. This feminine quality of the soul which surrenders and bows down before God is what the Sufis speak to. The lover waits for her Beloved. And when the Beloved comes to us, in those moments of meeting and merging that are so intimate that one can hardly speak of them, the lover is feminine, pierced, penetrated by the tremendous bliss of divine love.

MacEnulty: In reading your work, I'm struck by the idea of the teacher-student relationship. Sufism seems to be rooted in this kind of relationship. Why does there have to be a teacher? Can't somebody experience an awakening of the soul without a teacher?

Vaughan-Lee: Yes, there can be initial experiences. In fact, many people have had them. One thinks of Eckhart Tolle, who had an awakening on his own, from which his teachings came. The difficulty for most people is to actually live that awakening in a grounded way and go deeper into the awakening without a guide, without somebody to help you. In Sufism the relationship with the teacher is central to the journey, to quote the poet Hafiz:

Do not take a step
on the path of love without a guide.
I have tried it
one hundred times and failed.

My teacher said you can't cross an unknown land or a desert without a guide. For example you need someone to help you know what to do in relation to an inner world that has very powerful energies. I'll give you an example. When I was 17, I practiced Hatha yoga. It so happened that my Hatha yoga practice woke up the kundalini energy in me. I went to my Hatha yoga teacher but she had never experienced it, and she had no idea what to do. It wasn't until I met my teacher when I was 19 -- and it took a while even then -- that I learned how to balance this energy within myself and not go crazy. There are very powerful energies within the unconscious and within our spiritual nature, and most of us need a teacher to help us navigate that inner world.

Another teaching says that although you can have glimpse of your real Self or Buddha nature without a guide, the ego cannot go beyond the ego, the mind cannot go beyond the mind. You need a ferryman to take you to what I call "the further shores of love." You need somebody who understands the inner processes. You can do much of the inner journey on your own, but to bring that process into full consciousness while living in the world, traditionally you need a teacher.

MacEnulty: Does everybody at some point have the opportunity to work with a teacher?

Vaughan-Lee: There are different levels of spiritual teaching. The Sufi says the outer teacher always points to the inner teacher and the greatest teacher is life itself. The individual spiritual guide is there for someone who wants to experience deep states of meditation, of going deep within their spiritual nature into what the Sufis call the chambers of the heart. But this is not a journey that most people are really interested in taking. It requires tremendous commitment and perseverance. It is really a lifetime's undertaking.

Now, is there an opportunity for most people to make a step in their spiritual evolution? Yes. And there are many different forms of spiritual guidance. For some people it can be in books. For many years Shakespeare was my teacher. Another teacher of mine was Carl Jung, whom I deeply admire. He had made his own inner journey and then wrote about it. He said this inner world of the psyche is real. This was revolutionary! Studying Jung, I learned that I wasn't going crazy when I saw these archetypal images within myself or in my dreams. I came to understand their significance.

There are many different ways that a teacher can appear. If you are drawn to the Buddhist path, you look for a Buddhist teacher. If you are interested in working directly with the heart, you may be drawn to find a Sufi teacher. If you are interested in working within the Christian tradition, thanks to the work of Father Thomas Keating and others, there are guides who can help you within that tradition.

MacEnulty: So someone may choose or find a non-corporeal teacher, Jesus, for instance, or Shiva, or a living teacher such as yourself?

Vaughan-Lee: Yes. Remember, there are different sorts of teachers. We have many spiritual teachers in the West who go out and lecture and they touch people, for example, someone like Adyashanti, yet they don't have an individual relationship with their students. This is not their work.  Their work is primarily to make accessible a certain body of spiritual teachings that can help people awaken, to live in relationship to their true nature. To take complete spiritual responsibility for that individual, which is the traditional work of the teacher-disciple relationship, is very different. It is very time consuming and a tremendous commitment on the part of both the teacher and the disciple. It's also a very intimate relationship. Traditionally it is said that you don't find a teacher, the teacher finds you, that when you are ready, the teacher appears.

I do think there's a lot of misunderstanding about the teacher-disciple relationship in the West. Unfortunately, this is partly because of the Christian Church. In the Bible, there is an incredibly moving account of the moment when Mary Magdalene meets Jesus near the tomb after his death. At first, she mistakes him for the gardener. Then Jesus says, "Woman, why weepest thou?" and she recognizes him and says "Rabboni" which means "teacher." In those two or three lines, we find the traditional relationship of the teacher and the disciple. She was his favorite disciple apparently. Their meeting at the tomb, and the fact that she was the first person to see the risen Christ, could never be dismissed by the Church. But because she was a woman it's significance was never fully explained either. So we have a glimpse of this relationship of Christ as a spiritual teacher who had disciples, with Mary foremost among them. But sadly, the whole tradition of the teacher-disciple relationship was buried, and instead we have this male-dominated hierarchical church. This very intimate, personal, and at the same time very impersonal relationship full of tremendous love and devotion was ignored.

MacEnulty: But this type of relationship is still very strong in other traditions. Why haven't we learned from them?

Vaughan-Lee: In the 60s and 70s spiritual teachers began to come from India to the West. The West didn't have an understanding of that relationship, and it became personalized and misused which resulted in a lot of confusion. A lot of people had negative experiences. This type of relationship is not part of our culture, which has caused a lot of difficulty for people....


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