Piata these days.

Harris Smart writes…

I have traveled the world for 30 years interviewing many Subud members, but I have never interviewed the person closest to me, my wife.

We were sitting together this morning and she asked, “What did you discuss at the helpers’ meeting last night?”

I said, “We talked about why people leave Subud and whether there is anything that we can do about it. Why do people who have been in Subud for a long time drift away? And why do those who’ve only just been opened stop coming? Why do you think that is?”Harris Smart writes…

 I have traveled the world for 30 years interviewing many Subud members, but I have never interviewed the person closest to me, my wife.

 We were sitting together this morning and she asked, “What did you discuss at the helpers’ meeting last night?”

 I said, “We talked about why people leave Subud and whether there is anything that we can do about it. Why do people who have been in Subud for a long time drift away? And why do those who’ve only just been opened stop coming? Why do you think that is?”

 “Well, Subud requires a lot of patience,” she replied. “There are no instant fixes. Perhaps people come in with the wrong expectation that everything in their lives is suddenly going to be lovely. And then, you can go on for a long time, for years, feeling nothing and you have to have the patience to go through that.”

It was then that it occurred to me that I should interview my wife about her Subud story. She told me…

Piata when we first met 20 yeasr ago.

I was opened 27 years ago. It grew out of my friendship with Simone Melder. She was someone I knew in the community of Sri Lankan people in Melbourne. There was something special about her. She had a goodness about her. I thought, what this person is following must be good. I tried to get the secret out of her but she was quite elusive. She only told me that she went to church and also that she did some “meditation”.

Subud is such a subtle thing that the person you tell about it must be in the right receptive state of mind. She probably felt that she had to wait until the right moment to tell me about it. Perhaps, if she had told me about it too quickly, I would’ve rejected it as some sort of cult. But finally she did tell me about Subud.

So I began my three month probation… It was very difficult for me because I was not patient at that time, but some helpers were very kind to me. Halimah Armytage and Absiah Bakir were two who helped me.

Then, after I had been coming for about six weeks, there was a special experience. I went with Simone and her mother-in-law, who was also in Subud, to a lake in a park. I suddenly felt this huge vibration and a sense of oneness with myself and with God. The three of us stood quietly together and then after about 20 minutes the experience stopped. Simone said, “Gosh, you’ve been opened.”

What was I looking for when I joined Subud? Well, I had been brought up in the conventional Anglican church in Sri Lanka. I had gone the traditional path of Sunday school, youth group and regular attendance at church. But it was all rather formal and conventional and on a deeper level I was looking for a closer relationship with God. This is what I hoped to find in Subud.

Life Changes

My life at that time was comfortable and happy. I had a good relationship with my husband and we had two small daughters. We had two shops, businesses that were going extremely well. My husband also joined Subud. But then, after I had been in Subud for about five or six years, everything collapsed. I lost  everything.

I had been brought up in a very privileged environment in Sri Lanka. I am a Burgher, which means the intermarriage of the native Sinhalese with the colonial powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch and English who once ruled Sri Lanka. We Burghers became a sort of buffer zone between the colonials and the native people. We were the professionals, the teachers, doctors, lawyers and judges. My family was extremely wealthy and the extended family all lived together in a residential compound.

Piata’s mother.

My life was not unmarked by sorrow. When I was eight years old, my beloved mother died. My father was away in Zambia at the time and could not break his contract to come back. The next two years were a time of great sadness and loneliness for me. I was cared for by my older sister and my grandparents, but it was still very difficult.

I enjoyed school and was very good at athletics. (I get this from my mother’s side of the family: one of my uncles won a gold medal for boxing at the Commonwealth games, a big thing for Sri Lanka in those days.) But in some ways I was quite solitary. Recently, I went to a Sri Lankan function and met someone I had known at school and she said to me, “Oh yes, we called you ‘poor little rich girl’.”

Piata with her mother who died when Piata was eight.

My father, sister and older brother and I went to live in Zambia. I felt very close to the African people. I was not supposed to mix with the servants but I was always sneaking off to their quarters to share their food and learn about their traditions and culture. I still have the happiest memories of sharing their communal food of mealy-meal where everyone sits around together and dips in the communal bowl.

Then, when we came back to Sri Lanka, there was a lot of political turmoil which affected us directly. Colonialism had ended, the Sinhalese majority had taken power, and the Burghers, once so privileged, were now discriminated against. There was a mass emigration of the Burghers to England, Canada and Australia. We were not allowed to take our money out, and we had to leave our wealth and comfort and start life all over again in Melbourne with nothing. I was 17.

My father found work as a teacher, and I also started work. Perhaps because he had lost my mother, my father was obsessively protective of me. I was experiencing this new Australian culture of freedom and independence, and I increasingly felt stifled by my father who never let me go out. One weekend I took a stand. I told him I was going out whether he liked it or not. He told me that if I went out, not to come back.

So I went out and then went to live with my brother and his girlfriend, but after three months my father came to me and said, “I miss you too much, come back.” So I did, but after that my father respected my wish to have some freedom. Looking back, I see that this was the first step in my journey to becoming an independent woman.

Poor little rich girl.

More Involved in Subud

As I saId, at the time I joined Subud, life was good. And then five or six years after I came into Subud, it all changed. It began when my father died. Although we had had our difficulties, he was the most important person in my life, along with my husband and children.

I was 37. For some reason that I cannot fully explain, after my father died I felt I had to leave my husband. At the same time, our businesses collapsed and we lost everything materially. I had always led a secure and protected existence, protected first by my father and then by my husband, and now I had to fend for myself. I had two young daughters and my ex-husband and I have shared their upbringing. They are now in their twenties and doing well in life.

But all of this turmoil challenged me to take up the Subud more seriously. My husband had joined Subud and we used to go once a week and socialize with some people, but it was all rather superficial. We used to judge the people in Subud, who often seemed not to be very successful, and felt ourselves to be apart.

But after the death of my father and the breakup of my marriage, I became more dedicated to Subud. It was a very difficult time for me. I felt lost, angry, isolated, confused and afraid. But at the same time I felt a quiet inner strength that everything would be OK. I also felt I had a new freedom. I had felt stifled by the secure life I had enjoyed before. The loss of all my comforts seems to have be the doorway through which I had to pass to begin my true journey. In a way it was a relief to get rid of all that stuff. Worries left me and I felt quite happy on one level.

The Fateful Congress

I had never been to a Subud Congress but now my new close friends in Subud were urging me to go. There was a national congress in Wollongong and there I I became involved with this man, Harris Smart.

There had been an incident a few months before when I had been in the Subud hall after latihan and I had seen this man I did not know. I asked Simone who we was and she said, “That is Harris Smart and he is a writer and wonderful person.” (If only she knew!)

At that moment, out of nowhere came the thought, “You will that marry that man and travel together”. It was strange – it came from some place outside me because I was not attracted to him at all.

Then at that Congress I met him again – or he searched me out because that night in the hall he had had a similar experience, that he would marry me. It was one of those, “Some enchanted evening, across a crowded room” type experiences.

We had a whirlwind Congress romance and then nine months later we were married. I saw him as an older man (ten years older than me!) who had many of the traits of my father, quiet, intellectual, rather solitary. My father was exactly the same. I read somewhere that Bapak says that you should have a feeling about your husband that you had for your father, and for a man, the feeling for a wife that you had for your mother. In the big picture of things, I believe that people are put in our paths for our growth.

Piata and Harris. Coming up to our 20th wedding anniversary, through thick and thin.

Harris and I are very different people, not only in upbringing and background, but in our natures. They say that opposites attract, and perhaps we are an example of that. I am a more conventional person, and he is a bit of a bohemian. He has told me that he saw in me as a source of stability in his life, while perhaps I was attracted to his freedom loving (sometimes rather wayward!) personality

There were many challenges to come. Marriage is never easy, but somehow we have stuck it out through thick and thin for 20 years.

A Change of Name

A few months after the Congress I asked to change my name. I had never understood before why anyone would want to do this and I scorned the notion. But now I wanted a new name, and I was given the name Piata.

There have been times when I felt disappointed in Subud or people in Subud and have stopped doing the group latihan for a number of years, but now I have returned. For the last three years I have suffered a series of painful and debilitating illnesses – we are all getting older – and perhaps that has taught me something about patience. I have had to accept very slow processes of healing with these illnesses. No quick fixes!

I see that there is a path in life for which we must be grateful. It is not necessarily all about the pursuit of happiness, but about growth, often through hardship and suffering. We have to face life and its realities rather than a romantic expectation of how life should be. Through all of these I have learned strength, independence, and patience. And so the journey continues…

Piata on holidays in Sri Lanka. The Journey goes on...

To hear Piata sing, click here ipanema