In 1992 HarperCollins published my first trade (versus academic) book: A World Treasury of Folk Wisdom. Compiled and edited with a former student, it was a collection of 1,000 proverbs from all over the world. (Hence the title.) My collaborator and I placed ten each in 100 alphabetically arranged categories, from Adversity to Youth and Age. Our rule was never to have more than one saying per country or culture in a category. This was a challenge since sometimes we had five great proverbs from the same country but could select only one. Furthermore, we made sure to recast the sayings in inclusive language. All the many “He who’s..." were strictly forbidden. With 20,000 copies bought, this book became my bestseller.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, after spending so many hours doing library research, I feel I’ve acquired a certain minor-league expertise in proverbial wisdom. Proverbs, I declared in the Introduction, are “capsule wisdom.” Like bolts of lightning, they momentarily illuminate the dark night of our individual and collective ignorance. We can see just enough to orient ourselves as we journey along on our pilgrimage of life.
The title of this blog is “Outwardly Active, Inwardly Quiet.” It comes from the wisdom treasury of the Javanese people of Indonesia. Like most Asian cultures, the Javanese have strong mystical leanings, with meditation, fasting, and a whole bag-full of ascetic practices helping them toward enlightenment. In the case of Java, which started from an animistic base, they next had multi-hundred years of a Hindu kingdom followed by a Buddhist one. On top of all that, in the later 16th century came Islam. The Javanese never really gave up what had come before but simply added the new. With regard to Islam, moreover, they especially took to various schools of Sufi mysticism. This syncretism has been the bane of by-the-book Islamic reformers, both home-grown and imported, ever since.
My spiritual guide, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadjiwidjojo (d. 1987), comes from this Javanese tradition. Not surprisingly, then, our spiritual exercise is an individual, ever-changing receiving of movements, sounds, words, prayers, and internal visualizations manifesting in spontaneous outward activities while we become more and more quiet inside during the 30-minute practice. Stone Buddhas are all well and good, but the whole universe is filled with movement. Simply to live our lives requires us to move about, interact with others, and do things. The real trick, Pak Subuh, as he was called, advised us, was to be outwardly active and productive every day while remaining tranquil inside. In our imitation of the Creator, we were to be as best we could unmoved movers. After 59 years of this practice, I’m getting better at it—something my cat seems to understand and appreciate.