Murshid Samuel Lewis 1896-1971
Mystic, Sufi Master, Zen Teacher, Peace Activist, Horticulturist, Scientist, Madzub: Samuel L. Lewis has been called these things and more. The originator of the Dances of Universal Peace was a spiritual renaissance man whose life and teachings were a testimony to truth, originality and embodied spirituality. Though rejected by polite society and even his own family because of his spiritual leanings, Samuel Lewis remained true to the penetrating spiritual vision of human liberation at the core of his being. His life, often difficult, bore much fruit for his students and for the world.
Born October 18, 1896 in San Francisco, California USA to Jacob Lewis, a vice-president of the Levi Strauss Company, and the former Harriet Rothschild of the international banking family, young Samuel was a precocious and brilliant child who from an early age showed strong interest in mysticism, past lives and psychic phenomena. Despite his family's efforts to encourage him toward a life of material pursuits and business success, he was invariably attracted to spirituality. Though he graduated with honors from San Francisco's top high school, his wealthy family refused to send him to college because his values were so different from theirs.
Samuel encountered the teachings of the Theosophical Society in 1915 at the World's Fair in San Francisco. The universality of Theosophy, of seeing the religions of the world as different rays of one truth, resonated deeply in him, and Samuel continued to study world religions voraciously. In 1919 he met and began what would become a long association with Rabia Martin, Hazrat Inayat Khan's representative in the United States. Around that time he also began formal Zen training with Nyogen Sensaki, a Rinsai monk and one of the foremost early teachers of Zen in the United States. From then on Samuel's spirituality took a decidedly deeper turn. In 1923 he had the first of several audiences with Sufi Inayat Khan and received initiation from him. Later in life Samuel would express his conviction that he received regular psychic messages from the late Sufi master.
During the depression years Samuel lived a simple life as a gardener while becoming involved with social issues, including world peace. He lived at the Sufi Khankah called "Kaaba Allah" in Fairfax, California and began writing essays on spiritual themes. During World War II he worked as an historical consultant and secretary for Army Intelligence.
As early as 1940 he first noted the power of spiritual dance to awaken human beings to their true nature. He wrote:
What does dance do for us? First and foremost, it inculcates the sense of rhythm and enhances our response to rhythm. This is really a response to life. It makes us more living, which is to say, more spiritual. It brings out beauty of form and movement, and envelops our personalities in the enjoyment of them. It takes us beyond ourselves, bringing an initial taste of the state of non-being, which is really a balm for the soul.1
In 1956 he traveled to Asia, which exposed him to spiritual practices and realized sages in the East. On his travels he was widely accepted as an awakened being by the spiritual communities he visited. This cultural and spiritual stimulus furthered the development of his ideas.
Samuel eventually was accepted as a "Zen-shi," or teacher of Zen Buddhism. He also studied underSwami Papa Ramdas and was recognized as a teacher of Bhakti yoga, of Christian mysticism as one of the founders of the Holy Order of M.A.N.S., and of the Hebrew Kaballah. He stated it was not his desire to associate his peace work or his Dances with any particular spiritual tradition or sect. Of this he said:
Divine truth does not belong to any organization. If I organize here, it will be made under the title of "Islamia Ruhaniat Society," that is, the complete teachings of spiritual sciences which lead to realization of peace. As I'm working with my colleagues in other faiths, this will demonstrate this. We're not going to be called "Sufis" to distinguish ourselves from somebody else.2
According to Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, his esoteric secretary in the last years of his life, Murshid Samuel Lewis offered Sufi teachings to the young people and hippies of the San Francisco Bay Area in the
Murshid Sam's early Dance notes
1960s because no one else was doing it. In the upsurge of interest in Eastern spirituality of that period, Zen, Hindu meditation and many other practices were available, but not Sufism. Murshid Sam would offer a full week’s program of dharma talks, Dance classes, Walks in astrological yoga and the Sufi gathas, and during the 1960s a growing group of disciples gathered around him at his home in Precita Park, San Francisco. Often feeding his students meals from his own table, he said that his peace plan for the world was to "Eat, Dance and Pray together."
The Dances of Universal Peace in many ways were the summation of Murshid Sam's life experience and spiritual attainment. Through Dance, spiritual Walks and practices he was attempting to strengthen the latent aspects of his students’ personalities and awaken them to the fullness of truth. He explained:
Now, I am not running a fun club, and I am not running a dramatic show. I believe we can learn through exaltation, through ecstasy, through joy and through love. At the same time we must also keep one eye open, so to speak, on our peace, if we want strength, because strength comes out of our inner peace. A lot of people go and speak against ecstasy and they don't know what it is. A lot of people speak for it and they don't know what it is. So I find love should produce a certain kind of ecstasy and ecstasy if it is real will produce a certain kind of love.3
The Dances of Universal Peace bear the lasting influence of Murshid Sam's contact and spiritual apprenticeship with Hazrat Inayat Khan, who first brought the message of universal Sufism to the West in 1910, and Ruth St. Denis, a feminist pioneer in the modern dance movement in America and Europe. Of the latter he wrote:
My fairy godmother, so to speak, Ruth S. Denis, approved of all my plans, and before she left the world I had begun my “Dances of Universal Peace.” I started out with Dervish Dances, then Indian ones. Now I am ready to restore or start Christian mystical dances. These dances are dedicated to the Temple of Understanding in Washington D.C., which is endeavoring to take to heart the psalmist's words, “My house shall be a house for all peoples."4
From his rich life experiences Murshid Samuel Lewis envisioned and created the Dances as a dynamic method to promote "Peace through the Arts." From the early days and his original body of about 50 dances, the collection has grown since his passing in 1971 to more than 500 dances, which celebrate the sacred heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Aramaic, Native American, Native Middle Eastern, Celtic, Native African, and Goddess traditions. His work continues through the teachers of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, the order which Murshid Sam founded, and through the Dances of Universal Peace International Network.
1 Excerpt from Samuel Lewis’ paper Spiritual Dancing, circa 1940. Full paper is available in the Resource Library of this web site.
2Spiritual Dance and Walk, 1990 PeaceWorks International Center for the Dances of Universal Peace, p. 12.
3 Transcription from the film Sunseed, by Frederick Cohn 1973.
4 Letters of Samuel L. Lewis, July 28, 1970.
See extensive information about Murshid Samuel Lewis on the Sufi Ruhaniat International website
Wikipedia: Samuel L. Lewis
MurshidSam.org - Esoteric papers, commentaries, diaries and 64 recorded talks of Murshid Sam are available on this site.
Mansur Johnson's book Murshid: A Personal Memoir of Life with American Sufi Samuel Lewis, PeaceWorks Publications, Seattle, Washington 2006.