The route to the tomb was along a walkway through a grove lined with orange trees. It was a tunnel with a light at its end and appeared to be an entryway to a mystery. We had the feeling of being enveloped in a special atmosphere that grew more intense and substantial the further we walked along the path.
The walkway emerged into a clearing with the eight-sided pool found at many of the pilgrimage sites around Old Bukhara. A madrasah inlaid with eye-boggling geometric tile mosaics rose up beyond the pool. It was in mild disrepair, with some missing tiles and crumbling stones. Still the compound was clean, and a bent old man swept the patio with a broom made of slender sticks tied to a more robust branch for a handle.
Like most of the once burgeoning religious sites in Uzbekistan, this one was empty save the sweeper. After 70 years of Communism and a new government intent on keeping sects and fundamentalists out of the country, the madrasas are closed and people stay away from the mosques other than on important holidays. But the most devout still come out to the tombs and shrines of the Sufi masters, a "golden chain" of teachers who lived five hundred to a thousand years ago in this part of Central Asia.
This was the tomb of Khwaja Muhammad Baba Sammasi, who lived and died in the 14th century. He was called a master teacher, and is known to have identified the infant Baha ad-Din Naqshband, considered the greatest master in the golden chain, and many Sufi orders trace their lineages back to him.
Arriving in the courtyard of the tomb, I was already feeling an otherworldly quality, the kind of atmosphere I've encountered in other places, and also at special events, notably around births and deaths—intersections of time and eternity where it feels as though the membrane between the visible and invisible worlds becomes very thin, and something truly new and creative enters the continuum.
As a litmus test, I looked at an ancient tree in the courtyard, and indeed I could see every leaf shimmer in the slight breeze. My senses had come alive as though pulsing with finer, more concentrated fuel. My body tingled with sensation as I found that I could easily become present in my whole form, even my atmosphere. In my heart I felt a kind of thrill—it was energized as though I were anticipating something wonderful, though I had nothing particular in mind.
We continued through a gate and along a low building to the tomb, which I circumambulated a few times, and finally went to the stone box in which the body of Khwaja Sammasi was said to be inhumed. I put my head against the rough, cool stone and closed my eyes. Then a surprising thing happened—I had the distinct sensation that the stone was malleable, liquid even. I didn't push—there was no impulse to test the impression. It was enough to encounter a solid substance—granite—as insubstantial as water, or air, or light. There was in that moment, a sense of the continuousness of everything, a totally undifferentiated unity.
The perception of the unity of all landed in my mind like a shooting star, and then titrated and settled in my heart, opening ripples of joyous well-being, a satisfaction that is not the absence of dissatisfaction. It was the energy of love.
This was the message of this particular place—unique and different from the others. It was like a spoonful of yogurt dropped into the warm milk of being, transforming the contents of the whole vessel. Why the place had this impact I don't know. Really it doesn't matter, as the experience had more reality than a pan of sautéing onions. Most important, I was given help in working on myself, which continues to ripple and resound.
When I opened my eyes, there was a group of people surrounding the tomb each with their foreheads against the stone with their eyes closed. Without lingering I stepped away and returned along the path. It was sunset and the orange grove was filled with birds. I didn't see any of them, but I could hear them talking in loud voices verging on cacophony, but not overwhelming. The sound was intense and enveloping, a torrent of crowing, cawing, and chirping as I traversed the walkway toward the gate.
Emerging, we saw the orange sun setting in a fiery western sky. Skinny dogs crowded around begging for snacks. In that moment we were the radiant sun, the mangy dogs, and the conferencing birds. There was no looking back.