The Ferryman’s Dream, Dr. Stewart Bitkoff. Abandoned Ladder, 2012. 154 pages. $10.95
review by J.S. Kupperman
The Ferryman’s Dream by Dr. Stewart Bitkoff represents something of a spiritual sequel to his Sufism for Western Seekers. Once more, Bitkoff takes his readers inside the mental and spiritual world of universal Sufism. Unlike Sufism for Western Seekers, Ferryman is not as explicitly Sufi. There are certain literary homages, such as a town called Tajjali, which is the Light of Allah, but beyond this, and the very few direct mentions of Sufism, Ferryman’s Dream can represent, and thus be relevant to, many different spiritual paths.
The twenty-two chapters of The Ferryman’s Dream are each divided into three parts. The first is a general explanation of a particular idea from the perspective of universal Sufism. They represent lessons the spiritual travel may learn along the path of the traditional teachings. As with his previous book, Bitkoff does not insist on accepting his teachings, or even claim they are unique to his path. Quite the opposite: true spiritual teaching can be found in many paths and no teaching should be excepted until they verified as true through the personal experience of the traveler. These first parts of each chapter, usually not more than two pages in length, might be seen as the technical teaching aspect of the book. They are essentially what one might expect from a book of spiritual teachings.
The second, and central, section to each chapter takes the form of a story. Although Bitkoff’s narrative can be choppy in places, and the storyline somewhat contrived, it is here the technical aspect of the first part is explained. This occurs not through simple definition, though there is that, but by leading the reader through a narrative example of the teaching in action. If the first section it technical, the second is fully demonstrative. This part brings together the stories of the nameless ferryman, his student and former drunkard Nestor, and Nestor’s friend, a reporter named Emil. By doing this, Bitkoff demonstrates three different phases of the path, the spiritual master, the student and the skeptical neophyte. They may also be thought of the kinds of people who might be interested in reading this book.
The final part of each chapter is typically a poem or words of advice, within which is concealed, to varying degrees, the essence of the chapter’s lesson. This part is up to the reader to understand. From the perspective of the text, this is the way it should be. The teacher can only offer the student, or traveler, so much. It is the traveler who must put the pieces together in their lives.
If you have read Bitkoff’s Sufism for Western Seekers, you will find many of the same lessons presented in The Ferryman’s Dream. Neither book purports to teach anything particularly new. Although the lessons are not original, their presentations are. This, too, is in keeping with the teachings of both books. Of all the lessons, my favorite continues to be one of expectation. Spiritual seekers often expect the teachings to make them feel good, feel emotionally satisfied and at peace with themselves. In short, the teachings should conform themselves to the seeker. Spiritual teachings and teachers, on the other hand, generally do not take such things into consideration. If they do, they are at best secondary. This is often a hard lesson for seekers to learn, especially in today’s world of instant gratification and spiritual dilettantism.
Stewart Bitkoff’s The Ferrryman’s Dream does not work well as a standalone novella. But that is not the point. The story is the means of transmitting the lessons, and it is the lessons that are the core of this book. Whether a Sufi, Christian mystic, Buddhist or Platonist, many of the lessons Bitkoff has to offer will be familiar. The way of the Ferryman, if you would, is one of service, of learning what we know and what we do not know, and most especially of giving up of false or no longer useful ways of viewing the world so that new and more useful ways can take their place. These, amongst others, are the lessons of the Ferryman’s Dream.