Tui Wilschinsky has led Dances for Universal Peace in Sebastopol for more than 30 years. Now his name is going on the Sebastopol Peace Wall.
When Michael Gillotti first told Tui Wilschinsky that he was going to inscribe his name on the Sebastopol Living Peace Wall, Wilschinsky thought he was joking.
The Peace Wall boasts names like Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Holly Near, and in two weeks, two other luminaries, Daniel Ellsburg and Dolores Huerta, will be added. There are other, less well-known names of local peace activists on the wall as well, but they’ve done more traditional peace and social justice work.
Wilschinsky is being recognized for dancing. For more than 40 years, he has led the Sufi-inspired “Dances of Universal Peace” in Sebastopol and around the world.
“They are essentially spiritual folk dances which draw from many world religions,” said Peace Wall founder Michael Gillotti. “Through the dances, Tui is teaching the universality of different religions and tolerance of different religions and cultures.”
Moreover, Wilschinsky is also being honored for bringing people the inner peace that helps them undertake the outer work of peace. “Underlining the importance of first working on making ourselves more peaceful, the granite bench behind the peace wall is inscribed, ‘Peace begins with me,’” said Gillotti.
“Tui helps lead participants to a very deep experience of the peace within each of us, and thus contributes to creating a more peaceful world by helping us become more peaceful individuals. I have personally participated in the dances many times over the years and have often left in a profound state of peace as a result.”
Wilschinsky is a recognizable figure around Sebastopol, where he is universally known Tui. He can be seen scooting around town on three wheels (he lost his left leg in an accident in his 40s) and can often be found at the Sebastopol Library, where he has helped generations of students tackle math and other subjects. (He started tutoring after teaching his own three children.) He’s also a familiar sight at many demonstrations in Sebastopol’s downtown plaza and in Santa Rosa.
“I guess I’ve always been an activist for peace,” Wilschinsky said. “I think the first demonstration I took part in was in high school when a number of us refused to take cover during a drill in case of a nuclear attack. We figured that not having nuclear weapons at all was a much better solution than getting under a desk.”
Born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Wilschinsky got his BA from Brooklyn College, but left his CUNY doctoral program in psychopharmacology to hitchhike out west. He ultimately got his master’s degree at Sonoma State University in humanistic-transpersonal psychology and his doctorate at the California Institute of Integral Studies in cinema.
Wilschinsky lived in British Columbia, San Francisco and Taos, where he spent five years at the Lama Foundation, before landing permanently in Sonoma County in 1988. It was at the Lama Foundation where a friend suggested that he go to a Sufi dancing camp, located outside of Healdsburg. After this experience, Wilschinsky was hooked.
“People have always been dancing in circles, whether it’s around a fire or a fountain or something. It’s an ancient practice. And that was reawakened in the 1960s by a fellow named Sam Lewis, or with his title, Murshid Sam. He was a disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was connected to a Sufi order that was not allied to any one tradition. There are Sufi orders that are allied with the Islamic tradition, but this particular Sufi order was universalist, so they studied Christianity, Judaism, Native American religion, Islam and Zoroastrianism, goddess religion — all those known and unknown, as they say.”
“I had done folk dancing, and I had worked at a summer camp where I led singing, and I really enjoyed that. So those qualities of universality, dancing, singing all came together in Dances of Universal Peace.”
He began teaching Dances of Universal Peace at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico and continued leading the dances once he moved to California.
Eventually, he hooked up with Ram Dass, who asked him to lead dances on his retreats, which Wilschinsky did for several years, while also working as a carpenter and academic tutor. He remained politically active, but his involvement shifted.
“I was always very involved politically. I wrote letters, circulated petitions, did tons of marches — when something’s wrong you have to speak up,” Wilschinsky said, “but I came to realize that if one wanted to make peace in the world, one also needed to make peace within. Murshid Sam said: ‘When you go to a peace demonstration, demonstrate peace.’ When I encountered the Dances of Universal Peace in ’70, I experienced that inner peace and wanted others to experience that connection to the heart.”
Never been to a Dance of Universal Peace? Wilschinsky explained what they’re like: “They’re usually at a hall, but we could be outdoors in a field or on top of a mountain. Someone is the leader, and they will first teach the song we’re going to sing together, sometimes in harmony. It’s not just dancing. You sing and dance at the same time … once you learn the song, you have the rhythm and the melody, and after that the steps are taught.”
“Some dances involve changing partners, and some dances don’t; some dances involve a single circle, while others are concentric circles. But all of it happens in the heart. Sufism is a religion of the heart, not based in any one tradition. There might be one dance that’s Islamic, one dance that’s Jewish, one Christian and Native American, one dance that’s Buddhist, all the different traditions — and there is a universalist feeling of finding that place in your heart and opening up.”
The Peace Wall celebration
The Sebastopol Living Peace Wall will hold its fourth annual induction ceremony and celebration on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 11 a.m. to noon in the Sebastopol town plaza. Four new names will be added to the wall: Tui Wilschinsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Dolores Huerta and Therese Mugnannam, all of whom are expected to be at the event.
Ellsberg is best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, which revealed the government’s duplicity and helped to end the war. Huerta is the co-founder, along with Cesar Chavez, of the United Farm Workers and has also been an advocate for women’s rights. Mugnannam works for the rights of Palestinians and for peace in the Middle East.
Wilschinsky is still a bit dazzled that he’s being honored at a ceremony with Ellsberg and Huerta: “These people are amazing. They’re like icons I’ve looked up to for years, and to be included in that group is very surprising to me. But here it is. So, I guess there are many ways to work for peace.”