Sources of Gurdjieff's Teachings

human machine2From: Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: A Critical Appraisal

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From the beginning of Gurdjieff’s teaching mission in the West, a number of questions have fueled an ongoing debate about the source of his teachings and practices. Where did he learn his powerful system of psychological and cosmological ideas? What particular spiritual teachings form the foundation of his work? Which teachers inspired and influenced his development?

When asked these questions directly, Gurdjieff seemed reluctant to provide any information of substance, typically answering evasively or in generalities. On one occasion when esotericist Boris Mouravieff asked him about the source of his teaching, he replied: “Maybe I stole it.” (1)

Gurdjieff sometimes spoke to his students of his search for esoteric knowledge and teachings and his eventual discovery of “elements of a forgotten knowledge of being that reconciled the great traditional beliefs. He called it ‘ancient science’ but did not identify its origin, those who discovered and preserved it.” (2) In an interview with scholar Denis Saurat in 1923 he provided some general indications of this search:

 

Thirty years ago, twelve of us spent many years in Central Asia, and we reconstructed the Doctrine; by oral traditions, the study of ancient costumes, popular songs and even certain books. The Doctrine has always existed, but the tradition has often been interrupted. In antiquity some groups and castes knew it, but it was incomplete. (3)

According to Gurdjieff, a comprehensive teaching of human spiritual development existed in ancient times but was later divided into specializations: “in India there was ‘philosophy,’ in Egypt ‘theory,’ and in present-day Persia, Mesopotamia, and Turkestan – ‘practice’.” (4) He also spoke of four principal lines of esoteric teaching – Egyptian, Hebraic, Persian and Hindu, and two mixtures of these lines, theosophy and occultism.

Four primary hypotheses

In his writings and talks to his pupils, Gurdjieff gave hints of possible sources of his teaching:

  • the Sarmoung Brotherhood (Meetings with Remarkable Men)
  • Esoteric Christianity (In Search of the Miraculous)
  • the Judaeo-Christian Brotherhood of the Essenes (Beelzebub’s Tales)
  • a Dervish monastery in Central Asia (Herald of Coming Good)
  • the esoteric core of Islam in Bokhara (Meetings with Remarkable Men)
  • the nondenominational World Brotherhood (Meetings with Remarkable Men)

Some believe that the source of Gurdjieff’s teaching lies in prehistoric Egypt in the form of an ‘esoteric Christianity’ that predates Jesus Christ. William Patterson postulates that Gurdjieff discovered this ancient esoteric teaching in his travels to Egypt and

Ethiopia but recognized that certain elements of a comprehensive spiritual teaching were missing. He made subsequent journeys to Central Asia, northern Siberia and other regions to unify and reformulate the fragments of the original teaching into a Fourth Way teaching suitable for modern times. (5)

Gurdjieff emphasized that the knowledge he was imparting in his Fourth Way teachings was unlike any other system of spiritual ideas previously encountered in the West: “The teaching whose theory is here being set out is completely self-supporting and independent of other lines and it has been completely unknown to the present time.” (6)

Four primary hypotheses have emerged concerning the origin of Gurdjieff’s teaching:

  • Gurdjieff constructed the System himself, synthesizing his own vision from the diverse schools of thought and ideas he absorbed during his research and travels.
  • Gurdjieff drew primarily from one particular traditional spiritual teaching and modified the terminology so that it appeared to be his own.
  • Gurdjieff combined his own findings with that of other specialists and spiritual seekers to produce a coherent composite body of teaching.
  • Gurdjieff discovered an ancient school of esoteric wisdom, whose teachers sent him on a mission to the West to articulate their teachings in a language suitable for the modern world.

The catalogue of suspected influences and sources for Gurdjieff’s work is broad and impressive: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the teachings of the Essenes, Gnosticism, Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Pythagorean teachings, Theosophy, Rosicrucian teachings, shamanistic traditions of Asia and elsewhere, Jewish mystical teaching and the Kabbalah, Zoroastrianism, Neo-Platonism and Stoic teachings.

Of those who argue that Gurdjieff’s System is a synthesis of traditions, Boris Mouravieff distinguishes three strains in the Work: fragments of esoteric Christianity, certain Islamic traditions and Gurdjieff’s own ideas. Biographer James Webb identifies two distinct aspects: “a definitely Oriental part, based largely on Buddhist thought with an admixture of Sufi lore; and a definitely Western part, founded on European occultism as derived from the Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, and Rosicrucians.” (7)

John Bennett found traces of these and many other traditions in Gurdjieff’s System, but also identified many elements of the System which do not appear to be associated with any particular tradition (8):

Anyone who takes the trouble to examine his teaching and methods, can assign nearly every fragment to some known tradition. We can say that this theme came from the Greek Orthodox tradition, that theme came from an Assyrian or Babylonian tradition, another was clearly Muslim and connected with Sufism and even with this or that particular Sufi sect. One can say of others that they must have come from one or other of the branches of Buddhism. Again, there are indications that he took much from what is called the Western occult tradition, the Platonic and Rosicrucian tradition. But when one examines still more closely, we find that there is something that cannot be assigned to any known traditions. There are certain very important features of which one cannot find any trace in literature. (9)

Professor Jacob Needleman concurs, noting that “Gurdjieff not only restated the ancient, perennial teachings in a language adapted to the modern mind, but also brought to these ancient principles something of such colossal originality that those who followed him detected in his teaching the signs of what in Western terminology may be designated a new revelation.” (10) Needleman also maintains that it is unlikely we will ever know with certainty the source of Gurdjieff’s teachings. And, biographer James Webb believes that any attempt to attribute them to any one particular religious tradition would be “futile.” The issue is further complicated by the fact that the world's spiritual traditions have cross-fertilized over the centuries so that they share many common elements.

Scholars and students of Gurdjieff have identified four seminal influences on his System: Christianity, Sufism, Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, and Western occult tradition. A careful examination of the tenets and practices of each of these spiritual traditions reveals many significant points of similarity with the teachings of Gurdjieff.

NOTES

(1) Boris Mouravieff Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (Chicago: Praxis Institute Press, 1997), p. 16.

(2) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. 295.

(3) Louis Pauwels Gurdjieff (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1975), pp. 176-177.

(4) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 15.

(5) William Patterson succinctly summarizes Gurdjieff’s process of reconstituting the original Fourth Way teaching in the web document “Gurdjieff and Christianity

After rediscovering the essential principles and ideas, Gurdjieff travelled to Persia, the Hindu Kush, and elsewhere to reassemble the complete teaching from the many elements that had migrated northward over time. He then reformulated the teaching, which he called the Fourth Way, for our contemporary understanding and introduced it to the West . . . Its origin is prehistoric – predating the ancient Egyptian religion, Judaism, Zoroaster, the Avesta and the Hindu Rig Veda.

(6) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 286.

(7) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 540.

(8) While Gurdjieff’s psychological ideas are similar to those found in many Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, many of his cosmological ideas cannot be readily identified in other traditional teachings. Although certain aspects of his cosmology appear in the works of Plato, Pythagoras, the Gnostics and Western occult teachings, there are others for which researchers have been unable to find sources or correspondences anywhere in metaphysical and spiritual literature.

(9) John Bennett Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), pp. 1-2.

(10) Jacob Needleman “Introduction” in Jacob Needleman (ed.) The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work (Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2008), p. xxvii.

(11) Boris Mouravieff Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (Chicago: Praxis Institute Press, 1997), p. 16.

(12) P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage and Maurice Nicoll were well-versed in Christian teachings. Maurice Nicoll provides an insightful analysis of the esoteric and psychological meaning of the Gospels from a Gurdjieffian perspective in The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ (Baltimore: Penguin Books,1973).

(13) Robin Amis “Mouravieff and the Secret of the Source” Gnosis Magazine Summer 1991, p. 47.

(14) According to historical sources, the Essene Brotherhood was founded 1200 years before the birth of Christ and flourished between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The Brotherhood was located in isolated communities near the Dead Sea and practised asceticism, held property in common and sought mystical communion with God. Gurdjieff believed that the Essenes preserved very ancient wisdom and were able to influence the growth of plants through music. Some of Gurdjieff's sacred dances are said to be derived from the Essenes.

(15) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 102.

(16) William Patterson Taking With the Left Hand (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1996), pp. 74-75.

(17) The modern symbolic approach to the study of ancient Egyptian history was pioneered by scholar R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz in his major work The Temple of Man. John Anthony West carefully studied the writings of de Lubicz and concluded that Egyptian civilization was much older than commonly believed and that the historical Egypt was predated by a much earlier civilization that was the source of later developments.
 
In Meetings with Remarkable Men Gurdjieff related that he found a map of pre-sand Egypt that amazed and astonished him. Some have speculated that the map may have included the Sphinx, which conventional scholars believe was carved around 2500 BCE. However, some researchers such as Robert Schoch argue that the Sphinx is much older, perhaps dating from 7500 BCE or even earlier, at a time when Egypt had a much wetter climate and was lush with vegetation.

Fourth Way author William Patterson postulates that Gurdjieff’s teachings can be traced to prehistoric Egypt, where it was transmitted from Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He further speculates that the original source was mythical Atlantis and that after a cataclysmic flood inundated their island home, the survivors migrated to Central Africa and eventually Egypt where the teaching was formulated and expressed as ‘esoteric Christianity’ predating the birth of Christ. This is consistent with the version of ancient history related by Gurdjieff in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. He writes that following a great natural disaster that sank the island of Atlantis, the surviving members of an esoteric Atlantean society, known as the ‘Akhaldans,’ migrated to Egypt where they ushered in a new spiritually-based civilization.

(18) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), p. 1009.

(19) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 227.

(20) Anna Challenger writes in Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002), pp. 29-30) that:

Despite the measures he took to conceal information regarding his past, Gurdjieff’s debt to Sufism is evident. When he spoke of places he had been and people with whom he had studied, it was often in the context of stories that contained obvious exaggeration and contradiction, most likely with the purpose -- in accord with Sufi tradition -- of discouraging identification, of shifting focus from himself to his teaching. But given all the obscurity surrounding his searching years, Gurdjieff’s connection with Sufism is undeniable.

(21) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 135.

(22) In The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973, pp. 56-57), Rafael Lefort explains the importance of interacting with a teacher in the process of spiritual development:

The teacher transmits to the pupil the baraka he himself receives from his own master. This baraka works on the pupil according to the time, place and need and the circumstances in which he finds himself. If the baraka is to produce a specific effect on the person, then it is possible that the effect can only be created if the person is in a certain geographical region and in a certain time relationship with the teaching.

(23) Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002), p. 14.

(24) Anna Challenger argues in Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002), pp. 13-14) that:

As Gurdjieff cites the Mevlevi order as a source of his sacred gymnastics, his purposes in teaching dance must have coincided with those of the Whirling Dervishes. In fact, P.D. Ouspensky records that he and Gurdjieff once attended a performance of the Mevlevi in Constantinople and that Gurdjieff took the occasion to explain how the whirling of the dervishes is, among other things, a demanding mental exercise based on a complicated number system, like the movements he had taught Ouspensky and others.

(25) Mohammad Tamdgidi in his PhD dissertation Mysticism and Utopia: Towards the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and Human Architecture (A Study in Marx, Gurdjieff and Mannheim) argues that the word ‘Sarmoung’ is an encrypted secret code that can be deciphered by the Sufi system of alphabetical numerology whereby each component of the Arabic/Persian alphabets is associated with numerical values.

For instance, substituting the numerical equivalents for the letters S, R, M, U and N (60, 200, 40, 6 and 50) produces three associated numbers – 300, 50 and 6. When These numbers are translated back to their associated alphabets they yield the letters SH, N and U which in various combinations point to concealed meanings in the original word ‘Sarmoung.’ For example, NUSH = sweet as honey, an allusion to the bee, an ancient symbol of collecting and preserving esoteric knowledge. The various hidden meanings that Tamdgidi uncovered in the word ‘Sarmoung’ are all associated with aspects of Gurdjieff’s teaching enterprise in the West. Excerpts from Tamdgidi’s dissertation can be found at Gurdjieff - A reading guide.

(26) In Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 18), Gurdjieff characterizes the teaching tales of the East as “sacred writings” which exert a spiritual influence on the reader or listener:

These texts -- and I speak particularly of the Thousand and One Nights - are works of literature in the full sense of the word. Anyone reading or hearing this book feels clearly that everything in it is a fantasy, but fantasy corresponding to truth, even though composed of episodes which are quite improbable for the ordinary life of people.

(27) In The People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983, p. 166), Ernest Scott claims that Beelzebub is the anglicized equivalent of B'il Sahab, which is Arabic for ‘the man with a motive or aim.’

(28) Ernest Scott The People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983), pp.166-7.

(29) Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2002), p. 26.

(30) Nasrudin’s role of the ‘wise fool’ calls to mind Gurdjieff’s conscious role-playing and unconventional behaviour with his students, which is similar to that of teachers who follow the ‘Path of Blame’ in order to illustrate common human patterns of mechanical and conditioned behaviour.

(31) In the 1950s, following Gurdjieff’s death, John Bennett travelled extensively in the Near and Middle East. In Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 79) he describes his contacts with Naqshbandi Sufi schools:

I met several schools of the Naq’shbandi dervishes and found that organization and methods corresponded to a remarkable degree with Gurdjieff’s description. The Naq’shbandis are known to be the successors of the Khwajagan and they are similarly engaged in practical undertakings for the good of society. This is said to be a mark of a Fourth Way school. They also attach importance to balanced development of all sides of man's nature.

(32) According to tradition, the School called the Khwajagan (‘Masters of Wisdom’) was the original source of esoteric teaching dating from remote antiquity before the ‘Flood.’ In The Masters of Wisdom John Bennett proposes that the Khwajagan were the forerunners of the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition and may have been linked to the Sarmoung Brotherhood.

(33) Murat Yagan The Teachings of Kebzeh (Vernon, B.C.: Kebzeh Publications, 1995) p. 11.

(34) Idries Shah The Way of the Sufi (London: Octagon Press, 1984), p. 40.

(35) Ernest Scott People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983), p. 168.

(36) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 529.

(37) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 530.

(38) Ravi Ravindra discusses some of the evidence for this influence in “Gurdjieff Work and the Teaching of Krishna” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker (eds.) Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teachings (New York: Continuum, 1996, pp. 214-215):

Gurdjieff travelled widely and may have been influenced by the various strands of the vast Indian tradition, either directly or indirectly, through Tibet and other parts of Asia. He refers to India on many occasions in his writings, often with the suggestion that in ancient times, if not now, esoteric schools with real knowledge had existed there. He even referred to himself as a ‘Hindu’ in his first public pronouncements in a Moscow newspaper in 1914 regarding the performance of ‘an Indian mystery play’ called The Struggle of the Magicians. This particular instance may not be anything more than a useful role-playing, but there is no doubt that he was very knowledgeable about Indian traditions and often mercilessly critical of their exaggerations and of the many fads derived from India current in the occult and spiritual circles of his day.

(39) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 286.

(40) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 287.

(41) Idries Shah makes this point in The Commanding Self (London: Octagon Press, 1994, p. 286.):

The Enneagon, or nine-pointed figure, is by no means unknown in ‘occult’ circles in the West. I remember a drawing of it from a manuscript in the Library of Grenoble, for instance . . . It came to Europe with the Kabbala, based on the quite well-known mathematical work of the ancient Arab philosopher Ibn el-Laith, and this fact is mentioned in the Legacy of Islam, in the chapter of mathematics. It was thus by no means unknown in medieval circles.

(42) Merrily E. Taylor (ed.) Remembering Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1978), pp. 31-32.

(43) Frank Sinclair Of the Life Aligned (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2009), p. 45.

(44) Ravi Ravindra discusses the universal nature of Gurdjieff’s teachings in “Gurdjieff Work and the Teaching of Krishna” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker (eds.) Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teachings (New York: Continuum, 1996, p. 216):

Gurdjieff was a traditionalist, although from all accounts a very untraditional one, in the sense that he had enormous respect for the traditions and believed that all the major traditions once carried a kernel of truth which has, in general, been lost and which may be recovered from the fragments which have been preserved in the sacred texts and ceremonies of many religions. He referred to his Work as “esoteric Christianity,” but one feels that, in other contexts, he might have called it “esoteric Buddhism” or “esoteric Islam” as well.

(45) Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch Gurdjieff: A Master in Life (Toronto: Dolmen Meadows Editions, 2006), p. 45.

(46) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 285.

(47) Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch Gurdjieff: A Master in Life (Toronto: Dolmen Meadows Editions, 2006), p. 43.

(48) Sufis have sometimes been called ‘esoteric Christians’ because they regard Jesus as a hierophant and teacher of the Way, recognized by some as the “greatest Sufi.” The Sufi master Hakim Jami declared that Sufism transcended Islam and that Hermes, Pythagoras, Plato and Hippocrates represented an unbroken line of Sufic transmission. Mohammed himself revered Abraham, Moses and Jesus as great teachers of the same monotheistic religion that he revealed. In A Perfumed Scorpion (London: Octagon Press, 1983, p. 159), Idries Shah suggests that Sufism, in its fullest sense, is the “flower” or inner dimension of all religions, compatible with Islam but also existing independently of the prophetic tradition:

Sufism has been known under many names, to all peoples, from the beginning of human times . . . it was transmitted by the Prophet Mohammed as the inner component of all religion . . . it also persisted side by side with the Prophetic transmission, as, for instance, in the independent witness of the historical figure of Uways al-Qarni, a contemporary of the Prophet who, however, never met him.

Islamic traditionalists dispute the contention that Sufism is a universal spirituality that predates Islam. They do not believe that mysticism can take non-religious forms and hold that Sufism is a strictly Islamic religious path expressed through traditional Sufi Orders.

(49) Murat Yagan “Sufism and the Source” Gnosis Magazine Fall, 1994, p. 41.

(50) Frank Sinclair Of the Life Aligned (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2009), p. 12.

(51) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 239.

(52) Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. xiii.

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