Gurdjieff’s personal sex life appears from all accounts to be complex and sometimes contradictory, with varied expressions throughout his life. At times he was celibate, at other periods highly sexually charged. He fathered numerous children out of wedlock, including many with his own female disciples.
Critics have roundly condemned Gurdjieff’s sexual behaviour as irresponsible and contrary to the actions of an authentic spiritual teacher. But teachers in many other spiritual traditions have engaged in exactly the same kind of sexual behaviour. (2) The notion that spiritual masters must always be celibate and beyond the “base desires of earthly sexuality” is clearly an idealized myth and not congruent with reality.
However, the issue of a sexual relationship between a spiritual teacher and his or her student(s) raises a number of important ethical questions: Is a sexual relationship between a teacher and student harmful or beneficial from a spiritual perspective? Is there an imbalance of power between teacher and student that compromises the authentic expression of a loving relationship between two equal partners? Is it possible to separate an intimate sexual relationship from an objective impersonal transmission of spiritual knowledge?
Gurdjieff discussed sex with his pupils both in his lectures and in their private conversations. He believed that the function of sex was twofold: to ensure the continuation of the human species, and to produce a ‘finer energy’ to nourish higher spiritual development. He regarded sexual energy as sacred and wrote in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson that sex “constitutes and is considered everywhere in our Great Universe for beings of all kinds of natures, as the most sacred of all sacred Divine sacraments.” (3)
Gurdjieff was of the opinion that sexual energy in the modern Western world was misused in the pursuit of personal pleasure and gratification. (4) He claimed that, in general, the only two proper ways of expending sexual energy were through a conventional sex life or through spiritual transmutation. In 1916 Gurdjieff spoke to his Russian pupils about the misdirection of sexual energy in the pursuits of everyday life and the self-deception it can entail:
Sex plays a tremendous role in maintaining the mechanicalness of life. Everything that people do is connected with ‘sex’: politics, religion, art, the theater, music, is all ‘sex.’ . . . What do you think brings people to cafés, to restaurants, to various fetes? One thing only. Sex: it is the principal motive force for all mechanicalness . . . Sex which exists by itself and is not dependent on anything else is already a great achievement. But the evil lies in the constant self-deception. (5).
Gurdjieff took a distinctly pragmatic approach to sex and its role in human life, insisting that sex should be separated from the intellect and the emotions: sex was sex. Gurdjieff linked sex to personal development and, as such, considered it to have a different function for each individual:
His teaching about the transformation of the sexual energy is very personal and he was emphatic that there are no general rules that can be given. In some cases he regarded abstinence as desirable, in others encouraged strong sexual activity; in some cases self-control, in others the devotion of one man and one woman to the creation of one single soul between them. In some cases, he demanded at least for a time a completely promiscuous sexual life in order to rid a man with obsession with sex . . . Gurdjieff did not wish to give any rules that people would take to be universally valid and that could lead not only to misunderstanding but even to disaster. (6)
Many of Gurdjieff's sexual beliefs run counter to contemporary thought and have been ridiculed by modern critics. For instance, he described masturbation as a harmful affliction and an evil, and even claimed in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson that people were transformed into “psychopaths” by the practice. Further, he endorsed male and female circumcision as a means to prevent masturbation in youth: “This terrible children’s disease of onanism is scarcely ever found among those children upon whom this rite has been performed, whereas the children of those parents who fail to observe this custom are almost all subject to it.” (7)
Gurdjieff also insisted that achieving an orgasm before reaching adulthood had serious consequences on an adolescent’s mental development: “If even once the sensation of the climax of what is called the ‘Ooomonvanosi process’ occurs in what is called the “nervous system” of their children before they reach majority, they will already never have the full possibility of normal mentation when they become adults.” (8)
Gurdjieff's conservative ideas also manifested in a strong homophobia. Pupil Fritz Peters relates that “he was puritanical, even a fanatic about homosexuality, and condemned it vigorously . . . he felt that homosexuality -as a career -was a dead-end street.” (9) Ironically, many of Gurdjieff's female students, including his group ‘The Rope,’ were lesbian. It seems unlikely that Gurdjieff subscribed, in a practical way, to the belief that spiritual development was possible only with a “normal” sex life and orientation.
(1) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 332.
(2) In a study reported in Yoga Journal (July/August 1985, pp. 26-28), Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield interviewed a sample of spiritual teachers from a variety of traditions about their sexuality. Almost three-quarters reported that they were sexually active while the rest were celibate. Of the teachers who were sexually active, 87% said that they had had at least one sexual relationship with one or more students. One of the most striking findings of the survey was that many spiritual teachers were no more enlightened or conscious about their sexuality than the average person. There were heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, exhibitionists, fetishists, monogamists and polygamists. There were teachers who were celibate and happy and those who were celibate and miserable. There were teachers who were married and monogamous and those who had had many clandestine affairs. Some teachers were promiscuous and hid it; others were promiscuous and open about it.
(3) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), pp. 794-795.
(4) Gurdjieff discusses the misuse of sexual energy in extended conversations with his students recorded by P.D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 257-259.
(5) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 254-255.
(6) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 223-224.
(7) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), p. 1008.
(8) G.I. Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), p. 1008.
(9) Fritz Peters Balanced Man: A Look at Gurdjieff Fifty Years Later (London: Wildwood House, 1979), p. 43.
(10) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 419.
(11) John G. Bennett Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett (Tucson: Omen Press, 1974), p. 258.
(12) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 231-232.
(13) Paul Beekman Taylor, whose mother Edith Taylor had a relationship with Gurdjieff that produced a child, attempted to constitute Gurdjieff’s family tree through available records and personal communications. In Gurdjieff’s America (Lighthouse Editions, 2004, pp. xiv-xv), he identified at least seven of Gurdjieff’s children, six of whom could be conclusively confirmed: Svetlana (Olga Ivanovna Milalova), Nikolai (Elizaveta de Stjernval), Michel (Jeanne de Salzmann), Sophia or “Dushka” (Jessmin Howarth), Sergei (Lily Galumnian) and Eve (Edith Taylor). Interestingly, each of the mothers were pupils of Gurdjieff and some were married at the time.
(14) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 332.
(15) John G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 232.
(16) James Webb The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), pp. 331-332.
(17) Jack Kornfield “Sex Lives of the Gurus” Yoga Journal July/August, 1985, p. 28.
(18) Many high profile spiritual teachers were revealed to have hidden sex lives and exploitive relationships with some of their students in published reports which surfaced in the last 30 years:
- Swami Muktananda: William Radamar “The Secret Life of Swami Muktananda” The CoEvolution Quarterly Winter, 1983
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: James Gordon The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Stephen Greene Press, 1987
- Swami Rama: Katharine Webster “The Case Against Swami Rama of the Himalayas” Yoga Journal November/December, 1990
- Jiddu Krishnamurti: Radha Sloss Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti Bloomsbury, 1991
- Kalu Rinpoche: June Campbell Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism George Braziller, 1996
- Richard Baker: Michael Downing Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center Counterpoint, 2001
- Maezumi Roshi: Anne Cushman “Under the Lens: An American Zen Community in Crisis” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Fall, 2003
- Chögyam Trungpa and zel Tendzin: Jeremy Hayward Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa Wisdom Publications, 2008
- Da Free John: William Patterson “Franklin Jones to Adi Da Samraj” The Gurdjieff Journal, No. 49, 2009
- Sri Chinmoy: Jayanti Tamm Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult Harmony Books, 2009
(19) Jack Kornfield “Sex Lives of the Gurus” Yoga Journal July/August, 1985, p. 28.
(20) Longtime Zen student Perle Besserman writes in A New Zen for Women (New York: Palgrove MacMillan, 2007, p. 2) that:
In the name of our spiritual quest . . . we surrendered to archaic patriarchal traditions (initially without complaint) by knuckling under and becoming handmaidens, caretakers, and/or concubines to our male teachers. Throwing away all our intellectual questioning and hard-won independence, impelled by the mistaken notion that we were “killing the ego,” we bowed our heads and submitted our better judgement to the enlightened minds of our masters.