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Gurdjieff's Possible Buddhist Influences
"Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience. Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
It really is something of a cottage industry, this attempt to trace the origins of Gurdjieff´s variegated teachings and practices. Numerous books, essays, and articles have posited over the years this or that place or teaching as the “one that started it all” for the enigmatic “G.” He certainly left us many tantalizing clues himself and sometimes-contradictory indications as to the origins of his “Fourth Way.”
Some assert that there was a single Ur-source, one primary repository of the Fourth Way, an ancient set of principles and practices that have come down to us only through “fragments” of this long-lost but once august tradition, which he then re-created to the needs of the students he assembled later in his life.
Some believe his path was from the beginning an ingenious amalgam of many different influences and teachings picked up over his years of searching for the “Truth” that would quench his inborn spiritual hunger.
Still others have tried to steer a middle course between those two positions, believing that Gurdjieff had indeed found something remarkable, some distinct path that now existed only in scattered pieces onto which he then grafted, during different times and under differing circumstances, some of the collected wisdom and understanding he’d gathered during his years of travels.
It is not the attempt of this little paper to resolve that discussion nor to contribute to the sometimes manic and, in this writer’s opinion, misdirected search for the final answer to the mysterious “origins” question, as if, by discovering such, we might be personally catapulted into higher consciousness or gain some greater legitimacy for our walk on this still widely misunderstood and often discredited Fourth Way.
No, it is my belief that the ultimate value of the Fourth Way is in its fruits, not its roots, and we who journey on that path towards greater consciousness would be better served by diligent practice over scholarly “wiseacre-ing”, as G. might say.
What I would like to do here instead is present a few questions based on parallel ideas between Buddhism, (primarily through the Kagyu tradition within Tibetan Buddhism), and Gurdjieff´s teachings in the hope that this little effort might be regarded as a sincere contribution back to a set of teachings and a tradition that has contributed so much to my own life.
[Author´s note: My own study and practice of Buddhism, first in the Zen tradition, began more than 30 years ago and continued in both the United States and Japan. Beginning in 1994 I finished my BA degree in Religious Studies and obtained an MA in Buddhist Studies, both from The Naropa Institute-now Naropa University- an institution founded by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. While there I became a student of Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, a lineage holder in both the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. In October of last year, I became a Shin Buddhist priest. My Fourth Way studies began four years ago.]
Let us begin with the Kalama Sutta, one of the most well-known early teachings of the Buddha (quoted at length at the top) which expresses in a simple and direct way what might be considered the uniquely Buddhist approach to religion: Question everything, even the tradition itself, accepting nothing that one cannot “verify” for oneself within the teachings for their utility and wisdom. Is that not a fair summation of G.´s “verify” admonition to his students?
Also, let us note that the mere inclusion of “Saint Lama” and “Saint Buddha”, two quite easily recognizable accolades to Buddhism in his All and Everything Series, 3, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, shows the high regard Gurdjieff accorded this tradition. That he chose the Buddha himself (rather than any other Buddhist figure) indicates as well his admiration for the historical Buddha, placing him high up in his hierarchy of our planet’s enlightened masters.
That he also included a representative of Tibetan Buddhism in particular, clearly shows some familiarity and affinity with Vajrayana (the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet known also by its related Japanese cousin, Shingon). In fact, it is quite possible that the figure of “Saint Lama” is based on the widespread legends and stories of the wondrous Padmasambhava, popularly known as, “Guru Rinpoche,” the 8th century CE adept who introduced Vajrayana into Tibet. (Etymologically, guru in Tibetan is lama, and Rinpoche means lit., “precious one” but is sometimes translated, albeit quaintly, as “saint”). His birthplace was sometimes said to be in Amritsar Lake in India and his extraordinary life centered in “Oddiyana”, the present-day Swat Valley in what is now Pakistan, an area that teemed with the cross pollination of numerous invasions, various religious ideas and spiritual traditions.
Another fascinating connection might be contained in the name of the monastery wherein G. received what was suggested to be the bulk of his training: Sarmoun or Sarmung. Though the most often utilized explanation of this mysterious “brotherhood” suggest a reference to “bees,” an ancient esoteric symbol, another simpler possibility exists.
Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition four major divisions are recognized: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. The Kagyu represent the older of the latter three schools, all of which derive their existence and much of their lineage through the original Nyingma” (“ancient ones”) sect. One of the major proponents of the Kagyu in the west in recent years was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987). A number of interesting parallels exist between this fascinating Tibetan Buddhist pioneer and Gurdjieff.
Trungpa Rinpoche was trained at the Surmang Monastery, (actually a complex of nine monasteries founded about 600 years ago) the seat of the Trugmase Tulku (Tulkus are rebirthed lamas, this group originally emanate from the Mahasiddha-great adept-, Trugmase) of which Trungpa Rinpoche was one. It is a small leap to posit that the simple reversing of two vowels—Surmang, Sarmung—might have been an intentional guise is it not? But there is much more.
Surmang Monastery was known, and remains known to this day, for its beautiful, strenuous and “esoteric” sacred dances.
Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the lojong (literally, “mind training”) slogans to the west as techniques for regularly remembering the path one was undertaking. These slogans were to be regularly alternated or rotated keeping the teachings fresh in one’s mind. The great Indian Buddhist master, Atisha (c. 11th cent. CE) used them discreetly and then later they were openly utilized by the original Kadampa tradition. Could this be the origin of the famous quotes posted along the walls of G.´s Prieuré in France?
Trungpa Rinpoche was said to be one of the holders of the “crazy wisdom” teachings, wherein, among much else, the teachers frequently resorted to highly unorthodox, exoterically questionable and sometimes bizarre behavior to administer “shocks” to the students. Is “the way of the sly man” another way of describing “crazy wisdom?”
Trungpa Rinpoche often described the Vajrayana path as one that “accelerates” the entire organism towards enlightenment. It was said to be “dangerous” and “electric” for it worked towards nothing less than “enlightenment in this very body.” But it was a way that was not restricted to the monastics—many famous adepts were family men and women whose secret practices granted them this remarkable accomplishment. They were sadhakas, those who practiced the sadhanas, “means for attainment”. The word given the highest of them, siddha, literally means “accomplished one” or “one who has the spiritual accomplishments.”
Is it not possible that, as described in “In Search of the Miraculous” (pps-195-196) the talk of “speed[ing] up the evolutionary process” derives from knowledge of some of these Tantric practices? And isn’t the Fourth Way distinctly (ISOTM, pps 48-49) separated from all the other “ways” in that it can be done without leaving the everyday life of a householder? And what kinds of practices or teachings were spoken of?
G. tells us that first and foremost, we must “remember” ourselves. I have often felt on familiar ground as I studied G.´s descriptions of how we were to do this, for the instructions throughout his writings (and those of his students) sound remarkably similar to the application of mindfulness (satipatthana) or attentiveness, sati, in Buddhism, which also is regarded as a primary practice, considered by many to be the anterior requirement for all the more advanced practices.
Another widely taught sentiment came from Shantideva (7th-8th cent. CE) who gave the admonition that “one moment of anger” can destroy ages of practice and acquired merit. G. taught that “bad emotions consume fuel” and we are advised to never give way to the expression of “negative emotions” for similar reasons. Is there a connection?
“Identifying is the chief obstacle to remembering” G. tells us on page 151. Trungpa Rinpoche eloquently taught that one of our deepest obstacles are our “habitual patterns” including identifying with our thoughts, which we are to dismiss during meditation practice by gently repeating or “labeling” to ourselves, “just thinking.”
The Tantric adept is often given later a series of advanced practices, visualizations in which one imaginatively places above one’s head one’s guru or titular deity from which one is to later dissolve into oneself the qualities of this “being.” Masters were often able to manifest such for their students, producing a display above himself or herself of some vast and brilliantly detailed deity. Might this have some connection to the “astral body” G. describes on page 32, which he says, “is obtained by means of fusion, that is by means of terribly hard inner work and struggle”?
Several other similarities might be helpful here.
Practices in Vajrayana were repeatedly said to be of no ultimate value unless we “dedicated the merit” acquired to all sentient beings, giving back, so to speak, the fruits of our endeavors after each and every session. Is there a parallel between this and page 204 where G. says, “What a man has received he must immediately give back; only then he can receive more”?
And when Trungpa Rinpoche taught that our possibility of development occurs best when we insert this refined ability of attentiveness into the “gaps” that happen between thoughts, or the “gaps” that occur in our lives when our “habitual patterns” are shaken up a bit, might this idea not be related to G.´s description of “intervals” where a “shock” properly administered might successfully advance the “right development of these octaves”[p. 131]?
And lest we forget, Gurdjieff himself mentioned that he’d been married to a Tibetan woman and the possibility of her being from a practitioner family or even being one herself should not be discounted.
These questions, and more, have regularly occurred to me during my study of Fourth Way ideas. Though a remarkable amount of what G. taught is not contained within the Kagyu tradition cited, and his cosmological teachings as well as numerous other ideas often appear quite dissimilar to anything remotely Buddhist, the similarities cited above indicate at least the possibility of some important Buddhist influences on Gurdjieff´s Fourth Way system.
1. A Handbook of Tibetan Culture, edited by Graham Coleman, Shambhala, Boston, 1994.
2. Buddhist Dictionary, Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, by Nyanatiloka, Frewin & Co., Ltd., Colombo, 1950.
3. In Search of the Miraculous, Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, P.D. Ouspensky, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1949.
4. Taming The Mind & Cultivating Loving-Kindness, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1993.
5. The Lotus-Born, The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal
The Surmang Foundation website: www.surmang.org
Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa website: www.dharmafellowship.org
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