Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trungpa, Gurdjieff, and the Apostle Paul: work in life

When we consider Chögyam Trungpa and Gurdjieff, we find some interesting parallels.

Both men brough a new way of inner work to the west. Both men were unabashed rebels, leaping far outside the traditional forms of their own heritage (In Gurdjieff's case, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and in Trungpa's case, monastic Tibetan Buddhism) to offer a radically new perspective on both the method, and the meaning, of inner transformation. In the process, they alarmed and alienated most of the traditionalists around them; they were revolutionaries. Not, it's true, on the level of Christ, but certainly well within His tradition.

Perhaps Trungpa summed it up best in a heretofore unpublished note from his personal diaries:

"In particular, my own situation is due to the fact that no one [else] could understand everything all together--both worldly and spiritual views, and how to live one's life. That is not to say I am more skilled, more learned, and more experienced in the dharma. There are many people who are more learned than I and more elevated in their wisdom. However, I have never made a separation between the spiritual and the worldly. If you understand the ultimate aspect of the dharma, this is the ultimate aspect of the world. And if you should cultivate the ultimate aspect of the world, this should be in harmony with the dharma. I am alone in presenting the tradition of thinking this way." (from The collected works of Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala publishers, Boston & London, 2003, volume one, pgs xxxv-xxxvi.)

Well, not quite alone.

Gurdjieff certainly emphasized the same approach--and look at how strikingly similar the two men were. Both prodigious drinkers, adept and aggressive socializers, and notorious adulterers, they lived life in sheer defiance of our traditional concepts of "spiritual" behaviour: abstinence, purity, serenity. No white robes for these men. They didn't even propose storming the gates of the temple: they ignored the temple. The temple, to them, paled in significance when compared with the scale of the undertaking. Here again we encounter that aggravating, life-filling oscillation between the scylla and charybdis of carnal demand and holy perfection; and here are not one but two masters of twentieth century practice who insist that we must inhabit life in all its contradictory, uncompromising, and even perhaps repulsive forms rather than trying to polish it or escape it, if we wish to discover anything real within ourselves.

Both men challenge us to invest within this life, to be clothed by it. To be sure, practitioners within the Gurdjieff work may well understand that question in a different way than the Shambhala Buddhists. Nonetheless, the aims are not at all that different. And Trungpa's teachings are of more than passing interest to students of the Gurdjieff method. There's even an intimation that some of Gurdjieff's seminal influences may have come from the same tradition that Trungpa was raised in: the similarity between the names (Trungpa's Surmang monastery, Gurdjieff's Sarmoung brotherhood) is, at the very least, intriguing.

Both men presented some seemingly contradictory ideas, framing their very work itself as a zenlike koan-in-motion: life itself as an active question.

Gurdjieff said everything is material; unlike the Hindus and Buddhists, to whom everything is an illusion, he embraced the concretization of all form, stressing its absolute unity. In Gurdjieff's cosmos, even illusion itself (if that is what everything is) would have to be considered material. The divine cannot express itself outside the context of materiality, yet that very materiality is transcended by the divine.

In my recent experience, this paradoxical relationship between illusion and reality finds itself best expressed in a passage from "The Zen Teaching of Huang Po," translated by John Blofeld. (Grove press, NY, copyright 1958 by John Blofeld, pages 64-65): "You do not see that the fundamental doctrine of the dharma is that there are no dharmas, yet that this doctrine of no-dharma is in itself a dharma; and now that the no-dharma doctrine has been transmitted, how can the doctrine of the dharma be a dharma?" [Blofeld's rather delightful word-for-word translation, typically Chinese in character, is found in the footnotes: "Dharma original Dharma not Dharma, not Dharma Dharma also Dharma, now transmit not Dharma Dharma, Dharma Dharma how can be Dharma?"]

We might conclude that in spite of its putative illusory nature, the experience of self within the material contains no essential contradictions: it's only in the context of that process of discovery that the "ultimate Dharma"--presuming there is such a thing--can be encountered.

Trungpa may well have argued, like Marpa, that everything is illusory--I haven't yet conducted a major review of his body of work, which I will soon be undertaking, so I'll suspend judgment there--, but, like Gurdjieff, he argued for the immersion within real life as the path.

Is there one real world--the world of tangible reality, of the flesh, of materialism? Or is that world an illusion, and is the only real world the "real" real world, the total expression of the dharma, within which resides naught but perfection?

Or are both worlds quite real?

Let's suspend that fascinating question--hold it in front of us, so to speak--and apply color to the context of Trungpa and Gurdjieff from a much earlier perspective. Once again we return to the Apostle Paul's discussions about faith, which is of the spirit, and law, which is of the flesh.

Law presumes an order, a structure, a methodology. As such, it attempts to establish a preordained, top down approach to the matters of the soul. We might argue that law is materialism in its most inflexible form: a materialism cast in concrete, a materialism that attempts to freeze events and circumstances within a single perspective.

The spirit, on the other hand, is a "bottom up" approach to the spiritual: a willing concession to, and investment in, materialism that nonetheless discards the presumptions of law.

Faith and the spirit insist on the inhabitation of life through experience, not the interpretation of life through law. Faith requires an ongoing, willing, and active confrontation with uncertainty: Law requires nothing more than repetitive, mechanical behaviour.

As such, it's not much of a leap to argue that both Gurjdieff and Trungpa call on us to invest ourselves in the same qualities of faith and spirit that Paul presents. To live not through a dry recapitulation of life constructed from the inflexible, judgmental laws of a vengeful God (or cold, indifferent universe,) but rather through a rich, fluid experience of life, forever presuming nothing more than a compassionate, intelligent willingness to be present to the encounter itself.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.


  1. While I appreciate your earnest posts and the inner questions which they bring to the fore, I have some comments which I hope are not too technical or un-welcome.

    You state the following:

    <<"Gurdjieff said everything is material; unlike the Hindus and Buddhists, to whom everything is an illusion, he embraced the concretization of all form, stressing its absolute unity.">>

    Neither the Hindus nor the Buddha himself, either considers or ever considered everything to be an illusion.

    The Buddha (which title means simply "one who is awake"), declared the following:

    "All existence is suffering".

    This by no means implies either that he believed that existence was an illusion or that suffering was an illusion -- quite the contrary. This statement that existence itself is suffering is perfectly in accord with St. Paul's statement that "All of Creation itself groans..."

    The Buddha's own teaching was that of recognizing that man is like a candle blown by the winds of attraction and aversion, and the term Nirvana, which is often mistakenly translated as extinction, and thought of as an extinction of the very self, instead is more properly translated by the phrase "to blow out", and what is blown out is the flame of desire and aversion, not existence itself.

    Nowhere does he say that the person who achieves Nirvana ceases to exist in a real world. If that were the fact, the Buddha himself would have gone poof and ceased to exist whatsoever. This would also deny the first law of thermodynamics, which is that neither matter nor energy can be destroyed. What is IS, and what is not is NOT, and what IS cannot be isn't, and what isn't cannot be IS.

    As for the Hindu faith, it includes six philosophical viewpoints, and it is said that one must view reality through all six viewpoints at the same time in order even to catch a glimmer of objective truth about the nature of reality.

    One of those viewpoints is called the Advaita Vedant; and the lower (sullied) Advaida Vedanta, which is often sadly attached to Yoga as it is taught in the West, asserts in a completely mis-guided manner that nothing is real and that everything is illusion and that everything is perfect as is, and all one has to do is realize it.

    This lower and more widely known Advaida Vedanta is a corrupted form of the higher Advaida Vedanta (which translates as non-dual (not two) end of the Vedas, or scriptural teachings.

    All that it asserts is that nothing that is subject to change can claim objective reality, and since everything in the phenomenological universe is subject to change, it is ultimately unreal -- as the only objective reality can be an unchanging Truth, and because the only truth is that everything changes, all that can be known about the unchanging Truth can only be known by the via negativa, or negation of untruth.

    While Hinduism also declares that everything phenomenological is under the guise of Maya, or illusion and that Maya falls under the auspices of Lila, which is considered as the "play" of the Almighty and unknowable Creator, the philosophical arm which is considered to be paired with the experiential arm of Yoga, is called the Samkya, which is moderately translatable into English as "enumeration." It's literal translation would be "with what IS and it's actions."

    The Samkya declares that everything exists and is material, including dreams and illusions etc.. It is from the Samkya that the law of the three Gunas or forces which braid together to form the phenomenological universe comes from.

    If there is any single place where Mr. Gurdjieff got his concepts of the laws of three and of seven, it would be from the Samkya, which he tried to teach in a manner understandable by Westerners.

    In another place you state that both men were prodigious drinkers. While it is almost certain that Trungpa died of complications resulting from his alcoholism, Mr. Gurdjieff did not, and witnesses of his gigantic feasts which included many toasts given in Cognac (Armagnac particularly), almost unanimously observed that Mr. Gurdjieff himself drank very little and ate very little at these feasts.

    Mr. Gurdjieff was familiar with the sacred use of alcohol, which is to reveal the inner conflicting wills of men by removing the vernier of social constraints and politeness. There is nothing better with which to show a man's inner nature and to see him and his actions and manifestations than after having him drink a fair amount of alcohol. This was the reason that Mr. Gurdjieff advocated that his students and disciples drink in front of him.

    He himself may have smoked tobacco and drank alcohol and coffee, and they both certainly fell under the auspices of the school of teaching called "crazy wisdom", but personally I cannot put them anywhere near the same level of BEING.

    Yes, there are very interesting parallels between the two men, and Trungpa may well have been a true master, but as Mr. Orage declared after he had broken with personally with Mr. Gurdjieff; in his opinion (and he worked closely with Gurdjieff as his translator into English of "All and Everything -- Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson"), Gurdjieff was a "Solar God," something none of Trungpa's followers would dare to say or claim.

    My own personal belief about the station of Mr. Gurdjieff is held close to my chest, but I would go quite a bit higher than Solar in my own assessments of his station and mission.


  2. Sounds reasonable enough; however, are you sure no forked tongue is at work here?

    I stand by my contention that we hear a great deal from Hindus and Buddhists about everything being an illusion...whether the idea itself is mistaken or not (and I agree, it is.) If they don't believe it, they should probably stop saying it.

    As to the question of Gurdjieff's drinking, well, his "own people" have always reported he didn't drink that much, whereas others outside his circle report he did. It's pointless to argue about it, but one might be tempted to think that in Gurdjieff's case--as in Trungpa's--there's a tendency to whitewash the more outrageous behaviours, which may well be unnecessary. In the case of crazy masters, outrageous behaviours don't need whitewashing, do they?

    It's equally pointless to argue about levels of development and stature. Pesonally, as you know, I follow Gurdjieff's teaching, but Trungpa had a powerful and unarguable influence.

    His own organization has had a far greater impact on religion and society at large in the west than Gurdjieff's ever has. Apparently, despite his flaws, Trungpa managed to transmit what he was given to transmit much more effectively than Gurdjieff did. If Gurdjieff was truly so great, why has the legacy of his work lagged so far behind Trungpa's?

    Anyway, let's agree it's not a contest. I believe my point is to show the relationship between what the two men taught and draw important parallels.

    Why bother? Well, in my own estimation, the survival and expansion of the Gurdjieff work will, in the long run, rest in part on the effort to build bridges between it and other important works, not to try and maintain it as an island--which is the way many people encountered it and have experienced it since Gurdjieff died.

    Trungpa's organization avoided creating a cloistered atmosphere that sets it apart from real life. For all the noble talk about "work in life," it appears to me that the Gurdjieff organization has done a rather poor job of that, which probably explains its steadily dwindling ranks. A cow whose milk is too sacred to give others to drink feeds no one.

    We might remember that while Christ taught esoterically and in private, he also taught exoterically and in public.

    Since G. died, the Gurdjieff foundation has developed expertise in the first area, and has cultivated a positively amateurish ability in the second.

    If the buffers that prevent the organization leadership ever drop enough for them to see that, perhaps this will change. In the meantime, it falls to the rank and file to disseminate the Gurdjieff work in contexts that make it more understandable to those from other traditions and faiths.

    Insh'Allah, the work will benefit from such endeavors.

  3. I thought long and hard before daring to comment on your comment on my comment to your original post.

    It is absolutely true, what you say about many Hindus and Buddhists declaring everything to be illusionary.

    As to Buddhism, it has gone from the teachings of the actual person of Buddha to a gigantic panoramic and very Catholic like assortment of thousands of Buddhas and a zillion viewpoints which are often contradictory. It was Mr. Gurdjieff himself who pointed out that any force headed in a specific direction will eventually turn until it is headed into an opposite direction, unless it is subjected to an corrective outside force at specific junctures in its travel. One cannot just simply turn right or left anywhere, but only at a crossroads.

    As to the Hindus, they have been fighting amongst themselves philosophically for as long as historical time as to whether everything is real or unreal. Frankly, it is unimportant, because as a young child I used to ask myself the following question based on a synopsis such as outlined here:

    Suppose I had a mind which was the only thing in existence and which had no opposition which might prevent it from thinking anything that he might like to think. What would it think of?

    I would open my eyes and ears and other senses and I would realize that I had my answer right in front of me. A mind unlimited in scope and without any opposing forces would think of everything that actually is, or could be.

    Modern physicists are currently engaged in precisely the same didactic argument, whether there might or might not be an objective reality which may or may not exist independent of any observer. This is very close to philosophical religious musings.

    There was a famous Taoist fourth century A.D. who used to interpret dreams. One day a man came to him and asked him what he would do if a man were to come to him with a fake dream -- one made up by himself conscientiously in order to fool the Taoist. The Taoist replied that he would simply interpret it, and his interpretation would be accurate, because after all, life itself is but a dream.

    Heady territory indeed. You and I both know that we do not wish to lose touch with sensation and a real grounding here on earth. The head brain already floats around enough and it needs to be tethered to the body prevent everything from becoming lopsided.

    As to the drinking, ultimately, who cares? A man's worth is measured in what he brings to his fellow man, not in what he does personally. One might even say that the entire problem of the world can be summed up in one sentence, that everyone takes themselves too personally.

    I have a saying which is my own, but I'll share with you:

    "Man is a Christmas tree under which none of the presents may have his own name on them."

    You talk about a lack of Gurdjieff's influence on life and the outer world. I fully understand your description of the guardians of his tradition, the Gurdjieff Foundations, which have become like ingrown toenails, spiraling into the opposite by law. But I would argue that Gurdjieff's Work has leavened the world in ways that we cannot see.

    It took Christianity 312 years before it broke soil and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, thus politicizing it and turning it into its opposite, but at the same time allowing its esoteric perfume out of the womb of its bottle.

    My personal belief is that Gurdjieffianism is meant to run a similar course with perhaps even a longer gestation -- I once was visited by the authentic sense that my own work on myself was not for me, nor even for my children or grandchildren, but for the future of the world something like 600 years hence.

    Trungpa did indeed have a visible presence in the United States, bringing a very rare form of Buddhism to the west in the form of his own person. But Mr. Gurdjieff brought a new transmission -- a new dispensation to mankind. No one has ever been able to successfully tie him to any given known tradition, and many have tried, to tie him to Sufism or to Christianity or even Tibetan Buddhism but have been unsuccessful.

    There is no point going on. We both know that we support and commend each other's work -- and that we are working for a common cause, however mysterious.


  4. Agreement, agreement, agreement.

    I think that covers it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.