Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Beelzebubby

Full moon reflection on the Hudson River
as seen from Palisades, NY
In the last post, I discussed the fact that Gurdjieff offers a proposal about the nature of suffering which is, on the whole, almost impossible to squirm out of, try though we may.

Some time back, I mentioned that it's difficult to reconcile the basic tenets of Buddhism—that the ultimate aim of enlightenment is the cessation of suffering—with Gurdjieff's proposition on the matter as expounded in The Holy Planet Purgatory (see the last post.)

 There are any number of cop-out positions one might adopt in order to try and reconcile these two opposing cosmological views, including the idea that everything Gurdjieff said was allegorical, but I don't think it works. What we probably ought to say is that it is not only very difficult, but probably impossible, to reconcile Gurdjieff's premises regarding mankind and the nature of suffering with the Buddha's teaching.

This is a peculiar feature in a work that so clearly shares many features in common with Buddhism; and it's notable that Gurdjieff claims Buddha himself was the one who originally introduced the practice of intentional suffering. (Beelzebub, pg. 222.) Yet our irrepressibly cheerful narrator (Beelzebub himself) indicates that Buddha's followers completely distorted his teaching by the 3rd or 4th generation, until “only information about its specific smell” remained. (ibid, p. 221.)

One consequently suspects that Buddha said some very different things about suffering than the way we understand his teaching today.

Perhaps I'm a reactionary. Perhaps it's the fact that I've grown up as part of the flower child generation, surrounded by people who want everything to be soft and warm and fuzzy and groovy, and I question that. Perhaps it's all of the talk I hear about joy, and peace, and love, which started out as things the Beatles sang about in pop songs, and ended up grafted onto every New Age religion and Western version of Buddhism one can think up. Call me a curmudgeon (the accusation is well-founded) but I don't buy it. What we have is the Beatles being channeled by Buddhists; the 60s generation grafted on to the Christian church; 67 varieties of sweetened table condiments to make us sleep more comfortably while we think we are doing inner work.

No, Gurdjieff had it right. Others may agree or disagree, but I speak here from my own certainty and within my own personal authority. Facts are facts; all this wishing for joy and freedom and liberation are wonderful things, but they don't change facts. We are here to assume a burden and a responsibility, in the same way that Christ did; at least that aspect of Christianity bears itself out in a relentless picture of honesty that people are unwilling to look directly in the eye anymore.

Only by suffering together do we work. Only by seeing our lack together do we work. And this particular law—or set of laws—holds through from the bottom of the cosmos all way to the top. Everything lacks—everything falls short of purity, everything has a flaw in it that cannot be expunged. There's the premise of purgatory in a nutshell—and it would be a familiar concept to any student of Islam, which contends that only God is perfect.

All of this takes place in the context of an endlessly loving and endlessly merciful Creator, who Himself feels endless anguish at the catastrophe that befell His creation after the calamity referred to as the chootboglitanical period.

 The difficulty here is that one has to kick the entire underpinning of the Buddhist discipline out from under itself in order to understand Gurdjieff's teachings. It turns Buddhism upside down. In an odd twist, the Buddhists are probably the only religious group that could handle having that done to them; and in a certain sense, some of them might relish it, especially the Zen masters. If you told Dogen that the aim of inner work was to suffer, not escape from suffering, he might agree with delight. I don't know.

In any event, it's highly unlikely that any modern man or woman will agree with delight that suffering is the point of the whole enterprise. When you read it, you don't like it, do you? No, no one likes it. It's not likable. It's a crappy idea and a poor way of selling anyone on the reason for inner work, isn't it? We should always be working for rewards, for candy, for joy, 60 is flatscreen TVs, BMWs, love and kisses. Whatever. The point is that we want good stuff, not bad stuff.

Yet human beings never produce anything worthwhile in the face of "nothing but good stuff." It is the struggle to live, the effort of existence, and the need to go against that which is going down that produces greatness in man. The good cannot produce greatness; all it can produce is more (and flabbier) goodness.

But the bad—now that can produce greatness, because a man who rises to overcome it develops strength and character that it is impossible to get any other way.

And what of the notion that there is no escape from suffering?

Perhaps that notion alone is what might produce compassion, fortitude, endurance, and courage in a human being. Perhaps it is the only thing that might cause a man to understand and appreciate what love is supposed to be, as opposed to what he usually thinks it is.

 I don't know. I'm just asking the question.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.