Saturday, September 1, 2012

Perfect Works

There is, it seems, a human propensity for absolutism.

 The Muslims would have it that the word in the Koran is infallible. Fundamentalist Christians advise us that the Bible is infallible, in spite of the countless translations (and errors in translation) that exist. Political parties specialize in advising us that their particular point of view is, for all intents and purposes, infallible.

 Doctrines of infallibility are comforting. They appear to excuse us from the need to apply our critical faculties, allowing us to walk in a straight line without the need to question it. Yet the adoption of any doctrine of infallibility represents, without any doubt, a failing on the instant it is adopted. Nothing, after all, is infallible. As the Sufis remind us, only God is perfect.

 In Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff gave us an entire cosmology where even the Highest Beings are imperfect and make mistakes; and he himself clearly made mistakes during his lifetime, some of which he recognized and later repudiated.

Yet as time goes on, there is a tendency to apply a doctrine of infallibility to both Gurdjieff, and the things he wrote in his books. Every action he took as recounted by his pupils is magically transformed into some arcane form of Expression of Perfect Being, and every word in his books is treated as though it must be the truth; if, somehow, it turns out it isn't at all accurate (for example, his statement that the surface of the sun is cold) wiseacreing "Gurdjieff defense attorneys" muster their resources to explain why, after all, what he says actually is true, in some obscure way or another. Individuals engaged in this usually seem to egregiously overlook Gurdjieff's well-documented habit of engaging in the ridiculous and the absurd, doing things that positively strained the credibility of any thinking person. After reading enough accounts of this, one begins to realize that he often did this just to see whether or not the people around him were actually thinking people, or just parrots.

 There are a lot of parrots.

 Gurdjieff said, "question everything,"  not "question everything except the things I say." Anyone that wishes to honor his legacy needs to question what he himself said, as well as what everyone else says. Questioning is a ubiquitous activity, not one that gets declared off-limits the moment the sacred texts are approached. In a way, sacred texts are a terrible thing, because they represent the ultimate temptation for men: the wish to sign on to inflexible “truths,” an action that invariably damages the need for evolving relationships. Canonizing individuals is equally dangerous. Gurdjieff himself advised us to respect religions, but beware of Saints.

 There is a distinction between great works and perfect works. Men, when inspired, make great works; only God makes perfect works. Any work filtered through the hands of man is, at best, great; only that which is intact, untouched, can approach perfect—nothing that arises in or passes through man reaches it.  We will always fall short, as Gurdjieff himself did. Any close examination of his own behaviors will reveal contradictions that are difficult to explain away, and even disturbing—as is the case with Chögyam Trungpa, and indeed very nearly every spiritual master.

Humility begins with an unflinching recognition of our contradictions and imperfections, which are deeply rooted in the objective condition of our partiality.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

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