Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gurdjieff and Buddhism

Some days ago, a passing visitor to this space intimated that Gurdjieff's teaching "had nothing to do with Buddhism."  This astonishing remark made me wonder what  the average person actually knows about the Gurdjieff teaching... next to nothing, it would seem.

Leaving aside the fact that nearly the entire contents of chapter 21 in his magnum opus, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, deals with the teachings of Buddha, and that one of the most important concepts in Gurdjieff's teaching– intentional suffering– was, according to him, originally introduced by Buddha, we find myriad connections between Gurdjieff and Buddhist practices.

One of the most important figures in Beelzebub's Tales is Ashieta Shiemash, a heavenly representative  sent to Earth by His Endlesness. During Sheimash's era, mankind was introduced to the five obligolnian strivings. These tenets for sound living were meant to awaken the divine function of genuine Conscience.

The first obligolnian striving, “to have in one's ordinary being existence everything satisfying and really necessary for the planetary body” ( Page 352, Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, Second Edition) is very nearly identical to Buddha's advice in the sermon at Benares, " satisfy the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we will not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom and keep our mind strong and clear.” (The wisdom of China and India, Lin Yutang, Random House, 1942, p. 360.) 

 The second, “To have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being,” and the third, "the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world-creation and world maintenance," (ibid) clearly reflect the Buddhist adage to strive constantly to, as Dogen says, "clarify the matter."

The fourth, "from the beginning of one's existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our common father," could well be interpreted as a call to identify, take responsibility for, and alleviate all suffering, up to and including the suffering of God... a distinctly Buddhist proposition, if ever there was one.

 The  fifth striving, "... the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Martfotai' that is, up to the degree of self individuality.” (ibid),  is Gurdjieff's  own version of the Bodhisattva vow.

 Reading through the sermon at Benares, one cannot help but be struck furthermore by the continued emphasis on responsible living: the eightfold path consists of “right views; right aspirations; right speech; right behavior; right livelihood; right effort; right thoughts; and right contemplation.”

 If this is not a recapitulation, in straightforward words, of the entire Gurdjieff practice, there is no practice.

 These are just a few examples; more abound. One can consequently see that it is just as valid to call Gurdjieffian teaching and practice esoteric Buddhism as it is to call it esoteric Christianity.

These similarities were furthermore underscored by the open adoption of Zen Buddhist sitting practices through Jeanne de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieff's most important pupils and the head of the Gurdjieff Work after his death. In today's Gurdjieff practice, Zazen comfortably coexists and interacts with the Christian practice of the Hesychast's Lord have Mercy prayer.

 It's fair enough to say, as Guirdjieff did, that all esoteric works are, at their heart, the same practice. Just as I pointed out that there is only one biology and one chemistry on the planet, so there is only one religion–one possible kind of connection with higher forces– that results from it.

Gurdjieff's Beelzebub masterfully presents this premise not only by parading a succession of enlightened individuals, both known and unknown, from every religion across the stage of its history, all of whom share the same aim, but also by allegorically outlining the scientific biochemical processes that link all of these practices together. If ever there was a single text pointing towards a way to reunite the world's disparate and dysfunctional religions, this is it.

The fact that it has languished nearly forgotten as an obscure footnote to the world's greatest literature is peculiar. The fact that Gurdjieff is not well known outside esoteric circles, and viewed by turns as an imposter, quack, con artist, heretic, or crank by various mainstream individuals and religious institutions, is equally peculiar.

Here is a man who heroically fused world religious practice and teaching into a single whole–reassembling thousands of years of material that had been abused, changed, manipulated, and misunderstood by generation after generation. His book is a book for our age and our times. His practice is a practice for our age and our times. It is entirely consistent with every major religion, because all of them lie at its heart.

And yes, it's Buddhist.

 May our prayers be heard.

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