A brighter light ...
This is a really, really interesting book … if
you are into the “Fourth Way” material of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and their assorted followers and interpreters. As regular readers of this space are no doubt aware, I have read quite deeply into this genre, although the explosion
of third- and fourth-generation students producing books has made it nearly impossible to have read everything
on the subject.
The reason that J.G. Bennett's Gurdjieff: Making a New World
is so fascinating is that it's written by Bennett
, who was a major light in the mystical field in the mid-20th century in his own right, and a linchpin and pivot-point between many threads of occultism of the time. Bennett had been in British military intelligence in Turkey during the time of “the great game” between the U.K. And Russia … and might well have known of Gurdjieff “professionally”, as there are many rumors that much of Gurdjieff's ability to travel as he did was due to having been an agent of the Tsar. While Bennett met Gurdjieff in the 1920's while studying with Ouspensky, he did not work intensively with him until the late 40's, arriving in Paris right before Gurdjieff's near-fatal car crash.
The first part of this book discusses the region of Asia that Gurdjieff hailed from, including its culture, history, environment, and mystical traditions.
Strangely enough, the tradition of the Masters is almost unknown in India. When Helena Blavatsky published her books, The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled, one of her chief claims was to have encountered in person some of the Masters in or beyond Tibet. The belief in Masters then became an integral part of the theosophical doctrine, but it acquired an occult character that weakened its credibility. Much of the mystery of the theosophical 'masters' derived from their supposed location in Tibet, though Helena Blavatsky herself asserted that their headquarters was beyond the mountains in the legendary 'Shamballa'. It never occurred to me that this was more than a pure invention until, quite recently, Idries Shah suggested to me that it could be derived from Shams-i-Balkh, the Bactrian Sun Temple, the ruins of which can still be seen at Balkh near the northern frontier of Afghanistan. Rudolph Steiner associated Balkh with Hraniratta, the centre of the Mithraic Sun worship. The point to be made here is that the belief in an ancient and continuing tradition is particularly strong in the regions of Central Asia in which Gurdjieff concentrated much of his search. In this chapter no attempt is made to settle the question whether or not a supreme spiritual hierarchy really does exist. I shall, however, carefully examine the suggestion that the name “Masters of Wisdom” comes from the Khwajagān who played such an extraordinary role in the heart of Asia between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries of the Christian Era. The word Khwaja means wise man or master, and is best rendered Master of Wisdom. … I have little doubt that Gurdjieff had heard of these Masters in his youth, and that one of the principal objects of his travels in Turkestan, Afghanistan and Tibet was to discover traces of their activity in order to reconstruct their teaching.
If anybody would have “inside knowledge” about these mystical threads in the area, it would be Bennett, who had the nearly-unique combination of having been an intelligence officer in the British military and
a seeker & adept himself. These initial chapters trace where Gurdjieff likely got most of his concepts, with Bennett presenting tidbits that would be difficult for any others to offer:
Even if the Khwajagān and the Sarmān were not identical, it is possible that individual Khwajas were associated with the Sarmān Brotherhood. This is suggested by Gurdjieff, and by comparing dates and activities, we may identify his Brother Olmantaboor with Ubeydullah Ahrar. Ahrar's biographer, Mēvlanā Djami, the greatest literary figure of Central Asia, was evidently aware that Ahrar's influence went far beyond his immediate environment.
The level of obscure historical data that Bennett introduces in these chapters is truly amazing, and leads the reader into wanting to dig deeply into the hints and trails sketched out. However, once established, the book turns to tracking Gurdjieff's early history, largely based on the information in Meetings With Remarkable Men
and other materials that the author had access to. Again, one gets the sense here that Bennett had data from his intelligence work that allowed him to make more focused “guesses” than would be the case for anybody without his background.
About half way through the book, Bennett switches to looking at the actual teachings, and takes apart the literature in a way which surprised me (I had been unaware of how much editing had been done by Gurdjieff to his books over time). Most of this is probably too esoteric for those not
familiar with Gurdjieff's books, but it is fascinating
for those who have studied them.
[One] might legitimately retort that it is useless to know how a machine works if one does not know what the purpose it is intended to serve. … Modern science is in this very situation. It is in process of discovering how the universe works but does not even ask what it is for. If the universe is too large a machine for us to think of as a whole, we have the solar system or even the 'space-ship earth' to study. Who asks the question: “What is this remarkable piece of mechanism for?” Man himself is another marvelously constructed machine closer to us than any other machine. Do we ask ourselves, “What purpose does this ingenious apparatus serve?”
This is “Gurdjieff's question”, and sits at the core of “The Work” …
The answer Gurdjieff gives to the questions - “What is the sense and significance of life on the earth?” - is radically different from any current views. Gurdjieff asserts in Beelzebub's Tales that the doctrine of reciprocal maintenance is derived from 'an ancient Sumerian manuscript' discovered by the great Kurdish philosopher Atarnakh. The passage quoted runs: “In all probability, there exists in the world some law of the reciprocal maintenance of everything existing. Obviously our lives serve also for maintaining something great or small in the world.”
This passage occurs in the description of a Central Asian fraternity called “The Assembly of the Enlightened”, which had existed from Sumerian times and flourished openly in the Bactrian kingdom when Zoroaster was teaching. After Zoroaster, it disappeared for a hundred generations, and only now has again begun to send out into the world its 'Unknown Teaching'. I have suggested that this is the Sarmān society.
What is this doctrine? Reciprocal maintenance in its special sense connotes that the universe has a built-in structure or pattern whereby every class of existing things produces energies or substances that are required for maintaining the existence of other classes.
On a personal note, I was quite surprised to see this concept put this way, as it is very close to the concept of “Ayni
” among the Q'ero people of the high mountains of Peru, whose Shamanic traditions I've studied. Gurdjieff's version of this has a lot more complex cosmology connected with it, but the parallels are very strong.
Most of the rest of the book has Bennett walking the reader through the details of this concept, with their associated graphs. While I'd been familiar with the “enneagram”, there are other charts here, specifically dealing with levels of reciprocity from “heat” to “endlessness” (with all the other levels of existence in between) that I'd never encountered, and the complexity of this is somewhat off-putting.Gurdjieff: Making a New World
is, oddly, shown by both of the on-line “big boys” as being out of print, although both have used copies in their listings. It is, however, available in paperback from Bennett Books
. I've noticed previously that they will have copies of things which don't seem to be generally available, so that's probably your best bet for finding this. However, I got my hardcover in “good” (pretty beat up) condition from one of the new/used vendors, so I can't speak to the “buying experience” with Bennett Books. If you've read some Gurdjieff, I would highly
recommend picking up this book, as it “looks under the hood” on his life and teachings to an extent that I've never seen elsewhere … but if you're not familiar with the “Fourth Way” material, I think this would be a very confusing place to start (I'd recommend Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous
for a first exposure).