20th Century Mystic & Philosopher
When I realized that [ancient wisdom] … had been handed down … from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged …. I … regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand that they really have.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the twentieth century. In his early years, he participated in expeditions that went in search of ancient teachings, partly documented in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men. His quest led him to a secret brotherhood, from which he seemed to have returned in possession of a unique system.
In 1910, Gurdjieff imported that system to Russia. He translated his eastern knowledge and experience into a language palatable to twentieth century western man. He called his discipline the “Fourth Way,” a blend of the three traditional ways of the Fakir, the Monk and the Yogi (read more about the Fourth Way). However, the Bolshevik Revolution and the first World War forced Gurdjieff to migrate and eventually end up in France, where he opened his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.” Gurdjieff’s influence extended throughout Europe and as far as America, but the declining social order and World War II prevented him from further formalizing his organization. He was forced to close the institute and spent the latter part of his life writing books: Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’, All and Everything, Meetings With Remarkable Men and Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. He died in France on October 29, 1949.
Gurdjieff was discreet about the origins of his teaching. He felt no need to reveal his footsteps. For one, he claimed that the wars had obliterated any traces of the schools with which he had come in contact. Moreover, his teaching specifically called, not for academical study, but for turning knowledge into practice. Gurdjieff himself had labored to acquire his teaching and had earned, so to speak, the rights over it. Such rights had to be earned anew by anyone meeting his work for the first time. While knowledge could be given, wisdom had to be earned. Hence, Gurdjieff, who had sacrificed much to obtain his wisdom, was reluctant to hand it over to others except at the price of labor. Once earned by any individual, the knowledge would become his own; he himself would become those ancient truths Gurdjieff allegedly dug up, a reiteration of ancient wisdom, a contemporary expression of a timeless truth.
Gurdjieff conveyed to those around him the sense of a mission. It seemed, not only to his own students, but even to people outside his direct circle of influence, that he was the agent of a great plan. In his youth this sense of purpose radiated from his ‘search for the miraculous’ which drove him to travel to Greece and Egypt in the West, to Afghanistan and Tibet in the East. Beginning from about 1910 this same sense of purpose became connected to the vision of the Institute, which in 1917 received its full name: The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. From 1912 on Mr. Gurdjieff placed the aim of the creation of the Institute before every other practical aim, up until the time of his car accident and the closing of the Prieure. His sense of mission was then transferred to his writing (the three volumes of All and Everything) and to the preparation of groups of people, in Europe and America, capable of preparing people to receive those writings. After 1925 he was trying to put into words what he had hoped to realise in action, and he believed that his writings would eventually be read and understood by a wide audience. The turning point between Gurdjieff’s ‘search’ period and the period in which he was focussed on the creation of the Institute seems to come just after the time he spent with the Sarmoun Brotherhood in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Northern Afghanistan. He first gained access to the central Sarmoun monastery in 1899-1900 and it appears likely that he had a more extended stay in 1906-1907. At the end of 1907 Gurdjieff went to Tashkent to practice healing. There he cured drug addicts and alcoholics, both as a means of studying the state of identification and as a means of making money. This was his last preparation for teaching. After about 18 months he began to draw students to himself and then, in 1912, left Tashkent for Moscow where he began to recruit candidates for the Institute. It appears, then, that Gurdjieff’s experience with the Sarmoun Brotherhood transformed him from a ‘seeker’ to one who had ‘found’ and was ready to impart.
While the origin of the Sarmoun Brotherhood is lost in the mists of time, there are traces of the Sarmoun in Babylon from the time of Hammurabi. The word Sarmoun itself means ‘bee’. The Sarmouni (the bees) were reputed to have teachings which pre-dated the Flood. We here again encounter the Ark metaphor, and it is certainly possible that there never was a physical flood and that the Sarmoun were referring to their responsibility of maintaining the Ark of Ancient Wisdom through the floods of time. They taught that objective knowledge is a material substance that can be collected and stored like honey. The Sarmoun Brotherhood apparently had memory of the periodic destructions and renewals of humanity, and they believed their tradition represented an eternal unchanging core of wisdom to which mankind should always have access. At critical junctures in history, the Sarmoun distributed their ‘honey’ throughout the world by means of specially trained agents. John Bennett felt that the symbol of the enneagram, the knowledge of the law of seven, and the doctrine of reciprocal maintenance came from the Sarmoun Brotherhood. Mr. Gurdjieff suggested that many of his sacred dances came from the Sarmoun. Some time after 1500 the Sarmoun became connected to the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition. The Naqshbandi Sufis worked in a ‘fourth way’ style: they were quite undogmatic, and their work was always connected to fulfilling particular historical tasks. While the Naqshbandi Sufis and the Sarmoun were not one organisation, individual Naqshbandi teachers were probably associated with the Sarmoun Brotherhood. It seems likely that the Sarmoun inseminated the best of the Naqshbandi teachers with some of their understandings. We find the idea of the ‘celestial hierarchy’ or ‘inner circle of humanity’ in the Naqshbandi Sufis, which likely derives from their connection to the Sarmoun Brotherhood. Gurdjieff is known to have spent time in the tekkes of the Naqshbandi Sufis.
The Teachers of Gurdjieff
At the Preiure, and later in Paris, Gurdjieff told several of his students, quite directly, that he himself had a teacher. At turning points in his own life he says that he consulted advisors before making a final decision:
I must tell you that, many years ago, before the organization of the Institute, when I planned and worked out this program in detail … I had to … address myself for advice and direction concerning several questions to honourable and impartial people … who … had already overcome two centuries of their existence and some of whom were bold enough to hope to surmount even the third century… (Third Series, p 78-79)
Gurdjieff tells us that when, after the accident, he considered shifting from teaching to writing he spent long hours “writing letters of inquiry to some of my friends whom I respect”. His aims for the following period were established … “thanks to the wise advice from one of my oldest friends, a very respected person”. (Third Series, p 43)
John Bennett claims that Gurdjieff said, more than once, that he was able to call on people who knew the importance of his task. Beyond this, there is some evidence that Gurdjieff returned to Asia Minor for short visits at critical points during his life, and we know that he had regular correspondence with people that area, even into his last years. (He had no family there after 1919)
Gurdjieff’s Institute - Gurdjieff’s Vision
It is possible that the vision of the Institute came from the Sarmoun and that to some extent Gurdjieff was their agent. Gurdjieff never presented himself as a great teacher (which he could easily have done) but as an agent with a mission. The Sarmoun probably knew the end of their cycle was coming. The government of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and the Soviet Governments in Russia and Afghanistan were making it impossible for them to continue. Perhaps the Sarmoun, seeing the end of their tradition, had the aim of conveying the wisdom of the East to the precocious civilisation of the West, where powers had so greatly outstripped being.
Gurdjieff’s Aim - Gurdjieff Chateau
Chateau Le Prieure at Fontainebleau
According to his autobiographical anecdotes, Gurdjief’s internal aims had crystallized by the time he took the aim to foreswear his powers, after he was hit by the 2nd stray bullet in Tibet in 1902. In describing his oath in the Third Series he clearly defines sustaining self remembering as the highest function he could attain to. We could say, therefore, that for this time Gurdjieff was clear about his ‘internal’ mission. From what was quoted above it seems possible that he acquired his ‘external’ mission – the creation of the Institute – in his second stay with the Sarmoun. Whatever the case, we know that seventeen years later, in 1924, Gurdjieff officially disbanded the Institute. In 1928 he went further by pushing away many of the students of his own inner circle. Mr. Gurdjieff felt that he had done what was possible in relation to the aim of the Institute, and in consultation with ‘a very respected person’, he set new aims for himself. In 1935, Gurdjieff moved to an apartment in Paris on Rue des Colonels Reynard where the last stage of his teaching was to follow. Gurdjieff had seen that he was not the vehicle for the new order and he focused on his followers, that they might carry the teaching on to the next generation.