Gurdjieff, and Buddhism

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

In the Gurdjieff work, the presence referred to as “I Am” is of the highest importance.  This statement of “I Am”, as given by Gurdjieff has been preserved through an oral tradition that intends to help the practitioner discover a real experience of that state. Like the Buddhists, Gurdjieffian practitioners sit, and while sitting, engage in inner work, and self-observation. The inner work as practiced by Gurdjieff’s disciple's dates back to his teaching and instruction. However, the Buddhist practice and inner work are at least 2500 years old and have reached refinements of understanding the true being-nature mind. The more contemporary Gurdjieffian line of teaching is certainly not considered a part of the ancient Buddhist transmission and is separate teaching, but I suspect is deeply influenced by it.

In Buddhist traditions, one's inner state of being is understood distinctly from the point of view that there is no “Self” within that has inherent existence. According to this view, the “Self” is dependent on prior cause or conditioning. As such, cannot be found to exist that is causeless and unconditioned. It is not that there is no “Self” at all according to this doctrine. Rather, Buddhism proposes that the “Self” that we recognize as self, is the result of some prior cause or set of conditions that give its arising. They say therefore that it is dependently originated and is a conditioned phenomenon.

As a result, it is said to be without inherent existence.  Without conserving and sustaining the cause or conditions required for its existence, it would necessarily cease to exist. In this view, there is nothing existing in the manifested universe that can be found to exist without a dependent cause. Thus, it follows there is nothing that can be found having inherent existence.  The Buddhists refer to this understanding as the “Realization of Emptiness”, meaning that all known phenomena are seen on examination to be empty of inherency. Thus they conclude that existence exists only in the sense that it is identified through a conceptual identification. That is that there is a spacious quality of mind that alone allows for it.

The belief in the possible existence of “I”, and hence the awareness of a presence referred to as “I Am” in the Gurdjieff work, seems to contradict the idea of “No Self” of the Buddhists, but only at first glance, and superficially.  There are many references where Gurdjieff instructed his pupils that they need to recognize their nothingness or emptiness. This is the same idea in essence. In his earthy character and personality, Gurdjieff even went to the extent of calling them “merde” or shit in French, in apparent insult to their sense of individual self-importance. This clearly pointed out their sense of self as ego-natured being. This attitude of his seems aggressive and even offensive perhaps to our politeness and social sensibilities. Yet that was his point exactly, that in our false personality, we take ourselves as having inherent significance, rather than inherent nothingness at our source and the root of our being.

On deeper examination, we find in Gurdjieff’s teaching that our state of being most of the time is purely a residual state of being, dependent entirely upon processes of material transformation that are occurring in nature itself. Unbeknown to us, we are dependent upon these for our own existence.  One could say that we are a by-product of what Gurdjieff defined as a process of Reciprocal Maintenance by which the world itself is made manifest through the interdependent process of mutual feeding. Said another way, we are self-generated in a co-relationship to processes of nature that are independent of ourselves. What Gurdjieff described as involution and evolution are these very processes that ensure that transformations occur between different cosmological levels which he called the Ray of Creation. This ray emanated from the source of divinity by involution, and the results of its self-generating process of reciprocal maintenance returned to the source through the evolutionary process in which transformations were realized, and substances and energies were created that sustained the and maintained the universe itself. This is the essence of Gurdjieff's Cosmology and mysticism.

Though he does not use the Buddhist language of Dependent Origination, this is in effect what Gurdjieff is describing. Gurdjieff’s view of human-kind, and even life itself, is in the context of its place in the greater wholeness of the existing universe. In essence, life is intended to serve the purposes of something greater or higher and is not an end in itself. In effect, human life is dependently originated upon the laws of creation and maintenance of this existing universe, as is human consciousness. It is in effect the conservation of God and God's continued existence. However, the highest ideal for humanity in Gurdjieff’s view is the development of true existence in individuality, which he says is possible.  This is individual existence at the level of conscious service to the pre-existing and emerging world in which one only truly exists as an individual in fulfillment of the needs of a higher order of universal Laws. That is, we exist to serve our creator.

This state of individuality, existing in what is referred to as “higher-being bodies” in Gurdjieff’s writing is an idealized state of being. It similar to the perfected state in Buddhism which similarly is described in the form of 3 interpenetrating bodies, referred to as Kayas in the Buddhist tradition. According to Gurdjieff, we are prevented from any rapid and assured attainment of this higher state of being by our present state, which Gurdjieff describes as being deteriorated by the effects of the former presence of an organ which he called Kundabuffer.  This organ had been placed in error in our physical being not by God, but rather by other higher beings in the creation related to the Absolute hierarchy which can be conceived as Angels, or Devas. The residual effects of this cause us even till today to be ignorant of our true state and to see reality other than as it actually is. What is the east is called Maya or illusion?

This clearly links the eastern and western traditions by similar mythologies, esoteric knowledge, and traditions. In this comparison, the Buddhist cycles of dependent origination are a lawful result of our state of ignorance of our true nature as being empty of inherent existence. From this arises a series of conditions that ultimately result in our existence as an incarnated being in this world. It is a state very much like Gurdjieff's description, and while the Buddhists conceive of Reincarnation, Gurdjieff suggests some similar form of eternal recurrence. The similarities are notable.

In effect, the view of Gurdjieff and the view of the Buddhists of these matters are more than simply compatible. They are attempting to describe the same things, and I suspect that as contemporary students of Gurdjieff we would benefit from a deeper understanding of the Buddhist articulation and seeing what is similar or different in the manner of a style of presentation, as would be expected given the different cultural environments of the societies in which these ideas originate.

The Standard articulation of Dependent Origination in Buddhism is:

“When this is present, that comes into being;

“From the arising of this, that arises.”

“When this is absent, that does not come to be;”

“On cessation of this, that ceases”

A view of the world is then derived in which existence is seen as a lawful result caused by an already existing set of conditions, and where birth, life, and death occur as a natural result caused by this chain of dependent origination. Phenomena exist based on a relationship of dependence upon something already existing or cease to exist in dependence on the cessation of something already existing. On observation, nothing can be found that exists inherently, that is that exists without being dependent on something already present.

In his book, known as "All and Everything: Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson"(1949), Gurdjieff tells his creation myth. In the beginning, the Creator of our universe, who Gurdjieff calls “His Endlessness” comes to awareness of his dependence for the place of his existence upon the flow of time. His Endlessness suddenly observes and finds that place of his existence, in effect, his body or the universe, is gradually and imperceptibly diminishing and eventually will cease to exist altogether. Thus, His Endlessness, who is also referred to as the Absolute, cognizes for the first time that He has existed dependent upon prior conditions already manifested that are characterized by distance, space, and time, and that He himself is not eternal. In effect, these conditions of existence of the Absolute Endlessness, or God, are not unlike our own.

To quote the Chapter the “Holy Planet Purgatory” in Beelzebub's Tales, Gurdjieff says:

“In the beginning, when nothing yet existed and when the whole of our universe was empty endless space with the presence of only the prime-source cosmic substance ‘Etherokrilno’, our present Most Great and Most Most Holy Sun Absolute existed alone in all this empty space, and it was on this then sole cosmic concentration that our UNI-BEING CREATOR with HIS cherubim and seraphim had the place of HIS most glorious Being.

“It was just during this same period of the flow of time that there came to our CREATOR ALL-MAINTAINER the forced need to create our present existing ‘Megalocosmos’, i.e., our World.

“…our CREATOR OMNIPOTENT once ascertained that this same Sun Absolute, on which HE dwelt with HIS cherubim and seraphim was, although almost imperceptibly yet nevertheless gradually, diminishing in volume.

“As the fact ascertained by HIM appeared to HIM very serious, HE decided immediately to review all the laws which maintained the existence of that, then still sole, cosmic concentration.

“During this review our OMNIPRESENT CREATOR for the first time made it clear that the cause of this gradual diminishment of the volume of the Sun Absolute was merely the Heropass, that is, the flow of Time itself.

“Thereupon, our ENDLESSNESS became thoughtful, for in HIS divine deliberations HE became clearly aware that if this Heropass should so continue to diminish the volume of the Sun Absolute, then sooner or later, it would ultimately bring about the complete destruction of this sole place of HIS being.

“And so my boy, in view of this, our ENDLESSNESS was then just compelled to take certain corresponding measures, so that from this Heropass the destruction of our Most Most Holy Sun Absolute could not eventually occur

His Endlessness then proceeded to change the Laws of Creation and Maintenance by creating a system of reciprocal maintenance, which in effect altered the universe for an entropic closed system, to an interdependent open system, which required continuous Self-Generation.

The parallels of this creation myth of Gurdjieff to the principals of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination in Buddhism are obvious. The full expression of this in our Human Life and our relation to the world is referred to as the “Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.”  H. H., the 14th Dalai Lama describes this in detail in a book entitled, “The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective (1992)”. According to this view, each of the following is dependently related in a cyclical fashion based on the 1st principle of phenomena that arise, exist, or come into existence:

Due to the condition of Ignorance, Action (Karmic Formation) arises;

Due to the condition of Action, Consciousness arises;

Due to the condition of Consciousness, Name and Form arise;

Due to the condition of Name and Form, the Six Sense Spheres arise;

Due to the condition of Six Sense Spheres, Contact arises;

Due to the condition of Contact, Feeling arises;

Due to the condition of Feeling, Craving (Attachment) arises;

Due to the condition of Craving, Grasping arises;

Due to the condition of Grasping, the Level of becoming called ‘Existence’ arises;

Due to the condition of ‘Existence’, Birth arises;

Due to the condition of birth, aging, suffering, and death arise.

Likewise the linkages are dependently related in terms of the 2nd principle of phenomena, that are absent, cease, or go out of existence as follows:

When Ignorance ceases, Action (karmic Formation) ceases;

When Action Ceases, Consciousness ceases;

When Consciousness ceases, Name and Form cease;

When Name and Form cease, the Six Sense Spheres cease;

When the Six Sense Spheres cease, Contact ceases;

When Contact ceases, Feeling ceases;

When Feeling ceases, Craving (attachment) ceases;

When Craving ceases, Grasping ceases;

When Grasping ceases, the Level of becoming called ‘Existence’ ceases;

When ‘Existence’ ceases; Birth ceases:

When Birth Ceases, aging, suffering, and Death Ceases.

According to David Ross Komio’s discussion of Buddhist Psychology in the Book he translated entitled, "Najarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas: A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness"(1987), the concept of dependence is crucial to understanding the relationship of the links. In this instance, dependence is in the sense of the observed connections between phenomenon, rather than a linear and mechanistic cause and effect relationship. Here, the point is that the observation of dependent origination is in an experience that occurs. Therefore, the experience occurs in the connection between that which has experiences, that which is experienced, and experience itself. The dependence relationship seems to require the presence of a Subject, Object, and Result, all in connection in a moment of time, at each stage in the linkage. It appears as if one cannot exist without the existence of the other at the same moment of time.  Komio gives as an example:

“…the existence of matter is a pre-requisite for the existence of a sense organ, such as an eye, which is a pre-requisite for the existence of a visual field. Likewise, the occurrence of contact between an eye, a material object, and visual consciousness is a pre-requisite for the occurrence of the feeling of pleasure in regards to a pleasing sight. Thus it is said that the phenomenon of feeling arises in dependence on the phenomenon of contact, that the phenomenon of contact arises in dependence on the phenomenon of a sense-field, and that the phenomenon of a sense-field arises in dependence on the phenomenon of Name and Form, (ie) a Psychophysical Being.” p 28

Time itself is implied here as existing and this is an important fact. Because each of the 12 conditions stated in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination can both arise and cease, they each lack permanence and instead exist only in simultaneous dependence on the existence of another impermanent phenomenon which in turn is also dependent on still another impermanent phenomenon. The logic suggests then that underlying all dependently originated occurrences (which appears to be everything existing) is the reality of Impermanence. That is, all occurrences are of a temporary nature and have no inherent existence.

From the standpoint of our life, we are manifested simultaneously in all 12 links of dependent origination. The notion of “I” occurs in dependence upon consciousness in the link referred to as Name and Form, which we discover through the contact of our senses with objects of sensation. Thus, our awareness of sensation in the body, and the subsequent reactions of pleasure and pain is the beginning of our experience of what we refer to as "I" as an individuality (whether real or imagined is another question). While the link of Name and Form is dependent upon Consciousness, as there must be the capacity of awareness, this awareness as Subject requires Object in order to define itself. Awareness requires something to be aware of. As Name and Form implies, there is intermediation here between consciousness as pure awareness, and the sensation has given by the experience of a being “embodied”.

Komito identifies Name and Form by its attributes. Name is referring to the consciousness with its capacity to perceive Form. This perception of forms occurs in four ways referred to as Skanda’s:

  1. Feelings- Pleasant, Painful, or neutral

  2. Perceptions- related to the six senses sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, mind

  3. Karmic formations-awareness conditioned by traces of all previous experience, the capacity for attention, and memory

  4. Raw consciousness-pure awareness is unconditioned by Karmic formation or other perceptions.

On the other hand, Form is in and of itself material that can be perceived by the senses, including the mind as an organ of perception. He relates this to the four essential elements of Air, Fire, Water, & Earth, as well as to concepts of intangible nature that are also perceivable as form.

Taken together the capacity to perceive is a function of the six Sense Spheres, as described in the Links of dependent origination. These provide the limits of what is possible for human beings to perceive forms that exist.  Perception occurs when there is Contact. That is when the three elements, the sense organ(s), the object of sensation, and the consciousness which reconciles them are brought together in this Contact. Thus Contact arises and ceases in a matter of a moment or a few moments. In fact, it is the consciousness itself that arises and ceases during these moments, and is conditioned by Karmic formations such as habits, and the quality of attention. Thus consciousness occurs as a stream of momentary contacts and is dependent largely upon the quality of the attention of the perceiver.

The fact that the mind itself is considered an organ of perception is important, as it makes possible the perception of conceptual or subjective reality. While the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch allow for passive direct perception of that which is material in nature as an object of the senses, the sixth sense of the mind allows for the perception of more subjective objects, as in the case for example of self-observation and self-remembering, which are Gurdjieff's Description of the process by which Self-Individuality can be attained.

The perception itself is only directly received in the first moment of perception, as the contact is renewed through subsequent moments, perception is a blending of that which is newly perceived together with the associations made by the karmic formations, the residue of past perceptions (including the most recent of the preceding present moment) as well as cognitions, memories, emotions, etc. Thus, the perception is only pure in the initial instant and thereafter is influenced by that which arises in the consciousness of the perceiver. Cognition then is an illusion of the mental image created by the mind and the perception of the Object it attempts to perceive and is in effect never completely accurate. Thus, Ignorance, the first link in the chain of dependent origination occurs as perception and cognition tend to become distorted and do not perceive reality entirely as it is, but mix it with content that is dependent upon the perceiver’s previous knowledge and experience. Chief among these kinds of knowledge are the false belief in inherent existence as opposed to impermanence, and also the belief in the innate selfhood and the identity of objects as entities of a phenomenon.

This discussion of Buddhism not only in interesting for its correspondences with Gurdjieff's Oral and Written teachings, which are of interest to a small group of people in the Gurdjieff Work but are interesting for their correspondences to the inferences of scientific discoveries and knowledge pertaining to the Biology of Cognition, which approaches the same natural phenomena that Buddhism has described, from its empirical methodology.

Image by Max Pixel, Creative Commons, " Sunset, Island, Mar, Dusk, Brain, Imagination"

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