Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Good Grief! Gurdjieff in Tibet?

Did George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) ever visit Tibet?  I recognize the problem that some of you may simply not know why you ought to care, and I empathize with you, but keep in mind that there are people out there who do care, people who may even care far too much. As a Tibetanist they may want to get answers from you. What are you going to tell them? That's not Gurdjieff here in the frontispiece, and neither is it Dorjiev, but the truth is, Dorjiev and Gurdjieff have been confused in the past. One author, otherwise quite a good one I think,* unhelpfully decided that while Gurdjieff in fact isn’t Dorjiev, it’s Dorjiev’s follower Norzunoff that is Gurdjieff.  In either case, if either identification were true, it would follow that Gurdjieff did in fact visit Tibet. (Well, since both Dorjiev and Norzunoff most definitely did.)
(*James Webb, The Harmonious Circle:  The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York 1980).)

Agwan Dorjiev (ངག་དབང་རྡོ་རྗེ་)

Ovshe Norzunoff
Le Tour de Monde (1904)


There is one person I know of who claimed to know for a fact that Gurdjieff was in Tibet, and that's the smoking man you see up there at the top of the blog.  His name was Achmed Abdullah.  How did Achmed know Gurdjieff had been to Tibet?  Because he (A.A.) had seen him (G.I.G.) there, in Lhasa.

Now surely Gurdjieff was from the general area of Caucasus-Georgia-Armenia-Turkey (his parentage was Greek and Armenian), and not from Buriatia, as is implied in the quote you will see just below. His surname anyway suggests that he or his family must have originated in Georgia. The name Dorjiev has a quite different origin, since as is the style even today among Mongolians, it is a slightly modified form of the frequent Tibetan name element Dorjé (རྡོ་རྗེ་).*
(*For a bit on the possessive suffix -ov/-off/-ev/-eff used to form Slavic surnames, try looking here. Like surnames everywhere, they may [among other possibilities] be based on place of origin.  Dorjiev's name was formed on the assumption that Dorjé was in some way his surname when of course it was not.  It’s an integral part of his given name.)

The following quote is taken from Rom Landau (1899-1974), God Is My Adventure (1935?), p. 188: 

‘I so often hear about his [Gurdjieff’s] experiences in Tibet,’ I replied: “but I am somewhat suspicious of those Tibetan tales. Every other messiah, from Mme. Blavatsky onwards, claims to have gathered knowledge in the mountains of Tibet. How do you know that Gurdjieff has actually ever been there?’

‘I happen to possess first-hand proofs. Some years ago there was a luncheon in New York, given, if I remember aright, for Gurdjieff. A number of distinguished men had been invited, among others the writer, Achmed Abdullah, who told me that he had never seen Gurdjieff before, but that he was very much looking forward to meeting this unusual Armenian. When Gurdjieff entered the room Achmed Abdullah turned to me and whispered: “I have met that man before. Do you know who he really is? Before the war he was in Lhassa as an agent of the Russian Secret Service. I was in Lhassa at the same time, and in a way we worked against each other.” So, you see, it is quite true that Gurdjieff had been at the very fountain of esoteric knowledge. Some people say he was in Lhassa as a Secret Service agent, in order to disguise the real purpose of his visit, which was to learn the supernatural methods of the Lamas. Other people maintain that his esoteric studies were only a pretext behind which he could hide his political activities. But who can tell?’

And the following letter is copied from the same book, p. 202: 

Captain Achmed Abdullah.
Fifth Avenue House,
Sunday. New York City.  


As to Gurdjieff, I have no way of proving that I am right except that I know I am right. When I knew him, thirty years ago, in Tibet, he was, besides being the young Dalai Lama’s chief tutor, the main Russian political agent for Tibet. A Russian Buriat by race and a Buddhist by religion, his learning was enormous, his influence in Lhassa very great, since he collected the tribute of the Baikal Tartars for the Dalai Lama’s exchequer, and he was given the high title of Tsannyis Khan-po. In Russia he was known as Hambro Akvan Dorzhieff; to the British Intelligence as Lama Dorjieff. When we invaded Tibet, he disappeared with the Dalai in the general direction of outer Mongolia. He spoke Russian, Tibetan, Tartar, Tadjik, Chinese, Greek, strongly accented French and rather fantastic English. As to his age well I would say ageless. A great man who, though he dabbled in Russian imperialistic politics, did so I have an idea more or less in the spirit of jest. I met Gurdjieff, almost thirty years later, at dinner in the house of a mutual friend, John O’Hara Cosgrave, former editor of the New York World, in New York. I was convinced that he was Lama Dorjieff. I told him so and he winked. We spoke in Tadjik. I am a fairly wise man. But I wish I knew the things which Gurdjieff has forgotten. 

Very faithfully,

At this very moment I don’t have any definitive disproof of this often-made identification, but I sincerely doubt Gurdjieff ever made it to Lhasa.* If you want to pursue this will-o’-the-wisp further, I'd recommend this essay by Paul Beekman Taylor entitled “Gurdjieff and Prince Ozay.” Here the identity problems get, if anything, even thicker.
(*but keep reading, since I've changed my mind since "now")
It’s true that Achmed’s information about Dorjiev is sufficiently accurate and believable, based on what we can know from independent sources. What isn’t so believable is he had sufficient reason to equate him with Gurdjieff.  Achmed's accuracy makes me tend to believe that he (A.A.) might have actually been in Lhasa, seen Dorjiev there or at least heard a great deal about him, but his assertion of the single personhood of Gurdjieff-Dorjiev is, as he says, not something he can prove. And this equation our independent sources can disprove, especially now that a number of sources about Dorjiev's last years have been made known to the world at large.

It isn’t even all that clear to me that Gurdjieff unequivocally claimed that he had been in Lhasa or any other part of Tibet proper. What he did claim is that he received ultra-esoteric teachings (that formed the [or a] basis of his own teachings, including the well-known dances) at an almost entirely inaccessible location somewhere in the vicinity of the Pamirs from a group called the Sarmoung Brotherhood. They had yet another ‘sister’ monastery on the northern slopes of the Himalayas called Olman Monastery.  I'm not sure if he claimed to go to this Olman Monastery, but even then I am the opposite of clear when it comes to knowing where the “northern slopes of the Himalayas” might be.* I’ve seen some say Gurdjieff claimed he had a “Tibetan marriage” and his eldest son became the head of a lamaserie, although I’m not sure how to trace back the authorities for it, or if it’s all that interesting. Is it?

(*See p. 313 in William James Thompson, J.G. Bennett's Interpretation of the Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Study of Transmission in the Fourth Way, doctoral dissertation, University of Lancaster (1995).  The southern slopes of the Himalayas are much more easily located.  For all I know the northern slopes of the Himalayas could be all the way up beyond the Kunlun Mountains, somewhere near the palace of the Queen Mother of the West.)

Well, we do all have problems with identity. That much is true and undeniable.

§  §  §


Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Bagdad, an Arabian Nights Fantasy,” 1924 movie, its screenplay by Nadir Khan, aka Achmed Abdullah, aka Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff, the man who knew how to identify people. Well, I’d say Achmed Abdullah (1881-1945) was a very interesting character in his own right. I think we should take what he said with liberal doses of salt. Name changers see everyone else as name changers, you think maybe? Hollywood people know all there is to know about projection.

In general, I very much admire the acting done on both screen and stage under the directorship of Peter Brook, so if even just for that, I’d much recommend seeing “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Here you can find what looks like a complete version of the film. Or try here.  

And finally, if you are serious about wanting to know something about Dorjiev (1853-1938), I would seriously recommend this and/or the following book or the article by Andreyev. We know how Dorjiev spent the last decades of his life, and No, he did not spend them pretending to be Gurdjieff!

Jampa Samten and Nikolay Tsyrempilov, From Tibet Confidentially: Secret Correspondence of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to Agvan Dorzjiev, 1911-1925, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (Dharamsala 2012).

Alexandre I. Andreyev, An Unknown Russian Memoir by Aagvan Dorjiev, Inner Asia, vol. 3 (2001), pp. 27-39.  This has a survey of now-available sources on the life of Dorjiev.  Several other works by the same author ought to be listed, if I had more energy, including the book cited in the appendix down below.

For some remarkable historic photographs of the Buddhist temple Dorjiev founded in St. Petersburg, look here. For a sketch of the temple's history, try here.

For the birthplace of Gurdjieff, look here, where it says  "Gurdjieff was born in the Armenian city of Alexandropol, which is now called Gyumri."  The birthdate would seem to be up in the air.

§  §  §

Appendix: The Death of Dorjiev

Source:  Alexandre Andreyev, Soviet Russia and Tibet: The Debacle of Secret Diplomacy, 1918-1930s, Brill (Leiden 2003), p. 361:
"In January 1937, Dorzhiev, accompanied by his attendant, Lama Dugar Jimbiev, left Leningrad for Buryatia. There he hoped to spend his last days in a solitary retreat as Buddhist monks do, in his house at the medical school of the Atsagat Datsang, near Verkneudinsk. However his hopes were not to be fulfilled. On 13 November the Buryat was arrested in his home and put into prison in Verkheudinsk. He was accused of high treason (spying for Japan), terrorist and subversive activities, preparation of armed rebellion, and several more anti-Soviet crimes. Two weeks later, shortly after his one and only interrogation, Dorzhiev was taken to a hospital ward. There, on January 29, 1938, he died."

Gurdjieff died during the morning of October 29, 1949, in France.  His last words?  "Bravo America."

Answer me this: How can two people who are one and the same person die such different deaths?

Friday, November 08, 2013

Tantra's Ineluctable Logic?

Buddhist wisdom is simply wisdom. It isn’t necessarily any the more wise for being Buddhist. I know my Buddhist friends may not like me saying that, but I’m not all so sure how Buddhist they are to begin with...  anyway I have observed how Buddhists do require conversion to Buddhism time and time again. There is a commonplace wisdom that wisdom comes with age, an expression I passionately detested when I was younger (along the same lines: “When you’re older you’ll understand...”).

Today I’d venture there is some truth in it.  For instance I’ve seen that young people just don’t know that failure is success. They only see the failure, and don’t appreciate the opportunity it nearly always presents them. When you get a present, you ought to be saying ‘Thank you!’ Seeing how badly they take defeat always looks so-o-oh pathetic you almost want to feel sorry for the bastards. When people concede defeat (or put themselves at risk) in order to help another person, they become so much bigger for that, they come out winners, don’t they? Young people fail to recognize these simple wisdoms over and over again until they’re too old to benefit from them anymore. So then they might think they have to express their well thought-out thoughts to the young people, young people who just won’t buy it whether they’re getting charged for it or not. 

Listen children! Failure keeps us growing and prevents us from getting stuck. Period, full stop. Stop your whining. The one who loses the argument is the one who learns the most, is indeed the successful one. These are things we either know from experience or don’t know at all...  Not that anybody really ever grows up all that much. That’s why reincarnation, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented. We always have a lot further to go than one life can normally allow time for.

An older person I know, one even older than yours truly, was recently asked what he would like to teach young people, and the first thing that he thought of was this, “There is no such thing as a wrong thought.”  I’ll admit I was a little taken aback by that, perhaps out of a knee-jerk moralistic impulse (I’m an occasional victim, I’ll confess), but I could also see the tantric logic in it. The serpent in the primordial garden convinced us with the help of a drugged apple — to follow an interesting reading of Genesis — that there is a difference between the good thoughts and the bad thoughts, that there’s something godlike about knowing this.  Ever since then we’ve been filled with inner turmoil, tortured by indecision about what would be the right thing to do (and the right thing to think). 

The real problem isn’t this so much as that we’ve placed ourselves at the mercy of our thoughts, whether good or bad, and act impulsively or even unconsciously most of the time...  it’s a problem of awareness and awakening, the rules be damned. We’re here to live, not to be managed or observed or judged. We don’t meditate in order to force ourselves to listen to the mini-fascist in our own minds... Or do we?  ‘You kids behave, and watch those thoughts, they’ll get you into a world of trouble,’ we tell them out of the selfish and probably futile hope they won’t bother us while we’re up to our important adult business. Who tells them to release their grips on those hooks they’ve got sticking into them? Who tells them to jump over those walls they've had built around them or they built around themselves? Who helps them see the bigger and more meaningful connections between what they’ve got inside and what’s going on outside?  Who tells them that real ethics have to come spontaneously out of an awakened goodness inside and not imposed by some dull authority outside? Dull authorities make us dull fellows who need to be told what we ought to find of interest instead of finding out on our own.

Well, true, I hear you... just as bad are the fate-focussed people who think life is a computer game full of insurmountable obstacles and insist on living it like it is one, as if there were no question our aims are the only ones there are, but at the same time aims that will probably never be achieved, or at least not achieved enough. This attitude itself is a big part of what gets in our way. We can’t stop and reflect, let alone admit that we’re on a fast flight to nowhere of significance. That’s why tantric logic is a life requirement, as crazy and radical as it may sometimes seem to some. 

No doubt I’ll be criticized for appending these dangerous ideas from Āryadeva, the tantric teacher of the 7th century or so, in a set of verses called Treatise on Mind Purification. It’s a book without an outline, moving from subject to subject kind of like our minds are always doing whether we notice or not. But these particular verses do share a common theme, if you can detect it. I’ll call it tantric logic to put a name to its many faces. As much as it might seem counter-intuitive, it’s a whole lot more important than going to those hundred places before you die. And just between friends, it isn’t about justifying the selfish actions of your cheating heart. Don’t even go that way. It’s in that direction that the bigger dangers lie.

“Water in the ear can be removed by water,
a thorn can be removed with a thorn.
Just so the wise know how to remove
desire with desire.

Just as the laundryman uses dirt
to purify a dirty garment,
a wise person also uses
dirt to clean dirt itself.

As the dust motes on a mirror
when wiped help make it clean,
so, to rely on the wise,
faults are overcome by faults.

If a metal ball is put in water
it sinks to the bottom,
but if it is shaped into the right vessel,
it not only doesn’t sink, it holds up others.

In some way a mind that is the right vessel,
through the workings of wisdom and means,
gets disentangled while acting on impulse
and disentangles others as well.

When a confused consciousness uses it
desire is the chains themselves.
When wise persons use it
desire brings them all the way to freedom.

All the world knows
that milk cures poisonings,
but if a snake drinks it
its poison is multiplied.

The swan knows how to sip out the milk
from a mixture of water and milk.
The wise person, while acting in the
poisoned sensory realms, is freed.

If done according to procedures,
even poison can be made into the acqua vitae,
while children who don’t know how to eat
butter or molasses can be poisoned by them.

Yet to someone who cleanses their own mind
with the appropriate measures
its unthinkable, unimaginable
pure nature shines bright.

Even the smallest flame,
making use of the butter, wick, etc.,
clear, pure and steady
dispels the most obdurate darkness.

The Banyan seed though small
under the right conditions
will grow into a giant tree
with roots, branches and flowers.

When mustard is mixed with mineral powders
a different color is produced.
In a similar way the wise know the Dharma Realm
through the workings of wisdom and means.

Butter and honey in equal proportions
can be a harmful combination,
but when taken in the right way,
it can be the best nutritional program.

Putting mercury in copper
makes it perfectly golden.
Just so the application of true Total Knowledge
makes mental complexes into something worthwhile.”

 §   §   §

When I made this partial translation back in around 1990, I was staying in Nepal and had access to a classic work of Indian Tibetology, an edition by P. B. Patel of the  Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa of Āryadeva: Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts, Visva‑Bharati Research Publications (Santiniketan 1949). I wish I had it now, since it served as the basis for the translation you just saw. In times since those days in Kathmandu two other translations have appeared, and I will very soon supply references to try and help those who might find the exercise of comparison fun or curious. For Wedemeyer’s version of these particular verses, see his pages 365ff; and for Varghese’s, pages 236ff.

Christian Wedemeyer, Vajrayāna and Its Doubles: A Critical Historiography, Exposition, and Translation of the Tantric Works of Āryadeva, doctoral dissertation, Columbia University (New York, April 1999).

Mathew Varghese, Principles of Buddhist Tantra: A Discourse on Cittaviśuddhi‑prakaraṇa of Āryadeva, Munshiram Manoharlal (New Delhi 2008). 

If you have the Dergé Tanjur handy,* you can see the Tibetan text here:  Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa (Sems-kyi sgrib-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba zhes bya-ba’i rab-tu byed-pa).  Tôh. no. 1804.  Dergé Tanjur, tantra (rgyud) section, vol. NGI, folios 106v.7‑112r.3.  Translated by Jñānākara and Tshul-khrims-rgyal-ba in around the early- to mid-11th century.
(*Actually, everybody in the world who has an internet connection can get to it almost immediately here at the TBRC.) 

Today's blog was written under the lingering influence of a book called Consecrated Venom by Caryl Johnston, who finds refreshingly interesting things to say about the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.

 §   §   §

I will train [myself] to take the defeat upon myself 
And offer the victory to others.

 §   §   §

Postscript: I won’t vouch for the third verse from the last being precisely correct. I’m thinking it isn’t. It’s very possible this verse is the source for a similar one by Sakya Pandita that we saw in an earlier blog. In that one we saw that when you combine (white/ invisible) borates/ borax with (yellow) curcumin/ turmeric, you get stuff called Rosocyanine and Rubrocurcumin, which ought to be which color?  If you don’t remember, have a look here.  Meanwhile, if anybody needs me, I’ll be here in my laboratory. Perhaps you would like to try the experiment for yourself? First get together the necessary ingredients, then do as the scientist does in this video or perhaps this one.

Hmmm, should we be heading for the book to see if the reading is correct? (or to the library to search out what other text it was copying from?) or should we be going out into the laboratory of life to see if there is something true and effective in it?

Cham Dancers in Ulan Bator

Illustrations further up:  Pearl Potential and the Banyan Tree.

§  §  §

Somebody nice nicely sent me a nice copy of the Patel edition, so I'll type in my Tibetan version of Patel's Tibetan version for those who may want it (leaving off Patel's notes), starting at verse 37 on p. 24 and ending with verse 51 on p. 27 (perhaps I'll put in Patel's Sanskrit later on):
















One PS: I notice the yung in verse 49 is in the Sanskrit version haridrā, and that means curcuma, or turmeric if you prefer (so the ‘mustard’ translation is not accurate), while for the rdo-thal [mineral powder] of the Tibetan, the Sanskrit has cūrṇa, which ought to mean chalk or [mineral] lime.  So I’m not 100% the chemistry experiment here is identical to Sa-paṇ’s. Only 90% maybe.

Another PS:  A. Annapoorani, K.R. Anilakumar, Farhath Khanum, N. Anjaneya Murthy & A.S. Bawa, "Studies on the Physicochemical Characteristics of Heated Honey, Honey Mixed with Ghee and Their Food Consumption Pattern by Rats," Ayu: An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 2010), pp. 141-146.  It's yogurt Tibetans say should only be eaten uncooked, and about this rule our tandoori cooks seem to know nothing.

Yet another PS:  Vijaya Deshpande, "Transmutation of Base-Metals into Gold as Described in the Text Rasārṇavakalpa and Its Comparison with the Parallel Chinese Methods," Indian Journal of History of Sciences, vol. 19, no. 2 (1984), pp. 186-192.  
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