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,

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.

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 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?


  1. I must've read "Meetings with Remarkable Men" around the age of 14/15 (along with whatever else was available ---- not much) and always wondered just what the ratio of fact, fiction, and allegory is in this nevertheless remarkable book. Some years ago I bumped into an article about mediaeval Arab alchemists who even fashioned books (Kitāb al kanūz) and maps about the 'hidden treasures' of pre-desert Egypt (I think this: I'm sure this rings a bell to you.

    All the best,


  2. Dear PSz,

    Thanks for stopping by and dropping a line. I confess I've never read the book, although I did like the movie. I'm thinking your allusions to the hidden treasures must have to do with the hidden country of Zerzura that was found by that gay Hungarian what's-his-name who inspired The English Patient? Zerzura was the true Shangrila, wasn't it?

    Speaking of ringing bells, I got a little new info on that Armenian bell with the Tibetan inscription. Should post on that sometime.

    Nice chatting. Gotta run.

  3. You must be thinking of László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós (try saying that in one breath). I'm afraid my allusion was to the book: a mysterious map of 'pre-desert Egypt' comes up several times and was the link to several of the 'remarkable men'. My speculation was that this bit might actually be true, that Gurdjieff found one of these maps, which were not so uncommon as he thought.

    Looking forward to more belles. I mean bells.

  4. Dear PSz, Ok, now it's coming back to me, I'm hearing a small bell ringing, although those who haven't seen the book or movie won't have the faintest what we're talking about. I remember the scene in the movie where he takes a sneak copy of something, and remember thinking, too, that it could have been a lot quicker and easier nowadays with a smart phone. I always did believe there were deep connections between Egypt and Armenia and a number of other places. I wonder where "pre-desert Egypt" might be. Sounds kind of like the northern slopes of the Himalayas. But I guess the whole thin strip of the Nile Valley could be regarded as pre-desert. Of course you must have guessed it, but for a moment I was thinking this Egypt might be something you are supposed to finish eating before the last course. Which reminds me.


  5. Dear Dan, I'm afraid it's not the right place for the following question, but due to the historical existing links between Dorjiev and the Thirteenth Dalaï-lama, I ask it here : do you know where (perhaps TBRC?) I could find the Tibetan version of the Thirteenth's will available in the Ch. Bell's Portrait of a Dalai-Lama and elsewhere.
    Thierry (France)

  6. Dear Thierry,

    To the best of my knowledge the piece often referred to as the "Political Testimony" has this actual Tibetan title: — Chu spre / gnas chung chos rgyal chen po'i bka' lung dgongs don bod ljongs ser skya spyi yis spyi zhus zhabs brtan sgrub bya'i zhu lan sgrags ma don snying tshul ru gsol ba'i sman mchog sgrib med gcer mthong lha yi bdud rtsi gsar pa.
    It's supposed to exist as a 9-folio woodblock print. I think if you try searching for a part of the title in the Schmoogle-box, or at TBRC, it ought to be possible to come up with a copy of it. Give it a try, it ought to work. Yours, D

  7. Dear Thierry,
    Sorry, I got a chance to follow the advice I gave you and sadly came up with nothing! I'm not sure where I got the information about the title. Perhaps from Bell's book?

    1. Thierry, As far as I can see there isn't a separately published title like that published anywhere. So perhaps it's in his biography for the year 1913. You could check the pages between 239 and 263 in the official biography (the one included in the woodblock printing of his collected works). Yours, D

    2. Thierry, As far as I can see there isn't a separately published title like that published anywhere. So perhaps it's in his biography for the year 1913. You could check the pages between 239 and 263 in the official biography (the one included in the woodblock printing of his collected works). Yours, D

  8. Although identifying Gurdjieff with Dordjieff, Norzunoff, or "Prince Ozay" is erroneous, I've found much evidence suggesting Gurdjieff was in Tibet. My book on the subject will probably take a few more years yet, but I hope to get an article published relatively soon. Best wishes...... Layne

  9. Gurdjieff often used to cook Tibetan meals in his later years and talked to many pupils about his journeys through Tibet. Gurdjieff confessed that he worked as collecter of taxes for the Dalai Lama, in order to gain access to some very secret monasteries in Tibet. Gurdjieff also talked Tibetan, which was reported by pupils.

  10. Dear S.,
    Thank you for writing. I don't doubt that Gurdjieff told such stories, or that he cooked food he called Tibetan, but what I do wonder about is whether any of his pupils could recognize Tibetan language if they heard it.

  11. Tibet is an example where, ten years ago, all government was in the hands of the monks. But they couldn’t put my ideas into practice, because my teaching was not known to them. My teaching is my own. It combines all the evidence of ancient truth that I collected in my travels with all the knowledge that I have acquired through my own personal work.

    Gurdjieff quote from "Our Life with Mr.Gurdjieff p.182"

    Tibetan language was taught at the Prieure 1922-24!


  12. In Tibet he got himself appointed collector of dues from the monasteries for the Dalai Lama, and in this role was able to go into any monastery. He discovered instances of abnormal development, "high elevations", what are called "magic powers", but he says that he found little, apart from something in certain dances and ceremonies, which could be described as objective knowledge. Most of the powers developed by certain monks were diversions from the normal, interesting, but not useful for a method of self-development for people of the Western World, such as he had in mind.

    A.R. Orage - Commentaries on "Beelzebubs Tales"

  13. Dear Anon,
    I stand corrected, I suppose, although I hope you will forgive me if I tend to scoff at the very idea that a person who spent a year in Tibet could have gained enough knowledge of language, culture and law to be awarded a job as a tax collector for the 13th Dalai Lama. Was it Gurdjieff himself who taught Tibetan at Fontainbleau in the '20's? Or maybe Jacques Bacot came over to help out? I mean, don't you ever get the feeling you might be getting sold a painted sparrow? Why so skeptical of Tibetan wisdom and not the least skeptical of Gurdjieff's travel stories?

  14. Dear Anon.,
    Don't get me wrong, I'm still trying to learn stuff that might go against my usual ways of thinking. Only recently I found out that one of the most prominent Gurjieffians in the U.S., Paul Anderson (1897-1983) took a group of his students with him to form the core of the Dzogchen Community in Conway Massachusetts in the mid-1980's. Followers of Gurdjieff became followers of Namkhai Norbu. This confirms something I've been thinking for some time now, that those Vajra Dances that seem to be moving to the center of N.N.'s teachings in recent years may owe as much to Gurdjieff's "movements" as to the dream of the Rinpoche. So you could say that Gurdjieff teachings, whatever they may owe to Tibetan inspiration (if you ask me hardly anything), are having an impact on one special stream of Tibetan Buddhism. An interesting matter to contemplate, don't you agree?

  15. I wanted to answer Thierry's enquiry, above. I did successfully locate a published copy of the text he asked about. It's in vol. 27 of the Blo bzang dgongs rgyan series (published by Drepung Loseling, Mundgod), in 56 vols. It's at the end of the volume — pp. 245-250. Of course it would be better to have the original woodblock print, but this seems to be a direct copying of that print (it preserves the 'printing colophon,' the པར་བྱང་).


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