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?

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