Way back in 2004, in Sunday Talks at Coombe Springs: Practical Themes for Human Transformation, Ken Pledge and a team published some 41 talks which Bennett had delivered at Coombe Springs. Often the talk is followed by a transcript of questions and answers. The great bulk were given between 1963 and 1965, but one of the most powerful, “Hasnamuss” is from about 1950, “Whole-heartedness” is from about 1962, and two others are of unknown date. This is one of the most significant books in the Gurdjieff tradition. When I say it is “in” rather than “about” the tradition, I mean that it gives little new information about Gurdjieff and what he taught, but rather, by having assimilated the teaching for himself, and speaking from his understanding, Bennett teaches, develops and continues what he had received. To say that the contents of these talks is within the Gurdjieff tradition is not to exclude them from the Bennett tradition. Bennett was a pupil of Gurdjieff, true, and to have been a true pupil of Gurdjieff was something. But I think now of Bennett as also having been a successor to Gurdjieff as a teacher, maybe even a prophet. Gurdjieff was his most important teacher, but what he eventually developed was nonetheless significant in its own right.
In an email to some friends, written partly under the influence of reading this book, I ventured: “The standard view of JGB in Gurdjieff Foundation circles is that JGB was a maverick who strayed into less than fruitful paths. I did have something of that idea, or at least was infected by it, although I always thought that his books were full of insight, and that if had been something of a maverick, nonetheless, he had been true in other ways, and had handed on teachings from Gurdjieff, such as the Decision Exercise, which would otherwise have been lost. I am now seeing things in a fundamentally different way: it seems to me that JGB was developing a wide and penetrating approach to the mysteries of human existence, history, and potential. It is in real continuity with Gurdjieff’s, but goes beyond it in some ways. I am discovering now how it is in continuity and how it goes beyond. To put it another way, to say that JGB was a pupil of Gurdjieff is very true, and yet if it means that JGB was unoriginal, it would be very untrue. This does not make him less of a pupil: a good pupil does continue the master’s research. It is hard to indicate this all with any precision.”
This is an important point which is true to Gurdjieff’s own teaching: in the talk “Using our Instruments,” Bennett recalls: “I once heard Gurdjieff say, “I am only bridge; when you have got over the stream you can kick me away” (252)”. Gurdjieff is clearly trying hard to bring the point home – after all, who ever kicks a bridge away when they have crossed? They just move on. And that is what Bennett did, I now think.
To return to the book – it has some good black and white illustrations: the interesting picture of JGB with FLW is in the volume, and appears below, I trust, in the link to a YouTube clip about the Djamichunatra. The Foreword by George Bennett is one of those rare accomplishments: a foreword which helps one to prepare to read the book. But its purpose is only to pave the road for the extraordinary materials between the covers. The talks are not given in chronological order, and I, likewise, shall hop around the book. My purpose here is quite limited: to indicate something, at least, of its value. I am trying to say enough to demonstrate the depth of the insight, as an inducement to your own study of the book; but not so much that anyone feels that this 1,000 words renders the book obsolete.
Let me take but one example of the fresh perspectives JGB provides on the teaching. One of the most critical of Gurdjieff’s ideas, and one of the hardest to realise, is that of “repairing the past.” In the talk “Understanding versus Knowing,” someone asks about the power of “I” to change the past. Bennett replies that the past leaves a trace, and by that we are connected with it. But the connection with the past is dynamic. He continues: “Suppose there is some incident in my past which I refuse to accept … by realizing “I did this” … That past event is in a state of tension with me and although it is past, I am certainly connected with it. If anything tends to remind me of it I shall be tense and upset … If you can once grasp the fact that the reality of anything is your connection with it, then you can see that if you change this connection then you change its reality” (288-289). In this context, “remorse is what enables you to be aware of the nature of your connection” (289)
There are provocative and pregnant comments on most every page, e.g. “We men are not destined to be either angels or devils, we are destined for something more difficult than the task of a devil – which is a very hard one – because we have to be the representatives of God which is the hardest task of all” (40). There is a very useful exercise for helping one to remember oneself, blending will and focussed sensation, at pp. 245-246. I will not even attempt to set out a sample of these. Important comments on fear are found at pp.114, 125, 189, 290, 294 and 310 on something related to the fear of God. There are statements about Christ at pp. 161, 197 and 239. His interpretation of the teaching “Love your enemies” is profound (133). I would also draw attention to his comments on will (206-207).
When I was younger, there was a considerable extent to which I would fill my head with information. It did turn out to be useful, but for too long, somethng in me was too avid for it, and it could get in the way of lived experiences. It is not the quantity of the information, it is the quality that counts, and the application of it in life, to test and prove my learning, turning it into understanding. If you are seriously interested in the practical application of Gurdjieff’s ideas, this book would be most helpful, indeed.
Joseph Azize, 30 November 2019, St Andrew’s Day
The Djamichunatra at Coombe Springs was destroyed, in an arrogant act of barbarism, by Idries Shah, an action pointing the way to the future vandalism of his compatriots, the Taliban. As a spiritual teacher, Shah was a fake. As a selfish cynic, he was the genuine article. The Djamichunatra was one of the wonders of the world.
I appreciate and enjoy your recent writings on Bennett. It’s good to see the value of his work being recognized. I hope your plan to write a book on Bennett comes to fruition.
The comment on Shah does seem uninformed though. Starting my own studies first in the Gurdjieff work, then spending about 10 years studying the works of Shah and studying under his brother, then coming back to the Gurdjieff work (with a fair time in the Bennett lineage), I have a much different perspective and understanding. Studying Shah’s teaching actually sheds greater insight and understanding on certain aspects of Gurdjieff’s teachings than I’ve seen anywhere else directly within the Gurdjieff lineage, except for by Bennett himself who echoes in his book ‘Gurdjieff: Making a New World’ many of the same understandings I’ve come to myself about Gurdjieff and his work. It’d be an interesting topic for dialog someday, Gurdjieff though the eyes of Sufism (particularly, Shah’s presentation of it).
One interesting detail that I hope in time is brought to historical light is Bennett’s continued collaboration with Shah, past the infamous story of their parting. I have it on fairly good authority that within Bennett’s archives, there are correspondences between the two men over many years, even to the point of Shah supporting the work at Sherborne (even financially? that was one aspect hinted at), and that ‘behind the scenes’ there continued to be a collaboration between the two, working towards the same larger aim but using separate methods. This ‘source’ has stated an intent of documenting a history of their collaboration, and to share the original documents, but we’ll see if it ever comes to light. Maybe it would be worth pursuing this topic for your book; reach out if you’d like a ‘lead’ on this.
Until then, I mainly rely on Bennett’s own comments about Shah in his autobiography, and later fragments I’ve encountered (including comments from Bennett’s own students). I see no indication that Bennett ever considered Shah a “fake”.
And I of course have my own personal bias from being “behind the scenes” of the outward facade that Shah created; I can understand how easy it would be to make such negative assumptions about Shah, but also see how Shah precisely engineered much of the public reactions to him and his work. Now THAT would be an interesting book: a detailed biography on Shah by someone who understood his teachings but also who thoroughly researched his life and work, deconstructing it to reveal the well-engineered construct that it was – but I suspect anyone with such an ability would avoid writing such a book, and maybe that is even why the backstory with Bennett and Shah has never been brought to light.
One a closing note, I seem to recall you criticizing Yannis Toussulis: “Without reading Gurdjieff’s own material… it is not possible to have a sound idea of Gurdjieff’s ideas. Toussulis relies too much on Moore, who while competent and confident, is not always reliable.” Might the same apply to your ideas on Shah… or maybe you have thoroughly familiarized yourself with Shah’s many books.
Hopefully this feedback is accepted with the good will intended. Cheers.
Just briefly, I appreciate the leads. I shall follow them up, but if you are able to send me copies of this correspondence, or other evidence that Shah assisted Bennett, etc., please do so. I would be grateful. And yes, the Bennett volume is most definitely going ahead. I have just earlier today finished a lengthy conference with several scholars about it. I owned at least six of Shah’s books, the first being Caravan of Dreams, then the two Mullah volumes, the Sufis, and at least two books of Dervish stories, one with a black background cover, the other with a brown background. I only then saw his book Oriental Magic, and read but never bought it. It was that book which disillusioned me. I wondered: did he try to begin as a magician, and when that didn’t work, he went to Sufism? No, JGB did not think Shah was a fraud. JGB tried to interest Mr Adie in Shah. Mr Adie did not follow him. I have no doubt at all of your good will.
Indeed, Shah’s earlier books do baffle me too in some regards, most specifically I’m reminded of my impression when reading Destination Mecca (1957); I don’t have the book in front me, but I recall being baffled by his descriptions of Sufism, written as if by an outsider not very familiar with it – yet it’s a known fact his father wrote several books on Sufism as far back as 1933, and there’s evidence that he was also a teacher (even outside Shah’s created mythology), setting up groups as far back as 1940s. Then suddenly Shah appears as a leading expert on Sufism in 1964 despite his earlier pretending (or true lack of knowledge)?! Strange indeed (though in fairness, he had written about Sufism under pseudonyms before that).
I suspect his early books were written for a different purpose than his later books, maybe if even just to make some money, since he apparently did write popular fiction under a pseudonym for this purpose.
Without a doubt though, even in his main corpus of work (and within the works written under his pseudonyms or by his supporting authors), he created a mythology about himself that was not factually accurate, intentionally misleading people (like baiting the Gurdjieffians), even sometimes for the purpose of deflecting people. His early studies and true rank & position is the larger Sufi orders is very unclear (though he has many international scholars and authorities make all sorts of fabulous claims about him in writing). But all of this is quite clearly explained in his books (specifically the books not focused on teaching stories, like Learning How to Learn, Knowing How to Know, and The Commanding Self) as the function of ideas as “constructive conceptions” rather than “formal annunciations”, and the function of books beyond being any sort of literal truth (this latter point, and in general Shah’s teachings on the function and method of teaching stories, explains greatly the methods used by Gurdjieff in the first two books in All & Everything). And he backs in all by reference after reference from well known, respected Sufi authorities from the past.
But despite all the intentional misinformation, Shah’s ultimate function in the West and authenticity I’m entirely convinced of; the reasons why would be a separate topic of discussion. In many ways he may be more alike Gurdjieff than dissimilar (though I tend to think Shah may have been more ‘sent’ for a specific function, while Gurdjieff came on his own to the West).
Anyway, I’ve gone on too much. It’s a topic I’m passionate about, similar to my passion about Bennett.
Thanks, Mark. I am making enquiries as to Idries Shah with some people who may know. It will take time for these enquiries to come to fruition, if they ever do, but I concede that there is more to the story than was ever made public. Regards,