Interspersed excerpts from
Episodes with Gurdjieff
by Edwin Wolfe


from "The Inner Search in Everyday Life"

Excerpts from a conference at the Gurdjieff Foundation in San Francisco.

Among the participants:
Linda Cutts, Green Gulch Zen Center
Barbara Hart, Gurdjieff Foundation of California
Wendy Johnson, Green Gulch Zen Center
Alan Jones, Dean, Grace Cathedral
Michael Murphy, Esalen Institute
Lobsang Rapgay, psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist
Vivian Snyder, Vipassana Meditation Center
Barbara Wright, Gurdjieff Foundation of California


Spiritual practice brings the direct experience of another condition of ourselves, a condition we know is closer to what human beings are meant to be. In the practice of meditation or contemplative prayer, the inner being begins to open toward an energy and capacity that we deeply wish for and that bring us closer to the power to see, love and serve the good. But what, in fact, is our condition in the situations of everyday life—in our jobs, with our families, in the day-to-day dreams, frustrations and anxieties that come to us all? Our everyday lives show us how far we are from what we are called to be and what we may actually experience in the quieter, sacred moments of spiritual practice. We see that as soon as we move from our cushion, as it were, we are taken by a more ordinary condition of ourselves. What is it, precisely, that draws us away from what we wish to be?

Many of us have rediscovered what the ancient spiritual traditions have always known—that there is a mystical reality within ourselves, an unfathomable freedom that our science and our psychology may not comprehend. But we have also discovered that to know about this inner world and to touch it only in the privileged conditions of meditation is not enough. Surely, the next step of the spiritual search in our culture is the capacity to search for this condition concretely in the midst of the life that is common to so many of us in the world today. What do we now understand about this search in life? What difficulties are specific to our present culture? How can we help each other understand our next step?

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from "Gurdjieff and the Metaphysics of Human Relationship," Jacob Needleman

Our lack of connection to others is inseparable from our lack of connection to the centers of perception within our organism. Natural man is intrinsically relational; developed man is intrinsically compassionate—a truth which is attested to by the lives of all authentically great men and women throughout history. And so, our first aim is to be natural men and women. The attainment of this first aim already disposes of most of the suffering that characterizes our mutual relations in the modern world. Another kind of suffering takes its place, a suffering that builds something. In Christian language, it means the passage from hell to purgatory. Hell is meaningless suffering; purgatory is suffering that leads to paradise. How to escape from hell?

In Beelzebub's Tales we learn that Buddha brought the work of "bearing the manifestations of others unpleasant to oneself" as the means for man to free himself from the forces that hold him in the state of hypnotic, waking sleep. Accounts of Gurdjieff's work with his pupils show how much weight he placed on this struggle. At the same time, he warned his pupils of its immense difficulty-"the last thing for a man." On another scale, in one of the published exchanges between Ouspensky and his London groups, a questioner complains about the kind of people he is assigned to work with. Ouspensky tells him that such reactions to others are the most mechanical thing in the world, and are precisely what one needs to confront from the very beginning of work on oneself.

These aspects of inner work do not imply that difficulties occur only between opposing types. But it may be that certain kinds of difficulties-or, more generally, certain kinds of relationships-are possible with types other than those one prefers by association or by physico-chemistry. In any case, the work asks the pupil to cultivate a new attitude toward difficult relations between people-not immediately trying to resolve these difficulties or explain them or begrudgingly see them as a necessary evil. We need these difficulties for our own awakening-precisely these difficulties with other people.

But why? It is understandable that working alongside others exposes us to the need to see our emotions and to free ourselves from their power to consume us. The conditions of the work community support the difficult (in life it approaches the impossible) voluntary effort to go on struggling with ourselves, even if it just means staying in the same room with someone who is in some way offensive to us.

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excerpt from Edwin Wolfe, Episodes with Gurdjieff:

The rather young son of a former member of the Orage group asked me to get permission for him to speak with Mr. Gurdjieff about something personal. When I told Mr. Gurdjieff about this he nodded, yes, bring him.

The next evening I took the youth up to Mr. Gurdjieff's suite in the Hotel Wellington. After greetings, the young man said, "Mr. Gurdjieff, my grandmother gave me some money not long ago. I'm going to buy a small piece of land in the country with it. I'll build a log cabin and I'll put in a vegetable garden so I can grow all my own food. I'll live there like that. So I wanted to ask you, would that be a good thing for me to do? Is that a good life?"

"Yes," Mr. Gurdjieff answered, "that good life. For dog. For man, no. You eat, you sleep, live in dream. How could this ever be life for man?"

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from "Beyond Beauty," an interview with Paul Reynard:

Material for Thought: In everyday life we find ourselves so bombarded with artistic imagery, from the merely decorative to the intentionally offensive, that it's no wonder, I suppose, that we are so rarely moved by it. We seem to have lost an understanding of what art can bring to our lives. As an artist who has worked and exhibited both in the United States and abroad, and who is also in touch with young artists through teaching, how do you see the place of art in contemporary life?

Paul Reynard: This is a complex question, since the word "art" is used nowadays to denote a myriad of creative activities requiring varying degrees of skill. To add to the confusion, there is a tremendous difference in attitude between the Western world and other cultures or traditions in which the notion of art as we understand it today has no meaning at all. On the other hand, this creative activity has taken place since the beginning of humanity. It seems to respond to a specifically human need that finds its source in the feelings.

In a way, your question could as well be formulated as "What is the place of love in our society?"

The final purpose of a work of art is not entertainment, but the transmission of, or an opening to, an inner mystery that the painter, the composer, or sculptor feels compelled to explore through his own craft. Something is then expressed in a language without words that speaks directly to your heart, and you feel yourself "in question," as so many people have felt when looking at the Lascaux paintings or the Mona Lisa.

MFT: You mentioned love. How do you see the relationship between love and art?

PR: One is contained within the other, you might say. When viewing a great work of art, you respond to the call of a concealed, invisible vibration which is beyond the notion of beauty. You feel invited to share this vision, even to participate in a process where the center of gravity is in the feelings. It is very much like being in love.

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from "An Invitation Declined"

In 1973, Far West hosted a series of public lectures in San Francisco under the title "Sacred Tradition and Present Need," in which representatives of several spiritual traditions agreed to speak to an audience of some 300 people. The following notes were made at the time by an editor of Material for Thought seeking to invite the participation of the renowned Japanese Zen master, Soen Roshi. Reverend S. was at that time Soen Roshi's assistant in New York.

I was ushered into Reverend S.'s reception room, shook hands warmly, and sat down on the couch. I began to explain about the lecture series we were planning—how there was now so much spiritual seeking going on in America and yet so much difficulty hearing the message of the great traditions. I read to him from the brochure announcing our series and said that for Zen Buddhism we had been advised to approach Soen Roshi.

Reverend S. immediately said it was impossible. I asked why. He said it was not the sort of thing Soen would do—but he was under the impression that we wanted Soen to speak about some general academic subject. Reverend S. paused for a moment when I explained that Soen would be asked to speak about Zen. I tried to explain that the interest was not purely academic.

"No, you must forget about Soen Roshi. I can understand why you were advised to ask him, but it is out of the question. This is like the A&P supermarket-not the traditional Zen way. A&P is all right, I am not condemning your project, but that is not the way for us. Soen comes to America and speaks to people here who are ready to receive. We are not interested in persuading people who come shopping for this thing and that. We are here. If someone comes to us, the doors are open. But we do not go out."

"It is not a question of persuading," I said, "but of speaking to an important question from the point of view of the Zen tradition. If the traditional teachers are not willing to speak out in this way, how will the rest of us understand about mixing and diluting the teachings?"

"There are books," he said. "Student reads these books and finds his way here. Put Soen Roshi out of your mind. Impossible. A&P."

"Yes," I said, "it is as you say, like a supermarket. But that's our situation. Is it not possible to speak within that situation?"

"It is not the Rinzai way."

"But you are already part of the supermarket."


"You are here; two blocks away there is a yogi . . ."

"Are you saying the whole world is a supermarket?"

Laughter on both sides.

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from "Where Is Buddhism Now?" Stuart Smithers

When the rumors of Zen were heard in the 1950s, few people had any idea what Zen really was, but these strange and incomprehensible teachings seemed to feed a mysterious hunger. Had something truly new arrived in America again? In the 1950s Zen lived behind unmarked doors in Manhattan and Cambridge. But behind the doors that proclaimed nothing there was the life of another world. For a short time—in the thirties and again in the fifties—Buddhism lived in America as an almost invisible force. Buddhism in the 1950s was an underground movement living at the edge of universities, attracting poets, philosophers, graduate students, and artists. News traveled by word of mouth that a fantastic-looking Japanese man with legendary bat-wing eyebrows would be speaking about Zen—whatever that was. Listeners gathered to hear D. T. Suzuki speak of strange and unknown things: zazen, karma, Zen masters, satori, emptiness, no-mind, and no-self.

Surely people couldn't walk through walls, but if anybody could maybe it was this curious man from Kyoto. Something in the intensity of the experience attracted and repelled us, and put us deeply into question. What did he mean when he told us not to think, or when he asked us where our minds were? Who wasn't bewildered by the idea that there was an "original face before our mothers and fathers"? People began to feel the shock that life might be lived on another level, that some unknown transformation of oneself could be possible.

In seminar rooms at Columbia University, in churches and borrowed flats in Berkeley, Buddhism in America was being born—quietly, respectfully, patiently, and unpretentiously. The mystery of a process of transmission had already begun, and without anyone particularly knowing it. How is a great teaching transmitted? What was acting on us?

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from "The Presence of Life," Mary Stein

The Dagara people of Africa consider plants the most intelligent of all earth's creatures because they communicate entirely without speech. Animals rank lower than plants because they sometimes use their voices to convey meaning. Least intelligent of all are human beings because their communication relies so heavily on the spoken word.

This peculiar hierarchy made little sense until I happened to be standing in a grove of magnificent redwoods a few miles north of San Francisco. Out of the green stillness, quite unexpectedly, there entered into me a quality of listening so intense that it pierced through habits of perception that usually imprison me in a relatively lifeless world. For a few moments it seemed clear that I was in the presence of beings able to communicate their intensely contemplative state—a state capable of transforming my own.

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from "From the Mat to the Street," Richard Hodges

There are ways of moving, ways of responding to challenge, ways of relating to people, that the student of Judo discovers creeping into his whole life. He is likely even to take pride in this. A Judo student may have the experience of being flattered by others who notice the way he moves "from his center." In relationships of emotion the problem is even more complex. It takes years of repeated practice under a watchful teacher to learn how to bow to an opponent in a way that expresses the right respect. Toward a peer, this respect includes the willingness to attack vigorously, acknowledging an opponent's ability to profit from being attacked. But what happens when business colleagues, or one's domestic partner, feel the half-conscious expression of this attitude toward themselves? What kind of discipline, and for how long, would it take to refine this attitude until it would be experienced by others as an expression of love, in life as it is in Judo? What really can be taken from the mat to the street?

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from "Hadji Gholamreza Rahimpour of Shiraz," James Opie

In July of 1970 I found my first mentor in the carpet business, Hadji Gholamreza Rahimpour of Shiraz. Until the 1979 Islamic revolution and the American embargo ended my annual trips to Iran, the Hadji and I conducted business that gradually formed the foundation for a career-long specialty in Persian tribal rugs, as well as a strong mutual friendship. Throughout all of this long process he guided me in learning the techniques, the pleasures and the responsibilities attendant to being a carpet dealer. . . .

Part of the basis of his reputation was that "the Hadji," as he was widely known in the bazaar, combined a good-hearted willingness to grant the other party what was truly needed in a transaction with prodigious and finely-honed bargaining skills. Looming above all of his activities were principles well removed from the struggle to negotiate a better price. Following the dictates of the Koran in the conduct of business, especially in keeping one's word, brought principles into play that elevated his outlook to the sphere of universal spiritual principles. Honest to his very core, he was not soft. His greatest bargaining tool was the force of his own character. There were unspoken depths to his methods, and to him as an individual, which included a natural reluctance to be "known" in a casual, familiar way. Unless he was engaged in the throes of a bargaining session, he tended toward an undemonstrative reserve that bordered on silence. After I had known him for several years I asked him about this aspect of quietness, which was so obvious when we were alone. He only said, "Flies never enter a closed mouth."

Although his work often induced him to act out various guises, which involved feigning a spectrum of negative moods and contrived reactions, the Hadji never evidenced the slightest hint of true slipperiness. He was always and most thoroughly himself. Those close to him never doubted who was behind the act of the moment. He was there, and the slightest glance from him, if he saw fit to look your way, told you so. These continual hints of an underlying foundation, of something solid within, made the days and weeks spent in his company deeply appealing for me.

The body of Persian folklore he had absorbed, which often flavored his speech, especially in his use of local proverbs, matched his deep knowledge of the merchandise that passed through his hands. When working with other dealers in the bazaar, he had a proverb for nearly every occasion. Mohammed Kashef, our mutual friend and at times our translator, suggested once that the Hadji made up some of these proverbs as he went along. Kashef, an educated man, had never heard many of them before. Whether he invented some or tapped into a deeper, older level of folk wisdom that had largely evaporated during the 20th century hardly matters. If someone accused him of devising his own proverbs he might well have said, as he did many times, "God forgive you—and me, as well." Which left the matter in doubt

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2004 Far West Editions