We quickly saw that we were amateurs talking to a master.

Gurdjieff International Review


The Unknown Teacher

by John G. Bennett

Few places exist where East and West blend so intimately that one cannot tell whether the environment is Asiatic or European. I have never seen this fusion more completely realised than in the palace of Kouron Chesme, the home of Prince Sabah Eddin, nephew of the last Sultan of Turkey and deep student of Christian and Islamic tradition.

It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength. The prince had apparently known him since before the war but did not tell me anything about their former meetings. We talked of hypnotism, and of experiments which Sabah Eddin and I had been making in an attempt to discover if knowledge of higher dimensions could be gained through subjects in a particular state of hypnosis. We quickly saw that we were amateurs talking to a master. How the conversations continued I do not remember.

The next picture which remains vividly in my memory is of a huge room in Yemenedji, Sohah, in Peta, where some twenty of Gurdjieff's pupils, with white costumes and sashes in the colours of the spectrum, were preparing a demonstration of temple dances and what appeared to be most intricate gymnastic exercises. I had seen and tried to understand the rhythmic movements or dances of the Mehlevi and Rufa'i dervishes, and had become convinced that these were not used solely for producing, as most Western observers have thought, temporary states of trance or ecstasy, but some permanent change in those who practice them. But here in Gurdjieff's movements was something which went far beyond anything I had previously seen.

Soon after I met one of his pupils, the well-known Russian philosopher and writer, P. D. Ouspensky, and from him learned something of the "System," as he called Gurdjieff's teaching about Man and the Universe. I was only able to catch tantalizing glimpses but they were sufficient to convince me that I had met something extraordinary which might give me the answer which I could not find in science, philosophy or religion to the question, "What is there in life for which it is ultimately worth striving?"

A year or two later, I met Ouspensky again in London and attended his lectures on Gurdjieff's System. The hope that I might find a comprehensive and convincing world outlook became a certainty. I began to understand Gurdjieff's fundamental teaching that man is a helpless plaything of alien and indifferent forces until he creates in himself, by his own labours, an independent, conscious individuality. Soon after, I was able to meet Gurdjieff himself again in the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man which he had founded at the Chateau du Prieuré at Fontainebleau, near Paris. During my stay there, my theoretical conviction of the soundness of Gurdjieff's teaching first began to transform into practical experience. Since then, many years have passed and I have continued to learn. As this is not an autobiography I can leave myself out of the picture, and try to set down where Gurdjieff and his teaching stand today. Gurdjieff will be eighty-four on his next birthday; in the thirty years since I first met him he has grown gentler but his inner strength has also grown in a way that is unmistakable but impossible to define. He still lives and has the centre of his work in Paris, but his teaching has spread all over the world. There is scarcely a country where groups of his pupils, large or small, are not working according to the methods he has taught. He has written a series of books, under the title of All and Everything in which his teaching and his practical methods are expounded in detail. The first of these will shortly be published in America, England, France and Germany, under the title of An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. This book, certainly one of the most extraordinary that has ever been written, expounds views on man and his destiny utterly at variance with all current thinking, not only in the West, but in the East also. We are fond of saying that human nature must change if we are not to destroy ourselves with our own inventions. Outside of Gurdjieff's writings I see no teaching which offers even remotely a suggestion of how this change is, in fact, to come about. It is easy to say what ought to be done, but the whole world is waiting to be shown how "ought" can be translated into "can."

The all-important "can" is expressed by Gurdjieff in simple concrete terms. Man is a being with a two-fold destiny. He can be a helpless slave of his environment, a machine entirely controlled by external influences—this is what men are whether their outward life appears to be a success or a failure. Or else he can be a free being able to determine his destiny, a true individual whose significance goes beyond the limitations of his life in space and time. The choice is in his own hands—freedom or slavery, life or death. Either way he serves a cosmic purpose; but in the first place it is to be a mere transformer of energy for purposes alien to himself—with no more personal fate than an animal or a vegetable. It is only if he creates his own freedom that he can be said to exist as a man. There are two destinies for man, two worlds in which he can live. True happiness exists only in the second world; but to reach it he must struggle and suffer. This struggle and suffering is not merely to achieve a purification of his nature, but a radical permanent change. This change takes concrete form as the birth and growth in man of a second and eventually a third body which can exist apart from the physical body. These "higher bodies" are the seat of individuality and free will. They are born and grow by the transformation of energy; they are material and they have power to act on material things.

Once this fundamental idea is grasped and accepted, it changes all values. The significance of the individual is seen in the stage he has reached on the road to ultimate self-perfection. The "Just man made perfect" is the hope of the world: in him others find strength and deliverance from their slavery. And so the understanding of the two-fold destiny of man must change all values—all human relationships. Power in the hands of slaves is seen for the absurdity which it is. From this in turn comes a right order of human society, based on intrinsic worth and not on the accidents of birth, or possessions, or even of personal attributes of mind or body. Not content with showing the goal of human striving, Gurdjieff is even more concerned with the way and the methods of its attainment. His pupils learn not merely how to live but how to be.

In the last resort, all hope for the future rests with the individual. Statistical man, or man in the mass, is the helpless slave of the law of probabilities. He can do nothing and hope for nothing. Our present trouble is that man as an individual has lost his way. He does not know even where to place his hopes. Those who have understood this may be prepared to give serious consideration to what Gurdjieff has to say.

Copyright © 1949 John G. Bennett
This webpage © 1997 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1997 Issue, Vol. I (1)
Revision: April 1, 2000