Gurdjieff International Review

A Leaping Flame

Mary Stein, Guest Editor

“There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject [of a certain teaching]. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.” Plato[1]

Within this issue we explore what it means to regard the Gurdjieff teaching as an oral tradition. That a teaching is communicated in many ways—through person-to-person exchange, through music and dance, song and story—has become more and more clear. Above all, we have come to see that the oral tradition means that the teaching continues through those who seek to embody it. It comes to life only within a community of people working together under special conditions that allow the flame of transmission Plato speaks of to leap from one soul to another.

We begin the issue with Gurdjieff’s wish that his teaching might penetrate to the hidden level of truth in each person. It seems relevant to read of Hassein and his attitude toward his grandfather Beelzebub and to ponder Gurdjieff himself listening as a child to his father, Dean Borsh, and the ashokhs who sang the old stories. In an excerpt from a meeting in 1943, Gurdjieff speaks of the need for special preparation before undertaking a task. And he speaks, too, of one’s place within a tradition: “Your whole family, past and future, depends on you... It is an honor to occupy this place.”

As his pupils have attested, the way that Gurdjieff walked across a room or opened a door was a teaching in itself; to be in his presence was to be aware of vast undeveloped possibilities in oneself. William Segal and Michel de Salzmann speak to this topic; Paul Beekman Taylor provides a fresh look at Gurdjieff’s interactions with children. We also include deeply felt pieces from Rene Daumal and Jacob Needleman that testify to ways in which Gurdjieff’s pupils passed on what they received from being in his presence.

Hovering over our preparation for this issue has been the awareness that Gurdjieff did not confine himself to the spoken word but entrusted much of his teaching to writing. How does the written word relate to the word spoken by or in the presence of the master? What are some of the challenges that appear in passing on a teaching, whether orally or in writing? Two of our contributors, Paul Jordan-Smith and James Opie, speak to these questions, as does Gurdjieff himself.

Music, movements and dance have always been integral to the oral tradition. One recalls how David danced and played the harp before the Lord, how the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung, how the Greek chorus swayed and chanted, how weavers in Asiatic villages sang rhythmically at their tasks. The Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music and the Movements are essential to our own oral tradition; Gail Needleman, Laurence Rosenthal and Diana Rosenthal explore these languages of the teaching. In “He Was a Root Man” Willem Nyland recalls listening to Gurdjieff convey his teaching via the harmonium.

How, under these still vital influences from the past, can this tradition be continued in our own lives and through our work together? Lord Pentland declares that the Gurdjieff teaching “depends on its manifestations in groups or in a community.” Jeanne de Salzmann, Martin Benson, Bill Dudley and Richard Whittaker, among others, address various aspects of the work with other people under special conditions. Fredrica Parlett’s story “You Do My Way, I Do Your Way?” reminds us of the words Gurdjieff places over the entrance to Purgatory: “Only he may enter here who puts himself in the position of the other results of my labors.”

During our work on this issue, we have been struck by how often his pupils mentioned the extraordinary silence that emanated from Gurdjieff. We conclude with a few reminders of the silence at the heart of the oral tradition.

Many thanks to Jacob Needleman for his essential guidance, to Richard Whittaker and the members of the San Francisco writing team for their support, to Paul Jordan-Smith and Pamela Hiller for valued advice, and to all the authors who have contributed to the issue and/or graciously granted permission to use excerpts from their writing. I gratefully acknowledge June Loy’s meticulous review of the material and Greg Loy’s unfailing and experienced contributions to every aspect of the issue.

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Mary Stein has participated in the San Francisco work since 1967,in recent decades as a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation writing team. Her book The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido recounts her inner and outer experiences in practicing a martial art.

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012


[1] Plato, The Seventh Letter, Internet Classics Archive.