Gurdjieff International Review

Spiritual Masters Linking Heaven and Earth

A Conversation with Bill Segal and Marvin Barrett

This conversation was first published in A Voice at the Borders of Silence: An Intimate View of the Gurdjieff Work, Zen Buddhism, and Art by William Segal with Marielle Bancou-Segal, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press / Peter Mayer Publishers, 2003, pp. 68–77. Published posthumously and edited by Mark Magill, the book features over 275 photos and illustrations. More information is available at “”

William Segal

Marvin Barrett: What is the difference between personal contact with a master and contact through writing?

William Segal: The aim of the master is to link heaven and earth. Contact with a master is a definite physical event where energy is transferred between two people. From that point of view, a direct relationship is vital. That happens very rarely. But a group of people can utilize one master’s time very well. Maybe a master can’t devote all his attention to a single individual, but a little cloister around him can serve as a stimulation for others. Even a modicum of relationship with a master gives rise to an openness and a reception of energies which is not possible without the teacher’s presence. The question is, is the ultimate master inside you? It may be that the ultimate master arises at the moment that I’m still and I recognize this ever abiding presence which has nothing to do with me as I generally conceive of myself.

Barrett: What is the relationship between the exterior master and the interior master that you’re describing? Does the outer activate the inner?

Segal: There is a relationship between the exterior and the interior. My stillness has its effect on you. So does the wind. In a sense, we are called to live between two worlds—between the objective and subjective worlds. It is possible to encompass all the richness of impressions that are offered by nature and at the same time remain in contact with one’s subjective “I.” I can sit here with all my fantasies and dreams, but if I can’t be still for a moment and stop the movements that generally go on, I cannot partake of certain vibrations which are always present. It comes to include people in the deepest sense, and we begin to know what we cannot know with our ordinary limitations—the voice of God...

When I was in Paris with Gurdjieff, two or three of the oldest men used to go to the Turkish baths with him weekly. Once when we finished our bath, I remember seeing him walking ahead naked. And I realized that he was teaching something I never could learn by talk.

There’s also the time I went to pay my respects to Kobori Roshi’s widow in Kyoto, shortly after he died in 1991. He was a great aristocrat. One of his ancestors invented the tea ceremony. Another was the architect who designed most of the famous seventeenth century temple gardens. At the time of our visit, Kobori’s appointed successor had taken his place. He was only about forty-five or fifty at the time. Being older than this new man, I looked him over. He was a stocky peasant type unlike the tall, aristocratic Kobori. At one point I asked him, what makes you think you can fill the master’s shoes? He looked me in the eye and said, “You’ll know I can succeed him when I can impart the teachings with my back.” With that he swung around and walked from the room. I had distinct feeling that he was able to do just that—teach with his back. I felt the same way about Gurdjieff, that he was imparting teaching just as he was...

I would say D.T. Suzuki was a master. He consciously and very nobly undertook to educate a dull American. He gave me what he could. Gurdjieff, of course, was too big to teach you directly. You had to watch him. So I watched.

Barrett: You had to extract it from him.

Segal: Yes. And I saw it, as I said, in the way he walked, the way he handled people, the way he helped them. He kept his cool, as it were. And so we learned. We learn from the bad things as well as the good things. We’re continually learning, whether we know it or not. There’s a constant input of impressions, knowledge, and energies received in your head, your stomach, your hands, that is present even in the feel of a cup of tea. It goes on every moment of the day. But we’re too small. We can’t grasp it...

What is it that brings God into our sphere of being? For me, there is this silence. If we’re able to evoke this silence, it would be a very clear sign of the presence of a master—not a master in the formal sense, but in our ability to change things around us, to do without doing. It’s very difficult to evoke or to sustain, but the great masters are able both to evoke this mysterious opening to the new energy and to sustain it. Gurdjieff used the expression the “Omnipresent Okidanokh.”

In the midst of my mechanical living, if I stop and I make contact with my breath, I may be evoking this ever-present Okidanokh, which opens us up to a new quality of energy. I’ve witnessed this in very few people. Gurdjieff could do it. There would be silence in those moments with him where we would possess a much greater attention. This is the mysterious quality that I think the masters possess, either through knowledge, development, or inheritance. The Japanese express this as satori. I recall coming out of a Japanese monastery after two or three months of sitting. I bought a loaf of bread and a box of strawberries on my way to the railway station. As I stood on the platform and took a bite of a strawberry, with the sun hitting my face, I suddenly realized, “Oh, this what the old boys meant.” It was so simple...

The call coming from a true master is so strong that it reverberates over the ages, and is able to attract people after the master himself has gone. The teaching is fortified, not by the will of the master, but by the energy with which he imbues everything he says and touches...

I think a true master doesn’t care about anything but persistently relating to this mysterious energy which is always present. He doesn’t care whether a formal training exists and whether he has it or not. He’s only concerned with his own relationship to the highest. There’s a freedom and an openness about him that in turn generates an energy which touches others.

A master is someone who makes poetry. He doesn’t think about it. Like a child artist. He just paints something. He doesn’t say “I’m a master.” Just as a child doesn’t say “I’m going to create.” He doesn’t even think he’s giving anything. As soon as I think I can give you something, I fall. But if we act just naturally, we come together. And between us arises a feeling that cannot be so easily identified. To have any goals is not it either. It’s like that Buddhist sutra: no wisdom, no attainment, no thought, no feeling, no non-feeling, no love, no non-love—until one arrives at that pure emptiness which we are sometimes able to recognize and value. But as soon as we take it seriously and talk about it, we lose it. One must be a master naturally—one does not try to be one. As soon as you try to help, you’re lost.

No anxiety. No ambition. No wish to help. I was taking part in a lecture one time. I made the statement that wishing doesn’t help in this work. I was speaking on a rather ordinary level. A woman on the panel responded with a harangue about how it’s necessary to have a wish. And I was thinking all the while, this poor woman is being held back by her wish to help others. She was not free of her wish. And I was struck by the fact that any wishing, any desire to become something, any desire to help or change others, is not it.

No desire, no wish. Evidently in the life of a human being, there are moments when the purity of the inner world is so great that it needs room for the appearance of something that is truly celestial. What can God be for you and me? As soon as one names it, one has lost it.

~ • ~

William Segal was interested in Eastern thought and meditation. He studied with many religious leaders of the twentieth century. Zen pioneers D. T. Suzuki and Paul Reps were personal friends. He studied with Gurdjieff in the forties and guided others in the Gurdjieff teaching for many years.

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