Archive for July, 2009

Sifting the Wheat

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

On the subject of Gurdjieff, I’m minded to quote a Zen saying I rather like and have used on quite disparate occasions: “Even false words are true if they lead to enlightenment; even true words are false if they breed attachment.”

Needless to say I’m well aware of the strictures against him. Guénon summed up the traditionalist point of view on the subject with his advice to “flee Gurdjieff like the plague”, and Whitall Perry undertook what he once described to me as the “loathsome” task of justifying this advice in his book Gurdjieff in Light of Tradition.

So why you ask would I—a perennialist after all—nonetheless introduce my own students to the ideas of so dangerous a figure?

I can best respond to this question by reminding you that my preferred pedagogy is dialectical and not catechetical or doctrinaire. My chief interest is in teaching students to think, the assumption being that clear and careful thought cannot but lead to the Truth. But this means giving my charges a certain mix of perspectives and then helping them—sometimes forcing them!—to figure at least a few things out for themselves. With a little prodding, this usually works fairly well.

You can be assured in any case that plenty of time was spent sifting the wheat from the chaff in G.’s “system”. And this meant acknowledging—to put several levels of complexity “in a nutshell”—the often frightening accuracy of his diagnosis of the fallen human condition, while at the same realizing that the techniques he offered for “self-remembrance” were at best—as Ouspensky admitted in the subtitle to In Search of the Miraculous—”fragmentary”.

The students could not but agree with Gurdjieff’s assessment of their “mechanical” and “somnambulistic” lives, nor could they fail to see the importance of becoming spiritually serious if they wanted to do something about it. But as to how to be serious, they also came away realizing that something was clearly missing in G., or at least in Ouspensky’s presentation of his teaching. And of course this gave me an excellent opening for inserting a few observations about my experiences on Mount Athos, as well as some recommendations concerning their future reading on the subject of mystical Islam and other traditional forms of “work” (to use the Gurdjieffian term).

By the way (I have no idea how far this claim could be pressed) it’s been said that by the end of his life Gurdjieff was specifically advising those who came to him to go to Athos, and writers like Robin Amis (A Different Christianity) are of the opinion that what G. had always been trying to do was to give a “contemporary” voice to traditional Hesychast teaching.

Be that as it may, I can tell you with confidence that none of the young people in my recent seminar ended up as Gurdjieffians—nor Barfieldians or Parmenideans, for that matter, even though we also read Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart and Peter Kingsley’s Reality. On the other hand I’m just as confident that the unconventional materials I used allowed me to “get through” to several students who would not have responded as favorably, or as fully, to traditional metaphysical or mystical works.

No doubt Guénon would still be scandalized by my reading assignments! But one must lead with one’s strengths and, to say it again, mine are dialectical. I do not preach “-isms”—even “perennialism” or “traditionalism”—in my classes. I remember on the contrary Schuon’s admonition that “every system is only error when confronted with the Truth”. And I try as best I can to assist others to enter into the interstices between all the words, even “true” words.

There Is Nothing that Is Not the Name

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

Once again you write with questions of a technical order:

How should one sit when meditating? How should one breathe? Is there a “most appropriate” mode of invocatory elocution? What is the best way to “coordinate” the attention given the Name and the attention required—or so you say—for maintaining one’s posture? What about the timing and length of a given session of prayer? Should a prayer rope be used?

Technique of course has its place—a very important place—in the spiritual Path, and I have no wish to underestimate it. But it’s not everything, and I sense in the rather anxious way you keep returning to such questions that you’re at some risk of losing your spiritual balance.

What you must understand is that “you” are never going to succeed in getting things right, for when they are right there will be no “you”. This is nothing more than Mantray?na 101—if you’ll permit me this flippancy! The whole point of following the Way of the Name after all is that the Name(d) might do—in us and through us and for us—what we cannot possibly do on our own.

I recently had the pleasure of reading a wonderful book called No Abode: The Record of Ippen. Ippen was a thirteenth century Japanese Pure Land master, whose teachings concerning the nembutsu are well worth the careful study of anyone using the Jesus Prayer or other Prayer of the Heart. Here are a few reflections that caught my attention. I encourage you to ponder them deeply.

“There is neither Buddha nor self, much less any reasoning of this and that…. Among all living things—mountains and rivers, grasses and trees, even the sounds of blowing winds and rising waves—there is nothing that is not the nembutsu.”

“A multitude of doctrines have been established and left behind by the many wise masters, but they are all merely temporary statements made in response to different confusions. The practicer should therefore discard even these and simply say the nembutsu.”

Namu-amida-butsu: When breath expended in saying Buddha’s Name is drawn again you sit on a lotus in the Pure Land.”

“When you have taken refuge in Immeasurable Light that is timeless and unperishing, you strip away the illusive thinking of self-attachment; that taking refuge and that taken refuge in become one, and the form of the original nothingness of birth-and-death is brought to realization as the six characters, Namu-amida-butsu.”

“To be totally unconcerned with all such matters as mindfulness or lack of mindfulness, exertion of will or failure to exert your will, and to attain Buddhahood in simply one thought-moment—this is wholeheartedly practicing the saying of the Name alone.”

“When you have taken refuge in Namu-amida-butsu, in which there is no ‘self’ and no ‘someone’, there is no person who must be raised up, no self that must be humiliated.”

“You must not, with a mind of self-attachment and self-power, seek to deal with the Name in one way or another.”

“Saying the Name moment by moment is constant repentance. Do not cultivate repentance with the mind of self-attachment in self-power.”

“It is the point where the dichotomies of ‘self-power’ and ‘Other Power’, ‘sentient being’ and ‘Dharma‘, are done away with that is called Namu-amida-butsu.”

“Saying the Name is itself the true coming of Buddha. When you have realized that saying the Name is itself Amida’s coming, then Amida’s coming is decisively settled; hence, on the contrary, you are awaited. All things, apart from the Name, are but phantasmal.”

Namu-amida-butsu is the nonduality of nowness and originalness.”

“In every one of the Buddhist teachings, a person attains emancipation from birth-and-death through entering the stage of the extinction of subject and object. The Name, right now, is the oneness of subject and object.”

“Prepare no foundations for saying the nembutsu. The manner of practice is not born in the Pure Land—not the quality of the voice, or the deportment of the body, or the attitude of the heart and mind. Only Namu-amida-butsu is born.”

“Once you have encountered the Name embodying supreme virtue in a single utterance, there is nothing for which you must live to the morrow. It is wishing to die immediately that becomes your fundamental desire.”

“Though you are taken and held by the Name, do not seek to take hold of it.”

“To expend your time in studies instead and neglect the nembutsu, or to become attached to the sacred teachings and fail to say the Name, is like pointlessly counting someone else’s treasure. It is like having a promissory note for a thousand pieces of gold and failing to collect it.”

Operative Absolutism

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Amidists, you say, are necessarily proponents of a “situation ethics” since the absolutist’s presumption of knowing exactly how to act or what to do in every circumstance betokens a lopsided reliance on himself and “his own purported knowledge” to the exclusion of “faith” in the Power of the Other.

But surely a “situationist”, basing himself as he must on a horizontal consideration of empirical circumstances and a best-guess approach as to the expected consequences of a given action, places at least as much emphasis on “self-power”. I agree, if I’ve understood you correctly, that a “formulaic” absolutism, which presumes to have all the answers in advance of all questions, is at odds with the humility and openness of true faith in Heaven. But there’s also what might be called an “operative” absolutism, where our moment-to-moment choices and actions are based, not on our own frail calculations, but on a vertical apprehension of metaphysical principles. In this case there is—or should be—no doubt as to what should be done in any given situation, not because one already knew what to do before the situation arose but because, in the very midst of its arising, a deliberate emptiness is filled with the Real.

It’s because they are operative absolutists that the actions of saints, let alone those of avataric personages, can easily run counter to the prescriptive morality of a given orthodox system. One thinks of Al-Khidr and Moses in the Koran (S?rah 18:65-82) and of the teaching of the Tao Teh Ching: “When the Great Tao was abandoned, there appeared humanity and justice” (Chapter 18).