2nd Immortality Lunch
The 'S' Bar, Battersea
Thursday 27th September 2012
1 Understanding is not attainment
Recently I have found a new motto for myself. ‘Understanding is not attainment.’ This was said by A R Orage. A biographer* informs us that 'T S Eliot called him the finest critical intelligence of his generation. Notwithstanding this he dropped everything, including his successful weekly; the Literary Review (a magnet for Nietzscheans) and in 1922 joined the so-called Black Sheep philosophers.' By these words - understanding is not attainment - he meant that we have to achieve higher states of consciousness through precise work and this involves use of exercises including meditation. A philosophy of states of attainment is no longer locked into the round of interpretation about understandings, which is often all that is offered by philosophical debate. Its useless to go on addressing that supposed group of ‘rational beings’ because attainment starts only where understanding ends. It starts with emptiness and it does so because it is not understanding but emptiness, which is the fuel and bedrock of existence. Emptiness is the first state to be attained.
High states of awareness about life and death themselves strictly require experience of emptiness and it is this prerequisite for the philosophical life which is my subject today.
The other week I went to the Royal Academy and saw an exhibition of paintings by the American artist Philip Guston 1913 - 1980. I appreciated his early abstract expressionist paintings.
Along with his friends Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning these works did much to produce the momentum for America’s breakaway from European styles. Then there was a long period in which I took little notice of his work but all of a sudden he jumped back into view. The exhibition I saw included paintings from his late phase.
These works are a shock and appear to have no recognizable relation to his previous work. They are a raw, roguish breakthrough into a terrain of profound honesty. A striking hesitancy explores the wobbliness of mortality free of deceits of confidence and without veils of contrivance.
But these paintings, which inhabited the extreme edge of the avant-garde, were fulsomely rejected along with Guston himself by all his peers. In the avant-garde in those days – the 70’s - Guston, De Kooning, Rothko etc were the giants of the Abstract Expressionist movement and they all knew anyone who was somebody. He commented: did they, his friends think he had joined a football club or society with a signed up membership.
The paintings hung in a large exhibition and he himself was on show to respond to questions from other artists and the critical elite. One by one, after expressing some displeasure, all these people got up and left. John Cage the composer walked out, Morton Feldman followed, out went Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, the critics and all the rest - until he was left quite alone - and so it was - all he could do: was to leave as well. Guston understood this departure of himself as a profound recognition of his own autonomy as the emptied room and for the rest of his life he thrived in it. As he said ‘I want to end with something that will baffle me for some time.’
* Gorham Munson
2 The greatest man in the world
Interesting though the experience of artists and poets may be we need to gain some control and permanence of higher states. At a place called the Cooper Union in New York the revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was presented with a medal and asked permission to make an announcement. This is the announcement he made: ‘ The Greatest man in the world has died. His name is Gurdjieff.’ It is true that three days earlier at the American Hospital in Paris this man Gurdjieff had died but the announcement was rather strange because nobody in the audience had heard of Gurdjieff.
Since Gurdjieff was a philosopher it is also rather strange that by and large philosophers have not heard of this the ‘Greatest Man in the world.’ His was a philosophy of attainment and one to break us right out of the flatland of understanding. Perhaps even one to sunder the iron mask of mortality.
Nietzsche only wrote about the Ubermensch or fully-realised human being whereas it was obvious that Gurdjieff attained it. He was always opposed to what he called the ‘bon ton language’ and the ‘wiseacres’ of intellectuals. He ran his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ outside Paris in an old Chateau called the Prieure in Fontainebleau Forest. He was the chief of the Black Sheep Philosophers.
Here then is a picture of the room to be emptied as his chief disciple and interpreter P D Ouspensky explained it.
As you can see the room is not at all empty at the outset. We are full up not just of a duality of ‘I’s but a teeming horde of them each trying to be boss from one moment to the next and sometimes with very little contact between each other. Its life’s work to control this host in groups and individually until something more reliable emerges. Later we may learn how to dissolve some of them and bring about the situation Ouspensky calls Deputy Steward. Finally Deputy Steward must make way for the true Master or Mistress of the house and this is the realisation that no-self or emptiness and the state of true self-remembering dawns first as glimpses and then securely.
Incidentally this emptiness is to define the ‘peace’ that no politician nor even philosopher - not Kant himself – understood, and so lacking a definition of peace, interminably condemns the world to its absence.
Ouspensky who was head of the Faculty of Mathematics at Moscow University and later on Orage, joined Gurdjieff. They and others were big beings but there was no question Gurdjieff was the master. Although of only medium height he was physically powerful, had a bald polished head and large ‘tigerish’ moustache. He rippled with muscles and had the movements of a cat, which flowed continuously in tune with his breathing. He looked after a large family and his entourage included students who he had guided to safety through the chaos of revolutionary Russia.
There is a story about him as a boy in Tiflis where with some friends they attach brightly coloured dyed plumage to little brown birds they caught in the marketplace. These they encaged and went about crying ‘American canaries, American canaries’ and selling them to tourists. Apparently the venture was quite successful.
Throughout his life Gurdjieff showed great, practical, resourcefulness as revealed by another business venture. In this he established himself across a swathe of Caucasian territory as a fixer and mender of everything from sewing machines, carpets, and musical instruments to cars and electrical generators.
However his philosophical knowledge, and it is knowledge of quite a different sort came from travels in central Asia. A system as richly detailed as the Periodic Table informs existential being - of its personal chemistry - without the existential inapplicability of knowledge held in the scientific domain.
He formed the so called ‘Society of Truth Seekers’ and explored the Sufi power houses of the Hindu Kush, eventually being led blindfolded to the mountain headquarters of the Sarmoun Society. Here was existential and therefore personal knowledge with a more fundamental source than Science. Yet Gurdjieff’s work and his being shows that it has the capability of revealing matter and itself at a practical, integral, level.
He found his way into Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and became a professor of metaphysics. He seems to have had some kind of ticket from the Russian Government enabling him to travel and this eventually caused him trouble with the British Government who wouldn’t allow him into the UK when he applied for a visa in the 1920’s. He may well have been the man Dordjieff who was responsible for holding up the British forces in Tibet under Younghusband and in so doing engineered the escape of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1904.
3 Oak trees and manure
Gurdjieff would have considered the idea of ‘Philosophy for All’ a crassly unattainable absurdity. Sentimental nonsense, intellectual wiseacres. Real philosophy probably cannot even be for the few, let alone all.
Energy is so arranged across the mass that individuals and groups obey entirely mechanical laws while in the state of waking sleep. Neither higher knowledge, far less higher being, can be attained at the level of society. Neither the student of Nietzsche nor the Taoist scholar get one step nearer realization by filling their cups over and over again. Gurdjieff said, he needed to bury the dog deeper. Someone said, ‘don’t you mean the bone?’ ‘No,’ he said – ‘the dog.’ By the dog he meant the raw meaning of the terror of the situation.
G acknowledged the whole relativist, democratic, field as valid but as a field of manure or thousands of acorns as he pointed to the forest floor. He remarked that manure was no bad thing to be but it wasn’t an oak or a school for making oak trees. The relativist’s field has validity perhaps, as the best management system for societies but growth of being obeys different rules. There need not be a collision between oak trees and manure but nor is their enlightenment for manure. Negative emotions and the formatory thinking of intellectuals, amongst other things, are the rich nutrients of food for higher being.
The world cannot improve without higher consciousness despite prevailing ignorance but a conundrum exists in that the mass is part of the food supply. The perception of progress at the level of society is largely a characteristic of time’s motion, but whose food the I’s who live in hope? Population increases in proportion to the deepening of sleep. To awaken from being awake one must first realise that one is asleep. An increase in per capita motion, emotion, pain and dying provides food for being which is self-less.
4 Let them go their way
To digress a little - the following is helpful if we agree that Buddha was not a dictator or the founder of a master race. When the Buddha had finished his famous sermon on Vulture peak some companions asked him what was the right attitude to those who had different points of view, who wished to argue, couldn’t understand and so on. Buddha responded – ‘let them go on their way’. These are powerful words because there is no suggestion at all that after he had identified the very difficult to identify and singular path to enlightenment that he was suggesting by these words that other paths were valid or equal. Nothing can be done without rising above the mass – the relativist field. What is One-way is no great mystery. In essence emptiness or no-mind or selflessness and helpful methods and techniques to achieve this state are not at all varied but quite singular wherever they occur in the world and the Perennial Philosophy.
Gurdjieff used a colourful language sometimes for fun, sometimes to bury the dog, and sometimes to actually enhance meaning.
These are just a few of the words he used.
The omnipresent Okadinokh……is the sacred law of three and Heptapariparshinokh…… is the law of seven. The latter is the law of octaves, which in one example reveals that the first missing semi-tone between Mi and Fa on the C major scale stands in the place of schools of wisdom which provide the shocks necessary for the completion of higher being. In another the second missing semi-tone between Si and Do shows up as organic life on earth and provides the bridging energy for the maintenance of consciousness in the solar system.
Hanbledzoin is a substance generated in the life of any group to destroy the energy of anyone trying to move things on a bit.
The Trogoautoegocrat is the absolute in the guise of ‘I who eat myself’ and the sacred Heropass is the impersonal godhead.
In conclusion Enlightenment, which is to perceive fully, realizes the ideal relationship as a unity of the world and thus, that form itself both exists with or even ‘as’ time and in this originates without persistence or space – ab-origine in the eternal now.
To put this another way enlightenment is to evoke the fundamental experience of ‘emptiness’ as it is analysed in Nagarjuna’s philosophy and among others transmitted through Zen masters such as Tao Hsin (580 – 651 CE) who says:
‘Form itself is emptiness. It is not emptiness as annihilation of form; the very essence of form is empty. Full realization has emptiness as its goal. When beginners see emptiness this is
Seeing emptiness; it is not real emptiness. Those who cultivate the way and attain real emptiness do not see emptiness or nonemptiness; they have no views.’
In this, the last phrase ‘have no views’ can be clarified as it is not so much to say ‘have no opinions’ or ‘have no fixed views’ as to say ‘have no points from which
to view’. This is emptiness as the achievement of self-lessness and in this removal of the observing ‘I’ there is a negation of the geography and geometry of viewpoint. In this there is attainment of universal perspective and the reality of ‘poise’ in the world.
By Chris Millar