Subud and the Work
Two Websites of Interest
Remembering Henri Tracol
I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!
Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.
I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.
I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”
Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.
First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.
What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian community of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”
The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.
Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.
But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff in Paris, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.
The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little. Readers with an interest in his physiognomy may watch him on short videos on YouTube.
A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.
If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items added as appropriate). I have copies of a handful of these publications in my study.
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk written and delivered by Tracol.]
Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]
Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).
La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).
Lord, Why do you Sleep. [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]
The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.
The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]
Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of a Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: “It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth. Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.”]
The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]
In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”
He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”
At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.
A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009 measures 5.50 inches x 7. 75 inches and it has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I have reviewed, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to behold — and to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)
The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: “Disillusion and Dissatisfaction”; “Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives”; “The Discovery of a Teaching”; “An Afterword”; “The Real Question Remains.” The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).
Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur? published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as The Taste for Things That Are True issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of Further Talks, Essays and Interviews issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical Parabola. Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.
It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.
As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the bon-mot. (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a ponderer and a feeler. You can almost sense him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.
Gurdjieff in Meetings with Remarkable Men talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)
Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”
The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”
The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).
The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not merely the teacher but is also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)
So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”
Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”
In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Aix-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.
In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of self-interrogation.”
The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.
In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:
“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the sole Sun.
In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is fail better.
Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individuals search.
In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”
In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.
If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”
Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”
He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.
Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of himself through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost self-knowledge. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”
I have now reached page fifty-one of The Real Question Remains. That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would burden down the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.
One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieffs Teaching.” Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work:
“It keeps alive in us the evidence of a secret continuity: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”
Subud and the Work: An Exchange, Some Thoughts
For two or so years I would meet with an affable gentleman who lives in a condominium conveniently close to the house in which my wife and I reside in North Toronto. We would have a light lunch at Rainbow, the nearby Japanese restaurant. It was not Rainbow’s bento boxes that drew us together, but the opportunity for the occasional, uninterrupted conversation for an hour and a half about subjects of mutual interest.
There is no need to discuss my friend’s background, other than to note that he has Jewish roots, that he was born and had lived until recently in Western Canada, that he is a bachelor, and that he operates a small writing and public-relations service. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that he is an active member of one of the city’s numerous Subud groups. Accordingly, some years ago, he changed his first name, as members of this group are wont to do, upon deciding that this way of enlightenment was ideal for him, or at least that it offers answers to questions that he has harboured since childhood.
When we last talked at length, he had just returned from an international Subud gathering. It was the World Congress 2010, Christchurch, New Zealand. So this important event became one of the subjects of our conversation. I quizzed him about the global status of the movement. Here are some generalizations that I gleaned from him.
World-wide, the organization’s membership is barely holding its own, for the majority of followers are in their fifties and sixties. Indeed, my informant is in his late fifties. Yet Subud and its practice of latihan do attract younger members, but these are largely newcomers from outside North America. English is the main language of the organization. Its participants and its strengths may be said to lie in the anglosphere, though it has shown much growth in Indonesia where it originally appeared. It seems not to have attracted the attention of the Islamic world; so far no mullah or imam has denounced it, at least in public. Maybe the fatwahs are on the way; let us hope not!
My friend knows I have an abiding interest in the Gurdjieff work, if only because on occasion I would forward to him the reviews of books about the Fourth Way that I was writing for blogs that were sent from Cambridge, England. He knows I am familiar with the fact that one reason for Subud’s popularity in the West was its introduction in the 1950s to members of J.B. Bennett’s group at his headquarters, Coombe Springs, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, England. So it was at his Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences that the East met the West, in this instance. When he introduced Subud there, it spread like wildfire among Gurdjieffians.
We did not discuss the early history of Subud, or its relation with the Work, in much detail in our Japanese restaurant. But a week or so later, in an email, my friend asked me how Gurdjieffians regard Subud. I think he was genuinely curious. Let me reproduce here my reply.
“Good question about the relationship between the Work and Subud. I am not aware of any texts that discuss any relationship, aside from books from Bennett’s circle. If you would like, I could check with some knowledgeable people.
“The general feeling among Gurdjieffians is that there is a casual rather than a causal relationship between the Work and Subud, due to an accident of history and to the gullibility or suggestibility of Bennett who represents an eccentric strain of the Work, one that goes unendorsed by the mainline institutes, foundations, and societies.
“Subud is not seen to be at the core of the Work, nor is it viewed as an extension of the Work. At best it is seen as a form of grace, at worse as a mechanically induced temporary state of altered consciousness. It is regarded as a technique of meditation, one of many different techniques, and one that is particularly suitable for work on the formatory apparatus, being basically non-ideological.
“My own feeling – note that I am an unreconstructed Ouspenskian, rather than an orthodox Gurdjieffian, if that – is that Subud is a modern psychological technique that has little ideology and no history about which to speak. It works particularly well with a particular type of person and not well at all with people of other types.
“I regard it the way I regard the practice of acupuncture: it works in practice but not in theory, there being no causation or discernible ‘meridians.’ Or like chiropractic: it may offer some relief, but there are no ‘subluxations.’ Subud offers short-term results or effects which may build over time. Like Theosophy it lacks a praxis. In a way it recalls the truth of the remark that teachers of creative writing make in their classrooms: ‘Writing cannot be taught, but it can be caught.’”
I concluded my comments by asking, “What do you think?” In a subsequent email, my friend largely agreed with my interpretation or evaluation. He did not endorse my remarks, but neither did he disagree or argue with any of them. Instead, he wrote as follows:
“I agree that it works in practice, and each person finds constructs and meanings within his or her own theory according to nature and nurture. Someone who seeks a deeper connection with his own essence may find it on a constantly evolving process or path. I have observed that people tend to find what they are looking for, and they don’t find what they are not looking for! I have experienced Subud in all the ways you describe, and I have found that it deepens with practice.”
Having reached this point, one of subjectivization, I sensed that there was no need to continue the discussion from the vantage-point of how a Gurdjieffian views Subud. Instead, I turned the tables around and asked him, in a follow-up email, on March 14, 2010, the following, leading question: “How do practitioners of Subud see the Gurdjieff Work?”
I did not have long to wait. The reply conveyed a fair amount of information that was sent to supply some context for my question. It began, “I did some research to answer your question.” This is an understatement, given the amount of material that was collected and presented.
The information that I received covered a lot of ground, most of it familiar and courtesy of Google. It was not really enlightening, at least in the sense that my friend did not relate any sense of how he, as a practitioner of Subud, thought or felt about the Work. After all, the two systems have some points in common along with many points of difference. Instead, he recapitulated the standard history of Subud in the West, almost all of which comes from books that I had read and, indeed, right now reside on the shelves of the bookcase in my study. He continued:
“In the official Subud media, Subud in general takes the approach of narrating the factual history. They talk about: (a) How John Bennett was based at Coombe Springs and the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man; (b) How he invited Mhd Subuh and party to Coombe; (c) How some members of Gurdjieff decided to try Subud, and (d) And that this was how Subud began to grow outside Indonesia.
“Apart from this, a number of the older individuals in Subud who have had experience in Gurdjieff have written about it, and I include a sample (S. Diver in Subud Vision). Here is one Subud member’s experience with the Gurdjieff Work: ‘I Asked for Milk, Instead of Coffee: My Encounter with Subud and Enterprise’ by Sahlan Diver.
< http://www.subudvision.org/doc/I%20asked%20for%20milk.htm >
“In Concerning Subud, Chapter 2, John Bennett discusses how he saw Subud.
< http://www.undiscoveredworldspress.com/cschaptwo.html >
“This is a quote from The Encyclopedia Britannica reflecting an official Subud statement:
“‘[Subud is a spiritual] movement based on spontaneous and ecstatic exercises, founded by an Indonesian, Muhammad Subuh, called Bapak. A student of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) as a youth, Bapak had a powerful mystical experience in 1925, and in 1933 he claimed that the mission to found the Subud movement was revealed to him. The movement was restricted to Indonesia until the 1950s, when it spread to Europe and America, at first principally among followers of the Russian-born mystical philosopher Georgy Gurdjieff.’”
< http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/571166/Subud >
“From the ‘What is Subud’ website: ‘In the 1950s, he moved to Jakarta where he met Husein Rofé, an English journalist and linguist who had come to Java in search of a spiritual teacher. Rofé joined Subud and was instrumental in spreading it outside Indonesia when he travelled on to Hong Kong and Japan. Later he went to Cyprus and England at the invitation of some followers of the Russian sage, Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff had died in 1949 leaving many followers looking for a teacher to complete his work.’
“‘Muhammad Subuh himself came to England in 1957, staying at Coombe Springs on the outskirts of London, where John Godolphin Bennett, a scientist and mathematician, had set up the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man to further the work of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.’”
< http://www.whatissubud.net/whatissubud/about_origin.html >
“This is an excerpt from John G. Bennett’s The Struggle to ‘Make Something’ for Oneself:
“‘When he returned to England, he initiated a project to build a large meeting hall at Coombe Springs. The unusual nine-sided architectural design was based on the enneagram, an ancient symbol presented by Gurdjieff as embodying the fundamental laws of nature. The building took two years to complete, and at the opening in 1957, Bennett commented that the real value of such a project was in building a community rather than the building itself. And there certainly was a great deal of energy at Coombe Springs at the time.’”
“‘Then, in 1957, Bennett shook the whole place up with his unexpected involvement in Subud, a spiritual movement that had newly appeared from Indonesia. For a number of reasons, Bennett felt that Gurdjieff had expected the arrival of a teaching from that country, and, having tried the Subud spiritual exercise himself, he threw himself with characteristic energy into helping Pak Subuh, the movement’s founder, disperse his teaching. He travelled extensively to spread the Subud message, both with Pak Subuh and on his own. He learned Indonesian and was so able to translate Pak Subuh’s lectures into various languages. Bennett’s own introductory book, Concerning Subud, sold thousands of copies worldwide.’”
“‘Some of Bennett’s pupils were dismayed, and his enthusiasm for Subud deepened the divisions with some of the other Gurdjieff groups in London and Paris. Subud – with its emphasis on submission to the will of God and its reliance on a single practice, the latihan – seemed to some to be the antithesis of Gurdjieff’s methods for spiritual awakening, and many people left the Coombe Springs groups. Others, however, came in large numbers, and for several years Coombe Springs was the headquarters of the Subud movement in Europe. It attracted serious seekers and sensation seekers as well as unsolicited newspaper headlines. But by 1962, after devoting himself selflessly to its growth and expansion, Bennett left the Subud organization, feeling that a return to the Gurdjieff method was necessary.’”
< http://www.gurdjieff.org/bennett1.htm >
My friend, the follower of Pak Subuh, offered this final item to read: “Link to Google Books: Subud: The Coming New Age of Reality by Simon Monbaron.”
This title proved to be a frank discussion of Subud, warts and all. (Alas, the link is no longer working [Sept. 2019], but details about the book are available on various sites on Wikipedia.)
The links that are working cover the general points made here. Sahlan Diver’s account is worth reading, but his Gurdjieff connection seems to be minimal, and he is mainly concerned with dispelling the misapprehension that followers of Subud have no head for business. After all these exchanges, I remain in the dark as to what my friend thinks and feels about the Work.
Yet he had given me some reading to do, which I dutifully did. Did I sense in his response an instance of good manners? “Say nothing negative?” Or did I sense here a reluctance to respond intellectually and emotionally to a system that is decidedly different from Subud, but just how great the difference is is difficult to determine from a distance? Being undecided, I resolved to email the communications to date to another friend, one with no Subud connections at all, to find out about her views.
She is a woman who is very knowledgeable about the Work who lives in a university town in England. I asked her what she thought of the connection, if any. Here is the main part of her response, which I received on 17 March 2010: “I’ve lost the email in which I said what I wanted to mention in relation to your Subud essay, so will begin again. Everything you write seems correct to me, so I will just give my personal reflections on things as they seem to me.
“I think the Work-Subud relations have been and are determined at the root by the disdain for Bennett after he refused to bend the knee to Jeanne de Saltzmann. Bennett was described to me by Work people as ‘an adventurer’ who went from teaching to teaching exploring rather than sticking with anything. I remember thinking at the time this was an odd criticism as this is exactly what Gurdjieff said he did himself.
“Bennett got caught up in Work politics and thus was dismissed, so it was ages before I thought to read Bennett and give him the value he deserves. I would also give him points for having got fed up with the guru role. I think the acquiring and the hanging on to property is important in preserving a teaching once the original propounder of it has died. Bennett gave up his property, but followers have bought other properties.
“I don’t know if Subud owns any substantial property, but if they did that might keep them going, but only for a while. I think of the Christian Science churches, magnificent huge buildings which have not saved the Mary Baker Eddy teaching, so property allied to political power is probably what is salvational to teachings. This is continuing to be made in the Islamic world and dwindling and lost in the Christian one.
“To comment on the observation about finding what is being looked for and not finding what is not being looked for is a fascinating and primal line of enquiry. It would occupy a lifetime’s writing in itself to even begin. I will restrain myself. So these are my immediate and unrefined thoughts on Subud-Work, Work-Subud relations.
“In a sense all marginal teachings with small numbers of adherents will usually be angrily defending their dogmas and practices, dismissing the apostates and generally acting from fear of losing the truth they need to hang on to as enshrined in the specific teaching they are in. This tends to make them defensive and aggressive and somewhat unattractive to the majority. In this I think they resemble small groups of poets or of academic writers who have only a small territory to squabble over, but please do not quote me. Forgive speedy unedited thoughts which are in an indirect relation to your essay, rather than a direct one.”
At this point I decided to email all of the above to my Subud friend and ask him what he made of it. As if in answer to my concerns, my correspondent sent me the following email which I accessed on 30 March 2010:
“Hi, JR, This is what I would say as a personal statement that could be published on the Web: I decided to try Subud when I stumbled across a book called The Path of Subud by Husein Rofé (published by Rider and Co. in 1959). That particular title is out of print (although it is available second-hand on < www.abebooks.com > ). There are other books about Subud available for free online
(< http://www.subud.net/booksonline.shtm >)
where you will find a variety of personal stories and books about Subud. [Alas, time has severed this connection.]
“I would like to add to something I previously wrote regarding descriptions of Subud circulating on the Internet that compare Subud to Sufi techniques, meditation, and other things. If we were to look at it responsibly, it could only be considered guesswork to speculate about what suffering, challenge, or blessing another person might experience in the privacy of their own soul or what benefit he or she personally might derive from engaging in any given path of growth and development.
“The founder of Subud had a saying that was translated as ‘Experience first, explanations later,’ meaning that once a person has experienced something that is possibly life-altering, he or she can make better use of explanations about how the process works in their case or what the meaning of it is.
“In the meantime though, I would highly recommend reading some of the books referred to above, followed up by talking to people who have actually tried it. For me, Subud has been valuable and rewarding. Since I enjoy mixing food metaphors, I will say that it is not necessarily everyone’s ‘cup of tea,’ but ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’”
Let me conclude by saying that in our Japanese restaurant it was not pudding that we were eating but sushi and rice, while contemplating the unexpected conjunction – or is it the expected conjunction? – of the works of Mr. Gurdjieff and Muhammad Subuh. I send my thanks to my Subud friend and my Work friend for taking part in this discussion of the two disciplines.
Note: This text was written between March 15 and March 30, 2010. It is being published on the present blog “Workbooks for the Fourth Way” for the first time anywhere.
Two Websites of Interest: GIR and GIG
There are two websites that I use with regularity and often confuse in my search for information about those people who in sports circles are known as “builders.” In jock talk, a “builder” is not a team owner and not a player, but is a promoter or a commentator who expresses the best interests of the sport or the activity and advocates and advances its interests to the public at large.
Gregory M. Loy (above) and Reijo Oksanen (below) are “builders” in this sense. As the result the Internet is made Work-friendly (or at least Work-useful) through their presence and their activities on the Web. In an earlier issue of this blog (Issue 17 – 15 June 2019), I paused to consider the contributions of one “unsung hero,” Mr. Loy. I am not repeating that information here, but subscribers to this blog may easily find it by backtracking.
The Gurdjieff International Review is edited and published by Gregory M. Loy with the assistance of the Associate Editor June S. Loy. There are electronic and print editions of the GIR in five languages and there are twenty-three issues to date, all of which are available through the site’s online store or through By the Way Books or Gurdjieff Books and Music. The texts of some of the issues are available free of charge; the texts of others are available in part on the Web without cost.
Over the years I have built up an almost complete run of these fascicles. Each one is about seventy pages in length, beautifully designed and printed on quality stock. The earliest issue is dated Fall 1997, the latest issue Spring 2019. Especially informative are the issues devoted to short literary sketches of “Pupils of Gurdjieff.” Being released this year are Volumes II and II of that series which are guest edited by Ellen Reynard. The issues appear in printed form and on the Web.
GIR is indexed and hence it is the first port-of-call I make when I want information on someone in the Work field. Recently I made use of the excellent article on Louise Goepfert March and her contribution to the Rochester Folk Art Guild.
The Gurdjieff Internet Guide is quite different but also quite useful. It is the work of Reijo Oksanen, who contributed the following account of his activities (accessed 5 July 2019): “Gurdjieff Internet Guide was started on the 7th of August in 2002 ( which was my 60th birthday), and retired after ten years on the 7th of August 2012, when I became 70 years old. What you experience on the site is “life after death” of the site, as thenumber of visitors is not going down, but keeping steadily at the reasonable level of just under 10, 00 visits a month. In fact, it is not I, but the visitors, who keep the site going!
“Against all odds, it was meant to give an idea of the Gurdjieff Work on the internet focusing on what is happening in it, particularly in our time, and without the hush of a “secret teaching.” This has been achieved with interviews, articles, videos, book reviews, event listings, forums, and other material related to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff.” It is signed: “Amden, Switzerland, 12 January 2015, Reijo Oksanen”
As a matter of interest, I checked Amden through Wikipedia to learn that it is a Swiss Municipality in the Canton of St. Gallen. Its earliest mention in world records is for the year 1178. Its current population is 1,782, somewhat more than one person per year!
Elsewhere on the site, Mr. Oksanen shares with the bystander or onlooker or lurker his interior aim in publishing and editing GIG. “Before he put the phone down my friend said: ‘When you are editing GIG please try to ask yourself the question: “What am I doing?” I did not quite get the point of the question then, but over the years I was putting it to myself every now and then. Was it a simple question, or was it perhaps complicated? Was there a hidden meaning in it?
“My inner aim in editing GIG was to get some distance to Mr. Gurdjieff the man (who I never met, but who impressed me a lot) and to his ideas. To put it more bluntly, and to say it in the ‘Gurdjieff language,’ I had been totally identified with Mr. Gurdjieff the person and with his teachings for 40 years. In this process of getting distance the question ‘What am I doing?’ was right. This was true also in the sense that if everything I did was, so to say, ‘under the influence,’ then it was not at all what I wanted.”
“This was for me exactly what the work is about. Gurdjieff expressed it in one of the meetings in 1943 in the following words: ‘Do everything exactly as you are accustomed to doing. But you must play a role, without participating, without identifying yourself interiorily; and remember what your value is – nothing. Work, work and again work, in order to change that nothingness into something definite.’”
And who is Reijo Oksanen? Here is how he is described on his website:
“Reijo Oksanen was born in Helsinki 1942, heard of Gurdjieff and also the Orthodox Way in 1962 and came to London to join the Work in 1967. He moved back to Finland in 1971 and joined the Orthodox Church. In 1990 Oksanen moved to Denmark and in 2004 to Switzerland. After a long career in textiles, clothing and furniture industries, he set his mind into putting Gurdjieff properly into the internet. From 2004 Reijo Oksanen is actively engaged in the activities of ars sacra Life Workshop.”
The website offers insights and information about dozens of contributors like Seymour Ginsburg, David Hykes, Ian MacFarlane, Jacob Needleman, Elan Sicroff, Paul Beekman Taylor, Sophia Wellbeloved, John Anthony West, and even the late Colin Wilson.
I think readers of this blog will agree with me that Mr. Oksanen is a remarkable man who has made a substantial contribution to Work studies.
So many thanks are in order to both Gregory M. Loy and Reijo Oksanen!
31 August 2019