Gurdjieff’s Ark of Ancient Wisdom Sails On…
J.G. Bennet | William Nyland | Lord Pentland
After the deaths of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, students in Washington and New York continue, as best as they can, experimenting with Fourth Way principles. America now enters the post World War II era, characterized by the breaking down of form and the emergence of the Hippie movement. It is a decade ripe for esotericism and spirituality. Gurdjieff’s student William Nyland connects with the young generation of people reacting to the increasingly materialist values of the postwar world.
The old image of teacher infallibility and the “best of all schools” has worn thin. It does not correspond to the modes of thought in a society where uncertainty and hazard are seen to be the price of existence itself. The school must be seen as a community that has undertaken an almost impossible task of producing a new type of man that will be needed to cope with the predicted world crises for the next hundred years. The image of the Temple of Wisdom must be replaced by that of Noah’s Ark riding the flood. Unless awareness of social needs and the awakening of social conscience are recognized respectively as the beginning and end of the educational process, there is little hope for the future.
Alexander Francis Horn
William Nyland’s circle includes Alexander Francis Horn, a teacher of theatre, dramatist, and playwright. Horn learns more about the Fourth Way from J.G. Bennet’s New York groups, from the Gurdjieff Foundation, as well as from Rodney Collin himself, whom he visits in Mexico. Upon Collin’s death, Horn is dissatisfied with the condition in which he finds the Gurdjieff Foundation (now institutionalized without its founder). He recommends that Lord Pentland disband it.
Horn establishes the Theatre of All Possibilities and incorporates Fourth Way principles into his theatrical work. Horn’s methods are severe, forcing his students to work on themselves by subjecting them to pressure and charging them with large demands. His plays In Search for a Solar Hero and Ponderings of a Citizen of the Milky Way sum the ideals of the sixties, ideals which that decade never fully attains. Yet in so doing, Horn translates and transports Gurdjieff’s work to a new generation.
Horn moves his group to San Francisco, where he meets and marries actress Sharon Ganz. The Theatre of All Possibilities is eventually taken over by Sharon, forcing Horn to return to New York. As the ‘flower children’ turn into the increasingly materially prosperous baby-boomers, the spirit of the sixties is extinguished. Alexander Horn’s teaching splits, his wife taking the more active role with the groups, while he continues working with a smaller circle of students until his death in 2007.
Esotericism inevitably flounders and degenerates in the course of time, giving rise to the need for the esoteric impulse to be constantly revivified and redefined.
Robert Earl Burton
Robert Burton joins the Theatre of All Possibilities in 1967 in San Francisco. He dedicates himself to Alexander Horn’s work, in which he learns the principles of the Fourth Way as expressed by Horn, as well as reads the extensive literature left by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Collin.
Burton leaves Horn in 1969, and establishes the Fellowship of Friends in 1970. In 1971, Burton purchases property in the Sierra Foothills and establishes the heart of his school. Outlying centres spring up in Carmel, San Francisco, Los Angles, San Diego, and then throughout the United States. In the 1980’s, he sends his students to open centers abroad, and the Fellowship draws students interested in the Fourth Way internationally.
Burton departs from Horn’s severe methods. He uses, as his foundation, the Fourth Way as expressed by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Collin. In the 1990’s his teaching gradually assumes its own hue, as he blends it with earlier expressions of ancient wisdom. His work and organization grow to an international scale and attract more students, as well as criticism, mostly from former members of his organization.
As of 2015, the Fellowship of Friends still resides in the Sierra Foothills, under the direction of Robert Burton.
The work never belongs to anyone. The same esoteric knowledge belongs to all schools, which, in fact, are the same school.
Gurdjieff’s Legacy in the 21st Century
And so ends the arguable history of the Fourth Way as it manifests in the 20th century. Arguable, I say, because many will claim that it ended with Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, denouncing even Peter Ouspensky from the title of heir to its spirit (let alone giving any credit to the later generations of Nyland, Horn and Burton). History is, inevitably, an inexact science, one subject to the interpretation of the historian. But since those interested in Gurdjieff – who has passed away – may find interest in his influence – which stays on – I have here given its outline as best as I could.
I encountered the Fourth Way in 1995, joining Burton’s Fellowship of Friends. I moved to the California headquarters in 2000 and began working closely with Burton on his teaching. In 2007, I was forced to set out on a two year journey, which brought me in contact with the origin of the ancient wisdom that I had been previously studying in theory. I traveled to all the major ancient sites of the world, spanning Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America.
Those two years of travel were an odyssey – a genuine encounter with the miraculous – which is always bitter-sweet and involves as much payment as it bestows reward. The experience was proof, if any were needed, that the spirit of ancient wisdom is as alive and accessible today as it ever was in previous days. The spark didn’t leave with Gurdjieff’s departure nor had it arrived only when he set foot on the stage. But to tell more than this would require a retelling of the entire teaching, which has been the aim of BePeriod.