Gurdjieff transitions from searching to teaching just after the time spent with the Sarmoung Brotherhood in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Northern Afghanistan. In 1912, Gurdjieff leaves Tashkent for Moscow where he begins to recruit candidates for the Institute. He experiments with different forms and emphases, to find the necessary cell of people and the appropriate form of expression. Much of this period is recorded in In Search of the Miraculous by Peter Ouspensky.
Gurdjieff in Russia
Gurdjieff establishes groups in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. As the Russian Revolution breaks out, he is forced back down into the Caucasus with an inner circle of students. During this period, he forms the core of his Russian disciples: Sophia Gregiorovitch, the De Hartmans, Dr. Stjernval and the De Salzmann’s. In Moscow, Gurdjieff meets Peter Ouspensky, a scholar, traveller and journalist with an established reputation in the field of esotericism. Gurdjieff naturally hopes to use Ouspensky’s influence in order to expand his own, and Ouspensky, in turn, realizes that Gurdjieff is in possession of the very esoteric knowledge that he himself had been long searching for.
Social order begins to collapse in Russia. In 1917, Gurdjieff works intensively with a small group of people, in Essentuki, Tuapse, Sochi, Alexandropol, Rostov-on-the-Don, Ekterinodar, and Tiflis. Gurdjieff’s experimental spirit causes difficulties for Ouspensky, who feels that, while he had formerly been able to gain much from Gurdjieff, he is now losing his grip on his teaching. The character of the future Institute is probably coming into being, as well as Ouspensky’s refusal to be part of it.
Gurdjieff departs from Russia
In the meantime, the white armies of Denikin are beaten back. The unsympathetic Bolsheviks and the Anarchists of Stenko take possession of most of Russia. Mr. Gurdjieff decides to relocate in Constantinople. Ouspensky goes north to reconnect with the members in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Gurdjieff takes the others on an incredible journey across the Caucasus Mountains to Constantinople. And then in Constantinople, he finally opens The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
Nevertheless, after a determined attempt, the decision is made to relocate in Europe. Peter Ouspensky moves to London, where he has journalistic connections. George Gurdjieff travels first to Berlin, then London, then Paris, and finally settles in Fontainbleau just south of Paris.
Gurdjieff in France
It is here that the western disciples of Gurdjieff come from 1921 to 1923. Gurdjieff, a native of south central Asia, is amongst people of a totally different tradition and world view, people whose culture bore the imprint of the Italian Renaissance. The Europeans respond enthusiastically–far more actively than the Asians–but without the sense of the starting point in the work and lacking a firm foundation. It proves a dangerous combination. Gurdjieff continues to rapidly experiment and a passionate, unforgettable drama develops, but the cracks begin to emerge.
Aware of this, Ouspensky dissociates himself from Gurdjieff’s work and continues independently in London. Gurdjieff is involved in a severe car accident that forces him to close the Institute. His physical health will never fully recover. What he cannot achieve in practice he now vows to achieve in theory: to leave mankind with a written legacy of what he has understood, and with enough of a circle of students to carry that legacy forward into the future. In Beelzebub’s Tales he encodes the material of the early stages of creation and of the true role and place of humanity in the project of the Absolute.
Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales
Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff’s magnum opus, speaks of time and the struggle against entropy and dispersion. The Absolute created a macrocosm to neutralise entropy by generating consciousness out of worlds created in time. He accepted the limitation of the Sacred Heropass. The book speaks of transformation and the function of the Holy Planet Purgatory. It places the micro-cosmos man in the context of the macro-cosmos by painting a large scale picture of the Work: Self remembering is sacred not only for man, but for a whole ascending ray of creation dependent on generating new life.
The book itself is written in a style deliberately difficult to follow. Gurdjieff admittedly buries the bones of his message deep, far from the reach of most readers. In retrospect, the value of Beelzebub’s Tales is arguable. Gurdjieff’s close disciples naturally deem it as their Bible, but seventy-five years after its publication, the book falls short of leaving the imprint its author had predicted.
Gurdjieff’s Final Chapter
In 1935, Gurdjieff moves to an apartment in Paris on Rue des Colonels Reynard, where the last stage of his teaching is to follow. He comes to realize that he is not the vehicle for the new order as he originally anticipated. He focuses on his followers, that they might carry his message on to the next generation. He carefully sees the completion of his literary works, and warns his students that, despite his intentions, he will be forced to “leave them in a fine mess.”
Gurdjieff’s Work Branches Out
After disassociating with Gurdjieff, Ouspensky establishes a small group of students in London. He keeps an eye on his Teacher in Fontainbleau, receiving occasional news by students who maintain contact with both parties. Ouspensky has given up trying to work directly with Gurdjieff, but he does not want to compete with any further effort that Mr. Gurdjieff might make to continue or develop the Institute.
Ouspensky seeking out Gurdjieff’s Source
Ouspensky knows that Gurdjieff has the essential knowledge, and that what he needs is a connection with the ultimate source of that knowledge. He does not take this ‘ultimate source’ to be human beings, but a higher influence (or human beings only inasmuch as they represent this higher influence). He tries to achieve this re-connection to the source, not by seeking out the Sarmoung, but by bringing the work of his group to the highest level possible, hoping that would attract the source.
Ouspensky’s response to Gurdjieff’s Institute
Ouspensky transforms the aim for realising the specific project of the Institute – possibly given from the Sarmoung Brotherhood – to the aim of connecting mankind to the purposes of higher influences through the creation of a conscious school. It may be that higher influences were alligned with the Sarmoung and that they worked through the Sarmoung and Mr. Gurdjieff together, but Ouspensky states his aim in a very pure way and connects it very directly to his commitment to his own group.
Gurdjieff’s Institute does not regenerate, but the shoot put out to America lives – at least partly because of the efforts and ability of Orage. A group develops in New York, which, after the War and the death of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, will join with the Gurdjieff Foundation. Orage serves as an important agent for this shoot, but is openly confounded by Gurdjieff, perhaps due to a failure on both sides. As Ouspensky later says, “Orage forgot (left out) a lot”. At the same time, Gurdjieff, who still had hopes for him, made it impossible for him to understand.
Ouspensky meanwhile, sees Europe crumbling into another period of chaos. He witnesses the rise of Fascism and Communism. He sees the loss of the western order of civilisations in the last generation and predicts the inevitable war. He has known the golden moment of Gurdjieff’s vision, the presentation of the whole plan of the work. After seven years of watching and of working in London with 40 or 50 chosen people, Ouspensky choses to expand his work.
His student John Bennett asks him … “What about your relation to Mr. Gurdjieff as your teacher?”
Ouspensky’s perception of Gurdjieff’s true Source
Ouspensky saw that what was missing was not more hidden wisdom, not further journeys to the east, not new techniques – but commitment, compassion, and direct assistance from the Source – from the unified understanding that exists in the cosmos above the cosmos of man. Ouspensky now seeks to re-establish the link to higher school. He visits New York, and returns to London a changed man, according to his student Rodney Collin. Collin later narrates the last chapter of Ouspensky’s life as miraculous; that he had become what he had taught for so long. Furthermore, the student senses a hint of that higher school his teacher was seeking out: “a presence as much greater than Ouspensky as Ouspensky was greater than us.”
Yet the flame goes out in London. There is no successor – in London or in Paris – only sincere retainers of the tradition. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky lived through the first world war and the Bolshevik Revolution. They saw the onset of the depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe. The had both considered that higher influences might be launching an ark for the preservation of the seed elements of civilisation. Both realized, by the time they died that their role was not this. And yet their roles do feed into something else.
Rodney Collin picks up Ouspensky’s aim and refines it by adding the dimension of ‘school’. He connects this to the idea of a civilisation. On March 27, 1950 Rodney Collin writes to one of his students:
Peter Ouspensky has been, for Rodney Collin, the living example of this – particularly in the last months of his life. Ouspensky’s teaching, therefore, remains alive in Rodney Collin, who migrates to Mexico to begin again, and once again attempts the experiment in which his two great predecessors failed. Collin hopes that Mexico would be the beginning of the new civilisational order. Like his teacher, he strives to connect with the Hidden Hierarchy, the inner circle of mankind. Like Ouspensky, he sees them as outside of time and space.
But in the end, Rodney Collin reverts to embrace an existing form, joining the Catholic Church. He dies shortly thereafter, falling off the bell tower of a church in Cuzco, Peru. He leaves a rich legacy of teaching experience and understanding in his books; The Theory of Eternal Life, the Theory of Celestial Influence, and (posthumously) The Theory of Conscious Harmony.
The Gurdjieff Legacy
There are certainly more shoots that spring from the Gurdjieff trunk, but these exceed the scope of this site. Suffice it to say that the above brief historical overview outlines the progression of the Greater Ark of Ancient Wisdom. This Ark is twofold: a physical form of a vessel and metaphysical contents. Gurdjieff and his successors seemingly failed in creating the former, yet they were successful in conveying the contents to a new age.
These contents inevitably live on, for they originate from beyond time and space. That source, to which Gurdjieff tapped in the end of the 19th century and which he brought westwards, was never subject to time. It hasn’t aged since, nor is it any older that its manifestation in any previous age. That spark is the true legacy of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.