I was recently asked how I could explain the extreme contrast between Gurdjieff’s position on the creation of a Permanent I and Buddha’s idea of the extinction of desires and of personal dissolution in Nirvana.
Here are some thoughts on this subject, which came to my mind.
A human being reacts to the world in three different ways, and each reaction puts him into a certain state of being. These three reactions are a result of his interaction with the reality of the world.
A major imprint on the human psyche is usually made by contact with the dark and negative side of reality, which makes him afraid of it, most of all, of the ultimate reality of death.
The first and natural reaction of a human being to the cruelty and indifference of the surrounding world is to escape from it, to hide. Once confronted with the negative side of the reality of life, the founder of Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, after a number of attempts to deal with it by means of meditation and asceticism, came to the conclusion that there must be some other way. He started looking for the causes of human misery and suffering, and realized that it was rooted inside the human psyche; so, in order to free himself from the bonds of the world in his earthly life and beyond, human beings must first deal with themselves. The misery of man is caused by his desires. So in order to diminish misery he has to work with desires, to dislocate the connection between desire and the subject of desire.
Nonetheless, Buddha stated that misery and the vicious circle of life and death are not limited to the material world, but even the higher domains are subject to birth, growth and decease. There was another place he said, a realm of eternal bliss, where the law of Samsara does not apply, for the simple reason that in that world there are no forms or structures of any kind. This was what was known as Nirvana. Buddha taught that the ultimate goal of the human being was to achieve the high state that allowed him to merge with Nirvana and to dissolve into blissful nothingness. Man should turn his soul into nothing other than a formless whiff of energy. It was only at that point that he could ascend to the realm of Nirvana and escape from the cycle of reincarnations. Essentially, Buddha’s teaching was a philosophy of the disassembling of the ego or the “self”, since a soul in Buddhism is nothing but an assemblage of desires, habits and memories.
The second reaction often leads a man to surrender to his fate, which he believes is determined by God once and for all. Islam and Judaism epitomized this state of the acceptance of reality with all it has – joy and sorrow, health and disease, luck and misfortune. Life is given to a man by the Almighty, it is all completely inscribed in the Book of Destiny. Maktub, says a Muslim when the fate hits him hard, it is written, and then he continues going after his business. Nothing could be changed. It is the will of Allah or Yahweh, so just let us hope God is merciful. The life of human being, according to Judaism and Islam, resembles a universal theater where God pulls all strings and man obediently dances.
The third reaction calls for neither escape nor a surrender, but for transcendence of reality, both in life and in death. From the moment of birth to the moment of death the human soul grows and takes on a certain shape. If the development of the soul goes in the right way, it eventually solidifies into a form of a certain type of a spiritual crystal which could not be destroyed by the forces of the beyond.
The revolution came with the advent of Christianity. For the first time man could become free; he had learned that he possesses a free will, nothing is written, his soul is a tabula rasa on which he writes what he wants. With this freedom and this ability comes responsibility. Man should attend to his soul, he should make it strong, full of spirit and beautiful. From now on, Man has power over life and death. He must have no fear because it is up to him to overcome death and become an immortal soul. However, in order to fulfill his destiny, man should raise Christ within himself. Man must accept life and death without fear, and thus conquer both. However, the path to salvation in Christianity was almost exclusively built on faith and determined by the moral conduct. The rest was up to God to decide whether a man should be granted a passage to Heaven or not, or in the worst case he should be doomed to eternal damnation.
Gurdjieff was not satisfied with Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. He sat on a journey which eventually led him to creating his own teaching. He called it the Fourth Way. Its basic premise is that the human being is normally in a state of sleep, both spiritually and mentally, succumbing to this dreamlike state, where he feels himself comfortably safe from the troubles of the real life. According to Gurdjieff, man should first be wakened up. After awakening man must go on perfecting himself, creating the entity he called the “Permanent I,” in which spirit, energy and power are merged together, in order to withstand reality and conquer it, instead of submitting himself to its brutal domination. There is nothing in Gurdjieff’s teaching similar to the Buddhist escapism, Christian humility, or the sheepish obedience of Islam.
We all have inside of us a cloud of spirit which we call soul, but without a special kind of work it remains formless and easily destructible. It makes a man not only weak, but also incapable of existence on higher levels of reality. Just like an electron needs additional energy to make a quantum leap to a higher orbit in the atom, so does the human soul. However, in addition to energy the human soul also needs a structure to contain the spiritual energy within itself. This structure must be built by the human being in an awakened state, utilizing will power, self-knowledge and determination. The amorphous cloud of the soul should undergo a formative process similar to the one which creates a diamond in nature. It takes immense pressure and temperature to create the hardest mineral out of simple lump of the carbon. In the same way, it also takes a great amount of effort to shape a diamond. A skillful diamond cutter could make a formless crystal of carbon into the clearest, most light absorbing, light radiating and hardest stone in the world. Gurdjieff tried to do exactly that with the human being, trying to clean, form and polish his soul through rigorous physical and mental exercises, in order to create an enormous surge, energy and willpower in man’s spirit, which would shape his Permanent I, that beautifully structured spiritual crystal which shines with a brilliant divine light, an immortal and all-powerful truly godlike soul.
Gurdjieff‘s most important principle was to train all three components which constitute a man, that is, his body, spirit and mind. Such complex approach was lacking in three major religions, especially in Buddhism. Gurdjieff’s goal was to create a complete human being which would not be passively taken to the Heavens in a fiery chariot by God on a whim, or being put up there by a decision of religious council or by any other action of God or men, but go up into the higher and wider world by man’s own effort, by the sheer power of his spirit and soul. As the song goes, neither god or king or hero can save a man but only man himself.