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Fourth Way Perspectives

New Lamps for Old
The Enneagram Débâcle
by James Moore

Enneagram Long, contentious centuries have buried our traditional religions beneath a sediment of awesome scholarship. (Think, say, of Trimingham on the Sufi Orders or Bultmann on Judas Iscariot.) Although the domains of exegesis and kerygma remain volatile (sufficiently so, cynics might complain, to stir the pot of human misery), the textual and historical substrate affords theologians scant latitude. One solecism, one fatal slip in this grim arena, signals the thumbs down to academic reputation…. How startlingly different the realm of New Religions! Neither the large self-advertisements of its protagonists, nor the free-floating idealism of its young adherents, nor the anti-cult organizations' delight in hearsay calumny, nor the all-permeating influence of money, nor the cynicism of the press and the innocent indifference of the public—nothing here conduces to decent accuracy.

In so-to-say the noman's land between religions new and old, between slack subjectivism and scholarship of rabbinical nicety, there looms today the enigmatic figure of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Given the reclusion and a-historicism of the Gurdjieffian nucleus and the chutzpah of his denigrators, imitators, and peripheral fellow travelers, it is hardly surprising to encounter wild New Age distortions. And nevertheless a canon of scholarship begins, slowly and painfully, to accrete about this Gurdjieff; increasingly, we his self-appointed "judges" stand to be judged.

One fascinating proving-ground of relevant scholarship is the burgeoning oeuvre sketched in Anthony C. Edwards' welcome piece "Competitiveness and Apartheid in the New Age: The Enneagram Schools." It is only a pity that, wielding the authority of Lancaster University, Edwards no less than seven times binds Gurdjieff and the enneagram to Sufism. His core idea—namely: given Gurdjieff's interest in Sufism, it does seem likely that the Enneagram was known to Sufi scholars before Gurdjieff—is syllogistically re-expressible thus:

Major: Gurdjieff was essentially a "Sufi-inspired teacher" (Mr. Edwards' definition).

Minor: Gurdjieff propounded the enneagram.

Conclusion: Therefore the enneagram probably has Sufic antecedents.

This seemingly innocuous proposition deserves, both for its typicality and topicality, the compliment of reasoned scrutiny.

One applauds, of course, the historically respectable minor premise: Gurdjieff did indeed first propound the enneagram to his Petrograd and Moscow groups in 1916, and all early enneagrammatic commentaries (Ouspensky, 1949; Maurice Nicoll, 1952–54; J. G. Bennett, 1956–66) salute Gurdjieff's pre-eminence.... Contextually we do well to reinforce this premise. Why?—Because in 1972, when the clever Bolivian ideological opportunist Oscar Ichazo initiated the current trend with his luridly colored booklet The Human Process for Enlightenment and Freedom, he blandly presented the familiar diagram as the "enneagon," vouchsafing Gurdjieff no acknowledgement whatever. "Oscar claims," explained one of his lieutenants, "to have worked out the ancient meanings and uses of the enneagram himself." Oscar did more than that: he actually protested that others had stolen his idea and that, in "...masking the plagiarism, some variations had been introduced that ...produce negative and dangerous effects." A singular claim indeed! Rather as though an irate Alfred Russel Wallace had burst upon the public with the theory of natural selection 50 years after Darwin.

Gurdjieff 's Multiplex Sources

Edwards' major premise merits at least two cheers. Sufism undoubtedly did interest and inspire Gurdjieff. Like Richard Burton, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca —and plainly his monotheism and ample recognition of Muhammad as a genuine messenger of God, satisfy the tashahud or First Pillar of Islam (without which any profession of Sufism is specious). Gurdjieff commends, as the epicenter of practical esotericism, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Turkestan—regions permeated by Sufic tradition. He accords a telling significance to the "incomparable Mullah Nassr Eddin," mediaeval wise fool of Turkish literature. Program notes (Paris, 1923; New York, 1924) of Gurdjieff's Sacred Dances hint at his contact with specific dervish orders: Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Kubravi, Yesevi, and—not least—Mevlevi. Certain dances could hardly parade their Sufic provenance more openly: the "Camel Dervish," the "Trembling Dervish," the "Ceremony for a Dead Dervish," etc. In his ballet The Struggle of the Magicians, Gurdjieff incorporated a Persian dervish song. His whole lifestyle—which courted the epithet "charlatan"—recalls "The Way of Blame" of the Qalandaris and Shems-Eddin, the Sun of Tabriz.

That Gurdjieff drew inspiration from Sufism is thus the truth, and nothing but the truth—yet it is light years from being the whole truth. The fault of Edwards' major premise lies not in suggestio falsi but in suppressio veri. Only compare the Christian facet. The boy Gurdjieff (a chorister at Kars Cathedral and his education entrusted to Dean Borsh and Deacon Bogachevsky) came early under Christian influence. The youth's precocious pilgrimages to Echmiadzin and the monastery of Sanaine, presaged the man's longer journeys: seeking in Cappadocia the origins of Christian liturgy; in Mount Athos the legacy of Hesychasm; in Jerusalem the link with the Essenes, and in Coptic Abyssinia the roots of Christian gnosis. Gurdjieff's first British pupil (Paul Dukes, 1913) received a teaching squarely grounded in Christianity:

"...the gospel became intensely personal, free of any kind of dogma whatsoever, a living message, with the Lord's Prayer its emblem, the parables its illustration."

Venerating Jesus as a Divine Messenger with a teaching of unexampled love, Gurdjieff composed (in collaboration with a distinguished Russian pupil, Thomas Alexandrovitch de Hartmann) a wealth of extant Christian liturgical music: "Hymn for Easter Thursday," "Hymn for Good Friday," "Easter Night Procession," "The Story of the Resurrection of Christ," etc. Once indeed, Gurdjieff even defined his own self-referential teaching as "esoteric Christianity." When he died, high requiem mass was sung for his soul in the packed Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Paris, and it was by his own wish that he was buried at Avon with the full rites of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Space constraints alone forbid my advancing an equally persuasive and unbalanced case that Gurdjieff's teaching flowed chiefly from Buddhism—with particular redolences of Ch'an (or Zen). Nor can one blithely disregard elements evidently drawn from Pythagorean, Stoic, Essene, Zoroastrian, and Shamanist material.... Since 1980, when James Webb published The Harmonious Circle, with its complex chapter "The Sources of the System," no self-respecting critique of Gurdjieff's thought can rest on any single-source hypothesis whatever. Still less can the "Sufi-inspired" drum be banged unaccompanied, in sheer disregard of L. P. Elwell-Sutton's magisterial "Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism" and Robert Amadou's lucid "Gurdjieff et le soufisme"…. In formal terms, the major premise that Gurdjieff was fundamentally a Sufi-inspired teacher must politely be summed up in one unavoidable adjective: false.