Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences

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looks at the publications of     SEYMOUR B. GINSBURG

The thought of G.I. Gurdjieff comes to mind whenever I drive into a shopping plaza where there is a sign that says Toys “R” Us. There are almost two dozen of these toy supermarkets in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, all of them “reminders” of the man and his message. Canada alone has a total of seventy outlets at the present time. If you live in the United States, there are 860 occasions to remember Mr. Gurdjieff, but only seventy-six if you live in the United Kingdom. Non-U.S. outlets around the world offer an additional 716 opportunities for remembering.

All of this may seem a little sly or silly but for the fact that Toys “R” Us acts for me as a reminder to remember myself and it could do the same for other people too. The reason it comes to mind is that there is an interesting connection between the toy store chain and Seymour B. Ginsburg, whose contribution to the Work is an important one. As unlikely as it might seem, Ginsburg was the co-founder of the parent company and the first president of the company we know as Toys “R” Us. That was decades ago so I assume that he is no longer involved with running the highly successful chain of outlets.

Here is some background on the man, all taken from published sources. Sy Ginsburg (as he is usually greeted) was born in Chicago in 1934 and studied accountancy and law at Northwestern University. In addition to his success in the world of commerce, he has made his mark in at least five related fields of endeavour.

First, he served as President of the Theosophical Society in South Florida. Second, he was a co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Third, he and his wife Dorothy Usiskin have been mainstays of the series of annual All & Everything Conferences, now in their fifteenth year. Fourth, he has drawn attention to the spiritual contribution of a modern-day Indian guru known as Sri Madhava Ashish. Fifth, he is the author of a number of books that are not only interesting but significant.

There is no way for me to survey all of these fields of accomplishment. Instead, I will describe Sy’s publications and focus on Sy Ginsberg’s relationship with “Ashishda” (as he is known). I will do so out of chronological order; I will also note that I met Sy at the A&E Conference held in Toronto in April 2009 and hence took the opportunity to observe him in action. I found him, unlike many students and practitioners of the Work, to be direct and dynamic. He knows his own mind and he understands precisely what he is doing.

These features are characteristic of his most important if overlooked publication, the one titled “Gurdjieff Unveiled.” There is a subtitle “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching” as well as a sub-subtitle “For the beginning student, for the inquiring seeker, and for the simply curious.” The sub-subtitle covers a lot of ground, as does the text itself. It is a short work, not more than 150 pages in all, and the paperback copy that I purchased  was published in 2005 by Lighthouse Editions, and is still in print on demand format ISBN 1-90499801 0.

From time to time I am asked to recommend a book on the Work. When that happens I automatically nominate P.D. Ouspensky’s “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” for it is short, straight-forward, and uncompromising. Along with its companion book “The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” it certainly captures the essence of the Work in Europe in the interwar period. Knowledgeable people often recommend books that convey the “taste” of the spirit of the Work since the 1950s, memoirs written by participants like Henri Tracol.

From now on I will recommend Sy’s “Gurdjieff Unveiled” as not only an introductory work but also as a “continuing” work. I recommend it despite its title which I assume reflects the author’s interest in Theosophy, and while I may yearn to behold “Isis Unveiled” (the reference is to H.P. Blavatsky’s major book written prior to “The Secret Doctrine”), I have never lusted to see Mr. Gurdjieff “unveiled.” It certainly offers information on the ins and the outs of the Work in clear and contemporary prose. Indeed, it is something of a handbook.

The work is dedicated to Nicolas Tereshchenko, “A serious seeker, a true scholar, a friend.” In addition to tables and diagrams and four appendices, it offers the reader six chapters, quaintly called “Lessons.” For general interest, I will list the titles of the chapters so the experienced reader will see at a glance where the book begins and ends.

Lesson 1: Who am I?

Lesson 2: The Expansion of Consciousness

Lesson 3: The Transmutation of Energy

Lesson 4: The Conservation of Energy

Lesson 5: Meditation

Lesson 6: Gurdjieff Groups

In these chapters I found considerable information with insights that I had not encountered elsewhere, at least in this form. Fresh material also appears in the four appendices. The first appendix tries to answer the question “Who are you Mister Gurdjieff” and includes detailed information on how the Mahatma Letters, identified with the Theosophical Society, were edited at the Priory at Fontainebleau. The second appendix breaks new ground in relating “the study of dreams” to the Work and offers techniques for remembering dreams, approaches that do work.

The third appendix examines the Exercises in genuine detail and in doing so offers lists of words for human concerns and failings keyed to passages in “Tales.” This is a feature that I have not seen elsewhere in the Canon. As well there are Notes, Bibliography, and a detailed Index. The book is quite a handful, hence I call it a Gurdjieff handbook.

On another occasion I may draw attention to some of the insights that appear in the pages of “Gurdjieff Unveiled,” but on this occasion I want to note Sy’s other books. But even they deserve more time and space than I have at hand. Here goes. The author’s first book bears the daunting title “In Search of the Unitive Vision” and is subtitled “Letters of Sri Madhava Ashish to an American Businessman 1978-1997).” It is a compilation with a commentary and it appeared in a handsome, trade paperback published in 2001 by New Paradigm Books of Boca Raton, Florida.

The text of almost 300 pages consists of the above-mentioned letters but also descriptive passages, narrative accounts, diary entries, personal essays, and a series of questions and answers about spiritual matters. In fact, the book is indexed and I assume that pretty well every subject of interest to the student of consciousness studies is mentioned at some point in these pages.

Sy spent almost twenty years in contact with Madhava Ashish, making annual visits, beginning in the year 1978, to Ashishda’s ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. Indeed, it was Ashishda who directed the young “American businessman” to seek out the teachings of Gurdjieff. The book is a record of their friendship, not so much between equals as much as it was and remains between fellow-seekers, one of whom was in a position to inspire and direct the other.

To confuse matters a little, “In Search of the Unitive Vision” has been reprinted with another title and subtitle: “The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.” This is brand-new edition, well printed, published in 2010 by Quest Books: Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois. The differences between the two editions seem minor, mainly matters of presentation.

Whichever edition is used, the portrait that emerges of Ashishda is one that is “in the round.” Judging by the descriptions and photographs that are reproduced in these pages, Sri Madhava Ashish was Central Casting’s ideal guru: tall, dark-haired, handsome … and English. Ashishda was born Alexander Phipps (1920-1997) and educated in English public schools. On a trip to the subcontinent he met and became a disciple of Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), another Englishman, this one born Ronald Henry Nixon, a Theosophist in background.

Prem and Ashishda, both sannyasins of the Vaishanava tradition of Hinduism, became influential spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners with much to offer to those Westerners who were drawn to their ashrams. They themselves had been influenced by Theosophy, as is apparent when one reads the essays in “What Is Man?”

“What Is Man?” is subtitled “Selected Writings of Sri Madhava Ashish.” This is another handsome publication, issued in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. It is also about 300 pages long and begins with a Foreword contributed by Dr. Karan Singh who goes unidentified (but whom Wikipedia informs me was “the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” and served as India’s Ambassador to the United States in 1990-91). It is a perfunctory Foreword.

The Preface, anything but perfunctory, was written by Sy along with three other compilers: Satish Datt Pandey, Seán Mahoney, Pervin Mahoney. They quote a passage from one of Ashishda’s letters to Sy: “Give me all the teachings about man and the universe and I will accept them only if I can be shown one man who embodies and validates these teachings. One follows the teachings back to their source in the man whose truth affirms the truth of the teachings.” I am sure that most people instinctively feel the same way: validation of the tradition lies in its embodiment and expression in the human being. On this basis, Ashishda is one such embodiment and expression.

The texts are organized in four parts. Part I, called “Introduction,” consists of Ashishda’s appreciative memoir of his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem. Part II is titled “The Path” and it collects seven essays on such subjects as “The Value of Uncertainty” and “The Sadhu in Our Lives.” Part III has been titled “The Inner Inquiry” and contains of eight miscellaneous essays including one called “Big Dreams” and another intriguingly titled “Quacking Oranges and Cloned Einsteins.” Part IV, “The Doctrine,” brings together five essays that will be familiar to Theosophists, notably “‘The Secret Doctrine’ as a Contribution to World Thought” and “The Fifth Race.” Finally, there is an two-page appendix of some historical, textual interest devoted to Madame Blavatsky’s “The Stanzas of Dzyan.”

The well-written copy on the back cover of “What Is Man?” notes how unusual is the message in this book: “It has little to do with conventional religions, but can be called secular spirituality. It points out the folly of viewing the cosmos in material terms alone, encouraging us to open our minds and see that our lives are not restricted to the closed box of purely physical existence.” The copywriters mercifully avoided the words “New Age.”

There is a clarity to Ashishda’s prose is reasonable and at the same time reassuring. He composes the sort of prose that I can imagine Aldous Huxley enjoying or Gerald Heard writing. At times it verges on being a sermon; at times it reminds me of the inspired and inspiring “talks” of J. Krishnamurti. It is a prose addressed to man’s best nature and it resists quotation; there are no high moments, for there is a general level of elevation. It is timeless prose if by that description is meant that it is sounds somewhat old-fashioned.

The essay “Man, Son of Man” sounds this note: “Columbus would never have discovered the Americas had he not disbelieved in the flatness of the world, nor shall we discover this other New World if we do not challenge the equally ‘flat’ world view of our present-day science and set out on a voyage of discovery in a direction and dimension where science sees nothing to discover.”

In summary: Seekers and readers have reasons to be grateful to Seymour B. Ginsburg for his many-fold contributions, including writing a spot-on introduction to the teaching called “Gurdjieff Unveiled” and for introducing readers in the English-speaking world to the traditional yet timely message of Sri Madhava Ashish. Driving past a Toys “R” Us outlet brought all of this to mind!

John Robert Colombo, known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana, reviews books for this blog on “consciousness studies.” Scheduled to appear in the fall is “The Sumuru Omnibus,” his compilation of the five novels written about the villainess Sumuru the English mystery-story writer Sax Rohmer.


The John Robert Colombo Page



John Robert Colombo reviews the recently published biography of metaphysical writer and teacher Manly P. Hall

Is anyone really comfortable with the words “Western Wisdom Tradition” or “Western Esotericism”? I know that I am unhappy with these words, but try as I might I am unable to find better ones.

I have always liked the words “Perennialism” or “Perennial Tradition,” but they have pretty well been appropriated by Messrs. Guénon, Schuon, and Nasr to describe their early 20th century tradition of introspection influenced by Sufism. Of all the terms in common use, my favourite is “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, but most people identify it with the title of Aldous Huxley’s ground-breaking and influential compilation of mystical texts which first appeared in 1945.

I also like the two words employed by the late James Webb, the historian who documented occultism’s rises and falls in excruciating detail in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He referred to the subject of such studies as “rejected knowledge.” He had in mind knowledge (not merely information, not chiefly wisdom) that was dismissed by one generation of mainstream thinkers only to be embraced by the next generation of such thinkers, yet all the while was highly prized by disciples of occult doctrines and studies: the hidden thought through all the ages. So let me call it, simply, “occult thought.”

Huxley and Webb to one side, there is one person who has done more than anyone else to popularize the notion of occult thought – that there is a current of energy and a set of symbols common to all the religions of the world, to all the philosophies of man, and to all the sciences that have emerged. That person is Manly P. Hall. His name may not be on everyone’s lips, but I have long known it and so have countless millions of North Americans who may be forgiven for regarding it as synonymous with a popular version of occult traditions of thought and practice.

There is a very sketchy biography of Manly Palmer Hall (MPH) on Wikipedia that gives a few of the essentials and more than a few of the inessentials. He was born in Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901. (Hence my interest in him and in his works.) He died in Los Angeles in 1990, an influential teacher, a millionaire, who had established in that city his own non-profit research institute. A Freemason must have written the Wiki entry because it exaggerates the influence of Masonry on his life and thought, which I regard as negligible. It ignores some interesting personal facts: he came from a broken home and was a high school dropout; in 1918, he accompanied his mother (who was something of a healer) to Los Angeles, where he met a series of self-styled preachers who led their own small congregations of spiritually dissatisfied men and women (many of the latter elderly and wealthy) and instructed them in the principles that are “behind” or that “transcend” New Thought, not to mention Theosophy, “I Am,” AMORC, etc.

MPH, at the time in his early twenties, was drawn to these men, and them to him. He was an imposing figure of a man, well over six feet in height, though in later years he was given to corpulency (so that his first wife teased him when he reached 300 pounds and described him as her “Canadian bacon”). Photographs reveal a face with chiselled features and with piercing eyes that lend him a somewhat demonic expression. Recordings preserve his soothing voice and his authoritative manner of exposition. He could speak seemingly without effort for an hour and a half on any number of arcane subjects, and at first he did so in the small parishes and study groups throughout the Los Angeles basin. Then he graduated to larger venues including sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1932, despite the Depression, he was able to fund the founding of the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and house it in a purpose-built, neo-Mayan structure of some beauty on Los Feliz Boulevard close to the famed Griffith Observatory and not far from “Karlofornia,” the science-fiction-strewn residence of the late Forrest J. Ackerman. The PRS structure is now a protected landmark.

The PRS served as MPH’s headquarters and as a magnet for mystically minded Californians who attended the lecture series delivered by MPH and his colleagues. Here he established a gallery of symbolic art of considerable interest and value and a collection of 50,000 books which includes some rare alchemical texts borrowed by C.G. Jung for his studies in this field. From here MPH published and distributed his own books. (There are said to be close to 200 of these, though many of them are little more than booklets or texts of lectures, rather than full-fledged works of continuing interest.) They were sold in bookstores but mainly through mail order. Many PRS publications got as far as Kitchener, Ontario, where as a teenager in the early 1950s, I devoured them, easily digesting their contents.

As I did so I noticed that the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts. MPH read these texts and digested them, at least on their moralistic levels, finding in each and every one of them elements of an idealistic philosophy that would remain his mainstay through his life.

The aim of these texts, in his eyes, was to help mankind with a some sort of “divine plan” accessible through “transcendental idealism” – perhaps a faith in the powers of the imagination – that would be character-bracing, spirit-respecting, and morale-building. It seems “the Ancients” (whether Ascended Masters or Prophets or Gurus or Saviours or Sages) had not only messages for their own times, but messages for posterity, for us today.

In his writing there is plenty of theoria but a poverty of praxis. For us “Moderns,” the message has something to do with Right Thinking and being Respectful of the Ancients and what in other circles might be called Positive Thinking. MPH of the PRS was there before Alfred Adler and Esalen and the self-esteem movement that morphed into what passes for New Age thought, EST, and the bromides of Tony Robbins (who is married to a Canadian) or Eckhart Tolle (who is a Canadian).

In point of fact, he predated such movements. He was able to capitalize on the genius of H.P. Blavatsky and the principles of Theosophy. He seemed to have been unaware of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy or G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. But what he had and what he added to his reading and thinking was his own genius – and I hold it to be that. In 1928, at the age of 27, this uneducated young man published his magnum opus, a remarkable work titled “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is indeed an amazing book and it is still in print. It is one of the biggest and most influential of all the best-sellers in what is now a crowded field.

Open before me is a mammoth copy of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is the Diamond Jubilee Edition of Hall’s chef d’oeuvre, and even in its reduced format it is gigantic: It measures 13 inches high, 9 inches wide, with 245 pages – affectingly numbered in Roman numerals (so there are ccxlv double-columned pages). The original edition, which I have examined, is even larger in format. Both the original edition of 1928 and the various reprint editions have forty-eight, full-page plates (brilliantly coloured in the original edition, black-and-white in the reprint editions) with about 190 text illustrations. Although the page is large, the type is tiny. My quick estimate is that the text consists of more than half a million words, completely indexed.

The full title of this amazing work is as follows: “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages … Diamond Jubilee Edition … Reduced Facsimile.”

It would take too long to reproduce the entire Table of Contents, but there are forty-five chapters with such chronologically arranged chapter headings as “The Ancient Mysteries and Secret Societies Which have Influenced Modern Masonic Symbolism” (the first) and “The Mysteries and Their Emissaries” (the last). In between, the reader will find the whole panoply of subjects – Pyramids, Isis, Zodiac, Pythagoras, Human Body, Animals, Stones, Magic, Sorcery, Elements, Qabbala, Tarot, Rose Cross, Alchemy, Baconism, Freemasonry, Mystic Christianity, Islam, American Indian Symbolism, etc.

The treasure-trove treatment does full justice to the labours of a young enthusiast, something of an evangelist who has no single secret interpretation of the Book of Revelation but is excited by Holy Scripture in toto, a young man with no foreign languages, no academic contacts, and no publisher’s advance, who researched, wrote, and published this opus on a subscription basis, single-handedly. That in itself is one of the “wonders” of the age.

The book ends with an excited invitation that gives a taste of Hall’s style and moralistic message, surprisingly relevant today: “The great institution of materiality has failed. The false civilization built by man has turned, and like the monster of Frankenstein, is destroying its creator. Religion wanders aimlessly in the maze of theological speculation. Science batters itself impotently against the barriers of the unknown. Only transcendental philosophy knows the path. Only the illumined reason can carry the understanding part of man upward to the light. Only philosophy can teach man to be born well, to live well, to die well, and in perfect measure be born again. Into this band of the elect, – those who have chosen the life of knowledge, of virtue, and of utility – the philosophers of the ages invite YOU.”

Who can resist such an invitation? Hall’s approach reminds me, a bit, of that taken by the scholar Joscelyn Godwin in his most recent book, “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” When I reviewed that book for this blog last year, I wondered, “What do all the ‘wonders’ in Godwin’s book have in common? Is there indeed a ‘golden threat’?” Now I know the answer to that question: The wonders are also found in Hall’s “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” This is Occult Thought in Illuminated Capital Letters!

Also open before me is a copy of the recently published biography of the man himself. It is written by Louis Sahagun, a staff writer with “The Los Angeles Times,” and it is titled “Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall.” It was published in paperback in 2008 by Process Media, Fort Townsend, Washington, U.S.A. (There is a website for the book.)

As a newspaperman, Sahagun covered MPH’s life and work and death – indeed, the way he died is as mysterious as the way he lived is unusual. It might be that in his eighty-ninth year he was murdered. Sahagun investigates all of this and the court cases that followed and the assumption of the PRS into the welkin of an institution that grants a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. As a biographer with an eye on both the man and the spirit of the times, he effectively compares and contrasts the ambience of Los Angeles, MPH’s favourite city, in the 1920s and in the 1960s. Sahagun knows little about occult thought, but he is effective when he describes what he does know, which is MPH’s milieu.

Overall, MPH emerges as a preacher, a man (like say Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham) with a message. That message has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestant Evangelism, but it has a lot to do with a recognition of arcane symbolism, of the “transcendental” nature of religious paths, of the brotherhood of man, of the powers latent in both nature and human nature, and of the “wisdom tradition” … oops … Occult Thought.

John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana and for such collections as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” In the interests of disclosure: JRC is mentioned by name in the pages of Sahagun’s book. The passage is innocent enough: “Hall was so hungry to be in the public eye that he welcomed the 1988 publication of a book ‘Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places’ by John Robert Colombo, which lumped Hall’s birth in Peterborough with sightings of UFOs and abominable snowmen in Canada, haunted houses and curses.”

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