This piece was originally written to express my reflections on the idea “Kundabuffer” which Gurdjieff introduced in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, a theme that runs as a litany through the entire book. To recapitulate briefly what Gurdjieff has his protagonist Beelzebub explain, Kundabuffer was an organ implanted by “archangels” in man “at the base of the spinal column,” whose effect was to make them perceive reality upside-down and to experience “pleasure and enjoyment.” The archangels feared that if people “prematurely” understood their slavery to cosmic purposes and that the reason for their existence was that when they die they were meant to be “food for the moon,” they might “make a great deal of trouble” and even “end their existence.” Kundabuffer was later removed by other archangels, but its “consequences” had become crystallized in Man and are the chief cause why life on earth is so full of evil.
I wrote this some years ago, at an earlier stage of my understanding. As a result of conversations with my esteemed colleague Lee van Laer, I realized that either some changes were needed, or else some further reflections should be appended.
The initial piece was written in the form of an imaginary exchange supposed to have taken place in a “Gurdjieff meeting.” It consists of two parts. The first part is an esoteric joke. It is a parody of people’s ordinary way of thinking which takes higher things as if they were common crude things. This is the method of Mullah Nasr Eddin tales, and of many of the strange stories in Beelzebub. The second part consisted of my “more serious” reflections on the idea of Kundabuffer. I have appended a third part, “Further Reflections” which is extracted from a letter I wrote to Lee.
In a Gurdjieff meeting on the topic of “Kundabuffer”, someone asked:
What is the relationship between the idea of Buffers, and Kundabuffer, if any?
The first, less-serious answer:
The Buffars were an old family of merchants of Timbuktu. In recent times, some of the clan wealth fell to the hands of one Ghanga Buffar. He fell in love (or is lust the more appropriate term?) with Maloinda Kunda, an extraordinarily beautiful girl, descended of the famous Kunda clan of Griots, traditional bards of Mali. She was talented but poor, like most of her clan. After a brief courtship involving somewhat confusing events the families agreed to a hurried marriage, and the couple called themselves (expressing a European flair) the Kunda-buffars.
Six months later, there was a birth. Because of the short pregnancy, it was regarded as a miraculous occurrence. But there was an even more extraordinary fact: the baby was born a hermaphrodite. According to an ancient but rarely invoked tradition, the new being, who was called “Kunda-lini” was regarded as of semi-Divine nature and was consigned to a kind of cloistered existence, tended by a traditional college of old wise men and young virgins. Other than their duties of tending to the needs and whims of Kundalini, the activities of this college were shrouded in considerable obscurity.
Kundalini was worshipped by all the people, who made frequent offerings in the hope of better favor in life, mainly in affairs of the heart. But in the long run, a certain disappointment set in, as the results of these prayers rarely lived up to their initial promise.
Around the time Kundalini became a teenager, blossoming in the external attributes of both genders, a sequence of events was set in motion when a new “modern” administration swept into power and declared divorce legal. Mr. Buffar seized the opportunity and divorced Maloinda. Besides his growing lack of interest in his now middle-aged wife, the moment was opportune for another reason: his profitable “business” activities actually amounted to a sort of protection racket, and under the influence of new political ideas fomenting at that time, there was growing awareness of the fact that he was in reality a common gangster—not, in truth, an unusual occupation in that part of the world. He quickly liquidated his affairs, deposited the proceeds in a Swiss account, and disappeared.
Maloinda, following an old tradition, sacrificed herself on a pyre, as if her husband had died and she was following him to the other world. The condition of Kundalini was suddenly pitiable. No longer protected by the power of the Buffars, he/she was subject to escalating taunts, hazing, and abuse of the most terrible nature. A peace corp volunteer took an interest in the case and suggested a course of action. Taken by the new friend to the American embassy, Kundalini applied for and was granted humanitarian refugee status, and was quietly and quickly expatriated to America.
On advice of the peace corps person, Kundalini took residence in San Francisco, where he/she became something of a celebrity in the GLBTG (Gay/Lesbian/Bi-sexual/Trans-Gendered) community. It was here that the famous limerick was penned, supposedly based on an actual occurrence (but with a bit of poetic license):
A hermaphrodite from Khartoum
Took a Gay trans-sex up to her room
And they argued all night
Over who had the right
To do what, and with which, and to whom
The serious answer:
Let us attempt a more serious answer to this question. First, we must enter into a little hermeneutic exercise, pondering the question: exactly what is it that is referred to askundabuffer. We read (Beelzebub’s Tales, chapter 10 “Why ‘Men’ are not Men”) that it was an organ “implanted at the base of the tail” by the “most high commission” in order to protect people from knowing that the reason for their existence was to maintain the moon. The moon, remember, was the result of a recent collision of the earth with a comet, which knocked off two fragments because “[the Earth’s] atmosphere, which might have served as a ‘buffer,’ had not yet had time to be completely formed around it”.
Now, what exactly is the “tail” of a “three-brained being”? Recall that Gurdjieff often referred to his followers in Paris as his “tail.” Can we tentatively assume that the “tail” is a community of students, such as a religious community, and that the “being” whose tail it is, is the founder of the community, or in case the founder is deceased, his “higher body”? What we are proposing is that Kundabuffer is something that is implanted at the foundation of certain “religions” or “traditions” that enables people to see things as other than they really are, and in particular to think of themselves as the pinnacle of creation, as if they had been given charge of the world for their own use and pleasure. The signature of this kind of religion, whose widespread hold on the imagination of man is well-documented in anthropology and comparative religion, is the hypostatization of a hierarchical order of differing Gods who are responsible for various matters in earth and heaven and in particular for all the bad and good things that happen to people, and who can often be induced by rituals, prayers, and sacrifices to do whatever a person wants. Man, under this system, is relieved of individual responsibility, yet allowed to feel superior even to the gods, since they in effect work for him. What better model could there be of Kundabuffer?
But another kind of “religion” arose later from the work of certain “messengers.” Beelzebub puts into the mouth of Saint Buddha (chapter 21 “The First Visit of Beelzebub to India”) a detailed sermon on the nature of this new religion. If you are familiar with the teaching of the Buddha, in both the earliest direct words that he supposedly uttered (e.g. theDhammapada) and in later lines deriving from his teaching, there is indeed a radical emphasis on the illusory nature of the way people see and think about things, and a program for deconstructing this illusory world-view, especially its ego-centered-ness. It seems that this kind of teaching arose in several different places around this time, the “axial era”: besides Buddha, Socrates/Plato, Chuang Tzu, perhaps Quetzalcoatl, and others, all teach about a liberation from the oppression of believing in unreality. Perhaps such teachings arose earlier, but only since the axial era have writings survived that allow us to trace a direct line of influence down to our own cultural infrastructure.
This kind of teaching, based on a “formless” God (if any), places the responsibility on men individually, and simultaneously offers a real hope of becoming conscious, of waking from the vast matrix of dreams that constitutes men’s inner life, dreams based on “forms” implanted by suggestions from outside. It is this hope that undercuts the cynicism that would result if one believed that one was merely a slave of what Gurdjieff calls “the moon,” a danger when his attachment to “buffers”, his beliefs in his own specialness and in his favored relationship with traditional imaginary gods and other powers, is cut off. In effect, a “moon” is created inside man, in his possible development of a center of gravity that can become the foundation of his own persistent conscious inner life.
But this is not the end of the story. A truly “formless” inner life is too steep a gradient for most people. Our repeated actual experience is that even after a very deep encounter with “formlessness”, forms quickly rematerialize. Perhaps it is after all not man’s essential nature to live in formlessness. Later teachings arose that made conscious use of imagination as an easier approach to formlessness. Facing the fact that one always imagines forms, one intentionally constructs an interior world of imagined forms, according to a disciplined pattern such that the forms point beyond themselves, with a never-abandoned orientation toward an ultimately formless reality. What makes this kind of imagination conscious is that it never forgets that it is imagination.
I will cite several traditions in which this kind of work is practiced (there may well be others that I am not familiar with) which are well-known through classic scriptural and interpretive texts, and which in addition possess living lineages of transmission. The first is esoteric Buddhism in several lineages; the ones I am somewhat familiar with are Tibetan Tantric teachings including Mahamudra and Dzog Chen. The Tibetan teachings in particular make very explicit the principle of evoking in one’s imagination a complex world of divinities and consecrating an attitude of worship toward them, yet also emphasize the necessity of never forgetting that they are creations of the mind.
A second example is epitomized by the work of the 12th century philosopher-saint Ibn Arabi, who is regarded as the Great Teacher by most Sufi schools. Ibn Arabi’s main source was the Koran, which he re-interprets with great enthusiasm. But he was also ecumenical in including more ancient sources, and was as much an axial teacher as a Abrahamic one, deeply influenced by and going beyond Plato. Ibn Arabi is quite explicit that God himself is formless, or what amounts to the same thing, is possessed of all forms, and that man can only encounter God through specific forms which are engendered in himself through imagination and prayer. The work of Arabi’s great exponent Henri Corbin has familiarized contemporary Western thought with the concept of the “imaginal” realm in which this encounter can take place.
I will also mention Mary Carruthers’ book The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric and the Making of Images 400-1200 which documents the spiritual practices of monks in medieval Christian Europe. An important aspect of their “prayer life” was to learn by heart vast tracts of scripture and then to repeatedly review them while constructing an individualized visualization of the stories and images described.
I also suspect that religious/mystical practices in the pre-Columbian New World, for example the worship of Quetzalcoatl/Kukulcan among the Toltec, the Maya, and related peoples, could be viewed as “imaginal”; unfortunately our knowledge of these religious traditions is greatly attenuated by the thorough destruction of texts and of living practice at the hands of European conquerors.
In view of the above examples, it may be possible to regard the period from about the fourth or fifth century C.E. up until about the time of the Renaissance as an “imaginal era”, in the sense that imaginal practices were deeply integrated into the religious life of peoples spread throughout much of the world. An end was put to this in Europe under the influence of new “rationalistic” ideas that gradually had the effect of reducing religious thought, practice, and feeling to a shadow of what it had been, except for a few surviving refugia, for example in Tibet, and in certain monasteries that maintained a separation from the influences of modernity. Besides these survivals, there have been occasional emergences of what must be an underground current, in which imaginal forms of thought and practice can be seen; an example would perhaps be Swedenborg’s work, whose teachings Henri Corbin compares in detail to those of his Islamic “imaginal” teachers in his Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam.
Following Corbin’s work, we have to think of imagination not as an implanted buffer, like the usual reading of Gurdjieff’s idea of “Kundabuffer”, something that prevents us from seeing and feeling reality, but as isthmus, as an intentionally created artificial appliance that emits an atmosphere that consciously connects us with an ultimate reality too fine, too high, for us to connect with directly. Might we even think of Kundabuffer as Gurdjieff’s ironic name for the imaginal plane, and that it constitutes the third term that complements into a living trinity the paralyzing duality of modernity, an inaccessible God and a mechanical “real world”, or ala Descartes, an isolated mind and an equally isolated material reality?
To live “in between”, in this isthmus and its atmosphere, is an esoteric path that is open to us. It is, perhaps, exactly what is implicit in the teaching of Gurdjieff, similar in nature to what was taught more explicitly by Ibn Arabi and the other imaginal traditions mentioned above. Gurdjieff’s version is his “fourth way”, depending not just on ritual, faith, or intellectual knowledge, but on engagement tempered by detachment.
Someone then asked:
Some people have compared kundabuffer with kundalini. I recall reading in one of the contemporary Yogic texts, maybe Sri Anirvan or Aurobindo (I cannot recall now), that “kundalini” is a maintainer of illusion and one must learn to detach from this power and let it go. Only on one occasion did I read this -- everything else I have read suggested that this energy which flows through the spine from tailbone to head is some sort of “great positive”, ie, something very desirable. Wish I could recall where I read the opposite statement . . .
As you indicate, the idea of Kundalini is invoked in Yoga exercises which (in my oversimplified version of the teaching) envision an energy that arises from the base of the spine and ascends via two channels passing through the various chakras where it undergoes transformation, until it becomes conscious energy at the level of the “third eye”. This shares many details with and seems not so different in essence from certain exercises given us by our teachers, having to do with sensing the fine substances from the inhaled air breathed out into the body along a specified path.
I think that it is possible to understand such an exercise as “imaginal” (the Gurdjieff teacher John Pentland hinted at this sometimes when he gave such exercises), and that it aims at bringing about a connection between the attention and various centers in the body which connects them, and this creates an atmosphere that can receive very fine impressions. The “form” of the imaginal in the Gurdjieff tradition as presently transmitted is based on the human body; as Pentland said “you must make the body a symbol.”
The mistake that contemporary “Kundalini” afficionados make is the same as the mistake made by all historical and contemporary religions: the mistake is to hypostatize Kundalini, to make it a “religion”, to “believe” in it as if it were a fact given in nature rather than one engendered by an act of mind. One sees this same sort of mistake in the process of being crystallized in certain Gurdjieff students, and perhaps in the “official” form of the teaching itself. Imaginalism has the potency to be a universal attachment-dissolving standpoint that can correct this mistake. This is what motivates my interest in the import of the the teachings that I cited, particularly Ibn Arabi.
To fulfill this itinerary, this journey to inaccessible places, is to accomplish what your text recommends, to detach from the illusion of Kundalini, and lets us see even further, that true esoteric detachment from something is to get to a position outside the belief in it, to make belief conscious, so that I could say “I believe” rather than “it believes (in me)”: “Faith of consciousness is freedom.”
As for the second part, I wrote this at an earlier stage of
understanding. What I think I would change in it is to make much more clear
that “imaginal” is in no way “imaginary”—”imaginal” things are real, even more
real than the quotidian “things” of the world, the common contents of
perception. The ordinary person raised in our world, so degraded in real
understanding, in which mind is only trained to be utilitarian in manipulating
the world to satisfy lower needs such as sex, hunger, power, etc., is not equipped
to grasp this. Corbin, who coined the term “imaginal” partly to avoid saying
“imaginary,” spends much ink explaining it. “Imaginal” is his translation for a
precise idea in Sufi/Neo-Platonic mystical writings.
It takes quite a bit of inner work for the idea to awaken in higher mind, “higher intellect,” which alone can understand. What work precisely? Gurdjieff give a hint in the chapter “Form and Sequence” of Beelzebub’s Tales. It is what the whole chapter is about. I will cite a few paragraphs from pp. 1167-1168:
“And for the Reason-of-understanding these factors are as follows: the first, that is the ‘sacred-affirming’, is the newly perceived impressions of any localization which has at the given moment what is called ‘the-center-of-gravity-functioning’; the second or ‘sacred-denying’ is the corresponding data present in another of his localizations; and the third factor is what is called the ‘being-Autokolizikners’, or as they otherwise call it ‘Hoodazbabognari’, the sense of which name signifies, ‘the results of the persevering actualizing of the striving towards the manifestation of one’s own individuality’.
“By the way, you might as well hear still once more even if you do know it, that the said being-Autokolizikners are formed in the presences of three-brained beings in general in all three localizations exclusively only from the results of the actualization of being-Partkdolg-duty’, that is to say, thanks to those factors which, from the very beginning of the arising of the three-brained beings, our uni-being common father designed to be the means for self-perfection.
“It is these same formations in the common presences of three-brained beings which are actualized as the third holy force of the Sacred Triamazikamno for the arising of the Reason-of-Understanding.
“Only thanks to this factor, in the process of the blending of newly perceived impressions of every kind in the presences of three-brained beings, are there crystallized on the basis of the Sacred Triamazikamno data for one’s own cognizance and understanding proper to the being alone; and likewise exclusively only during such processes of the crystallization of the data for consciousness in the presences of three-brained beings does there proceed what is called ‘Zernofookalnian-friction’ thanks to which the sacred substances Abrustdonis and Helkdonis are chiefly formed in them for the coating and perfecting of their higher parts.”
So we are told
finally, for the first time in the book, what being-Partkdolg-duty actually is:
“persevering actualizing of the striving towards the manifestation of one’s own
individuality,” And we are told that what this gives rise to are the
sacred substances of higher feeling and higher thought. And that these are what
the higher bodies are made of.
Of course we are often given foretastes of higher feeling and higher thought that seem to come unbidden and unearned: but these are not grounded in inner effort and hence “evaporate” quickly and play no role in creating permanent higher bodies.
And what are these higher thoughts, and the higher feelings connected with them? Precisely, they are encounters of the individual with Real Things such as angels, energy pathways in the body, planets etc. as beings, even God. Ibn Arabi was an unexcelled master of the direct knowing of such things, and Corbin correctly parses his extensive ponderings on their nature and arising.
People who have not put in the necessary work can only interpret “imaginal” things as “imaginary,” or else they make the worse mistake of simply “believing in” what they are told about them, thus being hypnotized by mere words, and taking these things them as if they are similar in nature to the quotidian, utilitarian, things of ordinary life. In relation to “God” these beliefs are the two errors of “atheism” and “theism.” To fall into either of these errors makes inner work much more difficult. The secret of Gurdjieff’s “sly man” is to avoid these errors by swallowing the difficult pill of realizing that everything is taking place inside oneself. This is one meaning of “self-remembering”. Fixed beliefs are understood as illusory: what matters is what is taking place (including “believing” in things), NOW, in me, in the whole of myself. This entails the difficult and painful work that Gurdjieff describes as his aim in writing the book, on the very first page of Beelzebub’s Tales: “To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings...the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in [Man], about everything existing in the world.” The book helps, but ultimately this “destruction” is a work that must be done by oneself, upon oneself. It is the same as Ibn Arabi’s work of standing “in between,” in the “isthmus” between the human and the Divine, and the same as the Buddhist “middle way” which sounds so simple but in practice is the hardest thing in the world: to train oneself to reject the two extremes of belief in the real existence of things as they are perceived, and the equally mistaken belief that everything is illusory.
Exercises are found in all traditions similar to ones taught in Gurdjieff’s teaching, some of which are described in the recent book Reality of Being of writings of Gurdjieff’s prime disciple Jeanne de Salzmann. One starts by merely imagining real things. Eventually the real things themselves manifest. It is crucial at this moment to stop the effort, to stop imagining. It requires a subtle and difficult-to-practice attitude in the initial effort to be free enough to actually stop at the moment it is required. Corbin’s “sufi” idea of the “imaginal” helps precisely to orient this attitude. Corresponding ideas are found in traditions such as Christian monastic practice, Buddhism, Gurdjieff, etc.
There is a parallel experience in work with the physical body: to hold an “objective” pose or gesture, such as the erect balanced relaxed posture of the body in sitting meditation, is at first an effort directed by the mind; but at a certain moment the posture is maintained by a force that is experienced to enter from a higher level. This happens also with the movements practiced in Gurdjieff’s “sacred dances.” At this moment it is very important to drop the mental effort; unless this happens, the full experience of the new force is not received. So the effort itself is a buffer! There is a Sanskrit etymological reading of “Kunda” as “vessel,” the body as vessel for receiving higher substances. Gurdjieff’s “inner buffers” are what blocks the higher from descending into the body. Our inner state must become fine enough that the buffers no longer operate.