John Godolphin Bennett Biography

John Goldolphin Bennett

 
Unravelling the wool which Gurdjieff had effectively pulled over our eyes and reknitting it all into new depths of understanding is one of the real gifts that Bennett brought to his masters work.(Cecil Lewis, All My Yesterdays, p.152)
An individualist and a maverick, [Bennett] believed that a teaching will become devoid of life unless new insights are constantly found to renew its relevance.(Alick Bartholomew, obituary article, The Times, 16.12.74)

 


 

John Bennett was born in Wimbledon, South-West London, in 1897. His father Basil was a traveller, linguist and adventurer and his mother Annie Caroline was an American from Rhode Island. At school, John Bennett was a noted scholar and athlete, securing scholarships to Oxford, but instead of university he was sent on leaving school to RMA Woolwich. Posted to Arras, France, he served for nearly two years as a second lieutenant of the Royal Engineers. In March 1918 he was almost fatally injured and invalided back to England.

While he lay more dead than alive following his injury, he experienced an out-of-body sensation that later proved to be one of his great turning points, and he describes this as the real beginning of his life.

Upon his recovery, and while still commissioned in the British Army, Bennett was trained in the Turkish language, for which he appears to have had an uncanny aptitude, and, after the cessation of hostilities, posted to Istanbul, Turkey where he remained for two years. He was married for the first time, to Evelyn McNeill in November, 1918, on the same day that his father died.

By his own account, Bennett's time in Turkey was the most exciting period of his life, and as well as playing a pivotal role in Middle Eastern military intelligence, he also made excellent connections with the Armenian secret societies, with the Turkish royal family, and in a short space of time, met his future second wife, Winifred Beaumont as well as P.D. Ouspensky; Thomas de Hartmann and G.I. Gurdjieff. His daughter Ann was born in 1920. This was also the time of his introduction to Islam and his first encounters with Sufism, and with what Gurdjieff later called 'all sorts of dervish nonsense.'

In the summer of 1920, Bennett received a vision while walking in the street in Istanbul. This vision gave him an insight into the existence of higher dimensions and worlds, and gave him his start on the great search that would consume the rest of his life. It was in this period that he came into contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, who would later become the two greatest influences on his life and his search.

By early 1921, Bennett was close to the centre of some international political controversies and was recalled to London, where he was summoned to brief Prime Minister, David Lloyd George on Middle Eastern affairs, after which he resigned his commission. Returning to Turkey as a civilian, Bennett was approached by representatives of the Turkish princes, the heirs of the late Sultan Abdulhamid II, to act as their agent in the salvaging and settlement of their vast estates, which included some incalculably valuable oil fields in Mesopotamia.

Bennett was introduced by Mrs Beaumont to an American entrepreneur, John de Kay, who helped him to set up the necessary legal instrument to assume control of the princes' properties. At this time, Bennett settled in London, separated from his wife Evelyn, and moved into a flat with Mrs Beaumont. In his free time, he began regularly to attend Ouspensky's meetings, to study Buddhism, and taught himself Sanskrit and Pali.

In 1922-3, he attended the Conference of Lausanne as the Turkish princes' representative. However, although astonishingly successful as an intelligence officer, Bennett proved to have little aptitude for high level international finance. For the eight year period from 1922, Bennett devoted his time to the pursuit of deals on behalf of the princes, and to the study of the system taught by P.D. Ouspensky.

By 1922, Gurdjieff, after visiting Berlin and London, had settled in Paris, and acquired a large chateau at Fontainebleau, known as The Prieuré. Bennett made two short visits in the winter of 1922-3 and spent five weeks there in the summer of 1923. Although he left the Prieuré against the advice of Gurdjieff, this time proved to be a turning point in Bennett's life. His stated belief was that he could generate a source of income from the prince's estate and his own remuneration would be used to establish the worldwide institute that Gurdjieff visualized.

By 1925, Bennett was divorced from Evelyn, moved to Athens, Greece and was married to Winifred. The Turkish princes' affairs slipped irretrievably from his grasp, and ultimately, he himself was incarcerated for a period of several months in a Greek jail, due to the filing of some land deeds that proved to have been forged.

After his trial and acquittal on all charges, Bennett, who was now without a source of income, developed some ideas which had come as a result of visits to some mine works in Northern Greece. From a small beginning this proved to be extraordinarily successful. After some false starts in the financially perilous climate of the early 1930s, Bennett eventually gained traction in the field of coal research, and received extensive funding from the association of mine owners to explore ways to make coal production and use more efficient. Bennett's career in the field of coal research proved to be stellar, and by the end of World War 2, he had been appointed to a number of government committees and was the director of an extremely prestigious and well-funded research institution- the British Coal Utilization Research Association. For his activities in support of the war effort, he was able to requisition a substantial suburban estate at Coombe Springs in South West London, where he set up research laboratories, and used the grounds for his spiritual study groups on the weekends. Many but not all of the people who worked for the coal research project, were participants in the study groups. At the end of the war, the research labs were relocated to Leatherhead, Surrey and Coombe Springs was purchased outright from the owner, for the exclusive purpose of the spiritual research. An institute was incorporated and named The Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences, forming an umbrella organization for the activities of Bennett's study groups.

During this period Bennett had worked closely with Ouspensky, and had begun to teach the system to groups of his own pupils. But after Ouspensky left Britain for the US in 1941, he began to suspect that Bennett was plagiarizing his books, and proscribed him from his groups. On his return after the end of the war, he served legal notice on Bennett, who did not see him again before his death in October 1947.

Ouspensky had returned from the US a broken and pessimistic man, and after his death, his pupils were in confusion. Although he had specifically forbidden his pupils to study Gurdjieff, or even to speak his name, his widow had remained in contact, and in July 1948, she requested Bennett to re-establish links that would enable Ouspensky's pupils to approach and request guidance from Gurdjieff, who had been living quietly in Paris throughout the war.

Bennett returned to Gurdjieff almost exactly 25 years after he had last seen him, and this time was determined to allow no opportunity to pass him by. He recounts in his autobiography "Witness" that although his professional life was highly successful, and he had the support of a large number of regular students, still he felt inwardly that he was lost and confused. He formally asked Gurdjieff to teach him, which was agreed on condition of complete commitment.

From that point until Gurdjieff's death a year later, Bennett worked with great vigour and determination. He travelled almost every weekend to Paris, returning each week to his hectic professional life. Gurdjieff pushed him unmercifully, setting him all manner of difficult or impossible tasks, alternately ridiculing or humiliating Bennett, then praising him and sharing his profoundest teachings. Bennett published his first two books, "What Are We Living For?" And "The Crisis in Human Affairs" the latter being a series of lectures delivered a matter of weeks prior to Gurdjieff's death.

In January 1950, Bennett presented a series of lectures in Carnegie Hall, New York, to launch the Gurdjieff Foundation there. Through the 1950s visitors at Coombe Springs and attendees of his lectures numbered in the 100s, and a second branch of the Institute was set up in Manchester, England.

In 1952, Bennett's illustrious career in the coal industry came to an abrupt end when a member of his staff was exposed as a member of the Communist Party. Bennett took his severance pay and used it to travel to the Middle East, spending four months in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Iraq. He made contact with a number of prominent Sufi leaders during this time, and immersed himself in the way of life of a wandering dervish. Upon his return, he inaugurated a project to build a large meeting hall in the grounds of Coombe Springs, and to this end he asked a number of architects to form a design group to incorporate the ideas of the system into the design. He also embarked on a campaign to bring publicity to the Gurdjieff work, which put him on a collision course with the notoriously publicity-shy elders of the Gurdjieff group.

In 1956, Bennett became aware of Subud, a devotional practice originating with an Indonesian named Muhammad Subuh. Having been alerted by Gurdjieff to look for another teacher who would follow, and advised by Sheikh Abdullah Daghestani in Damascus that a great teacher was soon coming from the East, Bennett was disposed to believe that Pak Subuh was the promised leader. Accordingly he made all his considerable resources available to Subud, and following his lead, large numbers of members were initiated into the practice. The British venture was quickly followed by similar events in the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Shri Lanka, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, in each case Bennett accompanied Pak Subuh as his translator and assistant.

In 1958, Bennett's second wife, Winifred died at the age of 83, and he was married to Elizabeth Mayall, the mother of his two sons, George and Ben. In 1960 and 1962, two daughters, Hero and Tessa were born.

For two years Bennett devoted himself to Subud to the exclusion of all else. His book "Concerning Subud" was a best seller, going to a second impression within months of its first publication; and Bennett also published several minor books on Subud through small publishing houses. But by 1960, Bennett had become disillusioned, and saw that Subud did not in fact live up to its initial promise. He returned to his Gurdjieff practices and many but not all of his former students followed him. In 1960, as a result of some meetings with a group of Benedictine monks, he became a Catholic, and from that time on, he never missed Sunday Mass, and also became an active member of his local St Vincent de Paul Society.

In 1961 and 1962, he made two visits to Kathmandu to meet the Shivapuri Baba, a remarkable traveller and spritual authority, who was 135 years of age at the time of Bennett's first visit. Then in 1965, after a series of meetings with Idries Shah, he decided to close the Coombe Springs project. At an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Institute, a decision was reached to donate the entire property unconditionally to Idries Shah, and Bennett and his family moved to a private house in Kingston-upon-Thames. A number of close pupils and friends set up homes in the neighborhood, and the Bennett's home became a small meeting centre.

In 1970 he received an inner indication that he was to start a school. He quit the work he had been doing with a group of researchers developing educational systematics, and devoted himself to the new project.

By October 1971, the school opened with 90 students at Sherborne House, in a large mansion in the Cotswolds, England. By the time of his death in December 1974, Bennett had completed three Basic Courses, putting emphasis on leadership of groups, and ways to practice and share the Work. The fourth course was under way and the fifth was in preparation. Just a few weeks before his death, Bennett saw the initiation of a project that would eventually become the Claymont Society for Continuous Education in West Virginia, USA.

Also in the last year of his life, Bennett negotiated an agreement whereby it was possible for the Gurdjieff Foundations to buy out the rights of the Gurdjieff family, enabling them to complete the film "Meetings with Remarkable Men", and to publish the Third Series of Gurdjieff's writings.

Bennett placed great emphasis on passing on the teachings of the work to other people, on service to other people, on sacrifice of one's own needs and wishes to the needs of others, and on constant struggle with one's own limitations. He published a number of major books, including his four volume "The Dramatic Universe" and his autobiography, "Witness" and a number of other books, which mainly consisted of transcriptions of lectures.

Ben Bennett ~ 2014

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