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MULLA NASSR EDDIN – In Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Ben Bennett

April 2016

I happened to meet John Amaral at Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he mentioned that he was organizing the next one, and would I consider presenting something? In response, I asked him whose name appeared in Beelzebub more than any other? Of course he could not answer me right off, but it is not a trick question; aside from the three interlocutors - Beelzebub, Hassein and Ahoon - the name which appears most often – and also in the second and third series – is that of Mulla Nassr Eddin. I said I’d like to say something about the role and significance of the Mulla in Beelzebub. He did not let it drop, but emailed me several times and finally I committed to being there and saying something, then I missed all the deadlines for written submissions and so John asked me if I would say something after dinner. I asked if people would be drunk? Was I supposed to be the cabaret act? He said no, no these would not be “party animals” but serious students of Gurdjieff. So I began to think about it Seriously and wrote him a long impassioned letter detailing some things I thought Deeply Significant. About five minutes after sending the email I got one back from John to the effect of “yeah, yeah – are you going to do the gig or not?” So this is basically what I tried (unsuccessfully) to say at the event last month.

 I first heard the name of Mulla Nassr Eddin when I was a little boy travelling to Turkey with my parents and brother. Somebody gave us a books of children’s stories about the Mulla and his wacky exploits, which I thought funny and strange. Then when I was a teenager, Idries Shah published his two volumes of stories. When I was about 17 I began reading Beelzebub and came across the Mulla’s name connected. I’d already encountered stories of Tyl Eulenspiegel in Germany, so was predisposed. All seemed consistent. No problem. Later travelling again in Turkey, I began to notice how often the Mulla’s name and image appeared in popular culture there (along with Karagöz but he does not concern us here). In 2012 Cindy organized a pilgrimage to twelve holy sites in Western Turkey and along the way, we stopped in Akshehir where the tomb of Mulla Nassr Eddin is located – we had a nice picnic lunch in a quince orchard and shared stories of the Mulla. But one thing I noticed was that every other tomb that we visited had a mosque attached, and was a place of prayer, but not so the Mulla’s. This was more like a theme park. The tomb of the Mulla sits in the middle of the town in a pleasant little park. Shah had described the tomb of the Mulla as having a large solid front door, which is securely locked and bared from entry, but that the back and sides are missing and open. This was not what we saw in Akshehir. The tomb is centred under a six sided colonnade. It is easy to enter via any of five of the sides, but the sixth has a wrought iron gate which has a padlock. The whole town is set up like a kind of theme park dedicated to the Mulla, Street signs are written backwards, and there are little statues on street corners depicting scenes from stories of the Mulla. In the little kiosk at the entrance of the park, selling postcards and little figurines, I noticed one picture of the Mulla sitting on the branch of a tree. He is sawing away at the branch, but between himself and the trunk. I asked the old geezer to tell me about it? He told me this story.

 The Mulla was gathering firewood one day and climbed the tree to cut the branch on the trunk side. A friend happened to pass by, and shouted at him that if he persisted he was going to fall and hurt himself. The Mulla disregarded him and blithely continued to cut, and of course the inevitable happened and he fell from the tree and landed heavily on the ground, hurting himself. He picked himself up and ran after the other man, saying he that since he must be gifted with the ability to foresee the future, could he foretell when the Mulla was going to die? The man was astonished at the Mulla’s foolishness and said in exasperation the first thing that came into his head, telling the Mulla that he would die when his donkey brayed three times. The Mulla was terrified, knowing how freely his donkey vented. So very carefully and respectfully he loaded his firewood onto the donkey and began to lead him homeward. As they approached the town, the donkey became aware of a female of its kind in a field, and inevitably greeted her by braying. The Mulla trembled, thinking this was his first life gone. But they continued on the way. Soon they passed the store of a grain merchant, and the donkey smelled the rich feed, and in his hunger he once again let out a bray. In terror the Mulla continued to lead the donkey, and as they approached their destination, the donkey saw his stable and, anticipating rest and comfort brayed the third time. This time, the Mulla knew his time had come, and fell on the ground as if dead. His wife came out and seeing his lifeless body, began to weep and wail, and the neighbours came and they all concluded he was dead, and began the arrangements for his funeral. The Mulla was washed, laid out and wrapped for burial, and the party of mourners set out for the burial ground. Soon they came to a fork in the road, and there was disagreement among the party as to which way would be best. Unable to agree, the coffin bearers set the Mulla on the ground, and began to argue, unable to agree. Eventually it was too much for the Mulla who was alive, awake and listening to the argument. He sat up and said in a loud voice: “When I was alive we always went this way”. End of story. But back to Gurdjieff.  

 Why does he refer so often to the Mulla? Why does he refer to him as “our dear teacher, the wisest of the wise?” Nowhere in All & Everything does he tell any of the familiar stories of the Mulla. There is a single reference in the chapter Russia to a direct and personal meeting between Beelzebub and the Mulla, and this describes a situation and person which more nearly resembles Gurdjieff’s own father than the traditional images of the Mulla. I had long pondered the meaning of the stories and tried to see the meaning behind them. Idries Shah remarks that the donkey is often a feature of the stories – never in Gurdjieff’s accounts. But if we look at the relationship of the Mulla to his donkey we see that the donkey could be taken as a symbol of ignorance, of humanity in its ordinary, lazy, stubborn, selfish condition. In this particular story, the Mulla is shown first of all reaching a position of eminence – as represented by the tree. As a result of his own negligence and heedlessness, he brings about his own downfall – or we could take it to be an act of courage to cut himself off from the trunk, the mainstream. Either way, he suffers a humiliation, which he further embraces by putting himself at the mercy of his friend. From then on the Mulla becomes a symbol of higher intelligence. He guides the donkey, but when the donkey manifests three times from egoism – motivated by sex, greed and the desire for personal comfort – he withdraws and appears to be dead. This is one of many stories in which the Mulla appears to be dead but in fact is not. In this instance, he manifests at the point where his fellow humans reach a turning point, and he guides them to choose which of two ways they can take to meet the final resting place of all people.

 If we take the Mulla as a symbol of higher intelligence, and not the dunce he is portrayed as in such stories, what is his value to us, what can we learn from him – and why does Gurdjieff bring him to our attention over and over again, in fact so often that in the first twenty-five conferences of wise beings to discuss “All and Everything” he was never mentioned? What do we ordinarily consider to be higher intelligence? In the 18th chapter of the Koran, we find a description of Moses approaching Al-Khidr, and asking to be his companion. Khidr accepts on condition that Moses never asks for an explanation of his actions. Then Khidr behaves in such a bizarre way, even in one instance killing a young boy, that Moses cannot restrain himself, and three times breaks the condition and remonstrates with Khidr. After the third time, Khidr withdraws himself, but before doing so, reveals to Moses that he had very good reasons for his seemingly insane acts, and that these reasons were based upon an ability to foresee the future and to take pre-emptive action. This is one possible way of seeing higher intelligence at work in the world, but by definition one in which humans can have no direct input. Then there is the image of higher powers as for instance the pure feminine spirit as represented by the Virgin Mary or Mother Meera, giving love freely to those in need of it, and manifesting occasionally in the world as a symbol of unselfish, non-judgmental goodness. (I recently met a man who unexpectedly told me that a major turning point in his life came when he saw Mother Teresa in person.) But the Mulla as higher intelligence is different from either of these. The Mulla hides in plain sight. He is associated with the donkey because he is closely connected with and a part of humanity. He is our own inner guide when we need him to be. He is not a “holy man” although his name means “he who helps religion”. The word “din” is translated as religion in the very broadest sense, including spirituality and all the “varieties of religious experience.”

 There is a story of the Mulla being invited one Friday to give a sermon at the Mosque. When the time comes, he ascends the minbar – a sort of pulpit at the front of the Mosque – sits down and in a loud voice calls out: “Oh people! Do you know what I am going to say?” Predictably, they call back “No!” whereupon the Mulla says, “If you are so ignorant there is nothing I can say to you.” And he descends and leaves on his donkey. The congregation feels short-changed and they ask him to come back a second time. The same thing happens. The Mulla climbs the minbar and calls out “Do you know what I am going to say to you?” Thinking they are not going to be fall for the same trick twice, the congregation calls back “Yes!” whereupon the Mulla says “In that case there is no reason for me to say more, since you already know it.” And once again he leaves. The following week, the congregation decide that they really must find out what it is that he really knows and they invite him back a third time. A third time he calls out from the minbar: “Oh people! Do you know what I am going to say?” This time there is total confusion as some call out “Yes” while others call out “No” so the Mulla concludes by saying: “Let those who know tell those who don’t know.” And leaves for the third and final time. You could take from this that a) one obstacle to understanding is thinking that you already know, and do not need to be taught; or b) that you are unable to understand because you are not able to access the powers that you have available to you, and c) the role of the teacher or higher power – the Mulla is literally above the congregation when he says these words – is to enable us to make the full use of what we have, to awaken to the inner voice. The way I told the story above is not the way Idries Shah told it. These are my own words. These are not sacred rubrics, like the Christian liturgy or such, but every day events described. If I had used the words: “Let those who know communicate with those who don’t know” instead of “tell” the sense would be subtly different. If we can change the words of a story, there is quasi-infinite number of possible events capable of description without loss of the pattern of the story. So the sense of the story is not always the same. Anyway, who knows if there is anything behind the obvious? So the story exists irrespective of the teller or the audience, but is filtered through the experience of both the teller and the hearer. The stories are truly an interactive medium.

 There are so many stories of the Mulla, and as Gurdjieff says, stories are still being invented. There is more than one grave associated with the Mulla’s name. He is in that case both a human being and a myth. A myth? As soon as we use the word ‘myth’, we think of the Carl Jung sense of the word, as a road map to our unconscious operating system, or Joseph Campbell who would describe it more as Legominism. Everything we can see of Gurdjieff suggests that there are multiple layers of meaning contained in every sentence of his writings, and the 114 references to the Mulla to be found in Beelzebub are a constant reminder of this. But Gurdjieff hints - but does not make - clear over and over again that meanings are hidden, as for instance his remarks in the opening pages of Chapter 1 or MWRM, or the chapter Russia in Beelzebub. At the risk of bringing down a storm of criticism, I’ll quote the very last words my father wrote in his “Gurdjieff: Making a New World”: "What we call hiding is in truth, the impossibility of giving what people cannot receive.” Gurdjieff’s elaborate symbolism, uncouth neologisms and changes of terminology were not employed to mislead and obstruct his followers, but to ensure that they would make the effort to discover the meanings for themselves. Initiation is real enough, but it does not consist of making things easy for the seeker.” Every culture has its own special creation myths – those of Africa or the indigenous North Americans are different from the Vedic tradition, and from the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as set out in Genesis 1 and 2. Tradition is not always in agreement with anthropological research, but most would agree that humanity did not arise on the Earth of its own volition. The human race is not self-created, but continues to procreate. There is evidence going back as far as can be recorded or discovered that human beings questioned the reason for our existence. (Many years ago as a trainee counselor, I wrote a paper on suicide, in which I argued that every intelligent person at some time questions whether they really want to live or not.) Everybody feels comfortable that they know what man is, but few feel they could answer the question “What is man’s purpose?” (I once heard the high priest of rationalism Richard Dawkins interviewed on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman. Towards the end of the interview, Paxman asks Dawkins if according to him there is no purpose to human life? Dawkins says “Of course there is a purpose, which is the propagation of DNA.” He then quickly moves on, presumably unable to surmount the circularity of this argument.) But if we believe that there is in fact a purpose to humanity, that life is not a random phenomenon, is this still the same as it was when the first being made the first human being stood erect and began to act intelligently, possibly one and half million years ago, or when the first humans began to act in ways that were not strictly utilitarian, to be creative and constructive, possibly 35,000 years ago? Was there a guiding force which enabled humanity to make these steps? Is that force still guiding and if so is humanity merely a passive entity like the donkey in the stories? The most famous illustration of the Mulla shows him sitting on his donkey facing backwards. The higher powers - conscious, intelligent but discorporeal energies - are either guiding humanity as the Mulla does his donkey - or they are trying to encourage the donkey to evolve and act for himself, to become his own higher intelligence, taking responsibility for his own welfare, for his place in the world and the need to fulfil his cosmic purpose. To do this last there is the requirement that this purpose is acknowledged and accepted, and I’d say that this is the true meaning of “Conscience”. The point I take from the stories of the Mulla is that he is intimately connected with humanity, is a part of humanity, but able to act according to different laws. As long as we remain as the donkey we will never understand our role, will never be able to find our way. But as the congregation in the Mosque, we have the answers and are able to teach ourselves if we will listen to each other, and to our own inner voice. The changes in the world are reaching the point where they can no longer be ignored. The average age of the global population is less than 30, which means that more than half of the people inhabiting the Earth today were not alive twenty-nine years ago. The model presented in Beelzebub is that our planet is required to produce a quantity and a quality of energy of a certain kind – either by our life or by our death. Does the guiding force which enabled humanity to be created, have a plan for all this vast amount of human energy which is proliferating?

 The message for me from Gurdjieff’s constant references to Mulla Nassr Eddin is that there is a hidden factor in our lives and more specifically in our work. I am a great believer in the technique of opening any book at random when seeking the answer to a question. When I was pondering these questions some months ago, I opened “Gurdjieff: Making a New World” and my eyes fell upon some words on page 119: Describing the meetings recorded by Ouspensky from the Moscow period, he says: “The idea which is so important in Christian doctrine of enabling Grace, without which work on oneself is impossible, was never mentioned. Nor was the Sufi notion of Baraka which refers to the same supernatural action that must be transmitted from person to person.” The story of the Dover’s Powders is a case in point. What is represented by the special ingredient Opium, which is present in the true formulation but not the new one? Or the “soft and slippery “something”’ described in the incomprehensible paragraph on P. 31-2 of Beelzebub. He points out to us the magic ingredient in our experience which transforms the mundane into the ineffable – but does not clarify what this is. Bottom line? I think Gurdjieff is guiding us with his stories to a kind of understanding that only comes through work, and that this is of much greater value than any communicated teaching. OK – that’s about it, sorry for rambling.