Great Teachers – What do they Know/Believe?


The omniscience that self-realization brings doesn't include comprehensive factoid-knowledge of the manifested universe. Richard Rose used to say, for example, "I don't know the number of hairs on your head." Shawn Nevins, an emerging spiritual voice, began an essay in the TAT Forum titled "What I Don't Know" with the following statement:

People do not understand the knowledge that a realization of essence brings to the individual. I know little of the whys and therefores of this place. I do know what I am – essentially. When all has fallen to dust, what was discovered will BE. Till then, I am walking a road....

And he went on to describe that road, in question-and-answer format. Below we'll take a look at the diverse views of Wolff, Harding and Rose regarding 1) life after death, 2) reincarnation, 3) individual immortality, 4) unseen help and 5) group work.

Life After Death |
Reincarnation | Individual Immortality | Unseen Help | Group Work

By "life after death" I'm referring specifically to the continued existence, for some time after the body dies, of the I-amness that we identify with our individual selves. In response to a question on this topic, the American Zen master Alfred Pulyan wrote:

The body dies & is dissipated.
The mind is one with it at all times and is therefore also dissipated.
Nothing of you remains. There is no survival or reincarnation or "immortal soul," "conscious entity."
As far as that goes you are the exact equal of a drop of water & have the same possibility! Or an electron. Or a cabbage.

And those words, read decades later, triggered the profound realization of another of Rose's students, Bob Cergol. Pulyan's words seem to imply that when the body dies, the lights go out and individual consciousness ceases coterminously. It doesn't seem that Wolff, Harding and Rose shared the same view, but this is precisely where the intellect fails, according to Bob.

 Franklin Merrell-Wolff

One of his students – a philosophy professor – told me that, when Merrell-Wolff's body was laid out on the living room sofa after his death, he and other students took turns reading the First Bardo from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, at their teacher's earlier request, for six hours. These are instructions for guiding the individual after death of the body, which Tibetan Buddhists believe the individual can still hear for up to three days.

 Douglas Harding

In a 2001 interview for the Noumenon Journal, editor Kriben Pillay asked Douglas Harding: "On the matter of death, would you not say – and I think you alluded to this in your book The Little Book of Life and Death – that where there is still a strong identification with the face in the mirror, the personality, there might be some kind of continuity of that for a little while?" The response:

I think empirically this is well documented. I mean these stories of ghosts hanging around at the scene of the crime – I think these things do occur. I don't see why, I mean I don't understand it, or I don't see why old Douglas if he wished – if he had some terrible un-resolved problems or committed murder or was himself murdered and something needed to be cleared up – should be around this place being a nuisance to people. I suppose the miracle of Being is so astonishing that I don't rule out anything; anything is possible. Also, the ideas that I understand. I don't understand a word of it really. I'm full of wonder. I would say a few things – very simple things and very ordinary, everyday things – seem to me the deepest things I know. And it's not the wonderful, spiritual, conceptual stuff – the lovely words and the transcendental language – but the ordinary things which teach us something. All these things I enjoy so much because it's so ordinary, common and sharable, and the highfalutin, conceptual, spiritual world seems to miss this. It goes off the point. It's cuckoo land, largely.

Shawn once asked Harding, "Does Seeing in any way affect what happens to you after death?" Douglas laughed and said, "I think I'll refer this technical question to Abbot John" (a Zen abbot who was staying with the Hardings at the time).

 Richard Rose

Rose used to refer to Gurdjieff's categories of states of being and how they related to the type of experience a person went through when he graduated to the next level: the salvation experience when man #1, instinctive man, graduated to the emotional level; the eureka experience when man #2 moved to the intellectual level; cosmic consciousness when man #3 jumped to the philosophical level; and, finally, becoming aware of oneness with the Source. (He didn't see any useful distinctions in Gurdjieff's levels 5 through 7.)

The most telling remark that Rose made concerning the topic of life after death was that if he thought everyone went to the same place when they died, he would never have opened his mouth. He pointed out, I believe as a parallel, how different people experienced different things when they had near-death experiences, from oblivion to enlightenment. I think he felt this depended on the "level" of the individual's state of being at the time of death.

When asked at a Boston College lecture: "Do you know what will happen to your state of being [after death] – will your consciousness continue?" Rose's response was: "Yes. If it did not, I wouldn't talk to you. If oblivion were what is waiting for you, I would keep my mouth shut. It would be better for your peace of mind. It's better to have peace of mind if you're going no-place. If I had discovered that oblivion were the answer, I wouldn't talk."

Life After Death | Reincarnation | Individual Immortality | Unseen Help | Group Work

Reincarnation assumes the existence of an individual soul or spirit that attaches itself to different individual creatures over successive lifetimes, generally associated with the belief that there is a progressive refinement leading ultimately to self-realization.

 Franklin Merrell-Wolff

I have the impression that Merrell-Wolff was a believer in reincarnation, but when I look for evidence of that, I come up empty-handed. The only reference I find in Experience and Philosophy is a statement in the opening pages that, before his awakening, he had come across a man he considered a true Sage, and that man had "suggested my correlation with a previous incarnation of special importance."

I have a sketchy memory of another student mentioning that, on his death bed, Merrell-Wolff prayed for a speedy reincarnation so that he could get back to his work.

On the other hand, Wolff extolled Buddha's anatman (i.e., no soul) doctrine as the most subtle of teachings.

 Douglas Harding

In Chapter Four: Death of Face to No-Face, Harding responds to the question, "Do you have any expectation regarding death?" as follows:

There are two points here. One is that the mind, the psyche, this body of feeling and thought and so on, which is peripheral to Who I am, doesn't necessarily vanish at death. The evidence is overwhelming that it may hang around in time.... In any case, it's rather brief, and I would say, at the end of Douglas's shelf life, enough is enough. Let me off being that one.

On the other hand, Who I really am has no future and no past. One is eternal now. One is not in time at all. This is the Timeless. This is what one is.

However, it is the nature of Timelessness to manifest in time, and I suppose the idea of reincarnation has a certain amount of truth in it – that the One Who I really am is forever incarnating and will continue to do so. But that's all I can say. I'll report further when more evidence comes in!

I think of death very frequently. One has to die daily. The skillful thing is that you put in a lot of homework before you actually find yourself on your deathbed. You'll need it then.

Typical of all true sages, I think, Harding tries to point out that a total answer shows that the assumptions underlying the question are wrong.

 Richard Rose

When asked about reincarnation, Rose would typically answer in one of two ways, probably depending on how he thought the inquirer was leaning. One such response was to undercut the question, encouraging the questioner to doubt his current view, often with a humorous repartee such as: "You call this living?" The other was to say simply that he had no memory of previous lives. On the other hand, occasionally he would say something like: "If I was around back then, I would have been one of the Albigensians" – implying that he had an unexplained feeling of rapport with the medieval people of southern France known also as the Cathars. And once, when I made a statement that my horror of receiving or inflicting physical injury may have come from a previous lifetime as a torturer or tortured person, Rose replied: "No, you witnessed it."

In another question at the Boston College lecture mentioned above, someone asked: "What are your views on reincarnation?" Rose's response was: "... If I knew for sure that you were going to reincarnate, I wouldn't tell you. Because I believe that it becomes a form of procrastination."

Life After Death | Reincarnation | Individual Immortality | Unseen Help | Group Work

I think there is a common view among these three teachers regarding individual immortality, although they sometimes said and wrote things that may seem contradictory.

 Franklin Merrell-Wolff

"Oh, it doesn't mean that you are proven an immortal organism. You have proven your own deathlessness, not the immutability of equipment – that is another matter. Equipment may be made to last longer than it does with us ordinarily. But that which is born inevitably passes away, and sometimes that is quite fortunate, for that which is born may be suffering, and it will pass away. But this which you have discovered as 'I' never was born and transcends time; witnesses, as you discovered it, witnesses time and even space. Thus beyond time and space and law, know that I AM. And when I say that, I speak for the I in each and every one of you. For this I is One and Alone. It is apparently many, just as the Sun shining appears again in the dew drops as a little sun, but yet the Sun is One Alone." [From The Induction transcript.]

 Douglas Harding

In a 2002 videotaped interview by Richard Lang, Harding recommended the following solution: "Die before you die, and then you won't."

 Richard Rose

Bob Cergol said that he had asked Rose directly, circa 1972, if he knew what would happen to him after his death, and that Rose had replied: "I Am – forever." Bob also said that at the time he misinterpreted the answer based on his misconception of the "I" that Rose referred to. Bob cites Rose's line in The Three Books of the Absolute, "The keeper of the house is gone and all that remains testifies that he never was," as an example of Rose's view that there is no personal immortality.

In his essay The Mind, Rose wrote: "Our immortality is dependent not on our ability to extend our personal illusion indefinitely but to transcend it. Our immortality is dependent upon our becoming the Light, by identifying with that which is Real, and really is us and has been us all the time."

Life After Death | Reincarnation | Individual Immortality | Unseen Help | Group Work

Many people believe in unseen helpers, guides, angels or spirits that are working for our benefit behind the scenes. And of course along with that often goes a belief in the negative counterparts.

 Franklin Merrell-Wolff

"Effort put forth in the right direction will draw the attention of Those who watch, and, when the time is ripe, They will do Their part."

 Douglas Harding

After WW II, Douglas went back to England and set up an architectural practice that allowed him to do well putting in only about an hour a day at architectural work until he retired at age 60. Commenting on this phenomenon in the videotaped interview mentioned above, he said: "I really believe if you put first things first, you get looked after."

 Richard Rose

Rose believed that our species was part of the food chain and was being herded for its energy-products just as we herd cows, for example. He didn't discount, either, the possible existence of guardian angels or other helpers. His view was that ours was just one of a possibly infinite number of manifested dimensions, and it was a tremendously misplaced egotism on our part to think that anything we couldn't see couldn't exist.

On the other hand, he thought that any unseen helpers or hindrances were, in the final analysis, no more real than our imagined individual selves. When asked once about the efficacy of prayer, he responded: "If you pray deeply enough, you will hear and respond." In other words, what we're looking for is none other than our essential nature.

Life After Death | Reincarnation | Individual Immortality | Unseen Help | Group Work

While the specific manifestations varied, all three teachers exhibited the value they placed on people working together toward self-realization.

 Franklin Merrell-Wolff

Wolff maintained an extensive property in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where students could spend time or live. For many decades he gave a talk to the students or visitors every Sunday morning, combined with listening to some classical music and performing a few simple rituals. He encouraged study groups to form in other places, also. And he valued physical work for the students – the most notable project of which was the construction of a stone ashrama in a remote canyon over many years.

His granddaughter, Doroethy Leonard, said that she remembers her family spending summer vacations at the ashrama project when she was a child, along with upwards of forty other students, as wonderful times.

 Douglas Harding

In his postscript to On Having No Head, Harding wrote: "For the majority of us caught up in this most daring and exacting of adventures, the company of fellow-adventurers is indispensable. Accordingly it would be unrealistic – worse: irresponsible and uncaring – if we were to encourage people to take the message of this book to heart, yet fail to follow it up with all the continued support that the nature of this enterprise allows." Yet he saw the inherent problems of any organization. "For a spiritual movement that's as alive and distinctive as most others, the Headless Way is remarkably lacking in organization. It resembles the people who take it up in that it, too, is without a head – in the sense that it has no presiding authority, no governing counsel or headquarters...." He encouraged instead a network of loving friends – "loose, scattered, altogether informal."

 Richard Rose

Rose shared the view that I'm sure the other two men also had that there is nothing more important than the "Grand Work" of Recognition, seeing who we really are, or self-definition. And he also shared their view on the drawbacks of any organization. He expressed his ideal of people working together as a circle with no head.

He also had strong convictions about what he referred to as the Law of the Ladder, which was that we should only be working with those on our own rung and those one rung above or below us. He felt that our progress depends more on being pushed up the ladder by those below us than on pulling ourselves up to the next level, and accordingly each of us should be finding half a dozen people on the rung below us to be helping.

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