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Escape from Conditions

Posted by Lee van Laer
Lee van Laer
Lee was born in New York in 1955, and spent a good deal of his childhood in Hamb
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on Wednesday, 08 February 2012
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Today, a comment on the Parabola Facebook page about war criminals had me pondering questions of ethics, and the thought occurred to me that we are all war criminals.

This may seem like a ridiculous proposition to readers; nonetheless, if you follow my line of reasoning, I believe you will understand the proposition.


My family moved to Hamburg, Germany when I was seven years old. The first week I was there, I met a middle-aged woman with a tattoo on her arm who had come out of the concentration camps.  Wide-eyed and innocent as I was, she was wise enough to compassionately explain to me why she had this tattoo. The explanation boggled my young mind. And at nine years old, my parents took me to see Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died; this provided a permanent shock which cannot be described in ordinary words.

In summary, the question of man's inhumanity and our collective moral imperatives has been a living one for me since I was a very young person.

We begin this line of questioning with the question of whether or not there are war criminals. If there is no right or wrong, there cannot be any war criminals– everyone does exactly as they please, and all things are equal.

If there are war criminals, however, right and wrong indubitably exist. (See the post on intuition and conscience–link below.)

Let us presume there are war criminals. We will now examine this question from the point of view of the Holocaust.

Once we agree right and wrong action exist, let us propose, for example, that it is wrong to exterminate innocent Jews in gas chambers. It is, in fact, so wrong that one must stop this by any means possible.  Eventually it becomes clear- as it unfortunately did- that merely discussing the matter over a cup of tea will not stop it.  Only applying extreme physical force will work.

At this moment in time, a man who fights–who kills other men–to prevent this misdeed is not taking a wrong action. So he's not a war criminal. He fights on the side of the right. And the man who refuses to fight is in the wrong on one of two counts: either he is passively refusing to stop the crime, thus becoming complicit in the mass death of Jews, or he is outsourcing the fighting to others, thus becoming complicit in both their death and the death of the Jews, which, one might conceivably argue, is even more criminal.

In other words, to take no action whatsoever and still end up on the side of the “right”– attempting to escape conditions– is essentially impossible. This is the point that Krishna tried to impress upon Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad-Gita; so it is an ancient question. It raises deep questions about the legitimacy of absolute pacifism from any moral point of view: and to propose or presume the possibility of an absolutely pacifistic planet is an absurdity. Conditions are not so, and they will not be. To presume otherwise is naïve at best, no matter how many arguments get thrown at it.

In our own society– and traditionally, throughout history– if a man kills to prevent other men from doing wrong, suddenly, he is issued an official excuse – and, even more, he becomes a hero. Yet he has still killed.

So apparently, there is an escape from the conditions of the morality of killing, because there are other conditions. Here discrimination pits one condition against another and excuses one evil because it was necessary. Examining this case, we see that even from the most ordinary point of view, that of the human moral imperative of right and wrong, redemption is possible: that there are transcendental conditions, that is, conditions that allow escape from other conditions. In other words, even in a polarized world "limited" by the dualistic ideas of right and wrong, higher and lower principles must exist.

Gurdjieff pointed out that we live in a universe of laws, and that a man is always under some law. It is up to a man to understand this and decide which laws he chooses to be under. There is no absolute escape from conditions. Pacifists, in other words, want to escape from conditions, but they can't. All of humanity–being born into this essential condition, which does as a matter of objective fact contain violence and inhumanity–  is already complicit. We begin that way. The action of discrimination must become our guide; and we cannot deny at least the possibility of redemption under conditions of this kind.

This is, at least in part, the reason that Europe abolished the death penalty; an action the United States, due to its punitive moral attitude, has not seen fit to agree on. (Ironically, authorities generally agree that the traditional Tibetan legal system in place at the time the British originally invaded Tibet was rife with extreme punishments and human rights abuses, suggesting that we have sold ourselves a romanticized, Shangri-La version of what the actual conditions in Tibet's religious society were, up until the West  and the Chinese began to interfere with them.)

I pointed out in an earlier post that the question of intuition and conscience comes into play here. We cannot control conditions; we can only become responsible to them. Responsibility is a complex question, not easily answered with reflexive emotional responses, which are partial. The reason that Gurdjieff used the analogy of a horse, carriage, and driver (concepts he took directly from an ancient yoga Sutra) for the being of man is because the horse isn't that smart. It's a horse. It is tremendously powerful and can run in any direction with great force, but it lacks intelligence. It is up to the driver to provide the intelligence needed to direct the horse properly. So knee-jerk reactions to the idea that so and so is a war criminal may be appealing, but they fail to examine the fundamental premise.  One has to think about these things; thinking, however, is difficult and may lead one to painful realizations that don't fit with one's opinions. Hence, we usually avoid doing it.

This brings to mind a comment that Krishnamurti made at a meeting in Holland in the 1960's. One man maintained that the Nazis were more responsible than others for the crimes that had been committed. Krishnamurti admonished the man by saying that we are all personally responsible.

Each of us, individually, he said, is responsible for the conditions. Not some other person.

One response we can choose to make in response to conditions is compassionate action– something that the Dalai Lama would surely endorse. (Highly recommended reading: Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, featured in an earlier issue of Parabola.)

So how can one escape from conditions? Transcendence– the action of the higher, third force, a reconciling factor, the Buddhist action of going beyond– is always an action from a higher level. We cannot escape from the conditions of contradiction on this level. Something else is necessary. A divine influence, which has a property often referred to as Mercy, must enter into the action of this level in order to reconcile. At the moment of death– the moment of surrender to the higher, which is the  required second shock in the octave– Gurdjieff's prayer is “Lord have Mercy.” This is the action that Christ took on the cross when he forgave the criminal being crucified next to him.

In other words, by Christ's example, even as we ourselves are crucified– brutally nailed to the horizontal action of this level– we can choose to discriminate by taking a compassionate action that shows mercy.

Students of the Gurdjieff system interested in the enneagram might here take note of the fact that the second conscious shock is located in the "wrong" place on the enneagram.  This shock is actually supposed to be located between the numbers eight and nine–that is, between the notes "si" and "do."

The prayer of "Lord have mercy," in other words, must be invoked as man stands at the very threshold of the Lord– it is his last and most necessary prayer before his encounter with the Lord, that higher principle to which we must all answer in the end.


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