John G. Bennett - International Academy For Continuous Education

International Academy For Continuous Education

By 1969 the company which had been formed to explore structural communication - Structural Communication Systems Ltd. - was floundering and Bennett's health, too, was in a dangerous state. After his recovery, Bennett looked afresh at the situation and the conviction came to him that he should take up the work that Gurdjieff had started at the Prieuré in 1923 and been forced to abandon. He would start a School of the Fourth Way.

Bennett became very interested in young people, especially those who surfaced from the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s with serious questions about the significance of life but with few satisfactory answers. As part of his research, Bennett attended the rock music festival on the Isle of Wight in 1970. The outcome was the establishment of an "academy" to teach some of what he had learned in trying to discover the "sense and aim of life, and of human life in particular."

On the twenty fifth anniversary of the Institute, in April 1971, a jubilee celebration on the theme of The Whole Man was held. In a very short time, primarily in the USA, Bennett recruited many students and in October 1971 the International Academy for Continuous Education was inaugurated in Sherborne, Gloucestershire.

Bennett had begun this enterprise with no programme in mind and with only a handful of helpers. Initially, his ideas had involved running a school in the midst of 'life-conditions' in Kingston with two dozen students, but contact with a young representative of the New Age Movement in the USA persuaded him to think in terms of larger numbers and a relatively isolated locale in the countryside. Bennett realized that work on the land (which he considered to be an essential part of teaching the proper relationship between mankind and the rest of creation) would require a larger number. Both Hasan Shushud and Idries Shah made recommendations that, for the most part, he disregarded.

He quickly attracted one hundred pupils, and in 1971, with the support of the Institute for Comparative Study, he inaugurated the International Academy for Continuous Education, in the village of Sherborne, Gloucestershire, England.

The name was chosen "to indicate on the one hand its Platonic inspiration and on the other to emphasize that it was to offer a teaching for the whole life of the men and women who came to it."

As he tells the story in his autobiography, although various spiritual leaders had urged him at various points in his life to strike out on his own path, it was not until near the end of his years that he felt fully confident to assume the mantle of the teacher. Bennett relates how Gurdjieff had told him in 1923 that one day Bennett would "follow in his footsteps and take up the work he had started at Fontainebleau." In 1970, following the promptings of a still, small voice from within that said, "You are to found a school",

Bennett proposed that there should be five experimental courses each of ten months duration. The courses proved fruitful, and many people have continued, as he had hoped, to work with the ideas and methods he presented.

In April 1972, the Sufi Hasan Lutfi Shushud came to stay for a few months at the Academy. The two had met in Turkey ten years previously, and Hasan Lutfi Shushud had visited Bennett's Surrey home in 1968, when Bennett was initiated in Shushud's wordless, universal zikr, which, Bennett concluded, bore results similar to those of the latihan, while omitting many of the risks attendant on 'opening' unprepared people. Bennett had since grown increasingly attracted to the Khwajagan, the Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia extolled by Hasan. According to the official site of Bennett, "...In 1973, Bennett’s publisher Alick Bartholomew commissioned a book which was originally to be entitled “Gurdjieff and the Masters of Wisdom” and was to be co-authored by Bennett and Shushud. However, Shushud pulled out of the project, telling Bennett that he did not trust the publisher, apparently on the grounds that he had deducted state income tax from the advance payment. What later became apparent was that Shushud did not agree with the connection Bennett wished to make between Gurdjieff and the Masters of Wisdom. In the event, Bennett divided the proposed book into two separate titles, “Gurdjieff: Making a New World” (1973) and “The Masters of Wisdom” which draws heavily on Shushud’s “Hacegan Hanedani” about the Khwajagan published posthumously in 1975. There are number of mysterious things about Shushud, who certainly had unusual powers. Bennett makes a brief reference to these in “Witness”, and many others have attested to them. One of his closest associates lives today in San Mateo, California ...".

While criticising Bennett's methods, Hasan impressed on him that "Your only home is the Absolute Void". Shushud eventually agreed that what Bennett was doing was more suitable for young western seekers than his own strict methods of fasting and zikr.

In the same year, Bennett began editing Gurdjieff's Third Series of writings, 'Life is Real Only Then When I Am', undertaking its publication on behalf of the Gurdjieff family (who were having difficulties in dealing with the Gurdjieff Foundation). He also revisited Turkey, meeting with Hadji Muzaffer, the Sheikh of a Halveti Dervish Khalka.

During the period of the second course at the Academy, a Cambodian Buddhist Monk, the Reverend Mahathera V. Dharmawara, known as 'Bhante', came to Sherborne at Bennett's invitation. Techniques of meditation were introduced that continue to be practised by many people.

Other visitors were Suleiman Dede, head of the Mevlevi order in Konya, as well as his disciple Reshad Feild. Idries Shah paid a brief visit during the first year, but soon left, with harsh views on the attitudes and disposition of the students.

Throughout the period of the Institute's existence, Bennett had been toying with the idea of founding a spiritual community. He saw the Sermon on the Mount as a document describing the true community. His contact with Idries Shah combined this in his mind with the possibility of establishing a Power House where 'enabling energies' could be concentrated. He set his sights on some kind of self-sufficient community, populated by Sherborne graduates, to evolve out of the school. He was profoundly influenced by contemporary ideas, such as those of Schumacher, about the need for alternative technology and by the argument of conservationists for intelligent, ecologically sound agriculture. He was also greatly impressed that his spiritual hero and inner teacher, Khwaja Ubaidallah Ahrar (15th century) had turned to farming after his period of training.

Soaring price of land in the UK led to Bennett's interest in starting something in the USA. In 1974, he signed an agreement whereby the Institute loaned $100,000 to a newly formed society for the foundation of a psychokinetic community. He signed this document shortly before his death on December 13, 1974.

The Claymont Society was founded to attempt to carry out Bennett's vision, but without the help of his guidance.

In the Summer of 1974, he visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rome to question him about Transcendental Meditation and his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. Bennett had been initiated into TM several years before and first met the Maharishi in 1959. He disputed Maharishi's presentation of the Gita in which he eliminated the need for sacrifice and suffering.

In the last year of his life, he gradually made it known to those working with him, that his own personal task centred on the creation of a way of religious worship that would be accessible to men and women of the West who were lacking in religious formation. During this period he made experiments with the Islamic namaz and Sufi zikr.

The teachings he developed in his last years were recorded and published in a series of books put together by Anthony Blake. He showed that at last he was independent of Gurdjieff and had his own understanding of the spiritual world, based on a radical questioning of all current assumptions.

Bennett died on Friday, December 13, 1974, shortly after the start of the fourth course. That course, and the fifth, were completed by his wife, working with a few of his most experienced pupils.

With his death the Institute was faced with the typical problems of a body which had been led almost single-handedly by one man since its inception. The decision was taken to continue the Academy's work until the five-year period, originally specified by Bennett, had been completed. The setting up of the USA community at Claymont Court, West Virginia, went ahead..

In the months before he died, Bennett worked to establish an experimental "ideal human society" embodying the methods and ideas that he had developed and derived from Gurdjieff. He made substantial efforts to overcome the rifts that had grown between different groups of Gurdjieff's followers, and was beginning to talk about the development of new forms of worship appropriate for the modern world.

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