I’ve begun work on my book about the enneagram, something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I plan to do so from a Buddhist perspective. I am discovering what this means in the act of writing.
It is quite natural to wonder, “where does it come from?” Good question. I have searched high and low for the answer. Some people say it comes from Sufism. I tracked down a renowned Sufi Sheikh and asked him if he knew the enneagram. Nope. (It’s just one guy, I realize.) Other Sufi masters might have said otherwise. (He subsequently tracked down and sent to me a fascinating passage from the Koran that describes the “nine types of men.” It is fantastic.)
Here is the conventional wisdom about the enneagram origins as far as I can tell. If you know other details and would be so kind as to add them, that would be great.
The first person known to teach the system was George Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic who died in 1949. He taught it to his students as a way of understanding the natural cycles of existence, not so much as a system of personality typing.
Fast-forward some 20 years to South America where a Bolivian mystic named Oscar Ichazo began teaching the enneagram (or enneagon, as he called it) as a system of personality typing. As the story goes, he channeled all the details from the great beyond. Who am I to say?
One of his students was a Chilean psychiatrist (also a great mystic), Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo studied quite deeply with Ichazo and went on a spiritual journey that transformed him forever. In the 1970s, Naranjo made his way to the US and eventually settled in Berkeley, CA where he began to share the enneagram with students, but only verbally. Writing it down was discouraged but, as we now know, some of his students begged to differ, wrote it down anyway, and here we are.
As I understand it, Naranjo did more than share what he had learned from Ichazo, he added to and refined the personality descriptions and coined the subtypes, which to me is the core brilliance of the system. Ichazo (who is still living) went off and created his own school/cult/system, depending on who you speak to. Since I’ve never met him, I can’t say.
Naranjo’s teachings seem to be at the heart of what we know about the enneagram today. Every book, podcast, and workshop owes their gratitude to him. He is the man. Or was—he passed away last month. A great loss.
In my own contemplations on the enneagram, and as one who likes to get to the bottom of things rather than proceed on innuendo, projections, academic notions, or worst of all, conventional wisdom (fie), I knew that Dr Naranjo was probably the only person in the world who could actually answer to my face the question, “Where does the enneagram come from?” So about 10 years ago, I emailed him and asked if I could visit him in Berkeley. He said yes. And so I did. I asked him my question. He answered.
As you may know, I am a long-time Buddhist practitioner in a Tibetan lineage. There are basically four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma (the ancient school), Kagyu (the ear-whispered lineage), Sakya (pale earth), and Geluk (New Kadam). They’re all great, amazing, brilliant. The great majority of my practice and study life has been within the Nyingma teachings. I discovered that enneagram elder Claudio Naranjo was also a Nyingma student so, although we studied different versions of the same teachings, we were kind of related. That made me even more excited to talk to him, partly because it gave me a way to request a visit that was other than I MUST SPEAK WITH YOU AND I AM NOT CRAZY, I PROMISE. When I emailed him saying I would be in Berkeley, could I stop by, I told him of my studies and that I would like to talk to him about the enneagram and the Five Buddha Families to get his thoughts about whether or not one system could be mapped onto the other. (Spoiler alert: he said that that he had thought about this extensively and had created such a map. He agreed to share his thoughts with me in writing—but told me I couldn’t tell anyone. So I never have.) When he gave me an appointment I immediately booked a ticket from Boston to San Francisco because, of course, I had no such plans for a visit. Until I did.
Anyway. I went to his house, which was like entering another dimension. Young people were scattered about, sitting in front of computers, doing something. They spoke to each other in Spanish. The living room furniture was two easy chairs facing each other, as befits a psychiatrist, I suppose. The other furnishings were books—stacks and stacks of books. Books, everywhere. We sat down to talk and spent about two hours in conversation. Finally, I asked him about the origins of the system, specifically why people said it came from Sufism. His answer? He said his student in the 70s pestered him so much with this origin question that finally he said “Sufism,” just to shut them up. We laughed. Then he left the room, came back with a 1970s newspaper article from an English paper about a journalist’s search for a secret brotherhood that lived in the mountains of Afghanistan/Pakistan. He read the article to me, left the room to return it to whence it came, sat down across from me again and said, “Do you like Chinese food?” Then we went out to dinner.
That was basically it. Then the door to Naranjo-world closed. Subsequent efforts to reach out to him went unanswered, although I have held him in my heart from that day forward as a beloved spiritual friend.
This is quite a tale, I realize. I have no idea if what he told me was true, untrue, true in the moment, or something to get me to shut up. It is not uncommon for great teachers to hold back the real answers from students who are not prepared to hear them, whether because they are just too thick or the motivation behind the question is unclear and thus the answer could actually hurt or be unuseful in some other way to the student. Personally, I know I am confused and unrealized to such a degree that a teacher might want to withhold certain intel until I am, you know, less confused and more realized. I will never know.
But that is what happened.
Rest in peace, dear, inscrutable, brilliant Claudio Naranjo. May you receive no more questions you would rather not answer and may all who knock on your door be seekers of the purist sort, worthy of your real wisdom. I continue to aspire to less silliness and more purity and will do my best to honor you in my own writing about the enneagram.