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Vedanta Philosophy



Ken Wilber


This article comprises an abridged and adapted version of chapter 1.9 in my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995), pp. 101-127. That book attempted a detailed and historical coverage of religious traditions, as distinct from the treatments found in popular "new age" and "transpersonal" literature. The section on Ken Wilber was included in the introduction to that work, and has been considered the first detailed critique of early Wilber books.


1.    Perennial  Philosophy: Wilber  Replaces  Huxley

2.    Spectrum  of  Consciousness

3.    No  Boundary

4.    Atman  Project

5.    Up from Eden


1.  Perennial  Philosophy: Wilber  Replaces  Huxley

The American writer Ken Wilber gained popular celebrity as a commentator on the perennial philosophy. Certain of Wilber's emphases distinguished him from the Human Potential Movement; for instance, he repudiated the transpersonal relevance of the Jungian archetypes. Jung asserted that: "Mystical experience is experience of archetypes." (1) Wilber qualified this to mean "lesser mysticism."

Wilber's transpersonalism was nevertheless convergent to a considerable degree with alternative therapy, a commercial vampire persisting today. Moreover, Wilber's version of the "perennial philosophy" can be viewed as incomplete, and also incorrect on numerous points of exegesis. In popularity, the Wilber theory replaced the version of Aldous Huxley, which was very minimal in definition, and ultimately misleading, not least because Huxley became a drug ingester.

2.  Spectrum  of  Consciousness

The first of Wilber's well known books was The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977). This commenced with a statement of the basic thesis supplied, affirming that the different channels of psychology, psychotherapy, and religion are "not contradictory but complementary." The book thus promoted a synthesis "that values equally the insights of Freud, Jung, Maslow, May, Berne, and other prominent psychologists, as well as the great spiritual sages from Buddha to Krishnamurti." (2) The validity of a subject like Gestalt Therapy is not questioned, and the subject of "great spiritual sages" left unclarified. The complementary nature of these diverse subjects is much in query.

A pronounced relativism is expressed in relation to the ultimate "Level of Mind" envisaged, in which context Wilber states that: "Brahman is not a particular experience, level of consciousness, or state of soul - rather it is precisely whatever level you happen to have now." (3) This is a very casual definition of Brahman, and far more closely resembles Jung's version of the atman than the purist Advaita concept of moksha. The "now" in Wilber's definition is reminiscent of Krishnamurti's emphasis, which was very assimilable to Gestalt Therapy.

In the Wilberian spectrum model, there is no attempt at history of the "perennial philosophy," but instead a series of phenomenological statements based upon presumed authorities like Krishnamurti and Bubba Da Free John (Adi Da Samraj). Many thousands of people who heard Krishnamurti's public talks, and who read his books, were misled by certain of his key emphases. Krishnamurti denied the relevance of a developmental path, a convenience that became an increasing fashion in the New Age, which he influenced to no small degree. If there is no demanding path to truth, the claiming of truth is far more likely to be a deceit.

Krishnamurti (1895-1986) claimed to experience samadhi, a word variously translated and currently meaningless. By the time he associated with Aldous Huxley in California during the Second World War, Krishnamurti was in the habit of lying to some of his intimates. According to his own admission, this failing arose through fear. (4) His private life was not in accord with his preaching. Yet Huxley's version of the perennial philosophy is strongly associated with a glorification of Krishnamurti. The latter was much admired by Huxley from 1938, at a time when the English writer settled in California.

In The Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber extolled Krishnamurti as the incredible man whose discourses had been compared by Aldous Huxley to those of the Buddha. More realistically, Krishnamurti led thousands of people to believe that there was no "path," producing a breed of "eternal now" enthusiast. "The real is near you, you do not have to search for it; and a man who seeks truth will never find it." This well known axiom of Krishnamurti was quoted approvingly by Wilber, who facilitated beliefs creating a disastrously complacent effect.

In his preface to The Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber described that book in terms of a "synthesis of psychotherapies East and West." It is not therefore a discussion of the fabled and elusive perennial. Psychotherapy is not typically striving for truth, but instead so frequently emphasises a relaxation (or stimulation) in sensation or fantasy. Yet Wilber confused readers by giving the impression that he was penetrating to the heart of Vedanta, Vajrayana Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism. This misleading "synthesis" became a dominant influence in so-called transpersonal psychology.

The relativism was confirmed at the end of the spectrum book. "The journey does not start Now, it ends Now, with whatever state of consciousness is present at this moment." (5) The acute subjectivism in this approach is glaringly obvious. Wilber adds: "That is the mystical state." Such a state would be one of useless delusion, too common amongst Western meditators.

3.  No  Boundary

Disappointing was the further exaltation of therapy evident in Wilber's No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979). Such books served to prop up the alternative therapy movement, which made rather casual genuflections to Eastern mysticism. "Gestalt therapy embodies an excellent and theoretically sound approach" (6) wrote Wilber enthusiastically. The diversions endorsed by Wilber created widespread confusion, to the financial gratification of predatory parties.

After recommending Transcendental Meditation (a joke to critics), Wilber commenced the final chapter of No Boundary entitled "The Ultimate State of Consciousness." Yet therapy intrudes even here, and what remains is very much in the idiom of an exhortation to live in the now instead of searching for truth. "To move away from now is to separate yourself from unity consciousness," (7) though some would rather do this than affirm with Wilber that "the works of Bubba Free John [Adi Da Samraj] are unsurpassed." (8) This American guru gained notoriety for a hedonistic lifestyle.

Zen Buddhism was another major influence on Ken Wilber's present-centredness. He approvingly quoted Suzuki Roshi's assertion: "The state of mind that exists when you sit (in zazen practice) is, itself, enlightenment." (9) The distinct tendency to be satisfied with formalities may well be perennial, but not necessarily proof of insight. Certainly, the shallow logic of "no path" became very popular in Californian Zen. According to Ken Wilber, "the true sages proclaim there is no path to the Absolute." (10) The names used in support of this categorical statement are Krishnamurti, Eckhart, Huang Po, and Shankara. Pathlessness is definitely true of Krishnamurti, and perhaps Eckhart, though Shankara is misrepresented, particularly as the Upanishads do state that there is a path. The identity of true sages remains to be confirmed in a historical context, as distinct from the deceptive lore of therapy and meditator convenience.

The concept of "no path" abetted the lucrative livelihood of many alternative therapists who preferred to live in the gestaltist joys and revenues of the exploited present moment.

4.  Atman  Project

The spectrum model accumulated further distortions in The Atman Project (1980), a book that proved influential in what became known as transpersonal psychology. The sub-title was A Transpersonal View of Human Development. The American transpersonalists are sometimes said to have originated in humanistic psychology, associated with Abraham Maslow, who became famous in the 1960s. Transpersonalists understandably reacted to behaviourism and psychoanalysis, but introduced sweeping and simplistic perspectives believed to be of "spiritual" significance. The amorphous popular trend known as the Human Potential Movement was a background scene of confused ideation, with the "workshop" fashion providing a largely unrecognised form of exploitation and also a hazard.

Much in-crowd praise devolved upon The Atman Project. In particular, the appendix of various tables was treated by fans as an authoritative ready reckoner index to human development. The author said of these tables that he was "setting out all the various stages of various developmental schemas suggested by respectable researchers." (11) Those so-called researchers included the audacious American guru Adi Da Samraj (1939-2008).

Much of The Atman Project revolves around Western psychological theories, and an improvised mythicist element is discernible. To such an extent indeed that the reader is treated to terms like the "uroboric self" and the "typhonic self." Nearly two thirds of the way through, the lower levels of the spectrum reappear pronouncedly in such sub-headings as "uroboric incest and castration." This atman project of Wilber psychology puzzled readers who have attempted to find out why The Atman Project was considered a classic of perennial philosophy by transpersonalists. The reason may be that the final chapter dwells upon the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a familiar landmark to the psychedelic generation influenced by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass).

The legend of The Atman Project as a guide to "perennial philosophy" may be attributed to over-enthusiastic transpersonalists. In the preface to that book, Wilber does not actually mention the subject of perenniality, and instead expresses a concern to separate the "transpersonal realm" from the infantile. This exercise was again bounded by relativistic idioms. The same preface contained an assertion that the thesis "is finally a lie in the face of that Mystery which only alone is." (12)

5.  Up  from  Eden

There is little doubt that Ken Wilber's next book Up from Eden (1981) comprised his version of the perennial philosophy, becoming widely advertised as such by the publishers. The sub-title was A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. The book gained elaborate praise in transpersonal circles. However, Wilber's evolutionism is not easy to let pass without criticism if a more exacting context for history is desired.

An indication of the partisan evaluation is afforded by a comment of transpersonalist Stanislaf Grof. This therapy entrepreneur stated that Up from Eden "offered nothing less than a drastic reformulation of both history and anthropology." (13) A distinctive Wilberian vocabulary, e.g., the Typhon, was in evidence, but otherwise failing to locate the "perennial philosophy" outside the format bestowed by Coomaraswamy and Huxley.

In transpersonal anthropology (or sociology), Wilber managed to elevate his two major contemplative interests (Vajrayana and Zen) to a unique evolutionary status. American Buddhism thus gained transpersonal qualifications which tended to glorify the roles of Chogyam Trungpa and Alan Watts, who are controversial elsewhere.

One of Wilber's leading supporters, Professor Roger Walsh, provided a summary of Up from Eden. Walsh claimed that Wilber integrated the evolutionary theories of Teilhard De Chardin, Jean Gebser, and Shri Aurobindo. Wilber argued that an altogether new category of spiritual consciousness emerged amongst humanity from about the sixth century CE onwards. This highly speculative theory elevated the Zen founder Bodhidharma and the Indian Vajrayanist Padmasambhava. All former mystical and religious traditions (not to mention philosophies) are here construed to have been inferior levels of evolution, including Indian sages like Gautama Buddha. The basic argument behind this gradation is Wilber's suggestion that, as various mystical states "emerge sequentially in today's contemplatives, they emerged sequentially in human history." (14)

This suggestion has a number of problems tending to evoke a duly critical reception. Wilber did not investigate or present enough of the extant facts and probabilistic data relating to the traditions "sequentially" demarcated in his theory. Despite the widely advertised role of Up from Eden as a commentary on the perennial philosophy, the internal contradictions within that popular scenario are not generally perceived or acknowledged.

A logical point to bear in mind is that, by admitting the sequential unfoldment of experience in today's contemplatives, Wilber unwittingly undermined the celebration of "now" that is still tiresomely proclaimed by the Alpert bandwagon. On this premise, the conclusion is inescapable that different contemplatives will apprehend the fabled perennial to very different degrees. In other words, what appears viable to some can appear as a deception to others. The sequential unfoldment of experience amounts to the neglected "path," in which it is vital to negotiate the static effects of the "now" imposed by the personality, whose habits extend to meditation and delusion.

In transpersonal evolutionism, Buddha and Jesus are less advanced than Padmasambhava, and all prehistoric shamans were less advanced than Lao-Tzu. The former two entities are more tangible than the latter two, though all are enveloped by legend. Lao-tzu was the putative author of a famous Chinese manual of statecraft, often mistaken for a mystical text. His spiritual status is totally elusive. This very obscure entity "actually passes out of historical reckoning." (15) Accordingly, one has to negotiate the lore devised by American transpersonalism.

Wilber acknowledges a pervasive influence of the Hegelian model in his theory. That model is notoriously invested with a sense of European advancements superseding all former eras. In the Wilberian model, American transpersonalism similarly gains prestige, though relying upon the halo awarded to the presumed Zen-Vajrayana uniqueness. The available historical information on Bodhidharma and Padmasambhava is very slight, and quite insufficient to credit either of them with a greater status than Gautama.

The need for further caution arises when a bohemian guru like Adi Da Samraj (Da Free John) is considered an exemplar of the transpersonal advance. Wilber tends to present this antinomian figure as being on equal par with Ramana Maharshi, (16) one of the more compelling Hindu sages of the twentieth century. Ramana was not antinomian, a basic factor missing from the theory here disputed.

Ken Wilber commences Up from Eden with a quotation from Plotinus: "mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts." What Wilber managed to make of this theme is very questionable. Wikipedia has more recently described Wilber as a neoplatonist, which seems a rather forced interpretation of his output. A neo-Gebserian is probably a more accurate classification. Wilber closely followed the format of Jean Gebser d. 1973), who imposed upon cultural evolution a repetitive formula of archaic-magical-mythical-mental-integral. This straitjacket was borrowed by Wilber, who identified strongly with the integral association, denoting an advanced stage.

Several million years are treated by Wilber in an acutely deductive, and reductionist, manner sufficient to cast doubts on the transpersonal hypothesis, currently identified with "integral spirituality." Wilber claimed that his book contained "not just the perennial philosophy, and not just a developmental-logic, but a sociological theory based upon both." (17)

More soberly, and on the same page, Wilber honestly stated that there is "precious little detailed anthropology and archaeological data" in Up from Eden. That dearth leaves us with a wealth of citations from a limited number of sources, including the mythicist Joseph Campbell (18) and the evolutionary theorist Erich Neumann. The bibliography is too full of Freud and popular psychology, and far too sparing in historical sources supplied by specialist scholarship.

The "perennial philosophy" in this theory is really no older than the Coomaraswamy-Huxley-Huston Smith output. This "perennial" factor rests upon a basic set of assumptions, to which Gebserian formulae and other topical theories are added. For instance, Julian Jaynes is cited by Wilber as support for "the invention of history" at circa 1300 BC, which we are asked to believe is a part of the "lower egoic period" in human evolution. (19) Jaynes and Wilber arbitrarily decided that the only appreciable progress for the human race began at this era, with the transpersonalist being slightly more generous in allowing a rudimentary subjective consciousness prior to that.

The speculations of Wilber can read like an artificial form of omniscience. "Sometime during the first and second millenia B.C., the exclusive egoic structure of consciousness began to emerge from the ground unconscious." (20) Wilber also asserts that at this era, "evolution produced the first fully self-conscious beings." This declaration is accompanied by an assumption of "the scientific fall." We are told that mankind had formerly been "blissfully asleep in nature's subconsciousness."

The invention is elaborated in terms of a bizarre argument. This "scientific fall was a historical move up from the subconsciousness of Eden." (21) There is absolutely no history involved, only a Wilber speculation about the ego and the bicameral theory of Jaynes, which amounts to a misapplication of neuroscientific data about brain hemispheres.

Wilber was here confusing human history with his contempt for theological versions of Eden. This means that we are moving "up from Eden," not down from it, and despite the accompanying assumption of a scientific fall. The American transpersonalist interprets Darwinian theory in terms of a supposed backwardness of all the numerous archaic human sociocultures. In this version of humanity, very little of conscious significance occurred between the apes and the "scientific fall." So much for short term perennialism in the cause of Zen and Vajrayana, traditions and lore that became popular in America during the late twentieth century. The realistic vintage is circa 1965, and no earlier.

The neo-Hegelian transpersonalist extrapolated the "Great Chain of Being" in terms of modern assumptions about primitives lacking self-conscious life, assumptions shared to some extent by Jean Gebser, Jung, and Neumann. Perhaps the radical Jesuit Teilhard De Chardin tried harder to break his mental conditioning. Yet Teilhard is popular in the new age for his absurdly romantic theory of the Omega Point in evolution, in which all souls will reawaken to God consciousness.

The spectrum model of Wilber is applied to human evolution in a manner loaded against early civilisations. All archaic men were infants, is the message here, even if some of them may have gained a partial self-consciousness. Their abused myths and religious concepts receive little more credit than in Jaynesian bicameral speculations, which invoked auditory hallucinations as the basis for all religious insights. Generalisations about the "Great Mother" theme are today so ubiqitous that more specific observations would not stand a chance against popular reductionism.

Wilber effectively eschews most of the data and meaning relating to human evolution. He does fleetingly acknowledge the intuitions of Pyramid Texts, and awkwardly refers to "the profusion of brilliant metaphysical and spiritual insights" associated with ancient Egypt (Up from Eden, p. 108). However, a belittling theme is that archaic men banded together in secret societies, in order to escape the dominance of the feminine principle. The Great Mother meant human sacrifice, (22) suggests Wilber, who was relying upon superficial mythicist cues, and despite the lack of evidence in numerous sociocultures not mentioned in Up from Eden.

Transpersonal theory was here strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, whose version of mythology urged that the "Great Mother" format began to change circa 2500 BC into the male-oriented "Hero" myths. Wilber affirmed that "the true hero myths do not emerge before this period (c. 2500 B.C.) because there were no egos before this period" (Up from Eden, p. 184). The egoless archaic landscape is open to question. For instance, the Pyramid Texts are associated with the powerful Heliopolitan priesthood, active in the early third millenium. It is surely too much to believe that such priests and the mighty Pharaohs had no ego.

Another influence upon the "Great Mother mythology" of subconscious Eden was Erich Neumann (d.1960), a Jungian who surmised that the self at this archaic stage of evolution "was not yet strong enough to detach itself from the Great Mother, from mother nature, from the body, the emotions, and the flood of the unconscious." (23) The implication is that moderns are so much more liberated, which is not at all convincing in vew of the body-oriented permissive society we have today. A significant portion of the internet is devoted to pornography.

The adventures of Ken Wilber with the Oedipus myth of the Greeks are no more convincing than Freud's obsession with this confusing artefact, inherited in different versions from classical writers and dramatists. The Sphinx is a sexual symbol, urged Wilber. (24) Symbols can mean anything in contemporary psycho- lore. The blindness resulting from Freudian theory could easily be described in terms of a scientific fall.

According to myth analyst Robert Graves, the Freudian theory of the "Oedipus complex" as an instinct common to all men, was suggested by a perverted anecdote of the Sphinx, one deduced by Greek fabulists from an icon showing the winged moon-goddess of Thebes. The remorseful self-blinding of Oedipus has been given an extreme interpretation by modern psychologists in terms of castration. The antique theme could merely have amounted to a theatrical detail later added to the original myth, whatever that was precisely. (25)

Comparatively hard data appears momentarily in Up from Eden speculations. Wilber here refers to Sir Leonard Woolley's excavation at the Royal Tombs of Ur. "Whole courts had been ceremonially interred alive." Wilber's description merits caution. The details of the site in question have been debated amongst specialists, and complexities are obvious. Further, that site does not exhaust the copious inventory of Mesopotamian archaelogy, which goes back eight thousand years and more. All this is lost to view in transpersonalism. "We needn't dwell further on the historical details" says Wilber in the same paragraph. He punctuates this closure on archaeology with the misleading reflection: "In a phrase, what we call civilisation, and what we call human sacrifice, came into being together." (26)

That abrupt excision of the details is altogether too convenient for stories about the gradual acceleration of the fledgling self-consciousness to Mahayana Buddhist glories. The beginning of civilisation is far more complex than Wilber envisaged. For one thing, collective burials are not generally attested at Sumerian sites, which have a history far older than the "Royal Tombs" of Ur. Sumerian civilisation of the third millenium BC is not accurately described in terms of human sacrifice. The extensive literature involved in Mesopotamian studies, and related archives, permits a radically different perspective to that of transpersonalism or "integral psychology." The Wilber cause of integralism should be notorious for what is left out, not what is included.

The site at Ur has been described by some commentators as the Royal Cemetery. It has been dated to the period immediately prior to the First Dynasty of Ur (circa 2600 BC). In most of the graves, a straightforward burial procedure occurred, in which the corpse was wrapped in matting or placed in a coffin. In sixteen more imposing graves, a collective burial is attested. Attendants willingly drugged themselves to a painless death (taking a cup of "poison"), including musicians and soldiers, although many were females. "Technically this was self-immolation rather than human sacrifice." (27)

Collective burial is attested on a smaller scale in other countries and in other eras, and mainly featuring male servants, e.g., in First Dynasty Egypt, and amongst the Scythians and Mongols of a much later period. However, in Mesopotamia, only the Royal Cemetery at Ur was the known scene for such burials (an excavation theory about a cemetery at Kish has been strongly contradicted). A pressing conclusion is that royal burials with "human sacrifice" fell into disuse at a very early date. (28)

Some commentators refer to the "so-called Royal tombs" at Ur. Nearly 2,000 graves were excavated in the cemetery at Ur, but only sixteen of these qualified for the category of "royal." The absence of royal inscriptions has caused puzzlement. The lack of conclusive evidence led to a denial that these prominent tombs contained royal burials. Counter-theories were formulated, including a contention that the major participants were not royalty but representatives of a priesthood who participated in the annual "sacred marriage" rite. A variant suggestion has been that royalty were involved in the cultic sacred marriage. However, an objection to this theory is the lack of evidence for the sacred marriage rite having ended in death for any of the participants. The arguments are intricate, and include suggestions that a Dumuzi (Tammuz) cult was in operation, part of a popular religion associated with fertility, and which eventually spread far beyond beyond Sumer. The precise context for the collective burials appears to be unresolved.

Marble female head from Uruk, late fourth milleniuium BC

A number of cities existed in Sumer by the late fourth millenium BC, each functioning as a temple centre, with a complex religion in formation. A high degree of craft specialisation was already present. Uruk and Kish were important urban and religious centres, and nuclei in the first literate urban socioculture. Uruk developed a city wall almost six miles long. (29) The transpersonal mythicist contraction of such prominent archaeological data serves as a warning against mutated "perennial philosophy" lore. (30)

The Uruk period commenced circa 4000 BC, and discernibly represents the origin of urban civilisation in the sense understood today. However, there are strong links with the preceding Ubaid period (fifth millenium BC), which is very imperfectly known, but definitely the focus for an early temple culture of considerable interest, and remote from contemporary "Great Mother" speculation.

Some believe that recorded histories are the first sign of cultural progress. The insistence of Wilber that historical records commenced circa 1300 BC is well down on the achievements of Sumerian scribes over a millenium earlier. Many surviving cuneiform tablets recorded economic details, but in addition:

"Historical and literary compositions began to appear, together with letters and dedicatory inscriptions of all sorts. These dedications provide us with some of the earliest historical texts we have. They record the names and deeds of some of the early kings of the Early Dynastic period.... There are also dictionaries and scientific and mathematical treatises used by the scribes in their capacity as surveyors and astronomers." (31)

Wilber effectively dismissed the entire Sumerian and Akkadian heritage existing over many centuries. In contrast, a specialist scholar in America wrote that Western man seems unable and unwilling to understand such religions as the early Mesopotamian variety except from a distorting angle, and employing yardsticks like nature worship, stellar mythologies, vegetation cycles, and pre-logical thought. (32)

Moving into a further round of transpersonal theory, Wilber says deceptively that the first great sages emerged about the sixth century BC., "but rarely, if ever, before." The diminished sequence moves very fast, and Wilber soon asserts that Zen Buddhism, "with the possible exception of its cousin Vajrayana, has historically produced the greatest number of enlightened practitioners, East or West." (33) Historical evidence for this contention is not supplied. The unversed reader might imagine that Chinese Ch'an (Zen) had never known reverses. Specialist scholarship has indicated serious confusions in the early centuries of Zen; minority repertories associated with Ch'an monasteries underwent significant alterations when the originally small Ch'an movement expanded. (34) All that Ken Wilber briefly mentions about deficiencies in the glorified traditions is the American "Dharma Bum" period of the 1960s. At that time, persons claiming to pursue Zen ideals demonstrated a very lax attitude of narcissism. (35)

The contemporary scene is also glorified by Up from Eden preferences. "A handful of true gurus and real spiritual masters are making their influence felt," asserts Wilber, who was here clearly including Adi Da Samraj in the honours, and by implication, Chogyam Trungpa (d. 1987). The latter is included in Wilber's bibliography; Trungpa's books were earlier recommended by Wilber. (36) Trungpa used the "crazy wisdom" he derived from Vajrayana as a virtual excuse for reckless behaviour; his behavioural lapses became notorious.

Wilber says enthusiastically that "legitimate centers of disciplined meditation are rapidly spreading" (Up from Eden, p. 324). Such reassurances may have been treated as a cover by Abbot Richard Baker and others who revived in American guise some old Mahayana lapses into antinomian lifestyles. The high degree of discipline exhibited by the traditional Japanese monk has often been lacking in American environments. The inverse example set by the British-born Alan Watts (1915-1973) proved persistent. The latter was a therapist, Zen enthusiast, and LSD experimenter who died of alcohol poison.

Moving from Britain, Alan Watts became celebrated in California during the 1960s. His books became popular amongst hippies and others. In his Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts urged that Buddhism can be regarded as a form of psychotherapy rather than a religion. His interest in Zen was regarded by critics as a flirtation. The eloquent lectures of Alan Watts gained many fans. One of his exhortations was to relinquish attempts at self-development, and instead simply "be yourself." In his private life, this orientation did not work. He tended strongly to a hedonistic attitude, and was regarded by some as an exemplar of free love. Watts contracted a series of marriages in which infidelity and neglect of children were too obvious. Indeed, he gained a reputation for creating problems wherever he went. The hedonistic now was disastrous for him and others. (37)

In 1983, news spread that the San Francisco Zen Centre had problems. Abbot Baker, renowned as a roshi (Zen master), resigned the following year in circumstances of scandal over his personal conduct. There were also scandals concerning other "Zen masters" living in various American cities. Like Alan Watts, Abbot Baker favoured therapy, more especially "bodywork," which he thought produced similar effects to Zen meditation. In his milieu, meditation amounted to a number of sexual affairs with his pupils; Baker was also implicated in authoritarian abuse and financial misconduct. (38)

Zen proved to be one of the strongest "prerational" influences in American counterculture. In this context, Zen should be considered "archaic-magical-mythical," a derogatory Gebserian label aimed by Wilber at innumerable archaic traditions which are relegated to lesser evolutionary status in Up from Eden. Zen psychotherapy emerged amongst supporters of Californian Zen influenced by Alan Watts, who was believed to be an expert on satori (enlightenment). In his wake, Oscar Ichazo was able to use the concept of satori in Arica commune license occurring in Chile, another example of a confused host environment assimilating foreign ideas in an erratic manner. The "pathless" concept of satori is so open-ended that it can mean almost anything outside a disciplined Japanese monastery where moral rules are assumed as mandatory from the outset.

The eighth century figures of Padmasambhava and Hui-Neng are credited by Wilber with "the first true and complete understanding of the Svabhavikakaya" or ultimate consciousness, which is said to be again "peaking with certain modern day sages, especially Sri Ramana Maharshi, Bubba Free John, perhaps Aurobindo" (Up from Eden, p. 320). In other words, the Up from Eden process results in the antinomian excesses of Adi Da Samraj.

The supposed value of the "rational" in Wilber's integralism is anomalous when closely analysed (the transrational was evidently preferred). The element of rationality, in the Up from Eden evolutionary sequence, is consistently belittled. The "scientific fall" was purportedly attended by an increase of guilt. This theme links with emphases of alternative therapy. Wilber envisages the establishment of "centauric societies" during the next century "if all goes well" (ibid., p. 325) This decodes in plain English to psychotherapy, or the supposed integration of mind and body, a commercial theme of the Human Potential Movement. Wilber indulges in the standard "humanistic" talk about repression (scarcely existing in Anglo-Saxon countries), and even a muted endorsement of Wilhelm Reich's theory of unrepressed emotions. (39)

One of the "centauric societies" is evidently the Integral Institute, since founded by Wilber in America, and advocating Integral Life Practice, a drawback which has incorporated such new age favourites as Zen, Gestalt Therapy, TM, Yoga, Tantra, the Kama Sutra, Kundalini Yoga, Integral Sexual Yoga, and Big Mind Meditation. (40) Up from Eden means Down to Exploitive Modules, a fashion afflicting gullible new age consumers.

In another direction, Wilber informs that Hegel's shadow "falls on every page" of Up from Eden. Wilber eulogises Hegel rather pronouncedly. "None combined transcendental insight with mental genius in a way comparable to Hegel" (Up from Eden, p. 314). Hegel was confused by Wilber with the perennial philosophy, a phrase decoding to an elusive subject masked by conveniences.

Hegel's philosophy of history revolved around the concept of a progressive development or actualisation of Spirit within human cultures. Very briefly, the development of Spirit was charted by Hegel as something deficient amongst the Orientals (Chinese, Indians, and others), and rather more advanced amongst the Greeks and Romans; the honours passed victoriously to the Germans of the Enlightenment era. Eastern peoples fared badly in this version of Spirit. They were considered to be the bottom end of evolution.

Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History are attended by different editions in German and various English translations. These require some flexibility in coverage. According to the well known Sibree version, Hegel was resistant to the British esteem for Indian philosophy, and disapproved of the suggestion that Indian thought was superior to Greek philosophy. He found a moral deficiency in both China and India, and emphasised that India had not cultivated a due sense of history.

"Deceit and cunning are the fundamental characteristics of the Hindu," (41) asserted the transcendentalist. Hegel's account of India can read like the Christian missionaries of his day. Hindus were further castigated as possessing "a monstrous, irrational imagination," (42) a theme which might fit Wilber aspersions concerning early Asiatic civilisations. More pointed is the very misleading accusation: "Cheating, stealing, robbing, murdering are with him [the Hindu] habitual." (43)

Wilber is not dissimilar to Hegel in the reluctance to concede value to Islamic civilisation. In his professorial lectures delivered at Berlin during the 1820s, Hegel mentioned Islamic philosophy in a limiting format; he acknowledged the revival of arts and sciences during the early Islamic era, but viewed such developments as being peripheral to events in the German world. (44) In the Haldane translation, Hegel affirms that Islamic philosophers "established no principle of self-conscious reason that was truly higher, and thus they brought philosophy no further."

Hegel apparently wanted to be thought of as a Christian philosopher of the Enlightenment, and affirmed to the end that he was a Lutheran. "The unity of divine and human nature is made manifest in Christ," (45) although Christian monasticism was deemed false. The Indian concept of renunciation was also depreciated in terms of "the extinction of consciousness and the suspension of spiritual and even physical life." (46)

In contrast, Ken Wilber is an advocate of "integral spirituality." Yet this ideology similarly signifies an acute reductionism in relation to global history. Wilber stated that no account of evolution can succeed in "an explanatory fashion without reference to what Hegel called the 'Phenomenology of Spirit.' " (47) However, it is fortunately possible to bypass the phenomenology, and also to perceive that "Up from Eden" theories rely for their argument upon misrepresenting and contracting the achievements of earlier sociocultures and minority repertories. (48)

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

August 2013


(1)   Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977), p. 271, and citing C. G. Jung, Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice (New York, 1968), p. 110. The quotation from Jung also appears in Wilber, "Psychologia Perennis: The Spectrum of Consciousness" (74-86) in R. N. Walsh and F. Vaughan, eds., Beyond Ego (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1980), p. 82. Wilber here described the transpersonal level in terms of Transpersonal Band therapy, an indication of the persistent confusion between therapy and other subjects.

(2)   Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, p. 11.

(3)   Ibid., p. 298. Wilber's spectrum model applies a rather superficial present-centredness to Mind. This tends to negate the equation made between the physicist Erwin Schrodinger and Shankara. According to Wilber, both of these entities experienced Mind (ibid., p. 260). Others consider this association to be very loose. A strong interest in Vedanta does not amount to ultimate experiences, howsoever these are defined.

(4)   Radha Rajagopal Sloss, Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p. 200. The strong allegation emerged that for nearly thirty years, Jiddu Krishnamurti was the secret lover of one of his assistants, during which period he was party to three abortions in this relationship. These events occurred despite the fact that Krishnamurti encouraged his public image of chastity. Earlier, he had reacted to the absurdly theatrical "initiatory Path" taught by the Theosophical Society. For four decades from 1947 he travelled the world as a spiritual teacher, giving many public talks, and enjoying many luxury holidays. Krishnamurti acquired fine houses and fast cars, while encouraging the attention of admirers, who regarded him as a great saint. The "now" was a conveniently simplified doctrine. In lamenting the absence of a "path," some critics do not mean the Theosophical version of "path," but a more philosophical (or even spiritual) route past obstructions and conveniences.

(5)    Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, p. 338.

(6)   Wilber, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Los Angeles: Centre Publications, 1979), p. 120.

(7)    Ibid., p. 153.

(8)    Ibid., p. 160.

(9)    Ibid., p. 144. The late Suzuki Roshi (S. Suzuki) is not to be confused with Professor D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966). The latter was also regarded as a Roshi (Zen master). Suzuki Roshi's book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970) was described by Wilber as "a masterpiece" (No Boundary, p. 159). This book was very popular in American Zen.

(10)  No Boundary, p. 143.

(11)  Wilber, The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), p. 177.

(12)   Ibid., p. xi.

(13)  Stanislav Grof, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy (State University of New York Press, 1985), p. 135. This book is controversial for the elevation of LSD psychotherapy.

(14)   Roger N. Walsh, The Spirit of Shamanism (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1990), p. 245.

(15)  Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004), p. 134. The Tao te Ching or Lao-tzu became part of Taoist tradition, which is not straightforward to comprehend. "The Taoist school, like all the others except the Confucian and Mohist, is a retrospective creation, and the most confusing of them all." The quote is from A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989), p. 170.

(16)  Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 320. In a slightly later book, Wilber expressed lavish praise of Bubba Da Free John, whom he described as a spiritual adept and an authority on Yoga and kundalini. See Wilber, A Sociable God (New York: New Press, 1983), pp. 27, 29. Only two years after A Sociable God was published, Californian newspapers gave due coverage to a five million dollar lawsuit brought against Da Free John by a female devotee who alleged serious abuse of a sexual nature. Da Free John (Adi Da Samraj) gained over a thousand devotees, a fair number of whom are said to have read Wilber's books elevating their figurehead. Wilber is well known for a continuing estimation of this controversial guru.

(17)  Wilber, Up from Eden, p. xi.

(18)  Extensive reference is made to Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God (4 vols, New York, 1959-68). These volumes cover much world mythology, with an interpretation that is in dispute.

(19)  Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 203, citing J. Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston, 1976). Jaynes was an anthropologist at Princeton University. His idiosyncratic theory influenced the popular writer Colin Wilson, who caused further confusions about brain function and ancient history. See Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, pp. 47-8, and describing the Jaynesian thesis in terms of "one of the more misleading works in anthropology." Jaynes suggested that "the anterior commissures (much smaller than the corpus callosum) between the temporal lobes of the cortex provided the neural bridge which, with the aid of the articulatory qualities of the hallucination, built civilisations and founded religions" (ibid., p. 48). Jaynes gave a limiting interpretation of second millenium BC Mesopotamian inscriptions and tablets. Wilber was rather dogmatic in asserting that "the earliest form of history is dated c. 1300 BC" (Up from Eden, p. 203). In reality, there are historical documents (if sparse and concise in nature) extant from third millenium BC Sumer. For a long time, literary texts of that era went unrecognised even by specialists. These texts are not economic in content, and date from circa 2,600 BC or earlier. They include religious genres such as hymns and myths, and non-religious genres such as proverb collections and lexical texts. Although part of this corpus was discovered at Tell Abu Salabikh, the complement of cuneiform tablets from Fara was published much earlier in 1923 and neglected for nearly half a century. The literary texts indicate a highly developed Sumerian scribal tradition which must have commenced long before. See, e.g., R. D. Biggs, "An Archaic Sumerian Version of the Kesh Temple Hymn from Tell Abu Salabikh," Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie (Berlin 1971) 61: 193-209; Biggs, Inscriptions from Tell Abu Salabikh (Oriental Institute of Chicago, 1974); B. Alster, "On the Earliest Sumerian Literary Tradition," Journal of Cuneifrom Studies (1976) 28: 109-26.

(20) This quote was included in Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 100, citing Up from Eden, p. 179. The Visser coverage was partisan, an angle which subsequently changed after Visser encountered drawbacks in the approach of Wilber. Frank Visser became a leading critic of his subject, and maintained a website displaying critical analysis of Ken Wilber.

(21)   Up from Eden, p. 312.

(22)   Ibid., p. 126.

(23)  Ibid., p. 130, and drawing upon E. Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton University Press, 1973).

(24)  Up from Eden, p. 240, 42. Wilber admits that Freud "overstated the case" (p. 238) in his formulation of the neurotic Oedipus complex, and yet asserts that Freud's thesis is "central to any comprehensive theory of human compound nature" (p. 240). In contrast, I take the view that a comprehensive theory renders the view of Freud peripheral. According to Wilber, the Oedipus legend is "the myth of consciousness torn between the old chthonic matriarchate and the rising solar patriarchate" (p. 238). This theory has the acute disadvantage of viewing the entire phase of "chthonic matriarchate" in terms of "emotional-sexual intercourse" and "seeking unity via the body" (p. 239).

(25)  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths Vol. 2 (revised edn, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), pp. 13-14. Professor Graves notably derided Jungian interpretations of myths as "original revelations of the pre-conscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings" (The Greek Myths Vol. 1, revised edn 1960, pp. 21-2). Graves believed that "a true science of myth" should commence with a study of archaeology, history, and comparative religion (ibid., p. 21). The tendency to simplification has often been astonishing.

(26)  Up from Eden, p. 127. The reductionist nature of "integral" theory is obvious at a glance to informed parties. In Up from Eden, Wilber ignored such books as the relatively well known work which supplied a summary of some complexities applying to the "Royal Tombs" of Ur. See Henry W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1962), pp. 372ff. "That the 'royal' tombs of the First Dynasty of Ur represent the culmination of the Sacred Marriage seems to the present writer the best explanation of the facts" (ibid., p. 381). This despite "a few residual difficulties" in the explanation provided by Moortgat. Cf. A. Moortgat, Tammuz (Berlin: Gruyter, 1949). In another direction, a relevant detail is that "some scholars, basically accepting Woolley's theory of a human sacrifice, have been so struck by the oddness of it in Sumer that they have been driven to postulate a foreign invasion by some race (possibly the ancestors of the Scythians) amongst whom such barbarities are known (at a later period) to have taken place" (Saggs, op. cit., p. 380). The discoveries of Sir Leonard Woolley are documented in, e.g., Woolley, Ur Excavations Vol. 2: The Royal Cemetery (London, 1934); P. R. S. Moorey, Ur of the Chaldees: A revised and updated edition of Sir Leonard Woolley's Excavations at Ur (London, 1982). See also Moorey, "What do we know about the people buried in the Royal cemetery?" Expedition (1977) 20: 24-40.

(27)  Henry W. F. Saggs, Babylonians (London: British Museum Press, 1995), p. 65, and observing that none of the bodies showed any sign of violence or disorder. The collective burials varied from three to seventy-four corpses.

(28)  Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (third edn, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp. 136-7. See also P. R. S. Moorey, Kish Excavations 1923-33 (Oxford University Press, 1978), for another site in Sumer. The cart burials (formerly known as chariot burials)) belong to an Early Dynastic cemetery at Kish. Moorey reassessed some excavation details found in L. C. Watelin and S. Langdon, Excavations at Kish (London, 1934). Some conclusions are revealing. "Watelin's claim to have discovered evidence for human sacrifice in the cart burials, which would suggest royal status for their occupants, is impossible to substantiate.... the presence of more than one body in a burial is not of itself enough to support the idea of human sacrifice; multiple burials in family vaults are common. The cart burials may well represent the burials of a specific group within society, but there is little basis for regarding them as royal." Quotation from Harriet Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 111. With regard to the Early Dynastic cemetery at Ur, over 700 graves were impossible to date, but a firm chronology has been applied to the substantial remainder. Almost 400 graves belong to the first phase of cemetery use, identified with Early Dynastic III. The sixteen so-called "Royal" graves are part of this phase. Many other graves belong to the Agade period and later. See Susan Pollock, "Chronology of the Royal Cemetery at Ur," Iraq (1985) 47: 129-158.

(29) These details were easily found in a general circulation work of the 1970s composed by two British archaeologists. See David and Joan Oates, The Rise of Civilisation (Oxford: Elsevier-Phaidon, 1976), p. 110, and informing that by circa 3500 BC, the Sumerian settlement of Eanna "was endowed with a unique complex of vast ceremonial buildings elaborately decorated with pilasters and cone mosaic." The transpersonalist notion that this era was one of subconscious and non-egoic life cannot be taken seriously.

(30) In my book of 1995, I did not attempt to detail in any way the field of Mesopotamian archaeology, instead referring to an early manuscript of mine. "All I can do is to hope for the eventual publication of my own research in relation to ancient and archaic religions.... the additional research is contained in my manuscript Ancient Cultures in Flux, still in process of addition and rewriting since its commencement in 1980" (Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, p. 190 note 216). However, I did insert details about early Sumerian historical texts on pages 128ff. of the 1995 publication.

(31) Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 153, and informing that scribes were highly trained specialists, whose profession was often hereditary. The cuneiform script is known to have been in use from the end of the fourth millenium BC.

(32) A. L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 183. Defending the Mesopotamian scribal achievement, Oppenheim was countering nearly a century of Western antiquarian reaction to alien dimensions.

(33)  Wilber, Up from Eden, pp. 241, 248. The underlying thrust of Wilber's cultural evolutionism is here revealed.

(34)  Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (London: Faber, 1963), pp. 124-5. 135-6; idem, Zen Buddhism: A History Vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 244-5, 266, 284, 287, and stating that "the rapid outer growth occasioned an inner decline that, in the end, brought the very existence of Zen itself into crisis" (p. 244). See also J. R. McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (University of Hawaii Press, 1986); Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1991).

(35)  Up from Eden, pp. 323-4, and implying the hippy boom as an extension of the unhealthy fake Zen attitude.

(36)  Ibid., pp. 324, 320. See also Wilber, No Boundary (1979), p. 159, for the statement: "Chogyam Trungpa's books are illuminating." Wilber's esteem for Trungpa is also evident in certain of his later books, including Integral Psychology (2000), p. 5, where he recommends a book by that entity as an introduction to "the Great Nest of Being," a theme closely associated by Wilber with the perennial philosophy.

(37)  See further Monica Furlong, Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts (1986; new edn, New York 2001). See also the review by a disillusioned admirer of Watts, who comments: "For many who idolized him, the pain of deceit is too great to bridge the gulf between Watts' public teachings and his private life."

(38)  Dick Anthony, B. Ecker, and Ken Wilber, eds., Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognising Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation (New York: Paragon House, 1987), pp. 22, 23, 89, 186 note 2.

(39) Up from Eden, p. 270. Wilber's angle on Reich converges with that of Alexander Lowen, who founded Bioenergetics after being a student of Reich. According to Wilber, Bioenergetic Analysis "is an unexcelled approach to the centaur" (No Boundary, p. 121). This does not seem a high recommendation for the envisaged centauric societies of integralism, whose perennial philosophy is diffuse. According to one neo-Reichian therapist associated with Bioenergetics, "there is a danger of dividing people into sheep and goats, the healthy who do not need therapy and the sick who do." See D. Boadella, "Biosynthesis" (154-177) in J. Rowan and W. Dryden, eds., Innovative Therapy in Britain (Open University Press, 1988), p. 160. The disconcerting tendency of psychotherapists to seek neurotic symptoms in healthy people led to the notorious case of an American psychiatric hospital forcibly recruiting healthy inmates into a lucrative cycle of activity behind closed walls and doors. Therapy is big business, and critics should not ignore this factor.

(40)   Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Integral Books, 2007), p. 203. Wilber refers in the same chapter to Integral Institute workshops and seminars, first offered to the public in 2004. Also listed are such activities as Integral Psychotherapy. The complexion tends to be that of new spirituality, an American commercial pastime often regarded as an aspect of the popular new age.

(41)  G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York, Dover, 1956), p. 158. Sibree translated the Lectures on the Philosophy of History in 1857. These lectures were given by Hegel at Berlin during 1822-31. See also the more recent version in R. F. Brown and P. C. Hodgson, ed. and trans., Lectures on the Philosophy of World History Vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 2011). See also Robert F. Brown, trans., Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol. 2: Greek Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2006).

(42)  Sibree trans., p. 166.

(43)  Ibid., p. 167.

(44)  Ibid., p. 355ff.; E. S. Haldane, trans., Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History  Vol. 3 (1896; repr. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1983), pp. 26ff.

(45)  G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History - Introduction: Reason in History, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 106. This work employs the Johannes Hoffmeister edition of the text, as distinct from the "defective" version by Karl Hegel that Sibree used. Another German edition of the Lectures was that of Georg Lasson (1917-20).

(46)  Nisbet trans., pp. 144-5.

(47)  Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 11. Hegel's major work was entitled The Phenomenology of Spirit, which has received differing interpretations. See A. V. Miller and J. N. Findlay, trans., Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1977).

(48)  On the subject of minority repertories, see Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991), pp. 29-30.