January 15, 2006

Ken Wilber's superficial understanding

Insufficent Study and Contemplation results in Superficial Understanding of Specialized Knowledge Kheper Home content by M.Alan Kazlev
I have found from my superficial reading of Ken Wilber's take on Sri Aurobindo and Plotinus that both these great teachers are somewhat misrepresented by him. There are several possible reasons for this, including a too enthusiastic forcing of other teachings into his own series of correspondences and levels, a strictly monistic perspective, limited application of his own methodology, and applying it incorrectly or inconsistently in places, and, most of all, insufficient study of the material.
This latter is a very important point, and it is perfectly understandable that Wilber, in his encyclopaedic reading, would not have time to study most fields in depth. The world and the accelerating body of human knowledge has long passed the stage where it could be possible for one person not only to know everything, but know it well. Wilber is a bold Renaissance man living in a post-Renaissance world. The time when a Robert Fludd or an Athanasius Kircher could compile authoritative treatises on every subject is over. And so, now, one who wishes to learn everything risks becoming a "Jack of all trades and master of none", knowing a little about everything but being an expert at nothing.
Three examples of this can be given - Wilber's sympathetic but not sufficiently accurate appraisal of Sri Aurobindo, his Creationist critique of Darwinian science, and his superficial reading of Shabd Yoga (Sant Mat). The following passage is from David Lane's critiques of Wilber and illustrates the weakness of relying solely on Wilberian scholarship alone. Dr Lane is a specialist in Shabd Yoga so he knows what he taking about (note - the following passage as been slightly edited and condensed)
Ken Wilber talks in almost all of his books about the "subtle" realms, where the meditator encounters inner lights and inner sounds (nad and shabd). In one published essay in THE JOURNAL OF HUMANISTIC PSYCHOLOGY in the early 1980s, wherein he provides a biographical narrative, Wilber states that 'KIRPAL SINGH IS THE UNSURPASSED MASTER OF THE SUBTLE REALM' [paraphrase] Now no doubt Kirpal Singh devotees may agree with this appraisement, but Ken Wilber does not know this to be true. Indeed, he has no idea whatsoever if he is even close to being right. Why? Because in order to make such a categorical statement one would have to draw upon a complete field in which to make such a comparative judgment. He "knows" it not by direct observation (Wilber never met Kirpal Singh or the hundreds of gurus claiming to be shabd yoga masters in India and elsewhere) but because Wilber happened to have read about three or four books by Kirpal Singh, a guru who also happened to have a better distributor than most other shabd yoga gurus...
Let's focus this a bit more: How many different shabd yoga gurus are there in the world? Answer: we don't know. But if we had to estimate those with followings over 1000 the number is easily over 100 (and that is a very conservative estimate) in India alone! How many of these gurus has Wilber met? How many practitioners of shabd yoga are there? Answer: we don't know. But if we had to give an estimate of just Radhasoami followers the number tends to be over 2 million plus (again a low ball figure). How many of these people has Wilber met? How many shabd yoga texts or articles are there? Answer: we don't know. But according to Faqir Chand, his guru Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal wrote over 3,000 articles and texts himself. One can only guess that the number is in the multiple thousands. How many has Wilber read? Well, more to the point, how many does Wilber cite and list in his own books? On this we have an answer: anywhere from 1 to 4. And guess what? They are all by the same author: Kirpal Singh (remember we are not talking about shaktipat or kundalini). I have read over a 1000 books on the subject myself, been to India 8 times, and done an M.A. and Ph.D. on the subject, but I really don't know who is the "unsurpassed" master of shabd yoga. I may believe many things and say many things...but even in my own little field of expertise which I have concentrated on does not, indeed cannot, lead to me to say univocally that so and so is the "Best" or the "Greatest."
David Lane Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel: The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole, Part Four: THE SOUND OF THREE BOOKS CLAPPING: Ken Wilber's Under-reading of Shabd Yoga
This criticism can be commented to on two levels. First, on a trivial level, to say "Kirpal Singh (or whoever) is the greatest Sabd Yoga master", is just part of Wilber's passionate style; he give praises to those philosophers, teachers, and esotericists who have inspired him. Okay, so instead of saying this person or that is the greatest ever, it would be better and more technically correct to say he or she is a great such and such. But I certainly wouldn't condemn Wilber or anyone else over such comments. And really I can't imagine even WIlber's most enthusiastic devotees blindly accepting that such and such a teacher of such and such a tradition is the greatest master, although they may agree that he or she is a great master.
It is a shame that David Lane didn't comment on how faifthfully (or not) Ken Wilber has represented the teachings of Kirpal Singh. While the terms "subtle" and causal" that Wilber uses to designate some of the higher stages of his holarchical evolurtionary series are used by Sant Mat / Shabd Yoga to refer to cosmological levels, these occult-metaphysical refernces seem to have little or points of junction with Wilber's use of the term. To return to the Lane critique.
  • Can this be applied to other esoteric teachers that Wilber has been influenced by?
  • Let's give an example of a teacher and teaching that I'm familiar with. How many of Sri Aurobindo's books has Ken Wilber read?
  • (He usually cites two - Life Divine and Integral Yoga). How well does he understand them?
  • Has he thoroughly read them?
  • Has he spoken to or corresponded with any of Sri Aurobindo's students to show that he understands Sri Aurobindo, the way he understands, say, the philosopher Whitehead?
  • Has he shown the attention to detail regarding Sri Aurobindo's message that he has to his own guru, Adi Da? If the answer is no, he cannot truly claim to have integrated Sri Aurobindo into his own integral system of knowledge, no matter how sympathetic he may be to the latter.
The problem is then that Wilber's students tend (from my limited insight into these things via the web, so if you are affiliated with Ken or the integral movement please correct me here if I am wrong, I am fully aware I am also being "superficial") to take him at face value, so his version of Aurobindo is considered what Aurobindo taught, his version of Hegel what Hegel wrote, and so on. Claims of a multidisciplinary approach "that seamlessly weaves together truth-claims" [see What is the Meaning of "Integral"?] from many different specialised disciplines do indeed sound impressive (as does Wilber's own very persuasive and passionate style) when you don't have any background in any of the various fields of knowledge being referred to. But perhaps not so impressive if you have. The end of David Lane's critique previously quoted from, presents a serious challenge that Wilber and his supporters need to address.
"Why does this one little episode [regarding shabd yoga] matter in the larger mosaic of Wilber's work? Because if each patch of Wilber's work is as weak as this one link (shabd yoga), then the whole system is filled with major, not minor, loopholes." David Lane Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel: The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole, Part Four: THE SOUND OF THREE BOOKS CLAPPING: Ken Wilber's Under-reading of Shabd Yoga
Of course, it is all too easy to preach that Wilber has to research more, study more deeply, and ensure that he gets the sources that he cites absolutely right. But as we have seen this is an impossible task, because there is now simply too much information even for a polymath of Wilber's stature to absorb. To say nothing of understanding world-teachers like Sri Aurobindo, who require either innate samskaras from past lives, or the same life-long dedication that Wilber gives to his own guru Adi Da, and more specifically both, if one is truely "grok" what they are saying. So is the integral endeavour of a universal categorisation of all human knowledge doomed to failure, or does it require the contribution of specialists who will supplement Ken's broad brush strokes by correcting the errors where they do appear? Time will tell.

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